Guidance – Author Anecdote: On the Importance of Empathy

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about perspective in rules.

I’ve had a few weeks to let this particular article simmer because its not an easy topic to talk about because it requires a lot of empathy. I consider myself a fairly empathic person, but empathy comes fairly easy to me so in turn it is sort of difficult for me to talk about and describe, as weird as that sounds.

For whatever reason, empathy is a lot of what’s missing in our community right now. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else, even if you don’t actually have them. In essence, it’s the ability to “step outside of yourself” and place yourself in the shoes of another person. It always surprises me how unempathic roleplayers can be. You’d think we’d be REALLY good at empathy, considering how our hobby basically revolves around stepping into the perspective of a completely different person and experiencing life as them. But we’re also people, and people come in many different shapes and sizes, and each with his or her unique life experiences.

Without further adieu, let’s talk about empathy and what it can do for you.

Empathy as a Player

So why is empathy important when we’re talking about good player habits? Well, we’ve talked about how there are different player types in the past. People play the game for different reasons and bring different expectations to the table when they game. This is common knowledge, as a discussion of the different roleplayer types is actually publicly available in Paizo’s GameMastery Guide. But understanding that there are different types of player playing the game is important because it can ultimately help you figure out why certain options exist in the game.

Just yesterday, in fact, my friend and I were having a discussion about the courtly hunter archetype from Ultimate Intrigue. Personally, I think that the courtly hunter is one of the worst archetypes of all time; its an archetype that trades everything offensive about the hunter class for a bunch of ultimately minor benefits—it trades precise companion for the ability to polymorph into a cutesy animal and all of the hunter’s teamwork feats and solo tactics for the ability to share skill ranks with your animal companion in an extremely limited fashion. Personally, I feel like it breaks all the rules of fair ability trading for archetypes, and it doesn’t even let you try to recoup the losses of taking it because it especially seems to disallow multiclassing as a means of further improving your animal. My friend, however, had a different attitude. According to him, the archetype’s ability to tell an interesting story (the story of a person with a super smart animal companion) was more important than its game mechanics. My counterpoint was that no one was going to make any stories with the archetype because its mechanics weren’t compelling enough to warrant its use.

So who’s right in this situation? Well…both of us?

So obviously I’m very biased when it comes to this conversation, but I’m able to step out of my shoes and look at the argument my friend is making. He’s stance is basically, “If an archetype is inspired enough to create a cool story idea, then its viable and worth including in a product.” For him, that “coolness” factor is more important then the mechanical strength (or lack thereof) of the option. Being able to step out of my own perspective and analyze his point of view is useful and helpful to me both as a designer and as a person. It gives me the ability to consider his thoughts and opinions and why they might be different from mine. And while I don’t agree with him (and we’ve agreed to disagree in this matter) being able to acknowledge each other’s viewpoints has, in the long run, made us more aware of each other’s play styles and helped us to better understand each other has friends, which is an important bond to have around the table.

Another great story of mine involving player empathy actually revolves around Pathfinder Designer Mark Seifter. I posted on the forums a few days ago about my thoughts on the swashbuckler class (anyone who has ever listened to Private Sanctuary probably knows what my thoughts on the swashbuckler are) and Mark sent me a message about my post. Mark and I chat from time to time about design stuff, and usually we have very similar points of view on things and he knows that the door to my Facebook’s open if he ever wants to chat, so he took me up on it this time and asked me some questions about my swashbuckler experience.

Now, Mark is honestly one of the most empathic people I’ve ever met. He has an incredible ability to not only consider other people’s points of view, but he can do it even when other people are being downright rude to him and his teammates on the Pathfinder Design Team. Mark and I chatted for a bit and he told me about his experiences playing a swashbuckler and about how they differed from what I described in my post. So naturally, I told him a bit about my frustrations and we chatted about it like adults for about 30 minutes or so when we came to a common realization—Mark had been using a much more optimized weapon then I had been. Mark’s swashbuckler was a traditional rapier-totting vagabond (it was a Skulls and Shackles character; I’m allowed to use that term) while mine was a flying blade. Using that information, we came to the consensus that what made our experiences so different was the panache regeneration rate. Using a 19-20 weapon, I regenerated panache much less quickly than Mark did, which lead to our discrepancies.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that our conversation was some sort of super secret meeting that’s going to impact the game or the stuff that the PDT prints in any meaningful way; it was really just a quick conversation between two guys trying to figure out why their experiences differed rather than fight to the death about why one was wrong and the other was right. Because that’s honestly what happens far too often on social media avenues; people fight because their experiences and opinions are different rather than try to empathize why they are different. When trying to make friends and when trying to be an effective game designer (which is really as much of a science as an art), the “how come” is more important then the “currently is.”

Empathy as a GM

Just as experiences between players can differ drastically, experiences between GMs can differ drastically too. People play the game for different reasons and value different things when they play. This became clear to me last week when I was telling Know Direction’s own James Ballod a bit about my weekend plans.

Yesterday, for the first time in nearly three years, I had all of my players back. If you go back through the site’s archives, the very second article that I ever wrote explains why I started writing Guidance—my gaming group fell apart and I wanted to keep my skills sharp. This is that gaming group. The fact that this group was getting back together was a HUGE deal to me; even more so since everyone was reprising their characters from that original campaign, to play in that original setting.

James didn’t get it. I mentioned how hard it was to get myself back into my 24-year old mindset, back before I became a major freelancer or author or blogger or anything. 27-year old Alex is a LOT better at just about every aspect of the game, I found out, and trying to figure out some of my old plans was obnoxious. I had to scrap a lot and rebuild a lot, and I only had about a week to do it. James was truly surprised that I wanted to put all that work into restarting an old game.

But that’s sort of what my group is and was. I’m well aware that people see me as Know Direction’s rules crunch master, and that my name is readily becoming associated with crazy new rules systems in the Player Companion line. But my games? Both the ones I run for my friends and the ones that are run for me? They’re crazy hard-core roleplaying and are driven my character motivation, rather than some big bad evil guy who wants to destroy the world. (We certainly have grandiose villains, but we all play with the understanding that the players determine which way the story goes based upon the choices their characters make.) This is actually why I use Kyr’shin, my kitsune avatar on this site, for everything, and why I’m always complaining about the death tax; our group forges incredibly close bonds with our characters. Its not about “getting to the end of the AP’s story” for our group. Its about the character fulfillment and realization. 100%.

While I always knew that there was a motivational difference between my GMing (and preferred playing) style compared to those of my PFS friends, I don’t think James realized how different we were in this regard until this conversation came up. We’ll have to see if this group enjoys my style when we eventually run Jade Regent, hopefully after Reign of Winter ends. (Fun Factoid: in our first game on Sunday night, my group spent six hours running around town exploring everything, meeting everyone, and gathering tons of information while trying to put pieces together and form plans. Because that’s how we roll!)

When Empathy is Lacking

So I’ve spent most of this article talking about why empathy is important and the interpersonal connections that happen when you’re empathetic with others. To contrast this, I’d like to tell a story of a recent time when someone wasn’t particularly empathetic with me and what happened as a result. Now as a forward, I try to embrace the Owen K.C. Stephens method of fame—let anyone who wants to follow you follow you. That being said, I don’t have the time or the patience for people who are rude to me, so keep that in mine while you’re reading this story.

So I had this person on one of my social media outlets who had a tendency for being abrasive whenever I talked about my personal character-building choices. As many of you know, I don’t care much for being optimized in every aspect of my character’s build. Now, last Friday I had originally planned to stay home on Saturday and relax, but James messaged me and asked me if I would take the fourth slot at a table of First Steps that he was running so the group didn’t need a pregen. I agreed and decided to put together a new 1st-level character quickly. (Of 15 PFS characters, all of them were Level 2 or higher, and First Steps is Level 1 only.) I put together a kitsune hunter (SHOCKER) quickly and decided to give him a relatively low Wisdom score for a Wisdom-based caster; a 12. I figured I would multiclass before it became much of a problem and that was that.

The next day we were gaming and having fun; I was messing around with my new character and I posted on my social media profile that I was playing a low Wisdom hunter. Within ten minutes, I got this very condescending reply questioning whether or not I knew how the hunter class works. (Of course I do.) Later, after taking a color spray to the face, rolling a 4, and going unconscious, I posted about my dislike for color spray (it would have been my #11 on my Top 10 Least Favorite sorcerer/wizard spells article, and probably bumped up to #10 now that the Monster Summoners Handbook fixed my gripe with dispel magic). Now, wouldn’t you know that I get another condescending message from the same person about how, “That’s what I get for dumping Wisdom.” Which, you know, I didn’t do. (A Wisdom of 12 is hardly “dumping” a stat, but of course that person never asked what I meant by a ‘low Wisdom’ or why I had chosen to take it.)

Against James’s advice, I posted a reply explaining that I had a 12 Wisdom and some of my views on color spray. More snark. So by that point I was done and just blocked that person from reading my Facebook.

And that’s basically what happens if you aren’t empathic towards other people, if you treat them like they’re inferior to you in every way. They’re going to shut you out completely, and your opinion really doesn’t matter if no one is bothering to listen to you.

Closing Thoughts

For whatever reason, however, some people take those dissenting opinions as a reason to fight with their fellow community members, but that’s simply counterproductive to us as gamers, as Pathfinder players, and as human beings. If you want to be noticed and heard, you need to be someone who builds, not breaks, and refusing to be empathetic towards others is damaging. It damages self-confidence, it damages reputations, and it damages opportunities. Believe me, I know it can be hard to be empathetic and understanding all the time, but you will be a better player, a better gamer, and a better person for it. I’d like to end this article with a paraphrase of a famous quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

Don’t be unwilling to change, dear readers. Empathize, and grow from it.

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

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