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?”

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