Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: To My Other Self

You know we’re not in for a top-quality essay when the first thing I have to do is establish that just because someone’s writing style is pretentious and grating doesn’t necessarily mean the content of their essay will be worthless, just that getting to that content is going to require scraping a lot of self-aggrandizing. I need to establish this because To My Other Self is really, really pretentious in its line-to-line writing. Check out this paragraph, for example:

Role-playing, then, is neither simply creation of a character nor simply acting. So what happens when I play my character? I cannot simply think as myself, or I do an injustice to the richness of what my character could be. But I cannot be someone else; this is simply impossible. I am fundamentally incapable of knowing what another person would think or do in my situation, so I must settle for a variation on what I would do. Since I cannot be someone else, what I do instead – what I must do – is to create a framework of otherness, a series of lenses and prisms through which I filter my thoughts. The pieces of this scaffolding are the components of my character.

Let me rephrase that for clarity as opposed to narcissism:

Every character a player roleplays has at least a little bit of their own personality, because the player needs to start with something they know and build from there. Without inheriting at least some fragment of the player’s real personality, the character has no foundation of real human emotion to build on, and will at best be an automaton programmed with cliches.

Actually, acknowledging the “automaton programmed with cliches” option is something I added, so you can make my already shorter paragraph even shorter than that. So, yeah. It’s gonna be one of those philosophy essays.

The essay is nine pages long and can be summarized in about two paragraphs. Start with that one I wrote just above the break and add this:

Because characters necessarily have at least one personality trait in common with their player, roleplaying can be an interesting and fun (though time-inefficient) means of examining one’s own unexplored personality traits in isolation from the rest of one’s identity. Roleplayers can learn things about themselves they might not have known previously. Or you can just hack orcs to pieces for treasure. That’s cool, too.

It really doesn’t get a whole lot deeper than that in this entire essay. That’s an interesting idea, and every now and again you catch a sentence or a sentence fragment that’s an interesting elaboration upon that idea, but it’s buried under barely relevant quotes from Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, quotes that don’t really add anything except philosophical street cred and making it obvious that essay authors Rob Crandall and Charles Taliaferro like existentialism.

Since the actual content of this essay is such a shallow well (or rather, a shallow plumbing of abyssal depths), let’s back up and talk about the authors now, squeeze another hundred or two words out of this thing. Tracking down Rob Crandall is about as hard as that Karington Hess guy from back in Paragons and Knaves. The only reason I was able to find someone I’m even slightly convinced might be the right Rob Crandall is because, amidst all the jokes about D&D classes and alignments, the contributors section of this book did at least have the decency to give me the guy’s home state. So this might be the Rob Crandall we’re looking for.

Charles Taliaferro works at the St. Olaf University, which has close ties with the Lutheran Church. This made me super leery for the same reason as JK Miles did back in Paragons and Knaves, but that worry turned out to be unfounded this time around. This essay doesn’t condescend to its readers, and while there is some undercurrent of an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, this essay makes a point of not condemning people for playing the game differently than what’s being discussed. Score one for Lutherans.

Taliaferro is another guy with a goddamn Wikipedia page, which is too bad for this essay, because I would’ve handed out a C+ for effort and a decent start if both the authors were just random yahoos. The essay is bringing up ideas but not really exploring them in enough depth to justify its page length. It feels like a first draft that never got edited down to remove extraneous sentences and paragraphs, possibly because if they’d done that it would’ve been two pages long and they would have to have found something more to say. Is there a minimum wordcount for submission to these books? Do they pay by the word? As a two or three page essay, all the stray ideas condensed into full paragraphs of interesting content, cut all the extraneous sentences and existentialist quotes added in for legitimacy by association rather than by merit, and you’d have a pretty good read. If you really need a few more pages on top of that, this essay would benefit a lot from a more thorough discussion of exactly what it means to isolate a personality trait and use it as the basis for a character who is, except for that one trait, very different.

Unfortunately, Crandall and Taliaferro don’t seem to have the understanding of how roleplaying affects the psyche to deliver on that. They repeat the incredibly oversimplified canard that roleplaying is a direct window into the soul of another person with sentences like this:

A player whose character takes too much glee in the near-inevitable slaughter that occurs in most campaigns may be someone to watch out for! On the other hand, the player may simply be channeling centuries of cultural history – but that’s a different discussion.

The possibility of alternative explanations are referenced, but only briefly before moving quickly on, and the brief reference by itself is kind of baffling. Centuries of cultural history? Heroes who are quick to the slaughter are pretty common throughout the world. There do exist peaceful cultures whose heroes aren’t defined by all the monsters they’ve killed, but there’s also cultures across the world and going back thousands of years whose heroes break into the underworld, beat up the gatekeepers of the afterlife, and destroy a few key records, thus securing immortality for themselves and their buddies. What cultural history could he possibly be referring to that is only a few centuries old?

The more important question left hanging here, however, is why should we possibly want to watch out for a player whose character enjoys a fight, or even just murder in general? I can think of circumstances where this might be true. As I mentioned in Paragons and Knaves, someone who tries to justify why their character is still a beacon of justice and peace despite solving all problems with lethal violence is someone who will probably make similar excuses to justify theirs’ or their leaders’ similar actions, and that’s a real concern. On the other hand, someone who says their character likes killing people because they’re evil and thus have no compassion for other creatures and have no difficulty treating lethal combat like a sport they have fun winning at, that kind of person is much less alarming because they make no excuses. They recognize that what their character is doing is wrong, and aren’t likely to do it in real life. The actions taken by a character don’t say anything about a player, because a player is not their character. What the player says to explain those actions is what tells you about them.

Every character must inherit some personality trait from their player, but there’s no way to tell at a glance which personality trait that is. There’s no way to tell whether a player who plays a bloodthirsty character is expressing their own bloodlust or if they just thought it was an appropriate personality trait to add to a barbarian, and the personality trait this character has inherited from the player is actually a love of travel and the outdoors. Even if the character has inherited their bloodlust from the player, there’s no way to tell just from the character’s actions whether the player sees their character as wish fulfillment and wishes they could live in a world where being a violent asshole was a career path or if the player sees their character as a debauched butcher or an unhinged lunatic for giving in to those impulses without reservation and that the world is better off outlawing this kind of behavior. A player whose character embraces their anti-social impulses without reservation isn’t necessarily a player who doesn’t recognize that the character is wrong to do so, and that they would be wrong to do the same in real life.

Or maybe Crandall and Taliaferro are saying that someone who has violent impulses might be someone you want to watch out for even if they recognize those impulses as wrong, because they’re more likely to get people physically near them hurt as opposed to someone with, like, a gambling addiction or something. It’s really not clear, and that’s the problem. The idea hasn’t really been explored, and so there’s much wasted page space in this essay that could’ve been dedicated to exploring this idea and others like it.

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