Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: By Friendship or Force

This essay is by Samantha Noll, a doctoral candidate over at Michigan State University, where she is getting a PhD in animal ethics. This essay is about the ethics of summoning furry friends to do your bidding. In it, she examines a couple of different situations in which D&D makes use of animals as a game mechanic and whether or not such uses are ethical (from the perspective of in-game casters, she thankfully does not start a tedious conversation about whether or not D&D’s authors are evil for including the options in the game). In order to determine if they are ethical or not, she uses moral yardsticks provided by various other animal ethicists. Of course, none of these animal philosophers agree with each other on what constitutes an unethical action with regards to animals at all, so the ultimate conclusion is that every spell and class feature examined either is or is not ethical depending on who you ask, because that is how philosophy do.

The essay is ambivalent as to whether or not summoning animals or having an animal familiar is wrong, but then goes on to say that rangers and druids are on much more ethically sound (though not entirely unassailable) ground, because they befriend rather than compel animals. Except, where the fuck does it say that animal familiars are somehow compelled to obey the wizard as though they were a summoned creature? By D&D mechanics, a familiar is just a small creature with a few special powers linked to the wizard’s own, like allowing the wizard to see through their eyes or cast spells from their position. The tropes that D&D is drawing on from this class feature usually feature the familiar as a friend, adviser, or usually both. The level of control a player has over a familiar mechanically is identical to the amount for a ranger’s animal companion. So where the Hell does Noll get off calling this a coercive relationship?

Further, why does the druid get a free pass on casting summon spells? The spells are nearly identical, they just have different lists of creatures to draw from, and in some editions it is literally the exact same spell. If the wizard is compelling summoned creatures to fight for them, the druid is, too. The druid isn’t restricted to summoning creatures they’ve met in the past. They aren’t going to run out of creatures to summon, not even if they’re summoning large apex predators like bears or tigers and regularly getting them killed. This means that the spell can’t possibly be dependent upon only summoning up the druid’s personal friends, because the druid would run out of such friends in a hurry if their summons tend to die before being dispelled. That’s not an unusual circumstance, since summoned creatures are often relatively low on HP and especially AC compared to other party members, and are usually used as front line infantry rather than a support, artillery, or other back line role. Druids are summoning up random animals to use as soldiers, and if those animals are fighting willingly, it’s because they have a loyalty to a shared cause that the druid is presumed to support (they both support green mana policies or something). There’s no reason why a wizard couldn’t be calling on creatures who have likewise enlisted in an interdimensional military and are all sitting around in barracks waiting to be summoned to the front lines to fight in the name of [insert alignment here], and if the wizard doesn’t get this benefit of the doubt, why should the druid?

Also, none of this works with the spell descriptions given by 5e at all, in which druids summon fey spirits who take the shape of animals, not actual animals, but this book was released when 5e is brand new, so I won’t fault Noll for grounding her article in the paradigm held by Pathfinder (not to mention most other editions), which was the reigning champion at the time. It makes sense to examine the game that everyone is playing, rather than whatever happens to be new and shiny at the moment, particularly since the 5e Player’s Handbook might not even have been released when Noll was writing this essay.

Still, I’m detecting some pretty blatant favoritism towards rangers and druids from Noll. There’s nothing in the text to support their being any more or less coercive than wizards.

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