D&D & philosophy: a call for papers

Confession: I was a philosophy major in college. I was drawn to it since high school, and it had pretty much nothing to do with D&D. Maybe my reading skills and vocabulary benefited from reading Gygax.

So I know how little most people think of and care about philosophy. I got the weird looks when people asked the inevitable question they ask college students. I taught philosophy to the ignorant savages known as college students for several years. I think it is terribly interesting but if you aren’t interested in logic or metaphysics that is fine and I don’t feel the need (anymore) to evangelize for Mill or Marx or Nietzsche.

However, there are and will always be those who want to entice others to get interested in philosophy. They have great intentions most of the time and I can agree that a more reflective populace would be nice. So it was with mixed feelings that I watched a brief vogue in Descartes after the first Matrix movie, and interest in Nietzsche after the Fight Club movie, etc. Certain publishers even sought to capitalize on the public’s interest in how popular culture might help explain those weirdos who, they imagine, argue about the rights of plants and the existence of unicorns and whether we know that we know that we know what we had for lunch. They have published a few books that even sort of make sense from a certain point of view:

Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy. Monty Python and Philosophy. Woody Allen and Philosophy. And so on. These are actually pop culture icons who discuss or at least satirize philosophy. But the publishers push it.

A colleague who also happens to contribute to Cleveland SGS over on the sidebar, my token non-dorkery link, sent along a call for papers for a new title, which read in part:

Subject: CFA: Coffee and Philosophy

Coffee & Philosophy: Call for Abstracts 

Abstracts are sought for a new title in the Wiley-Blackwell series Philosophy for Everyone, under the general editorship of Fritz Allhoff. Coffee & Philosophy will integrate the insights of philosophers, interdisciplinary academics such as sociologists and psychologists, and coffee insiders. The abstracts and resulting selected papers should be written for an educated, but non-specialized, audience of coffee enthusiasts. To learn more about the overall concept, see the already-released titles in the series, such as Wine & Philosophy, Food & Philosophy, Beer & Philosophy, or Running & Philosophy. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

The First Cup: Epistemology & Metaphysics
Plato’s Perfect Cup: The Forms and the Essence of Coffee
Existentialism and Coffee
Coffee and the Meaning of Life
Religion and Coffee: The Bean and Ultimate Being

<snip. there were about 20 suggestions>

To add injury to insult, I just saw a copy of this at work (I work at a library):

We can’t let this philosophy gap continue in the table-top vs. computer gaming war.

I immediately thought of this blog post about the deeper themes in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and R.E. Howard, and how so many readers just enjoy the “fantastic” elements and action and other “surface” themes but miss the deep sense of tragedy & loss in Tolkien and the cosmic horror of man’s insignificance in Howard & Lovecraft. In as much as Lovecraft, Howard & Tolkien are among the most widely known fantasy writers generally and three of the biggest influences on the Dungeons & Dragons game specifically (for players, if not Gygax, let’s not go there!), may I humbly present a call for papers on Philosophy & D&D. Suggested topics include: 



  • Nietzsche as Dungeon Master: expressions of the will to power in the writings of Gary Gygax
  • Deities and Demigods revisited: what’s with all the different pantheons in the core rules of 1st edition AD&D? How can Zeus and Thor BOTH be the gods of thunder?


  • Alignment from a Utilitarian (or Kantian, etc.) perspective
  • Ends & means and Paladinhood: Would a paladin suffer an alignment change if he went back in time to kill Hitler before the burning of the Reichstag?


OK, this is way more work than a joke should take, and not all that funny, but why was World of Warcraft chosen over D&D for the “Popular culture and philosophy” series? Has D&D really fallen completely off the radar of popular culture? Or is it just that non-players can’t tell difference? (I’m looking at you, WotC!)
Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 11:12 am  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am hard-pressed to think of any good D&D blogger who doesn’t like tackling philosophical questions. To me, once you’re past the Crazy, Perhaps-Excessive World-Building Threshold (pretty early in the stages of development from fetus to blogging DM) you start tackling issues of representation, ethics, systems of government, fantasy v. activism, it just goes on and on…

  2. I’m late to this party, I just followed a link back here from a visit to my own blog statcounter provided.

    I also have a hard time keeping up with the proliferation of OSR blogs.

    I keep a tag for gaming philosophy posts on my blog, but they’re more directly about attitudes towards play directly, I think.

    You might like this one though, http://oldguardgamingaccoutrements.blogspot.com/2009/05/incompleteness-is-strength-of-old.html

    • Yes, interesting, thanks for that! Also appreciated the heads up that “WTF D&D” at Something Awful tackled 0e. Very funny.

      Now my understanding is that these Philosophy & Pop Culture series (another publisher has something similar to the books I gawked at in the post) are supposed to use pop cultural references to explain philosophy. So while I appreciate what you & Zak are saying about games and game-mastering evoking certain philosophical musings, what we need for the book is some hardcore philosophy explained in game terms. 🙂

      When I was an undergrad I took a class on the philosophy of art and one of the books we read was by Suzanne K. Langer, and I think it was called “Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art.” She presented a theory which is kind of foggy to me now (it has been 15+ years!) but it had to do with how each different medium creates a virtual …something. Architecture created virtual space, I think, and music created virtual time? Stuff like that. For the term paper I wrote about painting D&D miniatures creating a virtual world, or a virtual reality, or something like that — a miniatures painter is giving a sort of life or reality to a tiny world. (Applying her theory to another medium not mentioned in the book.) Got an A! And it was not a bullshit paper at all, actually. Although if that was the thesis it seems like any art medium could make a similar claim, more especially literature. Hmm. I should dig that paper up. That was the only time I remember tying gaming in to philosophy though. And for all the snark in the post above, I did resort to using references to movies and things for a lot of my course work, so maybe the authors in those books are not entirely whores.

  3. Heh, very good. I’ve painted armies of D&D minis too, and I do find myself creating an immersive,stream of conciousness sort of backstory/natural history for the mini while I’m working on it. A lot ot its just impressions of feelings, or scenes that I never bother fleshing out on paper, but there is still that loss of the passage of time you get when you’ve forgotten all else except the one thing you are focused on.
    That sense of existing in the moment, with out any other concerns or worries eating up part of my attention is something I’m always trying to reclaim.

  4. I’m actually constructing a paper between Kant and Hume over Chaotic Good characters, and I believe, yes! The Paladin would have to change alignments!
    Chaotic good for the win! At least if you left it up to Kant.

    • That’s really interesting. I’d have thought the categorical imperative is Lawful. I’d love to read your paper when it is done.

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