Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Metaphysics of D&D


"The wearer of the amulet is filled Chaotic Evil, which is how I grew up so…"
    - Hunson Abedeer, Adventure Time!

In L. Sprague de Camp's 1942 novella The Undesired Princess the protagonist is transported to a world that follows Aristotlean logic, where everything is either one color or another with no mixing and shapes, besides the animals are all simple: The princess has hair that is primary color red; tree leaves are regular polgons of blue or yellow.

D&D as written often describes a world just as foreign as that. Even ignoring things that you could argue are merely abstractions for the sake of the game (like movement), you still have things like alignment (and in some editions alignment language), leveling, people with classes vs. nonclassed NPCs, clerical healing and the like.

I've read things in the past that posited a world where D&Disms got rationalized a bit (I've maybe written one), but discussion yesterday with a reference to the perennial "baby orc" argument made we think it would be interesting to throw rationalization somewhat out the window and play in a setting where the world just sort of runs on D&D (meta)physics.

We're talking about a world where some people star to develop superhuman resistance to injury and various abilities--and these keep increasing so long as they acquire treasure from underground hordes. Where there's some some of metaphysical orientation to the universe that leads people to automatically acquire a language recognized by every member of the club when they join up. A world where sentients with lifetimes much longer that humans just can never learn to be better than humans in arms or magic. Stuff like that.

"But no!" You'll protest. "That would be really silly!" 

Sure, but isn't that often the case with D&D?

See?

And this would actually elevate the silliness by making it a thought experiment.

All kidding aside, it perhaps wouldn't be the stuff of a long campaign, but I don't think the implications of that sort of thing would be interesting to think about.

5 comments:

richard said...

This is pretty much the only way I can approach D&D - as a world with very idiosyncratic, non-naturalistic parameters, somewhere between improv acting and chess.

Every set of game rules is a theory about the in-game universe (and implicitly a theory, however distorted, about the “natural” universe). For me, the more interesting question is anthropological: which rules are accepted as “natural” (modeling some aspect of the world as we players know it outside the game) and which are “ridiculous?” And how do players come to shared understandings of eg sword vs dagger injuries, such that swords are assumed to be more damaging? (how do they agree on what damage is?)

richard said...

This is pretty much the only way I can approach D&D - as a world with very idiosyncratic, non-naturalistic parameters, somewhere between improv acting and chess.

Every set of game rules is a theory about the in-game universe (and implicitly a theory, however distorted, about the “natural” universe). For me, the more interesting question is anthropological: which rules are accepted as “natural” (modeling some aspect of the world as we players know it outside the game) and which are “ridiculous?” And how do players come to shared understandings of eg sword vs dagger injuries, such that swords are assumed to be more damaging? (how do they agree on what damage is?)

Trey said...

I'm less interested in those questions, I admit because that is definitively in the realm of talking about games rather than playing games. I'm more interested (at least in this arena) in talking about fictional worlds.

bombasticus said...

Epochal! Reminds me of one of the many key bats in "Mimsy Were The Borogroves" . . .

"The lowest common denominator," Holloway nodded. "The natural tendency is to simplify. Especially when a child is seeing something for the first time and has few standards of comparison. He tries to identify the new thing with what's already familiar to him. Ever notice how a child draws the ocean?" He didn't wait for an answer; he went on.

"A series of jagged points. Like the oscillating line on a seismograph. When I first saw the Pacific, I was about three. I remember it pretty clearly. It looked tilted. A flat plain, slanted at an angle. The waves were regular triangles, apex upward. Now I don't see them stylized that way, but later, remembering, I had to find some familiar standard of comparison. Which is the only way of getting any conception of an entirely new thing. The average child tries to draw these regular triangles, but his coordination's poor. He gets a seismograph pattern. . . . A child sees the ocean. He stylizes it. He draws a certain definite pattern, symbolic, to him, of the sea. Emma's scrawls may be symbols, too. I don't mean that the world looks different to her brighter, perhaps, and sharper, more vivid with a slackening of perception above her eye level. What I do mean is that her though-processes are different, that she translates what she sees into abnormal symbols."

bombasticus said...

Epochal. Big thoughts but the best approach might be one of the many great beats in "Mimsy Were The Borogroves" . . .

"The lowest common denominator," Holloway nodded. "The natural tendency is to simplify. Especially when a child is seeing something for the first time and has few standards of comparison. He tries to identify the new thing with what's already familiar to him. Ever notice how a child draws the ocean?" He didn't wait for an answer; he went on.

"A series of jagged points. Like the oscillating line on a seismograph. When I first saw the Pacific, I was about three. I remember it pretty clearly. It looked tilted. A flat plain, slanted at an angle. The waves were regular triangles, apex upward. Now I don't see them stylized that way, but later, remembering, I had to find some familiar standard of comparison. Which is the only way of getting any conception of an entirely new thing. The average child tries to draw these regular triangles, but his coordination's poor. He gets a seismograph pattern . . . A child sees the ocean. He stylizes it. He draws a certain definite pattern, symbolic, to him, of the sea. Emma's scrawls may be symbols, too. I don't mean that the world looks different to her brighter, perhaps, and sharper, more vivid with a slackening of perception above her eye level. What I do mean is that her though-processes are different, that she translates what she sees into abnormal symbols."