A word about D&D and reality from Andri Erlingsson

So I thought everyone would be a bit smarter after seeing this. I did not write it, Andri Erlingsson did. You know, the person who did the excellent Mounted Combat for Dungeon World that you totally should buy.

Originally posted here.

Ever since my very first game of AD&D back around Christmas of 1997, I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend of people basing real life beliefs on a game. And it’s not a good thing.

The simplest face of it is something we all know; people trying to map actions onto alignments in real life. I’ve never liked doing that, but for some people it reached the levels of lifestyle. There are people who treat D&D alignments seriously, as an actually plausible and valid ethical guideline for use in real life. (The most mainstream example of this I can think of is the book “Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy”, where some of the authors do a staggeringly uncritical examination in this vein.) Stranger still, this is something people have always done, and one of the most infamous hallmarks of games made as a reaction to D&D have been “alternate alignment” systems designed to be “more realistic”.

This presupposes that Alignments are attempts to be realistic to begin with, and considering that it’s a gameplay construct designed to justify killing babies (seriously, that’s partly what it’s for, to make killing monster babies the morally correct choice – Gygax would say so repeatedly in Dragon magazine) that’s a frightening prospect. So people who map real life actions and ethics to D&D alignments and aren’t joking about it as much as you’d think are already toeing a precarious line.

But the trend goes deeper. There are AAA-level video game developers and team members today whose concept of historical accuracy in their own projects, current or wish-listed, is informed near solely by D&D (I am not naming names but I have met a select few and played games). They presume that D&D is actually historically accurate and base their knowledge of medieval existence solely on its conceits and some half-remembered lies from school textbooks. And they are not alone; there are dozens of people, possibly even hundreds, who believe the same thing, all the way down to us indie authors and freelancers. They then sit down and make their own things be like D&D, replicating its many incongruities and errors (“Studded” leather is not a thing, people) which in turn reinforces the belief in the accuracy of the source material.

I have had to, in full seriousness, sit down and explain to people that D&D is not history, not a guide to real world ethics, and not a source you can quote in your university level history paper. Yes, I’ve had that last one happen. Multiple times. And that’s not even touching on the cases of people describing themselves in terms of alignments to me and intending to take fairly drastic decisions based on this. A recent anti-muslim “conversation” which arose from controversy during local Icelandic elections led me to a guy who was convinced he was a Paladin of God and had to kill every “invading” Muslim in the country, including their children.

Because you see, Alignment justifies that sort of thing. Logical, right?

In the introduction to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax says his game is for a more intelligent sort of player. I joked about this in an earlier post, but this is a serious matter: Many, many players who play D&D take this to be prescriptive, and claim intelligence for playing D&D. And when life doesn’t work their way, when the facts don’t agree with them, when school proves hard, D&D is the refuge they turn to, the thing they understand, the thing that told them “you are smart for playing me”.

They are not stupid people. They’re just caught in a trap of not being able to critically examine their intelligence, of believing the safer path of assuming they are intelligent and that all their decisions are too as a result because something said so. D&D is not alone in this; people retreat and escape into any number of things, and escapism is perfectly normal and healthy. But whether it’s football or NASCAR or extreme sports or D&D, immersing yourself totally isn’t healthy. And unlike most hobbies, D&D provides the illusion of having the answers, of being realistic enough to be a guide to life after life fails you.

It’s not hard to see where the old moral panic came from. But more on that in a second.

Going back to those game developers from earlier, none of them were quite that far gone. They had a lesser problem: they were simply lazy. Intellectually lazy. Or, in more entertaining words, lazy in the head. They took the easiest answer they had and went with that; the constructed fantasy that appeals and caters to them instead of the realities of true history. But they also had the other problem the hobby has of feeling persecuted whenever someone pointed any of this out. D&D as a hobby has a fascination with being an outlier, a rebel, some form of non-conforming entity on the edge, not accepted by the mainstream. Those old moral panics are used, even decades after anyone in the real world stopped caring, as proof of how edgy D&D is.

Let me tell you the most unpopular opinion you’ll read about D&D today, and probably for the rest of the week.

D&D is not edgy. It hasn’t ever really been edgy, even during the whole satanic ritual abuse panic of which D&D was a tiny subset pursued largely by one woman and a lot of bored journalists with printers to feed, at most expressed in parents banning some kids from doing something that was – tellingly enough – popular. It appeals primarily to an audience of white suburban men, just about the most safe and catered-to demographic there is to belong to on a social level, and reinforces and encourages largely conservative and occasionally regressive morally dualistic opinions.

D&D is so mainstream, so in the world’s consciousness and the American national consciousness, so popular and well-known that it’sabsolutely insane that people still claim it’s somehow this thing no one has ever heard of. And the hobby’s reaction to this has been to split itself into factions and claim each one is “oppressed” or that there are some moral watchdogs out there out to destroy their games even today. It’s been around thirty years. Many of you are younger than that panic. Get fucking over it.

But back to the point.

People get really, incredibly defensive about all of this. They tie so much of their identity up in this game it beggars belief, and so any critique of a game becomes a critique of their personal sense of self, and the whole “edgy” image serves to reinforce that identity and legitimize it despite having no legs to stand on. The critique hurts them. And to that I say “good, because your sense of self shouldn’t be defined by a brand of game”.  People may not fit into the absolutely insane level of describing themselves as Paladins, but they do tie up a lot of themselves to ol’ D&D. But the simple, inescapable fact is that D&D does not have all the answers. It’s escapism. It’s un-real. Let it be what it is. And, most of all, stop being so damn lazy about it.

If you like D&D and want to make things like D&D, do it. People have been doing it for decades and show no sign of stopping. But if you care about history, read history. If you care about morality, read up on ethics, moral philosophy and religion. If you care about religion, stop thinking in terms of St. Cuthbert who brings you enlightenment by hitting you in the head with his mace. If you want to read up on a pantheon of deities, don’t open Deities and Demigods. If you want impressive displays of physical skill and team coordination, watch some sports instead of trying to stat up Olympic athletes in terms of D&D stats. If you care about realism, look at real life. And if you care about D&D, do yourself the biggest favor you’ve done in your life and critically examine what you like about D&D, openly examine what faults it has and what it does right, the ups and downs you’ve had in play, the plain stupid shit some people have put out next to some of the brilliant nuggets that have stuck with you, and finally examine how much of what you remember D&D being good for was actually you all along.

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