Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: “Others Play at Dice…”

The title quote (“others play at dice”) comes from Aristotle, and the essay is dedicated entirely to explaining Aristotle’s categorization of friendship through the lens of D&D groups and fantasy stories. So, essay author Jeffery L Nicholas intersperses the essay with examples from fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and also from his own gaming group. Hearing about other people’s gaming stories is eye-glazing by default and Jeffery doesn’t have the talent to climb that hill, but he doesn’t lean on it too strong so it doesn’t hurt the essay that much.

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Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Berserker in a Skirt

Today we’re talking about sex and gender in Dungeons and Dragons, so this oughta be a hoot. I’ll go ahead and get things started with this quote, not directly from the essay, but instead from Shelly Mazzanoble and which appears in the essay:

One of the coolest things about D&D is gender equality. As in real life, whichever gender you choose to play is a matter of personal preference but unlike the real world, female and male characters are equals.

So trans people willingly choose to experience discrimination and dysmorphia for, I guess, the street cred? We’re not off to a good start, here.

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Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: “Kill her, kill her! Oh God, I’m sorry!”

D&D didn’t used to be on podcasts, but now it is. If this is a YouTube video this is where I’d do the fake roll credits gag. That’s only slightly oversimplified. This essay spends almost its entirety talking about how D&D was the basis for some reality TV shows, kind of, and there was a cartoon, then later on popular video games like World of Warcraft gave mainstream gamers a few points of reference that made learning D&D easier, and then D&D podcasting took off and became a big deal. It’s worth noting that this history of D&D in other media doesn’t seem to be aware that the Gold Box and Infinity Engine games were a thing. This kind of “history of a hobby” thing can be interesting (although I didn’t find the text here particularly engaging), but it’s not philosophy. There’s no philosophical argument being made here, no real idea being played with. It’s just a brief history of D&D as portrayed in other media, and how that affected how easy it was for people who didn’t yet play D&D to get started. That’s not philosophy. That’s history. They’re different.

Having one of those trendy double last names, essay author Esther MacCallum-Stewart is pretty easy to track down…I assume. I’ve found staff pages for her at Staffordshire University and the University of West England, but not for the Digital Cultures Research Centre or the University of Surrey, the two places where the contributors page says she actually works. Maybe the last three years she’s taken a swerve a bit?

As abbreviated as this post is (it’s not even long enough to justify a page break), that’s kind of it? There’s no philosophy to discuss, it’s just an uninspired history of D&D in popular media.

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.

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Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Expediency and Expendability

This essay is about why labeling necromancers as inherently evil aligned is dumb. To summarize, since True Resurrection works whether or not the target’s original body has been turned into an undead, animating an undead clearly does not affect the target’s soul at all (also, in D&D souls are definitely real, so we don’t need to worry about that argument at all). In most editions of the game, mindless undead like skeletons and zombies are completely unable to act without the command of a necromancer. They’re given an evil alignment, but this doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all because they take no actions whatsoever of their own volition.

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Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Who Is Raistlin Majere?

God, Kevin McCain is a fanboy for Raistlin. Fully the entire first page of this essay is spent squeeing about him like a fourteen year old girl over Sephiroth in 1999. McCain asks who Raistlin Majere is, which I assume is in reference to that one time Raistlin body-jacked rival archmage Fistandantilus and wound up with the memories of both, leaving it completely unclear whether or not Raistlin actually bodyjacked Fistandantilus or if he was obliterated by Fistandantilus and his half-cast bodyjacking spell just transmitted all his memories into Fistandantilus at that moment. In the immediate aftermath of that confrontation, Raistlindantilus even directly confronts the existential horror of having no idea who actually won the fight. He ultimately decides that he’s Raistlin, not Fistandantilus, but that’s a personal decision on his part, not necessarily an accurate perception of reality. There’s a reason why Raistlindantilus is a term that exists in the Dragonlance fandom.

McCain intends to explore the question of “who is Raistlin” as part of answering the more general philosophical question of “what makes you, you?” Considering you’re (hopefully) a significantly different person from who you were ten years ago, what makes you the same person? One possible answer to this question is that you aren’t the same person. McCain refuses to consider this with the following paragraph:

Now one might be tempted to say that there is an easy answer to this question: these Raistlins aren’t the same. It wasn’t one person who performed all of the feats that are attributed to Raistlin. This would give us an easy answer to our question, but it wouldn’t shed much light on what it is that makes you numerically identical to yourself when you were a child. Worse still, this answer would make it so that we shouldn’t consider Raistlin to be such a great character. According to this answer to the question, there is no single person who accomplished everything that is credited to Raistlin. But, this easy answer is false. There is only one Raistlin and he did accomplish all of these feats. Any acceptable answer to our question must respect this truth.

Drink that in for a bit. The philosophical idea that a child and their adult self are literally different people, that the continuity of being provided by memory is an illusion, is discarded because it would make Raistlin less badass. So when Raistlindantilus is sitting in that lab in Istar asking himself what really just happened and who he even is, Kevin McCain’s answer is “you’re definitely Raistlin, and I know you’re Raistlin because Raistlin is awesome and couldn’t ever lose.” I like to imagine Raistlindantilus would’ve disintegrated McCain for interrupting his personal crisis with such a stupid answer. I’m going to point out here that Kevin McCain is an associate professor of philosophy for the University of Alabama. There is no God.

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Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Menzoberranzan: A Perfect Unjust State

I usually omit the essay sub-titles to prevent colon cancer in the blog post titles, but in this case the title Menzoberranzan doesn’t do a very good job of introducing the concept on its own. Uncharacteristically, the contributors section of the book is actually helpful, though only because essay author Matt Hummel is really hard to Google even after the book told me he’s a lawyer, let alone going from the name alone. Hummel gets himself off to a bad start with his first line:

We can all probably agree that Menzoberranzan is very near the bottom on the list of must-visit fantasy realms (worse than Mordor and the ninth circle of hell combined!).

I would rather visit Menzoberranzan than Mordor or Nessus. All three of them are viciously evil slave states in which I can be immediately identified as not part of the ruling class by virtue of my race and/or non-evil aura, but at least Menzoberranzan is a city-state and not an entire kingdom or multi-planar empire. At least the ultimate evil at the heart of Menzoberranzan is “only” like a 17th-level Cleric of Lolth or something, and not Asmodeus or motherfucking Sauron.

I’m nitpicking, though. Let’s look at the actual important content of this essay.

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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.

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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.

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Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Player-Character Is What You Are In The Dark

The sub-title on this one is The Phenomenology of Immersion in Dungeons and Dragons, and this is not the last time essay author William J White is going to use the word “Phenomenology.” He really likes that word. White is an associate professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State with the most lackluster faculty page I’ve seen yet. Being a professor of communication makes me way harsher on his delivery here, because he isn’t easy reading. He’s not entirely lackluster, but Save vs Death is still the easiest essay to read sentence-to-sentence. That one was written by Harvard professor of philosophy Christopher Robichaud. Harvard is a pretty posh university and all, but he’s a professor of philosophy, so I’d still expect the prize for best writing to go to the professor of communications. No dice, though.

William White is saying interesting things for the entire duration of his essay, even if his execution is sometimes lackluster. No paragraphs dedicated entirely to establishing philosophical street cred. No sudden segues into almost completely unrelated subjects which are dropped about as soon as the setup has finished and before really examining the questions posed (the sudden segues do happen, but at least they wrap themselves up before returning to the main point). There are a few paragraphs in one section that are kind of baffling for their inclusion, but outside of that the closest we get to wasted space is the setup going on a bit long, but since the very idea of phenomenology is unknown to most people and it actually is the fulcrum on which this essay turns, so it isn’t really wasted at all even if it would’ve benefited from a more compelling explanation.

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