Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Imagination and Creation

The third paragraph of this essay brings us this gem:

But in order to cast a light spell on the matter, we first need to grab one of those dusty tomes in our wizard’s library and discuss some metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that deals with some of the deepest features of the world.

In fairness to the various contributing authors of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, they probably didn’t have much interaction with one another and didn’t realize how incredibly played out these lame references would be by the third essay, let alone the seventh.

Our authors today are Robert A Delfino (no relation) and Jerome C Hillock. Typically with these tag-team essays there’s a pretty obvious pairing of expertise. There’s usually some kind of professional philosophy type, and then there’s someone else who is directly familiar with D&D. According to the contributors section at the back of the book, which for once has something useful to say that I don’t immediately get when Googling their names for more information, Robert A Delfino has both of those bases covered and Jerome C Hillock is just kind of tagging along, I guess. Hillock got Delfino into the game, but that was back in the neighborhood of fifth grade in 1982, so I’m pretty sure Delfino is cool to pontificate on D&D without Hillock on hand to fill him in on the minutia. I can’t find any information on Hillock, like, at all (maybe he’s this guy?), so make of all that what you will.

Anyway, the overall theme of this essay is that the Satanic Panic about D&D was dumb. Which is true, and considering our authors started playing in the 80s this is probably an issue they got to interact with firsthand, so maybe there’s some personal catharsis going on here. On the other hand, the Pulling Report was released in 1990 and its complete text is available for free online, so “BADD were lunatics” is kind of old news. The specific approach here is that Christian philosophers like Aquinas and Tolkien (whose philosophy credentials are questionable, but whose Christian credentials are ironclad amongst the sane) are okay with D&D in principle even though they predated its invention. Again, kind of seems like this battle was won a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the argument itself can’t be interesting, so let’s go ahead and take a look.

Unfortunately, after establishing that traditionalists would like a certain type of D&D game, Hillock and Delfino then immediately go off the rails by condemning people who play evil characters. Yeah, I thought we were done with this bullshit when we get out of the section about alignment, but nope, here it is again. Imagination and Creation casts the validity of D&D as being a struggle between two different philosophies (after correctly noting that there isn’t really any philosophical basis to condemn D&D entirely). The traditionalists believe that playing good characters will encourage good values while playing evil ones would encourage desensitization and erosion of moral character, while the postmodernists believe that morality is purely a construction of the human psyche, so you know, do whatever. Then they have the gall to write this:

Although we argued for these conclusions, we did not spend time giving arguments as to which metaphysical understanding of the real world is the correct one.

This is technically true, in that they didn’t spend any time at all arguing why the postmodernist interpretation is wrong, but that sure as Hell didn’t stop them from declaring their conclusion that it is wrong. This is now the third time the idea of playing evil characters leading to evil behavior has been raised, and not once has anyone managed a more nuanced examination of the effects on the human psyche of playing an evil character than “evil play = evil life.” I won’t rehash again how evil play can reinforce the vileness of the acts as easily as provide justification for it, depending entirely on how it’s approached.

will note that the condemnation is not blanket. This isn’t Paragons and Knaves. You get quotes like this:

But, of course, we also think it is possible for very mature and responsible players
to play evil characters, within certain limits, with no ill effects.

The problem is, there’s no elaboration. Apparently playing an evil campaign without deleterious effects on moral character is reserved for “very mature and responsible players” (I guess I should be flattered?) and should only be undertaken “within certain limits,” but exactly in which ways those players should be mature and responsible or what limits are required is not given any space at all. Unlike some other essays, this one couldn’t stand to be drastically edited down in the interests of both clarity and leaving more room to explore more concepts, so maybe they just didn’t have the space to examine this more fully. Maybe, recognizing that a shocking number of people have some difficulty separating fantasy from reality, and in turn with dissociating the actions of their characters upon their own identity, they decided it was imprudent to have an in-depth discussion of the circumstances under which one can play an evil campaign and have their commitment to their morals improved rather than eroded. That’s all baseless speculation, though. All I have is the text, and the text includes a vague acknowledgement that an evil campaign doesn’t necessarily have to suck the compassion and justice out of its players without any discussion at all of what the difference is between that and the soul eating mode of evil campaigns, which is apparently the default.

I would put it to you that the reason why an evil campaign that advertises itself on exaltation of blatantly anti-social behavior tends to end up with players who are genuinely anti-social people is because that’s who shows up to play the game. Those caterwauling about how evil campaigns are changing their players have cause and effect reversed. Experiences do change people, and playing D&D changes the players in microscopic ways the same as going to Wendy’s does, but the reason why campaigns that serve primarily as celebrations of cruelty tend to have lots of genuinely cruel players is because that’s who shows up for a celebration of cruelty. You don’t need to impose specific limits on a group of mature and responsible players to avoid an evil campaign from degenerating into immature schlock. Mature and responsible players are, almost by definition, naturally averse to playing stupid, short-sighted, puerile sorts of villains. Whether or not an evil campaign is going to end up interesting or stupid depends on whether the players show up with the intention to play Saruman, Darth Vader, and the Joker, or a dumb orc brute, a shitty HK-47 clone, and a half-assed fanfic Joker who forgot that creativity and humor are key to the character.

1 thought on “Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Imagination and Creation”

  1. Certainly interesting, whilst I haven’t read any of the works (So I’m just going off a first reading of this post) I can agree with your sentiment about how players using evil acts can reinforce how dreadful it is. I wonder though, because I don’t see it addressed, at what point do the authors deal with the fact that the decisions are made in an imaginary sense, reflecting characters not players, exploring frames of thought? It’s an obvious question but if ignored then at what point are they to take into account the nature of play or any number of theories on creative communication, does their text inadvertently cover acting too? If so then there isn’t much creative space it doesn’t invade.

    Another question is to what did they assign as good or evil? I’d also love to know which postmodern philosophers they took to generate their understanding of postmodern moral theory…it seems such a shame that philosophical text reflecting on D&D has such lazy writing involved.

    Anyway I don’t mean for this comment to be something I want you to provide answers for, I’m merely being too lazy and frankly a bit exacerbated to find and read the original text and am happy to join in a rant, so thank you for countering or bringing up the issues in the text!

    As an aside, I’ve only just found your blog and hope you do more writing in this vein, I’ll certainly look at more of your writing tomorrow as I too write about the juncture between philosophy and D&D (though more using philosophies to inspire gameplay rather than the ill-conceived moralizing you’ve happily taken shots at)



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