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Nerdarchy > At The Gaming Table  > Using Tabletop RPGs for Social Empathy

Using Tabletop RPGs for Social Empathy

D&D grung and other monsters are people, too
Open Legend RPG character build: Lucelia Heliotrope

I’m not really going to go about proving that science fiction sometimes gets used as a tool to pursue social issues. It’s well documented, and I don’t feel like I need to prove it. Star Trek is practically built on it. Fantasy novels aren’t immune from it, either. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series bleeds social issues, perhaps even to its own detriment.

social tabletop RPGsTabletop RPGs aren’t exclusively fantasy and science fiction, but it’s hard to avoid their significant presence in the hobby. After all, we already live in a world of Houses & Humans.

Why would we want to spend four hours a week (way more than that for GMs) steeped in daily chores and making sure you include the TPS report cover sheet? It’s far more fun to enjoy something far outside of ourselves, usually with at least some fantasy elements, be it a western, superhero, or a horror game.

There’s actually another reason for that. As children, steeping ourselves in extraordinary worlds helps us learn about the real world around us. We’re able to experiment in a safe environment. As adults, that still holds true. In fact, I would argue that it’s more important for adults.

Social exploration through tabletop RPGs

Whether it’s a movie, a novel, a TV show, a video game, or any other form of media, we use those characters as a surrogate for ourselves, and learn more about our world through proxy. That’s why science fiction and fantasy are prime for social commentary in RPGs.

We don’t like being attacked for our views, and applying social issues in modern settings is certainly going to make us think like we’re being attacked, because modern settings are the closest to reality, so an attack on a modern setting is tantamount to an attack on our reality. That’s why media companies avoid taking a social stance on an issue, except when the point is the issue, and the audience is expected to be small. That’s also why much of mainstream pop culture is just utter drivel.

Then along comes wildly fantastic settings. Pick a sub-genre of horror. Any sub-genre. In reality, it’s likely an allegory or a metaphor of some kind. Zombies are a favorite, but they’re everywhere. And they’ve been around for a long time.

You’re not going to feel attacked when the thing being attacked is not real, but you still get to consume the message. That’s the reason why science fiction and fantasy are so prime for social commentary. Their entire existence is predicated on not being realistic.

Even if you remove aliens or fantasy races from tabletop RPGs, the humans are so far ahead or behind us, and they’re using magic, or at least scientific technology so advanced it might as well be magic, so they’re nothing like us. So, it’s okay to make all sorts of comments about them.

Science fiction and fantasy give us great leeway to explore our world through them, because we can experiment with our reactions to the metaphors they represent, and transfer those reactions into reality. Even those that don’t have a message (although, rhetorical criticism would argue that doesn’t exist), our minds are going to draw our own parallels.

If an elf is being mistreated simply because they’re an elf, we’re likely to see that as being unfair. They’re being racists towards that elf. From there, we have to make the internal substitution to consider racism in our everyday lives. The reaction we have is largely based on our already preconceived notions about life. Some are going to look at the elf and see how unfairly they’re being treated. Others are going to look at the dominant race and see how strong they are. What’s important is that we get to use these narratives to play out our morals and beliefs in a safe environment through RPGs.

social RPGsWhen we play tabletop RPGs, we do more than just passively compare ourselves to the characters. We become the characters. They’re an element of who we are (for at least a few hours a week). We get to explore whole new worlds, and be things that we can’t be in adulthood. That’s a good thing.

If everyone was a space pirate, then we’d have no one to steal from. We enjoy it because it’s a minor escape from reality, but also because of how engaging it is. We get to be what we want to be, and be who we want to be, in a safe environment, where the worst thing that can happen is that you look foolish, but you’re a nerd, playing with other nerds, at a table with papers, pencils, maps, and funny shaped dice, making stupid noises and talking in funny voices, so we all look foolish already.

Since tabletop RPGs are a safe place for us to explore, and we can do it in a more engaging manner than other media, tabletop RPGs are a prime place to explore being someone else. Being someone completely different than who we are.

If you’re willing to take it seriously, you have the opportunity to experiment with other peoples’ experiences. Not just with things like exploring the views of other religions, or seeing the other side of a political divide, but with truly understanding what other people experience and go through.

Nigel laid it out perfectly in his article about the option of integrating PTSD. He did a magnificent breakdown of how to make it real, so I’m not going to retread his work. But, if you’re going to do it, you have to take it seriously.

If you’re trying to understand other people, and see things from their perspective, then you need to be as genuine as possible. That means that you can’t just play it how you think it works. That’s not just a disingenuous effort.  It’s also very offensive.

Put in the time. Do the research. Actually try to understand what life is like for other people. If you can, have an honest conversation with people that you’d like to emulate. Learn from them. Then, throw yourself into the character.

Embrace the person that the character is. Embody them. Learn from them. Empathy will come with it. You may still not agree with those you’re trying to explore, but it can give you a true understanding of their social perspectives, feelings, fears, and beliefs. You just might be able to understand them.

If nothing else, you’ll be able to learn more about the world the world around you through tabletop RPGs. Wash, rinse, and repeat for maximum results. Stay nerdy.

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Joshua Brickley

Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.


  • David
    July 9, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    I have very mixed feelings about inserting social agendas into entertainment mediums. It can be done, and it can be done well, but it takes a deft and subtle hand. You have to tell a story with a metaphor or a moral and not cross the line into political / propaganda theater. The problem is, when it is done badly, as has increasingly been the case in popular entertainment over the last 10-15 years, it often leads to the closing of minds rather than the opening of minds. If you drop an anvil on your reader / viewer / player they will come to resent it. People generally resist attempts to indoctrinate or evangelize them. This is doubly true at a role-playing game table where the process of creation is shared and the individual motivation for sitting down at the table varies. If they players are just there to roll some dice, tell a rip roaring pulp fantasy yard, and socialize a social agenda may not go over well and is likely doomed to fail. To that end, any lofty goals you have need to have player buy in.

    And, even if you have that, unless your players are goose-stepping clones marching in formation, the ultimate the reasons the players show up will be as diverse as the characters you propose they stretch themselves to play. The idea of using gaming to explore other human viewpoints is interesting and certainly valid, but not everyone is inspired by that goal. Most of my group, for instance, would pack up and walk if someone pressed an overt social agenda at the table, or told them the characters they prefer to play should be more varied so they can expand their horizons. They are more interested in story and action than agendas. That isn’t to say I don’t include themes, moral quandaries, and even new ideas that may challenge assumptions in my games. Those are critical elements of good storytelling and gaming is, in its own way, and improvisational form of collectively generated oral literature.

    Yet, I do so with a very light touch because I am very wary of actively applying critical theory or sociopolitical agendas to my entertainment. Art as a valuable cultural product, and story is a genre of art. Story ends where ideology and propaganda begins. This is why I, personally, find American entertainment to be increasingly an intellectual and spiritual ghetto. Its crossed the line from having a point to actively insisting others accept the point. It has become increasing Lumièresque. Gaming culture, as a mirror of popular culture, has taken on some of that hue as well.

    Now, you may say that looking at the world with a broader eye and greater personal awareness is all that’s being sought – and that is laudable in my mind and should be explored in an intelligent and sensitive way – but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (or a story is just a story). Its the journey and the experience, not the destination, that will achieve the end.

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