A Philosopher's Blog

Lessons from Gaming #2: Random Universe

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2014
Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game)

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My experiences as a tabletop and video gamer have taught me numerous lessons that are applicable to the real world (assuming there is such a thing). One key skill in getting about in reality is the ability to model reality. Roughly put, this is the ability to get how things work and thus make reasonably accurate predictions. This ability is rather useful: getting how things work is a big step on the road to success.

Many games, such as Call of Cthulhu, D&D, Pathfinder and Star Fleet Battles make extensive use of dice to model the vagaries of reality. For example, if your Call of Cthulhu character were trying to avoid being spotted by the cultists of Hastur as she spies on them, you would need to roll under your Sneak skill on percentile dice. As another example, if your D-7 battle cruiser were firing phasers and disruptors at a Kzinti strike cruiser, you would roll dice and consult various charts to see what happened. Video games also include the digital equivalent of dice. For example, if you are playing World of Warcraft, the damage done by a spell or a weapon will be random.

Being a gamer, it is natural for me to look at reality as also being random—after all, if a random model (gaming system) nicely fits aspects of reality, then that suggests the model has things right. As such, I tend to think of this as being a random universe in which God (or whatever) plays dice with us.

Naturally, I do not know if the universe is random (contains elements of chance). After all, we tend to attribute chance to the unpredictable, but this unpredictability might be a matter of ignorance rather than chance. After all, the fact that we do not know what will happen does not entail that it is a matter of chance.

People also seem to believe in chance because they think things could have been differently: the die roll might have been a 1 rather than a 20 or I might have won the lottery rather than not. However, even if things could have been different it does not follow that chance is real. After all, chance is not the only thing that could make a difference. Also, there is the rather obvious question of proving that things could have been different. This would seem to be impossible: while it might be believed that conditions could be recreated perfectly, one factor that can never be duplicated – time. Recreating an event will be a recreation. If the die comes up 20 on the first roll and 1 on the second, this does not show that it could have been a 1 the first time. All its shows is that it was 20 the first time and 1 the second.

If someone had a TARDIS and could pop back in time to witness the roll again and if the time traveler saw a different outcome this time, then this might be evidence of chance. Or evidence that the time traveler changed the event.

Even traveling to a possible or parallel world would not be of help. If the TARDIS malfunctions and pops us into a world like our own right before the parallel me rolled the die and we see it come up 1 rather than 20, this just shows that he rolled a 1. It tells us nothing about whether my roll of 20 could have been a 1.

Of course, the flip side of the coin is that I can never know that the world is non-random: aside from some sort of special knowledge about the working of the universe, a random universe and a non-random universe would seem exactly the same. Whether my die roll is random or not, all I get is the result—I do not perceive either chance or determinism. However, I go with a random universe because, to be honest, I am a gamer.

If the universe is deterministic, then I am determined to do what I do. If the universe is random, then chance is a factor. However, a purely random universe would not permit actual decision-making: it would be determined by chance. In games, there is apparently the added element of choice—I chose for my character to try to attack the dragon, and then roll dice to determine the result. As such, I also add choice to my random universe.

Obviously, there is no way to prove that choice occurs—as with chance versus determinism, without simply knowing the brute fact about choice there is no way to know whether the universe allows for choice or not. I go with a choice universe for the following reason: If there is no choice, then I go with choice because I have no choice. So, I am determined (or chanced) to be wrong. I could not choose otherwise. If there is choice, then I am right. So, choosing choice seems the best choice. So, I believe in a random universe with choice—mainly because of gaming. So, what about the lessons from this?

One important lesson is that decisions are made in uncertainty: because of chance, the results of any choice cannot be known with certainty. In a game, I do not know if the sword strike will finish off the dragon. In life, I do not know if the investment will pay off. In general, this uncertainty can be reduced and this shows the importance of knowing the odds and the consequences: such knowledge is critical to making good decisions in a game and in life. So, know as much as you can for a better tomorrow.

Another important lesson is that things can always go wrong. Or well. In a game, there might be a 1 in 100 chance that a character will be spotted by the cultists, overpowered and sacrificed to Hastur. But it could happen. In life, there might be a 1 in a 100 chance of a doctor taking precautions catching Ebola from a patient. But it could happen. Because of this, the possibility of failure must always be considered and it is wise to take steps to minimize the chances of failure and to also minimize the consequences.

Keeping in mind the role of chance also helps a person be more understanding, sympathetic and forgiving. After all, if things can fail or go wrong because of chance, then it makes sense to be more forgiving and understanding of failure—at least when the failure can be attributed in part to chance. It also helps in regards to praising success: knowing that chance plays a role in success is also important. For example, there is often the assumption that success is entirely deserved because it must be the result of hard work, virtue and so on. However, if success involves chance to a significant degree, then that should be taken into account when passing out praise and making decisions. Naturally, the role of chance in success and failure should be considered when planning and creating policies. Unfortunately, people often take the view that both success and failure are mainly a matter of choice—so the rich must deserve their riches and the poor must deserve their poverty. However, an understanding of chance would help our understanding of success and failure and would, hopefully, influence the decisions we make. There is an old saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” One could also say “there, but for the luck of the die, go I.”

 

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Neutral Good

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 15, 2014

My previous essays on alignments have focused on the evil ones (lawful evil, neutral evil and chaotic evil). Patrick Lin requested this essay. He professes to be a devotee of Neutral Evil to such a degree that he regards being lumped in with Ayn Rand as an insult. Presumably because he thinks she was too soft on the good.

In the Pathfinder version of the game, neutral good is characterized as follows:

A neutral good character is good, but not shackled by order. He sees good where he can, but knows evil can exist even in the most ordered place.

A neutral good character does anything he can, and works with anyone he can, for the greater good. Such a character is devoted to being good, and works in any way he can to achieve it. He may forgive an evil person if he thinks that person has reformed, and he believes that in everyone there is a little bit of good.

In a fantasy campaign realm, the player characters typical encounter neutral good types as allies who render aid and assistance. Even evil player characters are quite willing to accept the assistance of the neutral good, knowing that the neutral good types are more likely to try to persuade them to the side of good than smite them with righteous fury. Neutral good creatures are not very common in most fantasy worlds—good types tend to polarize towards law and chaos.

Not surprisingly, neutral good types are also not very common in the real world. A neutral good person has no special commitment to order or lack of order—what matters is the extent to which a specific order or lack of order contributes to the greater good. For those devoted to the preservation of order, or its destruction, this can be rather frustrating.

While the neutral evil person embraces the moral theory of ethical egoism (that each person should act solely in her self-interest), the neutral good person embraces altruism—the moral view that each person should act in the interest of others. In more informal terms, the neutral good person is not selfish. It is not uncommon for the neutral good position to be portrayed as stupidly altruistic. This stupid altruism is usually cast in terms of the altruist sacrificing everything for the sake of others or being willing to help anyone, regardless of who the person is or what she might be doing. While a neutral good person is willing to sacrifice for others and willing to help people, being neutral good does not require a person to be unwise or stupid. So, a person can be neutral good and still take into account her own needs. After all, the neutral good person considers the interests of everyone and she is part of that everyone. A person can also be selective in her assistance and still be neutral good. For example, helping an evil person do evil things would not be a good thing and hence a neutral good person would not be obligated to help—and would probably oppose the evil person.

Since a neutral good person works for the greater good, the moral theory of utilitarianism tends to fit this alignment. For the utilitarian, actions are good to the degree that they promote utility (what is of value) and bad to the degree that they do the opposite. Classic utilitarianism (that put forth by J.S. Mill) takes happiness to be good and actions are assessed in terms of the extent to which they create happiness for humans and, as far as the nature of things permit, sentient beings. Put in bumper sticker terms, both the utilitarian and the neutral good advocate the greatest good for the greatest number.

This commitment to the greater good can present some potential problems. For the utilitarian, one classic problem is that what seems rather bad can have great utility. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” puts into literary form the question raised by William James:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

In Guin’s tale, the splendor, health and happiness that is the land of Omelas depends on the suffering of a person locked away in a dungeon from all kindness. The inhabitants of Omelas know full well the price they pay and some, upon learning of the person, walk away. Hence the title.

For the utilitarian, this scenario would seem to be morally correct: a small disutility on the part of the person leads to a vast amount of utility. Or, in terms of goodness, the greater good seems to be well served.

Because the suffering of one person creates such an overabundance of goodness for others, a neutral good character might tolerate the situation. After all, benefiting some almost always comes at the cost of denying or even harming others. It is, however, also reasonable to consider that a neutral good person would find the situation morally unacceptable. Such a person might not free the sufferer because doing so would harm so many other people, but she might elect to walk away.

A chaotic good type, who is committed to liberty and freedom, would certainly oppose the imprisonment of the innocent person—even for the greater good. A lawful good type might face the same challenge as the neutral good type: the order and well being of Omelas rests on the suffering of one person and this could be seen as an heroic sacrifice on the part of the sufferer. Lawful evil types would probably be fine with the scenario, although they would have some issues with the otherwise benevolent nature of Omelas. Truly subtle lawful evil types might delight in the situation and regard it as a magnificent case of self-delusion in which people think they are selecting the greater good but are merely choosing evil.

Neutral evil types would also be fine with it—provided that it was someone else in the dungeon. Chaotic evil types would not care about the sufferer, but would certainly seek to destroy Omelas. They might, ironically, try to do so by rescuing the sufferer and seeing to it that he is treated with kindness and compassion (thus breaking the conditions of Omelas’ exalted state).

 

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Tomb of Kerakos at Paizo & DriveThruRPG

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on December 4, 2013

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for 3rd-6th level characters.

Description

While most human cities grow with life, the great city of Thetos arose from a devotion to the study of death. Over the centuries, necromancers from around the world (and perhaps other worlds) have been drawn to the secret wisdom hidden within her walls. It is said that even the great necromancer Rils abided for a time within the city.

Tales speak of those who came seeking the knowledge of Rils and most tales end with the final death of the seeker. Some few, such as Kerakos, managed to survive the tests and become great necromancers. When Rils departed from the city his students honored him by creating their own challenges in imitation of those they had faced. Kerakos, reputed to be among the greatest of Rils’ students, reputably created just such a tomb within the desert near Thetos. While the tales of the tomb vary, most of them share a common detail: anyone who can survive the dangers of the tomb can shed the bonds of mortality and gain everlasting existence.

Tomb of Kerakos is a Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure. It is intended for a party of 3rd-6th level characters. It is written to follow Rils’ Lesser Sanctum, but can be run as a stand-alone adventure.

Here are some of the features of the adventure:

  • Detailed color maps for the adventure.
  • Full statistics are included for all encounters—no need to look up monsters.
  • New Monsters ( Desert Ghast, Desert Zombie, and Kerakos Mummy)
  • New Magic Items (Armor of Kerakos, Scarab of Kerakos).
  • Free Hero Lab portfolio.
  • Giant scorpions.

Available on Amazon
Available at DriveThruRPG
Available at the Paizo Store

Downloads

Tomb of Kerakos Monsters & Maps PDF

Hero Lab Portfolio Folder

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Slacking

Posted in Business, Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2012

I must confess I am slacking a bit on the blog this week, mainly by posting that I am slacking on the blog. I’ll probably need to be a bit slack the next few weeks as well. The reason is, of course, my job.

On the positive side, this week I have papers due in my ethics class, next week I’m giving tests and the week after that is more papers, this time in my Modern class. After that, I have finals week-which might lead to more slack. As might imagined, my job gets  the majority of my time and the blog gets some of what I have left.

On the negative side, it looks certain that I won’t be teaching this summer. Like most faculty, I am on a nine month contract (that means three months of unpaid “vacation”) and I am not guaranteed summer employment, even when there are students enough to overfill the class (which is always the case). This is supposed to be due to budget cuts. Education is rather odd in this way-there are, right now, students who would fill the class I used to teach in the summer.  To use an analogy, there are customers who are ready to buy the shelves clear, yet the shelves are to be kept bare and the store closed. I must admit I do not quite get why this works the way it does, given that what faculty are paid to teach a class is generally way, way under what a class brings in. But I’m just faculty and hence have only a very indirect influence on things.

Since I need to pay for things like food, I need to devote a lot of time to writing. As might be imagined, writing this blog does not pay-but writing for gaming companies, Amazon and Barnes & Noble does. As such, I’ll need to focus even more effort on writing that actually results in some income. Fortunately, I just finished a contracted book (I signed a NDA, so I cannot say anything until it is officially announced) and I am busy lining up other contracts and writing until I run out of words.

I will, of course, keep this blog going and will also continue writing for the other blogs I contribute to. It is, after all, a compulsion.

My latest venture is that I’m taking a stab at selling material for Paizo’s Pathfinder on Amazon. While gaming is not as big as it was in the golden age of dice, perhaps this will help a bit. In any case, you can check out my test module, Little Island at Amazon. Like my other books, it is 99 cents, of which 65 cents goes to my benevolent book overlord, Amazon. Amazon actually is fairly generous-my contracted work usually gets me about 8.5%.

I put up an author’s page at Amazon, which allows me to fully experience the joyous delusion that I am an author.  It is  a wonderful thing. I’m just waiting for Oprah to discover me.

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Pathfinder is the Real D&D

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2009
Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set
Image via Wikipedia

I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was 15. My mother got me started with the D&D Basic Set and I soon progressed to Advanced D&D.

While I thought the D&D system was rather awful when compared to the elegant and realistic system of games like Runequest and Call of Cthulhu, AD&D had two main selling points. First, it was so simple that even a high school stoner could roll up a character in the same time it would take them to roll a joint. Second, it had a level system that people loved. The idea of getting more an more powerful while playing has a tremendous appeal and the level progression system has become an essential aspect of almost all RPGs (computer and traditional).

I did try the 2nd Edition of D&D, but did not like it very much. To be rather vague, it did not have that “D&D feel.” I did try to run a game or two, but the magic was just not there.

When D&D 3.0 came out, I ended up giving it a shot. While it was a different sort of game (that is, it had fairly coherent and rather playable rules) from AD&D, it had the D&D feel. When 3.5 came out, I upgraded to that. When I heard that 4.0 was coming out, I looked forward to it. However, when I read the books and heard stories of people playing, I decided that it was not really D&D. I’m not going to go into the details, but the gist was that D&D 4.0 seemed more like a video game made into a traditional RPG. Crudely put, it was a bit like trying to play WoW as a tabletop RPG. While some folks like that, 4.0 lacks that D&D feel that is important to me. Some folks love the system, and I have no more to say against them than I have to say against folks who like Windows Vista.

I had looked at the Pathfinder beta (put out by Paizo) when it first came out, and had mixed feelings about it. However, when I actually played a campaign based on the rules, I realized that I rather liked it. The folks at Paizo took the 3.5 rules and revised them to address various weak points in the game. For example, they retooled the grapple rules from a mess to a workable system. They also revised the core classes in a way that gave players reasons to stick with one class from level one to level twenty. Best of all, they kept the D&D feel alive.

Of course, Pathfinder is not legally D&D, but rather a D20 system released in accord with the Open Gaming License. D&D was first owned by TSR, then it was bought up and it now belongs to Wizards of the Coast. WoC is, of course, owned by Hasbro.

This, as I see it, shows once more the downside of corporate ownership of such iconic entities. Since D&D is owned by a company, they can do pretty much anything they please with it and it will still legally be the D&D game. Of course, the fact that a company owns D&D does not entail that they own the “essence” of what it is to be D&D or that they are even fit to keep that essential nature going. The same sort of thing happens with movies. For example, Alien and Predator started off as cool and awesome movies. But, the corporate masters degraded the franchises into horrific parodies of their original awesomeness.

Naturally, I am not claiming that 4th Edition D&D is a horrible degradation on par with the Aliens vs. Predator movie. However, I am saying that it is unfortunate that the 4th edition D&D is the legally official D&D simply because the company making it legally owns D&D.

While Pathfinder is not legally D&D, to me it is D&D. It is, as I see it, the true spiritual successor to the Basic Edition I played all those years ago. So, I still play D&D, only the book sitting on the table in front of me says “Pathfinder.”

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