Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Paragons and Knaves

I kind of feel like I owe Greg Littmann an apology. Partly because I wasn’t able to find anywhere to mention that he is, in fact, an associate professor of philosophy at the Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville, and that while I stand by my assertion that his philosophy (as represented in Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, anyway) is amateur hour tripe, he is in fact a professional philosopher. It’s kind of like how Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is technically a professional work even though it has the quality of shitty fanfiction.

Mainly, though, I think I should apologize to Greg for being so harsh on him because after reading how painfully, abysmally hideous this next one is, just being wrong and occasionally misleading seems like a pretty minor offense. Greg, at least, had a fundamental respect for the intelligence of the reader. With Greg, at least, I had to get like three sections into his six section essay before I lost faith that he was going to turn this around, and it wasn’t until the last section, when he implored the reader to do something he’d just claimed was impossible, that I decided I needed to write an angry blog post to get it out of my system. With Paragons and Knaves, that moment came on page three.

Also, I want to offer an actual legit apology because in retrospect, considering the time he gave to things like compatibilism and quantum probabilities, his failure to include some valid counterarguments to his position is probably a result of human error and not an intentional omission intended to mislead readers. I maintain that he is wrong, but in retrospect he’s probably not being an asshole about it.

But look, we all know that to the extent this post will be successful, it won’t be because I took personal responsibility for things. People are here to read about how Paragons and Knaves authors JK Miles and Karington Hess are stupid assholes who are wrong about everything, so let’s get to it.

JK Miles is a professor(?) of philosophy at some place called Quincy University, which is a Catholic liberal arts college in Illinois, so that explains why he can quote the Book of Exalted Deeds’ commentary on morality with a straight face. The only hit I can find for Karington Hess to do with philosophy are links to him(?) having co-written this essay. The name is common, so Googling for the name by itself is no good, I just get random Facebook pages. This one looks like it might actually be the right guy, just because he seems generally nerdy and has worked in Quincy before.

Sources

Before we examine Paragons and Knaves itself, we have to talk about the Book of Exalted Deeds, because PaK really likes to quote the Book of Exalted Deeds. They also like to quote the Book of Vile Darkness, but that doesn’t matter as much, because the Book of Vile Darkness is good. Monte Cook wrote it, and he’s pretty good at what he does, and he also doesn’t define himself by a moral aesthetic as a replacement for having any kind of coherent or consistent moral ideology. The authors of the Book of Exalted Deeds do this a lot.

The authors of the Book of Exalted Deeds includes primarily James Wyatt, who is a trained minister and uses the book as an opportunity to preach Christian morals. Bear in mind here that unlike the book this article overall is about, the Book of Exalted Deeds is not a discussion of ethical philosophy and copy/pasting in Aquinas’ pro-Catholic philosophy isn’t really appropriate to the Book of Exalted Deeds at all. PaK itself will acknowledge the three dominant moral philosophies of the modern era, utlitiarianism, Kantianism, and the virtue ethics of Aristotle (whose name I can never consistently turn into -ism), so it’s pretty telling that James Wyatt decided that those three should be thrown under the bus in favor of relatively obscure medieval philosophers who are most notable for the defense of Christianity and the medieval Catholic interpretation of the Christian god, a philosophy which can at best be considered a sub-group of virtue ethics which is nearly extinct in the modern day. Yet for some reason this is where Wyatt decided his definitions of Just War should come from.

Even if the Book of Exalted Deeds was an appropriate place to try and establish the supremacy of medieval Christian philosophy over competing ethical paradigms (and it is not), James Wyatt isn’t even good at Christian philosophy. Over and over again, he bleeds through the “it’s okay when we do it” “morality is killing people with blue lasers instead of red lasers” kind of “Christianity” that you get out of people who view the Bible as something to be combed for excuses to do what you were going to do anyway. He invents “ravages” and “inflictions” which are exactly the same as diseases and poisons but which have been renamed in order to make it okay for the paladin to engage in biological and chemical warfare. Some of the things like this in the Book of Exalted Deeds only work on evil targets, but some of them work on any non-good targets, which means neutral bystanders can totally be affected. One such affliction (though at least it only affects evil creatures) is “Raging Desire” which “causes insatiable sexual desire while preventing any possible fulfillment of that desire.” So turning people of the opposite alignment into your perpetually frustrated sex slaves is an option only available to good guys. Neat.

I suspect this may be the contribution of Gwendolyn Kestrel. Gwendolyn Kestrel is given a playtest credit on the Book of Exalted Fantasy, but she is better known as the person what wrote the Book of Erotic Fantasy. I don’t want to get into a sub-sub-review where I take apart the Book of Erotic Fantasy to explain why Gwendolyn’s influence on the Book of Exalted Deeds was bad to explain why using it as a source in Paragons and Knaves was bad, so suffice it to say that the Book of Erotic Fantasy adheres pretty close to the idea that beauty and sexiness are inherently good, and this crops up now and again in the Book of Exalted Deeds. An early image depicts a paladin walking in on two succubi and the caption talks about how he must choose between doling out justice or honoring love. Succubi are demons of lust and the idea that any two succubi fucking each other are in a healthy committed relationship rather than just working out some animal passions is laughable, but it fits right in with the morality of Gwendolyn “sorceress powered by vanity has good alignment as a prerequisite” Kestrel. Likewise, enslaving someone to their sexual passions being an act of inherent good also feels like a Gwendolyn thing to add. Gwendolyn might also be responsible for a significant chunk of the celestial creatures introduced in the Book of Exalted Deeds’ bestiary being a bunch of furries, but that at least rises back up to the level of “not inherently fucked up, just the wrong context at all” rather than slumming it with “being sexy is inherently good and can redeem you for murder and violent coercion for personal gain.”

If anyone thinks it’s weird that a Christian apologist and a free-loving nymphomaniac are bosom buddies, it’s really not. They might be nominally on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they share one very important thing in common: They use the aesthetics of morality to make up for not having any actual morals at all, and primarily use morality as a way to exalt themselves for doing whatever they wanted to do anyway and not as any kind of rules or guidelines as to how they should live their lives.

So the point of this mini-review is that you should bear in mind that the Book of Exalted Deeds is completely fucked as a source for what “good” means in D&D or any other context. It’s the writings of at least one arrogant idiot who thinks that anything that strokes his ego or gives him good pants feelings must be inherently good.

This is also why I’m not surprised to see a professor from a Catholic university likes to lean on him. I don’t care who a professor of philosophy prays to on their own time, but if a professor of philosophy decides they want to specifically teach at a university that only accepts people who already share their religion, that’s a red flag.

The Good, the Bad, and the Legendary

In the first section of the essay (past its introduction) Miles and Hess talk about the orc baby dilemma as though it were a good thing. Being confronted by orc children is literally given as an example of something that GMs should be adding to their games. If I were reading this, I’d suspect hyperbole, so let me go ahead and paste the relevant quote directly:

Getting to level 20 is not nearly as interesting as the naive but zealous paladin who swears death to all orcs, but who is forced to decide whether to slay innocent orc children who will likely grow up to plague the countryside. How players react to such difficult moral choices becomes the stuff of legend. As the Book of Exalted Deeds says, “Let their choices be difficult but not deadly … Let their choices and actions matter.” If this is true, your campaign can benefit from a little moral theory.

Citing the Book of Exalted Deeds as a moral authority and citing the archetypal example of hackneyed ethical dilemmas as an interesting and difficult moral choice. We are not off to a great start. The end of this section gives us the real money shot, though:

Of course, that’s only true if DMs and players want a rich gaming session that is more than “Hack, Slash, and get the Shiny.” (After all, if that’s what you want, there’s always Warhammer!)

We Are Experiencing Temporary Incoherent Rage

I don’t even know where to start. Let’s be really generous and assume that by “Warhammer” they mean the actual miniature war game and are not presuming that the Warhammer Fantasy setting as a whole is incapable of hosting any kind of moral dilemma. That’s a really generous assumption, considering that “get the Shiny [sic]” isn’t really any part of the Warhammer Fantasy war game, being pretty exclusive to the Warhammer Fantasy RPG.

Let’s give them that assumption anyway, and focus in on the idea that the orc baby dilemma is going to give you a “rich gaming session.” The only reason the orc baby dilemma even exists is because a single more grounded element was added to an otherwise mostly nonsense hack and slash dungeon. A dungeon is inhabited 80% by fully armed warriors, but they have a nursery tucked away in the back where there is one child for every four adults in the dungeon. Orcs have at no point offered to surrender despite the fact that their fucking children are in this dungeon and they have already lost 50%+ of their forces. Despite the fact that clerics of Pelor are a thing, nobody has ever encountered this dilemma and gone home to ask one such cleric to start an orc orphanage before.

The orc baby dilemma is stupid. It’s a contrived moral question, a bizarre thought experiment dropped into what is supposed to be a sensible, living world (if not an outright power fantasy). I design and run almost exclusively intensely political games where characters are expected to grapple with moral questions. I’m not opposed to the concept. I am opposed to how incredibly sloppy the proposed execution is as well as the condescending assertion that other styles of play are invalid.

Taking Alignment Seriously

This is the section of the essay where Miles and Hess attempt to define what good, evil, law, and chaos mean in D&D. We’ve all had a million arguments about this, so let’s just summarize here by saying that they fail, because of course they do. If you want alignments that are non-controversial enough to be actually used, stick to the Magic: the Gathering color wheel.

Here’s an interesting quote from the essay:

As philosophers, we hope you will consider supplementing your game library with a little Aristotle, Kant, and Hume when designing your encounters.

This is totally reasonable. I think John Stuart Mill is a better source on utilitarianism than David Hume, but they’re both different flavors of the same basic philosophy and both about equally prominent, so in terms of covering the three most common ethical philosophies of the modern era, referring people to Aristotle, Kant, and Hume isn’t particularly out of line.

Then, like, four paragraphs down, we get this:

The Book of Exalted Deeds expands upon this, “Being Good requires a certain temperament, the presence of virtues that spur a character, not just avoid evil or its appearance, but actively promote good.” In other words, whether a paladin is good or evil is judged by his repeated actions. Doing virtuous actions creates virtuous character. Doing evil actions creates vicious character.

This is not something the Wizards of the Coast pulled out of a bag of holding. It was the reigning ethical theory for roughly 2,500 years. Virtue theory found it greatest proponents in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle codified his moral theory in what we now call virtue ethics. One becomes virtuous not by taking a character class but by making choices that develop into habits that in turn form moral character. It seems to us that this variant provides a moral framework that is great for role-playing. Therefore, we will use this virtue-based variant as the “Tavern” from which we will launch our campaign into the philosophical Underdark.

Let me just bullet point out all the things wrong with this.

  • Treating the Book of Exalted Deeds, a shitty sourcebook for a defunct edition written by an author who clearly had no grounding in ethical philosophy at all, as a relevant and current authority on D&D alignment.
  • Declaring Aristotle’s virtue ethics to be the only correct morality for D&D like four paragraphs after acknowledging that it is only one of three common moral philosophies and recommending that GMs be familiar with all of them.
  • Completely failing to actually define what good or evil actually are, instead just making the near-tautological statement that good people do good things regularly and evil people do evil things regularly, without any attempt to explain what makes an action good or evil in the first place.
  • Stupid metaphor at the end sounds like one or both authors have heard about D&D secondhand but never actually played.
  • Implicit false dichotomy between morality being determined strictly by character class and embracing Aristotelian ethics.
  • Stating that the ethics of Plato, who was born 2,442 years before the publication of this book, have been the dominant ethics of the world for 2,500 years, as though Kant and Hume/Mill don’t even fucking exist.

Paladins and Trolleys

The Trolley Problem is a famous ethical problem best summarized here (if you are actually unfamiliar with the Trolley Problem, you can find a legit summary here). In this section of the essay, a complete encounter, including DCs for opening up vampire sarcophagi and so forth, is presented with a stupid and contrived version of this problem. If you thought that maybe the dumb examples of moral dilemmas being given were just generic examples intended to illustrate a point rather than demonstrate the potential for good role play moral dilemmas can provide to your game, this is where that belief is getting snuffed.

The encounter is that the party has been captured, stripped of weapons and magic, and left to awaken in sarcophagi in a vampire mausoleum. Once the vampires awaken (no thought is given whatsoever to what happens if the players attempt to escape without disturbing the sarcophagi other than the ones they’re stashed in), the local vampire queen says she’ll let the PCs go and even give them helpful information in defeating the BBEG and saving hundreds of lives in danger due to his nefarious scheme, but only if they murder a friend the vampires have captured. If the PCs don’t want to murder their NPC buddy, they have to go out and gather up ten random schmucks and deliver them to the vampire queen as human sacrifices. If the PCs don’t agree to do one of these two things, the vampire queen sics her thralls on them.

Right. So, how did the PCs end up in sarcophagi in a mausoleum that clearly belongs to a third party? This vampire queen is offering to help the PCs defeat the BBEG in exchange for what is, to her, trivial amounts of tribute, so she is clearly not on the BBEG’s side. Why does the vampire queen even want the PCs to kill their friend? She obviously benefits from press-ganging some adventurers into kidnapping a few happy meals for her, but why is her first offer that the adventurers can walk free if they kill a personal friend of theirs whom the vampire queen was presumably going to kill anyway? How does she benefit? There’s some talk about “swearing fealty to her” but if the sacrifice is supposed to be an act of good faith concerning some kind of ongoing loyalty, the encounter doesn’t mention it. Exactly what kind of future obligation is the player signing up for by swearing fealty like this?

The whole encounter is just the Trolley Problem painted D&D colors and turning into gibberish in the process. This vampire queen and her minions have no place in a sensible, living world, they’re just props so the GM can trick his players into attending a Philosophy 101 lecture. It’s trying to be a philosophy lesson and a D&D encounter at the same time, and despite those actually being quite compatible goals, it is failing miserably at both.

The Ring of Gyges and the Arch-Lich

So there’s a story recounted in Plato’s Republic about how a man with a magic ring of invisibility he could use to escape retribution for his evil actions would have no rational reason not to commit as much evil as he likes. The point made is that goodness is only rational because there is a certain equality between human beings, that if one of us gets angry enough at the injustice of it all and decides to straight-up assassinate a tyrant, there’s decent odds of success. Plato then spends the whole rest of the book rebutting this assertion, and also laying out his model of an ideal society (it makes sense in context). So “the ring of Gyges” is a reference to that story.

The point of recounting that story is that Miles and Hess go on to say that according to Plato, living the life of virtue brings peace and contentment in a way that gorging oneself on base pleasures through a life of vice does not, and then go on to speculate wildly about what Aristotle and Hume would think of someone who played an evil character in D&D. The upshot of the conversation is that Miles and Hess think that if you play an evil character in D&D, then it’s probably symptomatic of low moral character in real life. This is, in fact, the opposite of true. First of all, their justification for why Hume wouldn’t approve is a huge stretch, and it’s pretty telling that they don’t even try to twist Kantian philosophy into some kind of condemnation of pretending to be an arch-lich.

Second and more importantly, doing bad things while playing an explicitly evil character does not threaten to distort someone’s morality at all, nor is it any kind of symptom of distorted morality. Someone who plays an evil character who does evil things is asserting, over and over and over again, that the things their character does are wrong and should not be done in similar situations in real life. There are characters someone can play that should give you concerns about their moral character in real life. Someone who plays a paladin and then tries to justify inventing a new kind of poison called “afflictions” so that they’re technically not breaking their oath by using them, for example, is showing signs that they view moral codes as something to be exploited or subverted when inconvenient, and possibly also that they’re too enamored with the aesthetics of goodness to just play a rogue or a blackguard like they clearly want to. Someone who tries to convince the table that they’re Chaotic Neutral while playing the Joker is demonstrating a willingness to try and excuse even extremely evil acts as not that bad. Someone who actually has the guts to put “Neutral Evil” on their character sheet is demonstrating actual commitment to their moral philosophy, enough so to come out and admit that they are playing an Evil character rather than trying to construct tortured logic by which their clearly psychopathic barbarian is Neutral or even Good.

Just like everything else in this essay, Miles and Hess demonstrate in this section a holier-than-thou attitude coupled with a catastrophic failure to understand what it even means to have a coherent moral code. They’ve descended past the point of just being wrong, although their GMing advice is shitty, they’re also using famous philosophers to try and prop up their shitty GMing advice as though it were an actual exploration of morals and ethics. It’s not. They name drop a few philosophers, one of which is clearly their favorite, but they do not actually support any arguments. They appeal to how ancient Aristotle is but never actually argue for why he is right about anything. They pull together some quotes from an obscure sourcebook from over a decade before Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy was published to try and justify why Aristotle is the one true morality of D&D, and in so doing demonstrate that they are completely incompetent philosophers who apparently think “this book said so” is an actual defense of a moral philosophy, even when that book was written (poorly) by a non-philosopher for an edition that’s six years out of print and had an obvious ulterior motive.

In this essay philosophy is referenced, but not discussed, used as though simply being in proximity to famous philosophers automatically gives philosophical depth to their writing, like propping up a wobbly table with a copy of the Critique of Pure Reason and claiming that all conversations held at that table are now philosophical debates, even when they’re actually about what to eat for pizza or, indeed, a circlejerk about how moral and virtuous everyone at the table is for sitting at it. Look, there’s a book on philosophy there under the short leg! That means our literal masturbation of one another is deep and enlightened and you should learn from our example. Well, no, don’t actually learn from our example, but claim to be learning from our example, and give the shaft a few good strokes while you do.

This whole essay is an insult to philosophy and D&D both.

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