Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Save vs Death

I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the qualifications the essay authors have. It’s a fun little research project to find out just who these guys are, and it’s sometimes interesting to compare how an essay so terrible the book would have been better off if it were omitted entirely was written by an actual professor of philosophy at Quincy University, and the best essay in the entire first section was written by a business analyst for Citi who’s never done any professional philosophy in his entire life outside of a few essays for the pop culture and philosophy series.

I give this preface because I don’t want people to think Save vs Death is automatically going to be good essay just because the author works for Harvard and has a goddamn Wikipedia page. Rather the opposite, my standards are much higher on account of how this guy is apparently the star power behind this production. I got this book as part of a discounted bundle, but the MSRP is $12, and it’s looking like they’re leaning on Christopher Robichaud to deliver that twelve bucks of value.

Show Me What You Got

The Graveyard of Dead PCs

I’m actually shoving all three of the first sections of the essay together, here. Partly because they’re super short, the entire essay is less than ten pages long and divided into four sections. Partly because all three of these first sections build on each other to make the same overall point, while the fourth section then segues into something only slightly related. These first three sections are a meditation on dealing with the inevitability of death. In the first section, Robichaud sets up the question in D&D terms by referencing the fragility of characters in AD&D (and OSR heartbreakers), and in the second he considers and rejects the idea posited by Socrates (or maybe Plato, depending on whether Socrates was real) that death is ultimately a good thing, because it divorces the soul from the body and allows one to lead a(n after)life of pure thought and contemplation, unhindered by physical desires and necessities. Robichaud then rejects this idea based on two assertions: First, philosophers aren’t really all that impeded by the occasional need for lunch breaks, and second, doritos are delicious.

It’s in the actual section called The Graveyard of Dead PCs that Robichaud gives his own answer, derived mainly from Buddhist philosophy, which he has the decency to boil into “play at life passionately, but be detached enough to let go when the dice don’t roll in your favor[,]” which makes my job of summarizing him easier. Whatever happens after death (if anything at all), there’s no getting away from it, so don’t waste your time worrying about it. I’m not sure if Robichaud would go so far as to say something like “don’t bother worrying about seatbelts, death’s inevitable anyway,” but the basic idea is that death can’t be avoided indefinitely nor can you possibly control for all the random ways in which you can die each day. If you try, you end up like Darth Plagueis. Don’t end up like Darth Plagueis.

I’m down with this. There’s reasonable precautions you can take to avoid easily preventable deaths, and you should, but other than that I don’t recommend worrying about it too much. It’s not clear if Robichaud is with me on the reasonable precautions thing, but it’s not like he ever implies he isn’t, he just doesn’t bring it up. Agreement isn’t very compelling. If we’re lucky, Robichaud will say something stupid in the last part of his essay (spoiler alert: He does not).

Ability Scores: The Natural Lottery

So, Robichaud is an unrepentant grognard. All of his references to the game are from old 1e manuals and modules, which I take some issue with because 1e is good mostly to the extent that it resembles BECMI and bad mostly to the extent that it does not, but this essay isn’t about the merits of 1e, it’s about how to deal with the inevitability of death and also how nothing we ever do can really be said to be entirely to our credit because our abilities are randomly determined at birth. If those two things sound completely unrelated, that’s because they are. The only connective tissue here is that they are both interesting philosophical subjects that D&D can help us think about.

The random nature of ability is an interesting philosophical subject, though, and one that oldschool D&D is better equipped to provoke discussions on than newer editions. Laying aside whether that makes for good gameplay, when rolling for stats the old way, 3d6 roll in order, you may end up stellar all around or you may end up rubbish all around. You might end up with a pretty average spread, but you’re almost guaranteed to have your higher stat in an ability other than the one you’d like to build your character around. You work with whatever the dice give you. Robichaud makes the similar point that nobody deserves the abilities they’re born with. If a genius and a fool work equally hard, the genius will produce masterpieces and the fool might be able to stop being a net drag on everyone around them, and that vast difference in results has nothing to do with any merit on the part of the genius, nor any sloth on the part of the fool.

Robichaud makes this point and also brings up the philosophy of John Rawls, who used this fundamental truth as a justification for massive redistribution of wealth, which seems like a bit of an extreme reaction. Robichaud never endorses or opposes Rawls’ response explicitly, although stating Rawls’ position and then providing no counterargument is soft support for that position by itself. Mainly, though, Robichaud states the problem and just kind of leaves it there, mostly unexplored. He even comes breathtakingly close to admitting to having made only a cursory examination of the deep subject he’s just brought up:

Now, admittedly there is a lot more to say about this, but the take-home insight is this: the reality of luck may carry with it obligations of justice.

If this sentence had come after an eight-page essay that really needs to wrap itself up, I’d be sympathetic, but it doesn’t. It comes at the end of a two and a half page essay that’s been appended to another six page essay written on a completely different subject.

The concluding paragraphs mainly make the argument that D&D can provoke philosophical discussion at all. You’d think that people reading a book entitled Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, a book that is sold for money, could be presumed to already be on board with D&D being a valid jumping point for philosophical discussions.

Then he concludes with this:

Does playing D&D really lend itself to thinking about such things? Of course! And we’ve just gotten to level 1. This is Undermountain. There’s always further down to go.

I really don’t want to associate Christopher Robichaud with the kind of dreck that JK Miles and Karington Hess put out, but it would be dishonest of me not to note that his D&D metaphors are just as dumb. This might give you the wrong idea about Robichaud’s writing overall, because in terms of sentence-to-sentence engagement, Save vs Death was very easy to read. He tripped and faceplanted on that very last couple of sentences, but overall the essay is well-written.

It really lacks depth, though, especially at the end, when it seems like an entirely new subject was brought up to meet a word quota, and then dropped as soon as Robichaud had met that quota, with tons of dangling questions left unanswered. Just because the fruits of our labors are in part determined by abilities we did nothing to earn, they are still in part derived from our own hard work. Talent alone doesn’t get very far at all, even if talent and hard work together will go much, much further than hard work alone could ever hope to.

Then there’s the practical question of whether or not redistributing wealth convinces people to stop putting in the hard work in the first place. Is a welfare system that requires its beneficiaries to put in some kind of effort for their rewards just? How do you determine if someone is incapable of doing as much as someone else? You could offer welfare in exchange for digging ditches and filling them in, completely arbitrary work that pays the same whether you dig two feet down or five, but a sick person can’t dig ditches for as long as a healthy person. You could offer welfare in exchange for book reports, the idea being that a poor person willing to read and consider a book is deserving of the welfare rather than a leech on the system, but a slow person can’t read books as quick as a fast-witted person through no fault of their own, and the really smart thing to do would be to exploit the inevitable black market for book reports, something which already vexes educational institutions of all levels.

Robichaud doesn’t discuss any of this, or any of the many other questions related to the concept he brought up. He just brings it up and walks away. It’s not a bad essay, but it’s pretty meh. The giant heads never go “meh” in Rick and Morty, though, so we’ll end like this:

Boo Not Cool

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