Sunday, August 25, 2013

What Dungeons and Dragons Teaches You About 9/11, Conspiracy Theories And, Er, Real Life

A blogpost from October of last year...
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As Jesse Ventura might have said conspiracy theories - like religions - are for the weak. I was thinking about this after hearing the news that Martin Sheen and Woody Harrelson are to appear in a 9/11 truther movie in 2014. 9/11 truthers believe that the World Trade Center was taken down not by planes but by a controlled demolition done at the behest of the Bush administration so that they could have a pretext for invading Iraq. Truthers believe that there is a massive conspiracy at the heart of 9/11 just as JFK truthers believe that President Kennedy was shot by, well, take your pick: the mafia, LBJ, Nixon, pro Castro Cubans, anti Castro Cubans, the KGB, the CIA, a clumsy hung over secret service agent, the military industrial complex etc. etc. Truthers are frightened people and what they are afraid of more than anything is the randomness and chaos of the world we live in. Truthers hate the idea that a lone lunatic could have shot the president and changed the course of history (I'm surprised there aren't more Gavrilo Princip truthers) or that 19 religious fanatics could have found a way to kill 3000 Americans and provoke the country into a massive and predictable series of over reactions. Racial scapegoating conspiracy theorists hate the fact that their own shitty lives could be the result of bad decisions and bad luck: for them it's far more comforting to believe that an evil conspiracy is running the world instead of shit happening just because its happening. For 9/11 truthers like the dim witted Sheen family it is more soothing to believe that President Bush was an evil genius rather than a lazy incompetent who ignored the August 6th CIA briefing entitled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike US Targets". 
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Truthers of all stripes would have benefited from a childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. In the D&D world you learn early that randomness can upset the best laid plans of mice and men; you also learn about organisational dynamics and why conspiracies are always self defeating in the end. Let me unpack that latter point a little. In D&D you can choose between six different alignments: chaotic good, chaotic neutral, chaotic evil or lawful good, lawful neutral, lawful evil. Chaotic characters tend to think only of themselves, lawful characters are more rule bound. Good characters tend to promote good ideals, evil characters evil ones. The Nazis were lawful evil, pirates chaotic evil. Robin Hood (if he existed) was chaotic good, King Arthur (if he existed) lawful good. Do you get the picture? I hope so because I'm done explaining and my point is that when you play a lot of campaigns you learn that chaos gradually seeps in everywhere. Regimes and campaigning parties are constantly buffeted by chaotic events and almost always fall apart in the end, but the most successful parties are the ones that have a balance of good and evil, chaotic and neutral. Lawful evil parties and lawful good parties collapse quickly because they just don't have the flexibility to cope with events. Also the more chaotic and evil characters you have with you on the campaign the more likely they are to betray you all at the end when their interest outweighs the group interest. Classic prisoner dilemma situations abound when D&D campaigns and conspiracies start to fray because every person added to the conspiracy increases the chaos already inherent in the system. I don't know if there's a law of conspiracy theories but if not I'm going to invent it now: McKinty's first law of conspiracies states that "Every individual added to a conspiracy doubles the likelihood that the conspiracy will collapse." 
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Luck is very important in the game and also in life. Luck rewards bad people and punishes good ones. When my pacifist 11th level cleric was killed by a Storm Giant on a 20 roll of a 20 sided die it was just plain old bad luck. It wasn't fair, but I didn't fly off the handle into madness. I mean what can you do?* When Prime Minister Macmillan was asked what might blow his government off course he is supposed to have said "events, dear boy, events." I don't think its a stretch to say pace Ventura that organised religion and conspiracy theories are both crutches for people who can't face the brutal exigencies, cruelties and randomness of our world. Maybe a good dose of D&D is what these people need instead. Or, then again, it could be that this entire blogpost is just an attempt to make up for a geekily misspent youth...
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*You can pray to Odin to resurrect your cleric. Our Dungeon Master used to give Odin a 1/100 chance of answering your prayer...