Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophy
Ethan Gilsdorf explains why Socrates would have made a good DM and that John Stuart Mill was Lawful Neutral. Catch his talk on Head-Banging, Dice-Rolling, and Summoning Demons tonight in Cambridge, Mass.
In Plato’s Phaedo, the character of Socrates declares that the best way to prepare for death is to be a philosopher. But “Socrates was wrong,” writes Christopher Robichaud in “Save vs. Death: Some Reflections on the Lifecycle of PCs,” his contribution to a new anthology of essays he's edited entitled Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy.
Why was Socrates wrong? Because he never played Dungeons & Dragons, Robichaud quips. Therefore, he couldn’t have known that, actually, “There is no better preparation for thinking about death – or just as importantly, for thinking about many of the important features of life – than regularly playing D&D.”
By day, Robichaud is a Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. By night, he uses his doctorate in philosophy from MIT to examine the intersection of moral and political philosophy with geek culture such as superhero, zombie, and vampire stories. Now he brings the same eye to one of his first loves: D&D.
“I've been writing articles that bring pop culture into conversation with philosophy for close to a decade now,” Robichaud says. “As the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons approached, I wanted to edit, and contribute to, a volume on D&D and philosophy that acted as a sort of love letter to the game that changed my life.” Robichaud has also edited The Walking Dead and Philosophy, another book in the [FILL IN THE BLANK] and Philosophy series published by Wiley/Blackwell, and has contributed articles to others volumes including Iron Man and Philosophy, X-Men and Philosophy, Watchmen and Philosophy, and Game of Thrones and Philosophy.
Robichaud says it was important for Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy to be “ecumenical” in representing both a range of schools of philosophy and editions of the game. No edition wars, or Kant vs. Nietzsche vs. Kierkegaard psionic showdowns on the Astral Plane. “Philosophers can be a lot like D&D fans: They have their favorites, and adopt a disdainful attitude toward anyone or anything else,” he says. “I think the spirit of 5e is to put that sort of thinking to rest, and in academics, I see a most welcome new push to cross philosophical boundaries.”
I was impressed by this smart, witty, and readable book of popular philosophy --- so impressed, that when I discovered Robichaud and I both live in Boston, we connected and decided to organize an event tonight, Tuesday evening, Nov. 25, in Cambridge, Mass., called “Head-Banging, Dice-Rolling, and Summoning Demons: A Talk about Rock, Dungeons & Dragons, the Occult, and Philosophy.” The reading features Robichaud, me, and another Boing Boing contributor Peter Bebergal, author of the new book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll.
Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy is divided into six sections: "Lawful Good vs. Chaotic Evil"; "So Did You Win? Philosophy and D&D Gameplay"; "Crafting Worlds"; "Foray into the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance"; "The Ethics of Spellcasting"; and "Dungeons & Dragons out in the Real World." Robichaud says articles look at D&D through the lens of gender theory, metaphysics, ethics, and existentialism. At around 230 pages, the book is a quick but satisfying read; in fact, he wanted it “to be lean, not bloated,” with the feel and look of a “supermodule.” (The cover art is intended to feel like an homage to Larry Elmore paintings for the iconic Red Box Robichaud says he unwrapped “many Christmases ago.”)
The ideas here are as fresh as guzzling a hearty mug of ale as you and your future party gathers in the tavern, seeking new adventure.
In “Sympathy for the Devils: Free Will and Dungeons & Dragons,” Greg Littmann asks, “Why should we feel sympathy for the evil-aligned monsters of D&D?” Because they have no free will. “The infant roper, newly hatched, can’t truly have a choice about whether to be a killer if it is already a fact that in the next twenty years it will slaughter twenty dwarves, devouring their flesh and, for some reason known only to itself, storing their treasure in its ‘special gizzard.’”
In the chapter “Dungeonmastery as Soulcraft.” “Ancient creation epics are about the formation of the world and the filling of it with creatures who call it home,” writes Ben Dyer. So, too, Dungeon Masters create worlds, places, and dungeons, and fill them with foes, danger, and magic to complicate and aid the characters’ journey through them. “With each choice, the development of a fantasy world (and subsequent campaign) reveals something about the mind of the DM who creates it.”
Just because these are deep thought does not mean they need to written as dry as a scroll locked in some accursed crypt guarded by a lich needing a moisturizing facial. The contributors to Robichaud’s book not only know their thinkers, and their D&D, they also know how to be funny. “Who hasn’t heard of Socrates (469–399 BCE, chaotic good)? You may know him from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Neil Mussett writes in one of the compilation’s standout essays, “Is Anyone Actually Chaotic Evil?: A Playable Theory of Willful Wrongdoing.” “[Socrates] would have made a good DM: he spent most of his time in rowdy groups of young guys, asking them questions about magic rings, dungeon escapes, complicated mythical cities, and non-material worlds.” His essay goes on to cite everyone from the “lawful good philosopher. St. Thomas Aquinas” to “John Stuart Mill (lawful neutral),” “Adolf Hitler (lawful evil),” and “Richard Dawkins (chaotic neutral).”
Robichaud says that practicing philosophy and playing D&D overlap in some interesting ways. “I'm a bit of an OSR guy myself, and one of the thrills with navigating one of those delightfully treacherous deadly dungeon delves, like Tomb of Horrors, was figuring out just how the scenario ticked,” he says. “And you never accomplished that simply by taking things at their face value.” Same with philosophy, which “pushes precisely on those beliefs we think aren't worth examining anymore, and it forces us to approach them once again, from outside the box, looking at them in a new light.”
Take the chapter “By Friendship or Force: Is it Ethical to Summon Animals to Fight by Your Side in Dungeons & Dragons?,” Samantha Noll presents this situation: “What if a druid is attacked in the forest by group of bandits? Panicked, she calls out to the animals nearby for aid, and several birds, rabbits, and a boar come to help. In the process of defending the druid, several animals suffer injury and two of the rabbits die. In this instance, was it ethical for the druid to call upon the animals for help, even if giving this aid may mean their death?” You’ll never look at your do-gooding druid the same way again.
Like D&D, Robichaid says philosophy must find a balance between creativity and rigor. “One of the pleasures of playing the game is the dance between improvisation, creative problem solving, and mathematical calculation. Philosophy does a similar dance, balancing imagination with argumentation and logical analysis.”
In one of the most compelling chapters, “‘Others play at dice’: Friendship and Dungeons & Dragons,” Jeffery L. Nicholas offers several examples of friendships between characters and players in D&D (as well as friendships from Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, A Song of Ice and Fire, and his own life. “One reason Aristotle believes people need friends is that only through friendship can one exercise certain virtues that are necessary for leading a flourishing life,” he says. “Through D&D, individuals have the opportunity not only to learn about friendship, loyalty, and love, but also to develop those rare true friendships in which they live a life valuing loyalty and love.”
I think all D&Ders can speak to a similar effect that the game has had on their lives. It’s a virtuous game, one that opens our eyes to different ideas, different worldviews, different perspectives, opposing plots and quests, as well as pursuit of the common good. “Characters develop relationships that mirror the relationships we develop with other players,” says Nicholas. Had it not been for D&D, he and his gaming buddies would never have been as close. “D&D brought us together once a week, and we were able to talk about the most important things in our lives.”
D&D was the game that changed Robichaud’s life. "Nothing came close to sparking my imagination like Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing.” As for the philosophers whose ideas he most identifies with, Robichaud says, “I love Aristotle's commitment to scientific metaphysics, Hume's skepticism, and Nietzsche's courage to reevaluate all values. Schopenhauer, though, probably speaks to me the most. Anyone can be an armchair pessimist. But Schopenhauer erected an entire philosophical system on the idea.” As for which philosopher he’d most want to play D&D with, he suggests Rudolph Carnap, whose imagined DMing style --- “Hey, you can only use evidence empirically available to you in the game world to make decisions” --- is lampooned in this Existential Comic that shows him playing D&D with Bertrand Russell, Willard Van Orman Quine, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gottlob Frege.
“Carnap as Dungeon Master is just too much to resist.”
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