Roleplaying games are many things. One thing they can do particularly well is let us put on the shoes of other humans*1 (<-that’s an asterisk) in other situations.
We can try to imagine what it might be like to have different skins, bodies, lifepaths, ecologies, and experiences. But, with roleplay, once we inhabit those foreign shoes, we also step into a shared imaginary world. There, since we lose sole control of the environment, we gain the possibility of action and reaction in an unpredictable setting.
This is also one of the best arguments for moving away from an authorial “game master” with perfect knowledge and control of the imaginary world towards more of a facilitator role, a “bass player” who keeps the beat of play without knowing exactly where play will go*2.
It may also be an argument for unobtrusive game systems and players willing to let game mechanics drop by the wayside when they are not required. Few things are as annoying as shifting gears from playing the club-footed bastard of the holy king, spurned by the zealous king for their deformity, to look up the precise movement speed of a character with a club-foot on a shifting boat deck during a night-time engagement. Or as useless, frankly. It’s good to have the mechanics there for a fall-back or reference, but in most cases, should a roll become unavoidable, the players can eyeball the odds and roll a die. The roleplay will not suffer for such a lax approach to the rules as written*3.
Roleplay as an empathy engine is also possibly an argument for private sessions played in good faith. Empathy is a hard skill to practice in a public setting. I do not know to what extent empathy with a role is even possible while playing a public game or a recorded game. The element of performance may make that difficult for many people. Further, the worry of giving offence with a performance will necessarily shut down a large part of the empathic exploration of a role, and probably even any desire to explore roles a player might view as off-limits*4.
Already in the privacy of a session with friends and acquaintances, it can be hard enough to open up and accept the vulnerability that playing a different or unusual role empathetically requires. Personally, as someone with my background and upbringing, I found it very hard (read: embarrassing) to play characters very different from myself or stock characters from fiction. I needed to feel accepted by my fellow players, confident enough to open up to the group, accepting their roles and sharing mine.
I’ve discovered the possibilities of roleplaying as an empathy engine by accident in sessions here and there. It is certainly not something I would want to encourage as an essential or ideal play style. However, it is interesting and could be both fun and useful.
I suspect that for a roleplaying game to actively promote this kind of empathy during a session would require procedures and props, more so than specific rules or injunctions in the game system itself. Perhaps this would be a good place for roleplaying to borrow more from other adjacent language practices: theatre, improv, group therapies, and the like.
It would also likely require a roleplaying game to announce and expect the failure of preventive social safety measures*5. A roleplaying session that would try to push the bounds of empathy would require mutual trust, communication, and good faith on the parts of participants—humans are human, and mistakes would undoubtedly happen. That is how learning happens, whether learning empathy or rock science*6.
Then again, maybe I’m overthinking this. It’s already a good start playing a ghost (an ultra) whose personality changes every time it possesses a new living host. Absorbing some personality from the new body, their self becomes like an accreting katamari ball of ideas, experiences, neuroses, and psychoses.
This might also be a decent metaphor for our very own personalities, whether in games or outside.
*1 But what about other species like dwarves and orcs? What about immortal aliens like elves? I hold that the way humans play those characters, it’s best to just consider them as-human. We can’t get out of our brains.
*2 Obviously, if a roleplaying session isn’t about experiencing a different way of being human, this argument is moot. If the session just requires a referee for a sci-fi combat fantasy, then that’s what it requires.
*3 Note that any roleplaying game system’s rules, even the most complex, can be made unobtrusive by wilfully ignoring as much of them as needed. With play limited to a table, and games where cheating is impossible, there is little need for either strict rules or strict time records.
*4 Strictly speaking, I do not think any roles should be treated as off-limits. By imagining what it is like to be another person, we humanize them and hope to gain both a rational and emotional apprehension of where they are coming from and their struggles. I think this is an unalloyed good.
*5 Of course, there’s a space for safety measures like X-cards and various checklists. But I suspect that in private games, unlike in public games at conventions or recorded games as entertainment, many of these safety measures are not as helpful as those who use them would wish.
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