Skip to content

Month: April 2018

Empathy Is Not a Zero-sum Game

Fifteen men and one woman have left this world too soon. Local communities and national organizations alike have been showing up to support their families and others who are feeling the loss at a very personal level. The event is one of the saddest things I have heard in the news recently, while the response is one of the most heart-warming. It’s nice to know that we are a society that shares empathy and shows support in dark times.

Unfortunately, not everyone is showing up in the spirit of empathy. An online harassment campaign has started against Nora Loreto, a freelance journalist who simply asked a question about discrepancies in how we as a society respond to tragedies. It was a valid point that didn’t necessarily have to be made at the time the tweet was posted. However, the explosive maliciousness that immediately followed suggests to me that she said something that needed to be said. Jumping so quickly at the chance to destroy an opponent with a torrent of death threats and verbal abuse is not something that decent and respectful people do. It’s what angry and defensive people do. If our outpouring of support was not as selective as it is then there would be no such rage.

How we react to a faux-pas on social media platforms varies widely depending on who is posting it.

We are not only selective in our empathy, but also in how we respond to a social media faux-pas. I know this because I am every bit as guilty as Loreto is of being slightly ill-timed in my tweeting. I’m being dragged on Stalinist Twitter right now for mentioning that it’s a worthless endeavour to try to compare genocides to one another as they are all the worst. I would stand by that statement on any other day, but I should not have brought up the Holodomor in the context of a post about Yom HaShoah. While it might not have been the worst possible example of trivializing whataboutism, it was still inappropriate. It was a mistake for me to let my opinionated self go unrestrained by my wiser and more prudent self. I should not have said anything, but I did. I posted a tweet that was ill-advised — as a white man who was challenging the prejudices of the far left (or far right to the extent that some of those may be their sock puppets). Sure, they said my opinion doesn’t count. Big deal. What are the chances that this incident will cause right-wing politicians to pluck me out of obscurity for Two Minutes Hate? How likely is it that I am going to receive a barrage of death threats? Harassing phone calls? Attempts to destroy my career? Practically zero chance of any of that. These things are happening to a white woman who challenged the biases within her own society, but are unlikely to happen to me. The fact that we both did the same thing and only she gets mobbed shows that our societal outrage is selective.

So, do I think Loreto would have been wise to hold onto that opinion for a few weeks? Yes. Just as I would have been wiser not to take the bait on my Twitter news feed. But here is the thing: nobody honours the memory of the deceased and injured by engaging in online harassment. Nobody honours the victims of the worst crimes against humanity by denying and justifying other cases. None of these are a zero-sum game when it comes to empathy. We may be limited in our ability to provide dollars to everyone we would like to, but we are not so limited in care and compassion unless we choose to be. And those choices will reflect the kind of people we are, so I hope that we choose wisely by showing kindness and empathy to all sorts of people who are grieving a loss and also to people who make mistakes on Twitter.

Characters Need Motivation

There are many kinds of people in any given world. Some are eager to grab the spotlight, while others prefer to mind their own business. Many of the tabletop RPG characters I play tend somewhat towards the latter. I admit that resisting a call to adventure doesn’t make it easy for a DM trying to do her best to get a character into the adventure, but I don’t feel like everyone needs to be desperate to pursue every pickpocket or take up the offer of every huckster that crosses their path just because that’s where the plot hooks are. Some characters have a little bit more Bilbo Baggins in them and need a reason to go if they’re not taken by force into the adventure. The rules of improv tell us to say “yes” to things, but I think sometimes a little bit of pushback from a player who cannot figure out an in-character reason to leave their normal life is not necessarily detrimental. That is, if you want to have characters that aren’t aggressively extroverted busybodies looking to get in the centre of whatever might be happening.

A simple bar brawl probably won’t convince the owner to leave, but if the whole bar burns down…

So, what can we do on the fly if a player character owns a bar but decides to let the brooding man in the corner enjoy his drink in privacy and would like nothing more than to continue operating the establishment?

  1. The hooded figure could use coercive force to remove the bartender from his daily business. This could be physical but doesn’t have to be. Being threatened by a powerful guild that can shut the character’s normal activities down can shake them out of their desire to continue doing what they normally do. The character wasn’t out to get into an adventure, but ends up there due to a situation beyond his control.
  2. Take something important from the character. A paltry amount of money isn’t good enough. If it is money or assets then it has to threaten the livelihood of the character to force them into action. If my character’s business relies on a specific set of tools, then having those stolen is a lot more important than his wallet. Or perhaps it is something with sentimental value. Whatever the case may be, a character can be motivated to go on an adventure if it’s too urgent and important to rely on filing a report with the town guard.
  3. Threaten something important to the character. It does not have to be a coercive and malicious threat. But if the character’s family lives nearby and a plague of the undead is on the rise then she may feel more compelled to join an adventuring party than if it was just a chance encounter with some NPC who spends his time approaching strangers in taverns with job offers. Defend a country, defend a loved one, defend a philosophical ideal. Whatever it is, make sure that it’s more important than going to work the next day.
  4. Tease the character with the offer of a solution to a problem. Perhaps the character or a loved one is sick or in need of significant assistance in some way. He may be motivated to take a hiatus from running his business if selling mead isn’t bringing in enough money, or if all the gold in the world can’t fix a problem it may be an offer of specialized expert assistance. There is a need that cannot be met by continuing to keep ale flowing once the local porters are done work for the day.

These don’t have to be elaborately crafted storylines in order to work. They just need to give a player a plausible reason to say “yes” to the adventure for reasons other than it being necessary to advance the plot. The player can make it easier by offering up some basic detail about the character’s life that would work well with an improvised hook. As the DM I may be really proud of my mysterious stranger NPC, but I can’t count on the players being interested enough in her to drop everything and follow along. If that stranger can do one of those four things then a reluctant hero may decide that it’s time to close up shop and go defeat an adversary. I may even have to abandon that mysterious stranger angle for something else. It’s a bit more work to do it that way, but I think it’s well worth trying to avoid but thou must situations.