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The Empathetic GM

GM: The party enters the shop. The burly half-orc shopkeeper stands at the counter with their guard dog. How do you guys want to go about getting those flowers?

Johnny: I'm the shopkeeper's favorite customer. I will just go to the counter and ask for a dozen red roses.

Claudette: The party doesn't have enough gold to buy them at full price though. And, Johnny, your Persuasion skill is really low.

Johnny: You must be kidding, aren't you! Does anybody have any ideas?

Mark: We could always just fight the shopkee-.

Lisa: No! I think we should avoid combat here. I can use Disguise Self to pretend to be Johnny, then use my high Persuasion skill to maybe get a discount.

Johnny: (laughs) You think of everything!

Mark: (sighs) Okay.

Lisa rolls a mediocre total for her Disguise Self roll. She enters the shop and the DM rolls a Perception check for the shopkeeper.

Lisa: (as Johnny) "Hi. Can I have a dozen red roses please?"

GM: (as the shopkeeper) "Oh, hi Johnny. I didn't know it was you."

Lisa: (exhales in relief) Success!

Lisa rolls a ridiculously high Persuasion roll and thus haggles the price of the flowers down to something affordable. She says farewell to the shopkeeper and her doggy and leaves before the ruse is discovered.

The GM notices through Mark's words, tone, and actions that he is itching for a combat encounter. The GM also notes that there hasn't been a combat encounter this session and sees this scene-change as an opportunity to rectify this.

GM: You arrive at the inn and hear a struggle coming from the roof. What are you kids up to?

Mark: I head to the roof, weapon drawn!

Johnny: I'll go with you.

DM: You burst through the roof access door to see your friend Denny the halfling being grappled by a thug! Roll initiative!

Mark: Aww, yisss!!!


It's important to remember when we're playing RPG's that we're playing with other people and not just interacting with their characters. While it's the responsibility of everyone at the table to be respectful of each other and ensure everyone has a good time, the game master often bears the brunt of this responsibility. One can know the rules inside and out and be prepared for every possible deviation from the adventure's path, but without empathy and the ability to appropriately react, a GM may soon find their players shopping around for another game to join. Here are just a few things you may want to keep in mind:

Hearing AND listening: There's a difference between listening to someone and hearing them. When people speak make sure you're really listening. In the above example, the GM noticed that Mark's tone of voice conveyed that he was looking forward to a fight. Using that as a cue, and taking into account that there had yet to be a combat encounter this session, the GM was able to engage Mark's interest and, as a result, bring him back from the brink of boredom.

Listen with your eyes:

Mark may have been showing other signs of disinterest or dissatisfaction: maybe doodling on his character sheet or looking at his phone. Of course, what may be perceived as boredom or disinterest may not always be the case and sometimes it's not always easy to tell. Make an insight check on your player to try and determine whether it is or not. If you still can't tell, and you don't think they'd feel too put on the spot, ask them if they have any input in the current scene. If the answer is apathetic, think of how you might be able to work in something that might engage them soon.

Control the cross-talk: One thing that can make it difficult for a GM to really listen and a player to feel that they are truly being listened to is the presence of cross-talk. Playing RPG's is a social activity and when folks are together having a good time there's a good chance of digressions stealing the attention of the table. While these can be fun, make sure these side-conversations don't interrupt another player who is trying to get in a word that's actually meant to move the game along. Especially try to ensure that if a player hasn't had much to contribute, as soon as they open their mouth they have the attention of you and the other players. Even if the side-conversations aren't disruptive, if a player is finally getting a chance to contribute make sure the others are listening. Not only might they miss some input that's vital to the game, but it may come off as disrespectful to the player who is speaking which can lead to a disinterest in engaging.

Encourage your players to practice empathy: Empathy requires practice and everyone could use that practice. Some, though, may need a reminder. In the example, Lisa cuts off Mark as he's suggesting to fight the shopkeeper. By not allowing him to finish his thought, she invalidated Mark's opinion. This may have been a one-off instance, done in the heat of the moment and not meant to be rude. However, if she interrupted Mark again as his character rushed to the roof, it might have been a good idea to step in and encourage Mark to finish his thought or action and reminding Lisa to give Mark a chance to do so. Even if Lisa disagrees with Mark's choice to rush into battle, listening and giving him the chance to speak and participate is an important part of practicing empathy and respectfulness and cultivating camaraderie.

Everyone could use some extra practice in empathy, so why not try implementing these tips away from the gaming table? Next time you're at work and your peers are speaking to you, try really listening and you might gain a greater understanding of who they are, how they work, and how happy they are with working conditions. Perhaps next time you're in a group of friends or peers and you notice one or more people can barely get in a word edgewise, try encouraging the others to give them a chance to speak up. It might be that it's come to your attention that one of your co-workers is inadvertently making another feel disrespected or ignored. You could pull them aside and let them know what you've observed (using "real" listening to determine how to articulate your thoughts to them without inadvertently being disrespectful).

It isn't always easy to be aware of the feelings of others or to know how to react in each situation. However, you'll find that really listening and the constant practicing of empathy will elevate the level fun of your games and improve your personal and professional relationships.

More on GM'ing and empathy to come in the future probably maybe. Check back soon for more!

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