Wednesday, 14 December 2016

You're the Captain of Your Soul...Know What I Mean?

Whether Sartre was right about the real world, in the world of D&D, existence precedes essence. Your character sheet is really just numbers. You are free to do with your character what you wish. You can choose to be good, bad, cruel, kind, friendly, cold, brave or cowardly. A D&D PC is defined by himself and his actions (well, those of the strange demigod, known as the "player", who inhabits him).

Do you want to be a reckless wizard? A cowardly fighter? A profane cleric? Do you want to kill orc babies or try to reform them? Do you want to amass personal wealth or give it all away? It's your decision. Nobody else's.

In this and many ways, RPGs are - perhaps uniquely among games - an exercise in freedom. In any other game you can think of, be it cricket or chess, your field of action is restricted and limited by rules. In an RPG there are really no such restrictions (or at least, there don't have to be). Your freedom is constrained by the other players and social convention, of course; you can't just sit at the table and openly masturbate, or eat the dice, or whatever, but that's true of all other games as well. Where it matters, in an RPG there are no constraints.

Does this mean anything? I'm not sure, but I'll hazard this: playing an RPG gives you an interesting insight into agency. It may be that we are all just bundles of neurons who go around reacting to things and then rationalising our decisions after the fact, as it now seems fashionable for neuroscientists to argue. But playing an RPG you get a relatively unfiltered understanding of what agency is and means: the power to make decisions and choices and then act on them. 


  1. RPGs have honestly taught me a huge amount about the philosophy of choice. Particularly regarding the importance of accurate information in exercising agency.

    That's one of those things that turns out to be enormously important outside the realms of stabbing imaginary orcs.

  2. This of course depends on not having a GM who likes to railroad. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in constraints with occasional small bouts of self-expression that turn out to be meaningless in the larger picture.
    In other words: not unlike real life.

  3. This is a hugely complex area, obviously. I've mostly been a Cthulhu player. Quite often there's an element of meta-gaming where you realise what's going on ('stop the ritual'!) and you ignore everything that doesn't point in that direction. But I have made significant moral choices - I had a serious (and guilt inducing) conversation with another player after my Delta Green character murdered a journalist. With another DG character, I felt pretty good that his death happened while trying to defend another PC (after my foolhardy actions had attracted the attention of a Dark Young). In a Runequest game, we once massacred the villagers of a chaos-tainted village, but although it was uncomfortable it felt justified in-world.

  4. ...I think the point of the journalist-murder anecdote is that my justification was that I had no other choice. And the other player said y'know dude, you did. And he was right.

    1. Yep. There's almost always another choice. If you want to get really philosophical about it, even an apparently life-or-death situation is a kind of choice - you can always choose to die. That's not a terribly helpful thought in all cases, but it is in most cases. There is often an unconsidered additional option.

    2. Yeah, in Call of Cthulhu (and certainly in other games as well) a 'good death' is something to be desired...

  5. @ Noisms:

    You know, the interesting thing (to me) is that, given the incredible range of options open to the "demigod" inhabiting the player character, the incredibly trite and constrained manner in which most players conduct themselves.

    If one buys into the particular metaphysical idea expressed in Plato's Allegory of the Cave (and by Spiritualists and reincarnation folks), a direct analogy can be rendered between RPGs and real life. Perhaps RPGs can teach us more than we give them credit for?
    ; )


  7. "you can't just sit at the table and openly masturbate, or eat the dice,"

    Great. Now he tells me.

  8. Doing it covertly is ok, apparently