Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Dungeonmastery as Soulcraft

There’s a weird density of religious philosophy in this book. Not a weird density of religious philosophers, but of specifically religious philosophy. Philosophy that requires not only that you believe in the Christian God (which isn’t entirely unreasonable since most of the book’s audience likely does), but that you believe that God has some specific qualities and motivations. The qualities and motivations of the Christian God are an extremely controversial subject and get even more tangled if you include Jewish and Islamic thought on the subject. Using the nature of God as a premise rather than a conclusion of an argument means that like 95% of your readers aren’t going to follow you.

Weirdly, despite faceplanting on this issue, this essay doesn’t even seem to be all that concerned with Christian apologetics. Essay author Ben Dyer quotes GK Chesterton referring to the story of Adam and Eve as a fairy tale and doesn’t feel the need to comment on it, even though that line is the end of the quote and it would’ve been just as easy to leave it off and let all the other examples stand. GK Chesterton was a devout Catholic and presumably that passage is part of a greater context whose ultimate conclusion isn’t “Christianity is a myth,” Ben Dyer doesn’t provide that context, and even refers to the Garden of Eden as a fairy tale again later on in the text. So despite having apparently very little concern for if or what type of Christian the reader is, Ben Dyer still grounds his overall point about the nature of fantasy worlds in Tolkien’s idea that creativity is a natural instinct in humanity because we were created in the image of the Christian God, who is himself the ultimate creator (in Christian theology, to which Tolkien was an adherent).

Before we examine Mr. Dyer’s overall argument in more detail, let’s take a closer look at the man himself. The contributors section is as useless as it usually is (though in this case it contains the genuinely funny line “conscientious objector to the edition wars”), but Google searching for his name turns up this almost certainly relevant hit. Goodreads contains only one quote from that book, but it’s a good one.

So, Ben Dyer’s basic point across this essay is that creating worlds as a GM (or fantasy author or whatever) is a fundamentally moral exercise, and that good world design is inherently moral. Considering how cynical and materialist I’ve been throughout these essays, it might come as a surprise to readers that I’m basically on board with this idea with the caveat that there isn’t a unified morality that worlds and stories need to be designed around. Human morality has many permutations and only a few, very broad similarities across all people and circumstances, and a good story doesn’t need to limit its moral compass to those very broad similarities. Indeed, it would be impossible to do so, as these common moral elements of humanity are so broad that they cannot be reliably applied to any specific situation, as might arise in the course of a story. Still, a good story needs to have something to say. The best a story with no themes can accomplish is to engage the audience for its duration and be forgotten immediately afterwards, which you might call the Michael Bay approach to storytelling (even JJ Abrams has some sense of thematic throughlines, even if they tend to be kind of banal things like “yay friendship” and “nazis are bad”). I have no idea what Ben Dyer’s opinion on that caveat would be, so there’s not a whole lot to talk about here.

Dyer also slips in a final comment about how Jack Chick was wrong about D&D. He even notes that the entire moral panic over that has completely subsided. In Dyer’s defense, these essays were probably submitted entirely separately from one another and the order they were presented in the finished book probably wasn’t decided until all of them were submitted, so Dyer had no way of knowing that this dead horse was beaten at greater length in the essay immediately preceding his.

I’m noticing a general failing of the book’s organization, though, which is that similar essays are grouped right next to each other. This might be helpful if this book were being used as a reference, but it’s a pop philosophy book. It’s purpose is to be read, not referenced, and having similar essays next to each other really exacerbates the problem of “are we talking about this again?”

1 thought on “Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Dungeonmastery as Soulcraft”

  1. I happened across your review of my essay today and was interested to read it. You’re right that I didn’t have the opportunity to preview the other essays while mine was in process. (You get galleys to review, and can read other essays then, but at that point you’re long past what would amount to significant shifts in layout.) I’m not sure it would have changed all that much because the essay was about what these two Christians had contributed to fantasy (and by extension D&D), and so much of the early days of D&D had this cloud over them because of misunderstandings in Christian communities. These days it doesn’t feel quite so salient because D&D is so much more mainstream, and if I were writing today, I might well leave that bit out. In regards to your research on my other publications, my only other work was the edited Supervillains and Philosophy book. Both that book and the D&D essay were written while I was in the graduate philosophy program at Bowling Green State University between 2006-12.

    With respect to the two other points of substance in your review (Christian assumptions and caveats about moral complexity), I think we’re broadly on the same page. Of course you’re right that people bring all kinds of different moral assumptions with them to the game. That’s kind of the beauty of the thing, and it’s why I wrote that, “[players and dm] express their moral assumptions to one another in the choices that both players and DM make at the table.” D&D facilitates a kind of moral communication that’s expressive and performative within the shared imaginary world. So, far from being a caveat, the difference you have in mind is fundamental to what I think everyone’s exploring together in the game.

    In regards to the point about Christian assumptions, I don’t think the essay requires as much of the reader as you suggest. You don’t have to believe what Tolkien believed (i.e., Christian theism) about why we create secondary worlds to follow his thinking about escapism, eucatastrophe, and so on. I also think Tolkien and Chesterton think of myth as not telling for or against the truth of anything in history as such. Myth for Tolkien (as I read him) is about the power of story and the way it shapes us. Some myths might have a basis in truth, and if the world is as Tolkien thought it was (cf. Christianity) then at least one myth would be historically true. (See his letters and conversations with C.S. Lewis on myths and Christianity if this interests you; it was significant to Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.) The importance of Christianity in the essay is 1) that it grounds and illuminates Tolkien’s thought, and 2) that it connects to Chesterton by way of their shared conceptions about moral and metaphysical truths as constituents of both fantasy and everyday life. Neither of those require proof of God’s existence or commitments to anything in the reader’s own beliefs.

    Thank you again for your review, it was fun to read at this distance in time from the original essay. I hope you find these additional comments helpful and engaging.

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