Existentialism and D&D

       In the 1980’s the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons was at the then height of its popularity, and since then has maintained a significant place pop culture. The game itself is notable in its own right, but what brought national attention to the game was a controversy in the United States over the supposed Satanic content in the game.

      The game, which models epic fantasy like Lord of The Rings and classic fairy tales, often pits the players against evil creatures such as goblins, orcs, dragons, and yes demons and evil spirits. The players form a band of heroes not unlike the Tolkien’s fellowship and do battle with these evil forces in search of treasure and fame, saving innocents in the process.

      In spite of the obvious good vs. evil dynamic, Christian groups files suit against the game and placed a serious cultural taboo on anyone who let their children play. Part of the adult content was responsible for this reaction, but the game has also always been primarily a place for social outsiders which inevitably associated D&d and games like it with other “undesirable” subcultures.

      I have been playing the game since I was in my early teens, and I thought it might be prudent to explain why I believe the game and role playing in general can be a very healthy and even deeply philosophical experience. D&d is different from many other games in that the rules are fairly loose. Many groups simply ignore or “homebrew” rules to modify the game into whatever they want it to be.

      The most prominent feature of the game is that it is not competitive. There are dice and numbers to keep track of, but they are only there to manage randomness and give you an idea of what the characters are capable of doing. The game isn’t competitive because you are all on the same side. What D&d really is storytelling, but unlike a novelist or a director, the story is told by a group of people all acting out their parts. There are enemies and villains, but they are played by the dungeon master, who is not really playing to win so much as they are providing the setting for the story to occur.

      So why does this matter to Eastern students? Well, something derivative of those other qualities I mentioned is that the only real “goal” in the game is the one you set for yourself. At the onset of an action scene, you might attempt to talk things out. In court of intrigue, you might find that an axe speaks louder than words. Ultimately you might find yourself burdened with great destiny only to reject it entirely and get on a ship sailing for another continent. No matter how complicated a video game or a movie is, it can only show so much.

      In role playing games the only limit is your imagination. The great joy in these games is their ability to stir our dormant childlike imagination and allow us to play just for the sake of itself, with no trophy or high score in sight. Reflecting on how this game has brought me joy reminds me that often the purpose of living is just to live.

      Today, dungeons and dragons is actually the most popular it has ever been. People of every social group can find something in it, and more and more adults are unashamedly enjoying the escape now and then. Escapism is actually good for us as long as we remember it is not an end in itself. Escapism, done right, reminds us of the joy of living, and helps us see our lives in the way we view the small miniature on the table. You can be whatever you want to be, and you don’t need a character sheet for that.

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