Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Last night, I spent five hours playing an obscure, simple-graphics video game based entirely upon the difficulties of logistics - the game is Patrician III, and the point is to ship products from one city to another, occasionally battling pirates, building up the city populations and taking on quest-like missions. My particular history with the game comes from my peculiar fascination with logistics, and an effort to create a sensible, effective methodology for the movement of my ships. It is not as easy as it sounds. For the most part, I did not succeed last night, though I had a few new ideas (which all failed), and the result was pretty much a waste of my time ... that is how it felt when it ended, at any rate.

So why, the gentle reader might ask, should I bridle my intellect for the purpose of solving a private game, where there are so many things that need solving, and working upon, where it comes to D&D? I might ask that myself. The simple answer might be that I needed a rest from D&D, but on a profound level, I have to ask why that might be ... usually, when I am tired of a particular aspect of D&D (maps, my trade tables) I work on other aspects of D&D (reworking the spell lists, my biological monster table). These are the things I normally cut my teeth upon. They are what keeps my world from being a fragmented, irrational cacophony of rules, instead being a cohesive whole.

What I am saying is this: while it might be all very well for the reader to forgive me, or me to forgive myself, this is not how things get done. And getting things done is important to me. One might say I live for it.

The name of this blog, the Tao of D&D, has been given some small bit of criticism, in that the blog itself has done nothing to relate D&D to the traditional Chinese philosophy of the Tao ... which apparently some early readers were hoping I would do. Why, I can’t guess. True, D&D is as much as a manifestation of ‘tao’ as the corn on my mother’s left foot, but any attempt I might make to correlate the game, or indeed this blog, with the universal concept of yin and yang, or the pursuit of Te, would undoubtedly descend into the same sort of pretentious mess that I occasionally read elsewhere when people attempt to make such connections between Tao and home cooking, or Tao and the maintenance of motorcycles (book title notwithstanding), or Tao and NASCAR racing. I’m just not going to do it.

But before it was a philosophy, ‘tao’ was a word ... and I am pretentious enough not to call this blog ‘The Way of D&D’ when I have a perfectly good foreign word to use instead. Nyah.

D&D is a philosophy, however, to me at least. It is not a game. It is not a past-time, or something I do because I am unable to do something else that is held to be ‘cool.’ Nor is it something I do whimsically. I am not sure that I ever, from the first time I played, ever viewed this game in any way except dead seriously. To play this game is a way of making my mind think, upon established lines and within established boundaries. It is not something I do according to the dictates of others. It does not draw from me a deep and abiding respect for those who may have created the game, and it does not compel me to seek the respect of others. It is not those who play this game, it is the game itself. I would work on the game if there were no players. I would create tables if there were no dice to roll upon them.

As crazy as that might sound, I know there are others out there who understand me perfectly.

Philosophy is generally understood to be a manner by which one attempts to understand the universe - but I must argue that this is a position taken of philosophy only by a very small percentage of those people for who the subject matter is a living, breathing thing. That is because, having hit upon a particular understanding, it is human nature to run with it. To create a lifestyle, and to act in accordance with what is believed to be understood. A stoic does not spend his waking hours studying the values of stoicism against the values of other philosophies. No. One is a stoic, one acts as a stoic, one thinks as a stoic and one views the world as a stoic. There will likely be the pursuit of greater knowledge, knowledge that might cause one to put aside their stoicism and move on ... but in the meantime, the view of the world will be settled.

To state that again: I do not spend my waking hours considering the values of D&D against other pursuits; I am aware of other pursuits; in many cases, I give my time to those things also. But in many ways the principles of D&D and the principles of those other pursuits coincide. I am creating; I am ordering my world; I am sacrificing my time to make a better world; I am displaying the effort for the benefit of others in the way of performance; and I am taking the pleasure of that performance to myself, being made to feel complete by it. This is the same process I undergo when I am writing, when I am public speaking, when I am debating and yes, when I am participating in sex. I perform, and I submit to the performance of others. It is all part of the same continuity.

For those of you who might be reading this, wondering if I intended at all to write about the history of philosophy, or its application into the processes of the game itself, do not be alarmed. I have not finished yet.

If the gentle reader were to invent a culture of ‘D&D players’ to be placed imaginatively in a valley or an enclosed plateau, it would help very little to describe their number, or their facial features, or the color of their hair; it would be difficult to get the sense of how this culture behaved from descriptions of their history, or the art they enjoyed, or the common texts that they read. What would make the difference would be a description of how the interacted with each other: consciously gathering together in furtive groups, in which there was often much emotional unrestraint; violence stemming from arguments over the correct way to behave when in said little groups; and distrust of strangers or those who did not understand the purpose of said little groups. Few physical activities, none of which would be organized, and a dependence on some other peoples to provide this little culture with food and drink - which they would not cultivate themselves. Highly intellectual - but also highly dismissive of the ways of the world outside of their valley ... certainly a terrific hatred for particular varieties of social behaviour. We are describing here a necessarily isolated society, with rigorous social behaviour and yet a pervasive anarchy in terms of organization - and a dependent society, which could not expand easily, without falling prey to its own weakness. How might a party interact with such a culture?

Philosophy has been the impetus for the creation of cultures and micro-cultures (such as that described above), some of which have existed within the framework of traditional religions (the Jesuits, the Mennonites or the cabalists), and some completely outside of religion. In eastern culture, philosophy displaced almost entirely the influence of the polytheistic religions of China and elsewhere. Buddhism, which is far more a philosophy than a religion, swept like a fire through northern India and China a millennia before the differing philosophy of Islam would rewrite the Christian religion - the latter an example of religious philosophy at work.

This is the technological revolution represented by philosophy - the possibility to reshape a given culture in order to better fit the practices of its people to themselves or to their environment. Stoicism was a natural result of the increase in complex social systems; science the natural result of the increase in knowledge; and magic ... well, magic would be the natural result of the availability of power, would it not?

As you scan through the cultures of your world, as you have chosen them, reflect upon how an agricultural society would need to suit its outlook to its dependence upon the weather and upon water. Or how a hunting society would suit its outlook to its dependence on the moon (or moons) at night, and upon the difficulty in hunting whatever animals you’ve created for them to hunt. If mastodons, how does the massive supply of food change their habits, or their number? How would an isolated agricultural society perceive the arrival of strangers, as opposed to a hunting society. A hindrance, or a help? A drain upon their existing food, or the promise of more food? How are such conditions a reflection of how the society looks upon themselves ... charitably or heartlessly ... and how well is the reader, as DM, able to fully comprehend philosophies of life other than his own? It is that comprehension of other philosophies that makes for the best DM.

I say that I live for the game, but part of that is knowing that there are many cultures who do not - and they, too, must be represented in my game. Merchants must despise those who try to cut into their income; soldiers become superior and annoyed by the petty needs of citizens; musicians grow to love company that encourages them to play, while eschewing those who throw taunts; thieves want the easy pickings that come from corrupt societies; clerics want the easy donations that come from frightened and obedient societies; monks seek solitude and contemplation; assassins depend on chaos and distraction; where a society is on the ascendant, those who make havoc are persecuted violently; where a society is on the descendant, those who preach piety or tolerance are mocked and humiliated. There are hundreds of kinds of accepted, ‘normal’ behaviours, to be found in hundreds of social systems. Each philosophy for living in that system seems, to the people who inhabit the system, just and correct. The party is challenged when its perceptions of right and wrong falls opposite to that of the society they find themselves a part of.

This began with my discussing my five hours of fruitless problem solving. Well my life has been in large part the essaying of fruitless efforts - because I’m never sure when fruitless may become fruitful. None of the suggested perspective above will come easy ... because we are, as beings, locked into our philosophy. We are comfortable there because that is what we have found that works for us. Stepping out of that comfort, and challenging ourselves to create a world that is not like ourselves - that is bloody hard. Much harder than doing math for five hours. The sort of hard that makes your players stare blankly at you as you try to outline this mythical perception of the universe your NPCs have, like you’re a moron for proposing such a thing.

But ignore the look. Forget what the players think of your ideas. They are your ideas, and they deserve to be coddled along ... all the more so because they were NOT your ideas three days ago. And you are unfamiliar with them. And you’re not sure yet how to put them in the mouths of NPCs. No worries. This is the game. It forces you to learn new things, and to be things you never were before, and it forces you to do it in front of others.

I love this game.


Vincent Diakuw said...

As crazy as that might sound, I know there are others out there who understand me perfectly.

Hear him, hear him!

Anonymous said...

Ditto. Count me amongst those who understand.

Roger G-S said...

Oh man, Patrician III. I see my one time fascination with that game as similar to my fascination with Dwarf Fortress - I both love and hate the micromanagement. And the oddball phrasings like the "rampage of jollity"...

Playing a game is a lot different activity from the hard intellectual work of writing material for, let alone analyzing, a game. Conisder it lateral incubation time for more ideas, and maybe for this really long and philosophical post.

Zak Sabbath said...

The name of this blog, the Tao of D&D, has been given some small bit of criticism, in that the blog itself has done nothing to relate D&D to the traditional Chinese philosophy of the Tao ... which apparently some early readers were hoping I would do. Why, I can’t guess.

Love that.

Zzarchov said...

Oh...I thought the blog named refered to General Tao, that you were going to make D&D Sweet and Spicy at the same time. It's why I've constantly been waiting for pictures of saucy unicorns.

On a serious note, this post should definately be required reading before commenting on the blog.

Anonymous said...


Kent said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alexis Smolensk said...

Kent needs to learn to behave before he's allowed to play with adults.

Zak, go on being as self-serving as you like, since you do it without slapping others around. Unlike that person who's comment has been dumped.

PatrickW said...

This blog has been, and seems inclined to remain, exactly what I was expecting when I saw the title.

I am pleased with this and hope you continue to be pleased with your pursuit.

Thank you.

David Larkins said...

"This blog has been, and seems inclined to remain, exactly what I was expecting when I saw the title."

Seconded. And I agree that this is a manifesto post for the blog.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I appreciate those comments, from all of you; I do think I have written many manifestos for this blog.


StevenEwing2 said...

1) what an excellent post of such length and depth expressing your love towards D&D

2) If only I could write lengthy blogs like yourself about the things I love I take my hat off to you.

3)Everytime I read this blog it makes me want to get people together to RP, only problem is nobody round my way games.

Keep posting please!

Ragnorakk said...