Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy Review

This is a book from a series of books called Popular Culture and Philosophy. Although many of those books are based on very good properties, mostly they feel like novelties and are not very compelling to me with the exception of Monty Python and Philosophy, which I haven’t read, and this one. Shouldn’t have felt that compelled, but anyhow.

The subtitle of the book is “Raiding the Temple of Wisdom”. Apparently, there wasn’t much to loot there.

Ok, that’s being overly negative. It isn’t that bad, but it isn’t that good either. I do have a minor in Philosophy and I’ve read plenty of books on philosophy, mostly popularized, but also including some for my doctorate (which has been in a void for many years now), so it would have needed to be a little more advanced for my tastes. However, for the purposes if this review, I need to try to be objective.

The book’s structure is based on a sort of dialogue (not really, since there is no back and forth). Each chapter is written by a different person, but builds on what has been said before, sometimes disagreeing, sometimes going deeper into the subject. The book is also divided into Tiers, first of which is about ethics, the second is about what we can learn from the differences between our world and the fantasy worlds, and the third tier is about games and how D&D relates to other games.

The first tier felt forced. Sure the people knew what they were talking about when they talked about ethics, but mostly this part didn’t feel like the writers were able to bring real insight into the discussion. The only part I found interesting was near the end of this tier. It was written by a woman about how she felt about the sexism in the game and how it might affect the players. This reminded me of my earlier days as an RPGer, when my group at the time tried to drag me into a discussion about whether the size of the breasts of the female characters should be based on constitution or charisma, and one of my GMs tried to convince me to play a certain premade character with the argument that even if the character was a fighter with a low strength, that was ok, since women don’t need strength. Although I’d like to think we’re enlightened, I just might have a blind spot here and not really understand the situation. I’ve heard tales of sexism from members of the guild and the even the fact that women in the guild are very few and far between might tell us something.

I also liked how some parts of this tier tried to form their own philosophy within the game world, based on what goes on in there, rather than trying to force real world ethics into a fictional setting (like I did). After all, these two are not the same and understanding and being able to analyze the differences can be very educational.

The second tier… I don’t really know. Nothing much stuck with me. There was some talk of how teleportation works and some comparisons on Legolas. Apparently nothing of real interest as I only have very vague recollections despite reading this part very recently.

Third tier began with a seemingly interesting subject of whether D&D is actually a game. The two authors of this chapter go on to quote Wittgenstein and bring up many problems with even defining a game. Well, how about this: You go out and actually find a definition of a game instead of just prattling off that its hard to define. Sure. Its hard. Its hard to climb Mt. Everest, but people have done it. There are pretty good definitions, they apparently just didn’t bother to look them up.

Similar stuff came up later. There was a chapter about how both players and the GM should act when one of the players is in a position to invent gunpowder. That was obviously only an example, but I couldn’t just get myself into that since there’s an obvious answer, if anyone would bother to actually research this stuff. The author’s answer was that the GM should have rolled the dice and fudged the roll. This is just stupid on so many levels, I felt I was being trolled here. The author actually faults the GM for not fudging the roll and calls it the result of youth and inexperience.

(The real answer would have been to let the character come up with gunpowder, but make it as ineffective and volatile as gunpowder would have been in a situation where someone just invents it in the field. On top of that, muskets weren’t actually more effective than bows, they were just easier to learn to use effectively, so you could just draft a bunch of people, use a couple of hours to teach them to use the thing and you were set, whereas learning to use the longbow effectively was a result of years of practice. So, give the guy his shotgun, have it deal d6 damage, be very slow to reload and have him make some roll to see whether the stuff just blows in his face pretty regularly. Of course, the GM had to make a call then and there, and part of this is something he probably didn’t know, but part of it he should have.)

There’s also a chapter with actual possible practical applications. It discusses the different ways GMs approach their games depending on how much power they hold for themselves. The practical application would be to let players know beforehand whether you are going to be a “Guide” or a “Host” or a “Puppermaster”. Better communications like this is always good.

All in all, I was not impressed. I often thought people weren’t putting as much thought into what they were writing about or were not equipped with enough knowledge to be a part of this project. On the other hand, they aren’t philosophers (mostly), so you can’t expect too much. That expectation should have been taken into account in an earlier stage.

So, since I generally write reviews of stuff I feel strongly about, why did I write about this one, if I didn’t feel that strongly one way or another? Besides me liking us having reviews of very ecclectic mix of stuff for a better word for it, if I can, I would like to promote this book. Not because its really good, but because if someone becomes interested in philosophy because they have this book, which is easily accessible to him or her, that’s a win. The fact that I couldn’t get that much out of this book doesn’t mean no one else can.

All in all, its a pretty light read, even if some of the authors try to maintain an approach akin to more scientific publications.

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