A Philosopher's Blog

Review of Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Posted in Book Review, Pathfinder, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 13, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Christopher Robichaud (Editor) $17.95 August, 2014

As a professional philosopher, I am often wary of “pop philosophy”, mainly because it is rather like soda pop: it is intended for light consumption. But, like soda, some of it is quite good and some of it is just sugary junk that will do little but rot your teeth (or mind). As a professional author in the gaming field, I am generally wary of attempts by philosophers to write philosophically about a game. While a philosopher might be adept at philosophy and might even know how to read a d4, works trying to jam gaming elements into philosophy (or vice versa) are often like trying to jam an ogre into full plate made for a Halfling: it will not be a good fit and no one is going to be happy with the results.

Melding philosophy and gaming also has a rather high challenge rating, mainly because it is difficult to make philosophy interesting and comprehensible to folks outside of philosophy, such as gamers who are not philosophers. After all, gamers usually read books that are game books: sourcebooks adding new monsters and classes, adventures (or modules as they used to be called), and rulebooks. There is also a comparable challenge in making the gaming aspects comprehensible and interesting to those who are not gamers. As such, this book faces some serious obstacles. So, I shall turn now to how the book fares in its quest to get your money and your eyeballs.

Fortunately for the authors of this anthology of fifteen essays, many philosophers are quite familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and gamers are often interested in philosophical issues. So, there is a ready-made audience for the book. There are, however, many more people who are interested in philosophy but not gaming and vice versa. So, I will discuss the appeal of the book to these three groups.

If you are primarily interested in philosophy and not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, this book will probably not appeal to you—while the essays do not assume a complete mastery of the game, many assume considerable familiarity with the game. For example, the ethics of using summoned animals in combat is not an issue that non-gamers worry about or probably even understand. That said, the authors do address numerous standard philosophical issues, such as free will, and generally provide enough context so that a non-gamer will get what is going on.

If you are primarily a gamer and not interested in philosophy, this book will probably not be very appealing—it is not a gaming book and does not provide any new monsters, classes, or even background material. That said, it does include the sort of game discussions that gamers might not recognize as philosophical, such as handling alignments. So, even if you are not big on philosophy, you might find the discussions interesting and familiar.

For those interested in both philosophy and gaming, the book has considerable appeal. The essays are clear, competent and well-written on the sort of subjects that gamers and philosophers often address, such as what actions are evil. The essays are not written at the level of journal articles, which is a good thing: academic journals tend to be punishing reading. As such, people who are not professional philosophers will find the philosophy approachable. Those who are professional philosophers might find it less appealing because there is nothing really groundbreaking here, although the essays are interesting.

The subject matter of the book is fairly diverse within the general context. The lead essay, by Greg Littmann, considers the issue of free will within the context of the game. Another essay, by Matthew Jones and Ashley Brown, looks at the ethics of necromancy. While (hopefully) not relevant to the real world, it does raise an issue that gamers have often discussed, especially when the cleric wants to have an army of skeletons but does not want to have the paladin smite him in the face. There is even an essay on gender in the game, ably written by Shannon M. Musset.

Overall, the essays do provide an interesting philosophical read that will be of interest to gamers, be they serious or casual. Those who are not interested in either will probably not find the book worth buying with their hard earned coppers.

For those doing gift shopping for a friend or relative who is interested in philosophy and gaming, this would be a reasonable choice for a present. Especially if accompanied by a bag of dice. As a great philosopher once said, “there is no such thing as too many dice.”

 

As a disclaimer, I received a free review copy from the publisher. I do not know any of the authors or the editor and was not asked to contribute to the book.

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Running with the Pack Review

Posted in Book Review, Ethics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on November 13, 2013

Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality

Mark Rowlands (Author) $25.95 November 2013

Like Mark Rowlands, I am a runner, a known associate of canines, and a philosopher in Florida. This probably makes me either well qualified as a reviewer or hopelessly biased.

While the book centers on the intrinsic value of running, it also addresses the broader topics of moral value and the meaning of life. While Rowlands references current theories of evolutionary biology, he is engaging in philosophy of the oldest school—the profound and difficult struggle to grasp the Good.

Decisively avoiding the punishing style that often infects contemporary philosophy, Rowlands’ well-crafted tale invites the reader into his thoughts and reflections. While Rowlands runs with canines rather than his fellow “big arsed apes” his writing has the pleasant feel of the well-told running story. While the tale covers a span of decades, it is nicely tied together by his account of his first marathon.

Since the book is about running and philosophy, there is the question of whether or not the book is too philosophical for runners and too “runsophical” for philosophers. Fortunately, Rowlands clearly presents the philosophical aspects of the work in a way that steers nicely between the rocks of being too technical for non-philosophers and being too simplistic for philosophers. As such, non-philosophers and philosophers should find the philosophical aspects both comprehensible and interesting.

In regards to the running part, Rowlands takes a similar approach: those who know little of running are provided with the needed context while Rowlands’s skill ensures that he still captures the attention of veteran runners. This approach ensures that those poor souls who are unfamiliar with both running and philosophy will still find the book approachable and comprehensible.

While the narrative centers on running, the book is a run across the fields of value and the hills of meaning. In addition to these broad themes, Rowlands presents what seems to be the inevitable non-American’s critique of American values. However, Rowlands’s critique of American values (especially our specific brand of instrumentalism) is a friend’s critique: someone who really likes us, but is worried about some of our values and choices. Lest anyone think that Rowlands is solely critiquing America, his general concern is with the contemporary view of value as being purely instrumental. Against this view he endeavors to argue for intrinsic value. Not surprisingly, he claims that running has intrinsic value in addition to its obvious instrumental value. While this claim generally seems self-evident to runners, in the context of philosophy it must be proven and Rowlands sets out to do just that.

Interestingly, he begins with a little known paper by Moritz Schlick in which he contends that play has intrinsic value. He then moves to Bernard Suits’s account of what it is to be game and notes that running is a form of play; that is, it involves picking an inefficient means of achieving a goal for the sake of engaging in the activity.  Running is not a efficient way of getting around in an age of cars, but runners often run for the sake of running-thus running can be a game.

As Rowlands tells the reader, his approach is not strictly linear and he takes interesting, but relevant, side trips into such matters as the nature of the self and of love. These side trips are rather like going off the main trail in a run—but, of course, one is really still on the run.

Near the end of this run, Rowlands goes back to the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. He notes that the gods, such as Zeus, showed us that play is an essential part of what is best. The philosophers showed us that the most important thing is to love the good. The athletes taught us that running is play and therefore has intrinsic value.

He ends his run with a discussion of joy, which is the recognition of things with intrinsic value. As he says, dogs and children understand joy but when we become adults we lose our understanding—but this need not be a permanent loss.

While Rowlands’s case is well reasoned, he does face the serious challenge of establishing intrinsic value within the context of what I call the MEM (mechanistic, evolutionary, and materialist) world. Many ancient (and later) philosophers unashamedly helped themselves to teleological and metaphysical foundations for the Good. While this generated problems, this approach could seemingly ground intrinsic value. While I agree with Rowlands’s conclusion, I am in less agreement with his attempt to establish intrinsic value in his chosen world view. But, it is a good run and I respect that.

Like a long run, Rowlands’ book covers a great deal of ground. Also like a long run, it is well worth finishing.  Plus there are dogs (the most philosophical of animals).

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A Review of Travels in Elysium

Posted in Book Review, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2013

Travels in Elysium
William Azuski
539 pages
2013
Iridescent
$18.90

While it is tempting to embrace subjectivism when it comes to matters of art, experience has shown me that what I feel about a work merely reveals what I feel. When I was more foolish, I took this feeling to reveal the quality of a work. However, I have found that works that I rather like can actually be of rather poor or dubious aesthetic value while I can also recognize the aesthetic merit of works I dislike. I make these points because honesty compels me to say that I did not like or enjoy Travels in Elysium, which is billed as “a metaphysical mystery set on the Aegean island of Santorini.” The work did remind me a bit of the most famous “metaphysical” mystery books, namely Dan Brown’s works—which I also do not like or enjoy. I do freely admit that the failing might lie within in me rather than within the pages of this book. I will, however, endeavor to present a just assessment of the work.

The protagonist of the tale is 22-year-old Nicholas Pedrosa who is drawn into the drawn out story by Marcus James Huxley, an archaeologist (or something like that). Huxley has found 5,000 year old writings on Santorini and Pedrosa is hired to be part of his expedition to uncover the ancient mystery of what happened to the people when their city was buried by a volcano. Unlike in Pompeii, there are no signs of the inhabitants.  Pedrosa also walks into another mystery: Huxley’s previous “young assistant” has died.

Azuski endeavors to work in some philosophy, namely Plato’s (rather brief and not very philosophical) tale of Atlantis. Being a professional philosopher, I am generally interested when a work of fiction makes effective use of some aspect of philosophy. However, the tale of Atlantis is more a work of Platonic fiction than Platonic philosophy. The mere fact that something is written by a person who is a philosopher, even in the context of a philosophical dialogue, need not make the content philosophical. However, people tend to take a broad view of philosophy—most especially when it comes to the much distorted field of metaphysics. As such, this could be regarded as a metaphysical mystery with philosophical elements—at least in some sense of these terms.

In the course of the story, the narrative shifts around in time—jumping from the present setting to the distant past and back again. While I do enjoy a well done time shift in a narrative, the shifts in this novel are abrupt and rough in a way that seems to disjoint (rather than enhance) the narrative. I will note that some readers might be more adept than I in such matters, so perhaps this is a failing on my part as well.

Some critics have already pointed out that Azuski’s tale suffers from technical defects, namely in regards to his descriptions of how archaeology is conducted and how active and erupting volcanoes work. While such errors can be regarded as a defect in a work, I tend to go with Aristotle in this matter. That is, such errors are faults, but they are not defects in regards to the artistic aspects of the work. To paraphrase Aristotle, to badly present the facts of archaeology would be a factual error, but to present a story of archaeology poorly would be an artistic error. There is also the fact that, as readers will find, perhaps the seeming errors are not errors because of the final “twist ending” of the story. But, as just noted, from the standpoint of assessing the work as a work of art (and not a report on archaeology or volcanoes) what matters is the aesthetic qualities.

Some works are so well-written that reading them is like sledding down that perfect snow covered hill: the mind goes smoothly and pleasantly over the words. While such works can contain matters that must be wrestled with, the writing aids one in this struggle rather than impeding it. When I started reading the work, it reminded me of the times when my sled ran out of snow and hit patches of dirt or gravel—slow and painful going. Since I was asked to review the work, I pressed on. The sledding improved a bit, but it was rather like sledding in a storm—I found the work confusing (and not in the good way that a mystery should be initially confusing). Again, this could be a failing on my part—I am not, as a rule, much of a mystery fan. However, I will say that the author seems to overuse the red herring device and does not use it to good effect (that is, to advance the plot and enhance the mystery). It felt as if the author had written multiple stories and, not wanting them to go to waste, simply copied and pasted them into the text of the novel to serve as red herrings.

After 538 pages, the novel ends on page 539. To avoid spoiling to book, I will not reveal the “surprise” ending. However, I did find the ending disappointing and unsatisfying. I had hoped to at least be rewarded with an original and interesting ending after slogging through so much text, but this was not the case.

This novel had, I believe, considerable potential. However, it would have benefited greatly from some considerable pruning, editing and rewriting. While I did not enjoy the book, those who like Dan Brown might find this metaphysical mystery appealing.  Kirkus has a very positive review of this book and I recommend that readers of this review read that to get an alternative view of the text.

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