For the last week or so I’ve been in the grip of a rather nasty Spring cold, so it was a nice respite and surprise to be approached by Cogburn to contribute to the collection he’s putting together on Dungeons & Dragons and philosophy. When I ran this by Mel it actually generated some sparks between us. “I made a solemn vow”, she said, “to never be involved with someone who can explain the intricacies of Hit Points.” Poor dear, she has no idea how bad it is. Not only can I explain the intricacies of Hit Points, but I know all about THAC0. I suppose our friendship will find some way to endure this great betrayal brought about by my hidden nerdiness. Of course, I’m probably not helping matters much by publicly announcing my inner nerdiness. However, in my view this should be something endearing, not off-putting. Then again, gamers have always been challenged where the ladies are concerned.
When Jon first approached me about contributing I got that “deer in the headlights” look. After all, it’s been about twenty years since I played. What would I possibly have to say about this game that was so formative for me?
However, the more I think about the game in the context of my current work, the more I see that Dungeons & Dragons is a marvelous example of a flat ontology where all objects are actants. Unlike vertical ontologies characterized by a sharp divide between agency on the one hand and lifeless matter on the other, the world of D&D is a pluralistic universe, a pluriverse, pervaded by actants of all sorts, both animate and inanimate. There is, of course, the obvious anti-anthropocentric bent of the game, characterized as it is by all sorts of humanoids ranging from humans to elves to dwarves to gnomes to orcs and so on. Yet the pluriverse of D&D is not simply a pluriverse characterized by a vertical gap between humanoids on the one hand and animals and inanimate objects on the other. Rather, the critters that populate the bestiary of D&D themselves have their own aims, intelligences, and powers. These critters are not simply less than the humanoid or fodder for humanoid sustenance. They are genuine agents or actors in their own right that human actants must think and respond to in much the same way that they must think and respond to other humans.
Yet the radicality of the D&D ontology, it’s profound anti-anthropocentrism, does not end there, for even the inanimate and the dead are actants in this pluriverse. Who could forget artifacts like Baba Yaga’s Hut that walk about on their own on two chicken legs? The inanimate nonhuman actants of this world are imbued with powers and activities of their own, thereby undermining any thesis that nonhuman inanimate actants are mere “matter” to passively take on human intentions. They act and often deeply at odds with the aims of those that wield them. Here we need only think of the enchanted sword with a curse upon it. What is the curse if not an inanimate object using its wielder as an artifact for its ends rather than being used for the ends of the humanoid wielding it?
And so too, in this strange universe, even the dead refuse to rest. There are, for example, those entities like the lich that refuse to rest, that refuse to die, and that continue to walk the earth as something other than the human. What we find in this strange universe is a truly flat world where all objects are genuine actants and where the human is not at the center of being, but is one being among other actants, vying with those actants.