Anthropologists and Dragons

Last year on a TFS podcast episode, an article by critical psychiatric anthropologist Jeff Snodgrass on ‘technologies of absorption’ was discussed. In this blog, Alex argues that role playing games may also be a kind of participant observation. 


It wasn’t very late, just enough to be dark. Normally, I wouldn’t worry. I’m confident around city streets, even ones I’m not familiar with. But my friends and I were carrying something valuable, and that made me wary.

Suddenly, Mazira ducked down an alley as a shortcut. Rhogar and I had fallen behind and were hesitant about following her. It was an old city, full of stonework, but the buildings were still two or three stories high, casting ominous shadows in the night. Still, Mazira was the only one who knew the way, so we had to follow. Our hesitation was probably why we turned back to see two people follow us into the alley, a man and a woman in dark clothes. Of course, someone had already cut off Mazira.

I surprised myself by not hesitating. Spinning around, I headed straight back toward one of those that had followed us into the alley—a woman in dark robes, eyes barely visible beneath a dark hood. I barked a threat, telling her to turn around and walk away. She snarled a retort that we should hand over the object or else.

Seeing no other choice, I drew my sword and plunged it deep into her chest. There was little fuss as the blood flowed back over the blade. She collapsed in front of me. I’d never killed anyone before, so It was a harrowing moment.

This was my first-time playing Dungeons and Dragons, and it was surprisingly confronting. My friend had played the game for years and had been encouraging me to play for quite a while. She was the Dungeon Master for this campaign—the one who creates the story and then places her players in a difficult situation—and she would be responsible for more emotional strain over the next few sessions than I had really been expecting. And if the impact the game had on me was genuinely surprising, the moral crises it engendered were even more so.

Ready to Roll

Levelling up

I am a self-avowed nerd. I’d love to say I was just doing it for my friend, but honestly, it’s a wonder I’d made it that far in life without playing D&D. My childhood had been filled with fantasy tropes. Epic quests completed by groups of unlikely heroes came packaged in aging paperbacks with the pages falling out. The number of villains slain in these op-shop fantasy novels probably claimed more lives than the Black Plague (not to mention the video games and movies I also grew up on). But there, in that moment, the death of a woman was easily the most confronting of these fantastical experiences. I went to bed that night still reeling from having taken someone’s fictional life. Could I have avoided it? Should I have given them another opportunity to surrender? I slept poorly.

As an anthropologist, once I was able to gain some distance, this was fascinating. I could hardly call what I went through a ‘lived experience’, yet the emotions had been as engaging as any other fieldwork experience I’d had.

I normally study government bureaucracy, so I could honestly say it was more emotionally engaging than the majority of days I’d spent in the field. Of course, being an anthropologist doesn’t just mean examining one’s own feelings; it requires thinking analytically about the social experience as a whole. So, I set about doing a bit of research.

There seems to be very little written about D&D from an anthropological perspective, with the exception of one book by Gary Fine. Fine breaks up his experience of D&D into three levels of meaning. First, there is the real-world, common-to-all experience. In this case, four friends sitting around a table, eating pizza, rolling dice and having a laugh. The second level is that of the game. In chess, for example, you’re not just restricted by where you can physically move the pieces, you’re governed by a complex set of rules. And if you think the rules of chess are complicated, you should peruse the D&D Player’s Handbook. Finally, there’s the identity you assume as part of the world you’re supposedly inhabiting. These divisions sound nice and neat in theory, but in practice no one can keep their thoughts and ideas entirely separate.

Thoughts and ideas bleed into one another—hence why what was a sensible move in the context of levels two and three felt suspiciously like murdering someone down a back-alley in level one. In the exact same way, the first level can feed back down into the lower two levels—influencing how you use and abuse the rules of the game. This also influences how your character develops in the world, no matter how distinct the tabletop personality is supposed to be from your own.

Goblins are people, too

In our third session of D&D, we again found a moral conflict foisted upon us. We were sneaking up to a goblin village deep in the jungle. The inhabitants had been preying on local river traffic, killing and stealing from whoever they could, and we had been asked to ‘deal’ with them, an instruction we understood to mean razing the village to the ground.

So, having already offed one lookout, we were conducting a reconnaissance of the village. It was a fairly rudimentary affair, with straw and thatch huts scattered around with little sense of rhyme or reason that we could make out. There were five large ones that seemed to be the centre of village life, and more than a dozen small ones where individual goblin families appeared to live. There had been a couple of close calls, but for the time being the goblins remained unaware of the three of us sneaking up on them.

The goblins were continuing with their daily business, our dungeon master informed us. Some were cooking, others sharpening their weapons, the children playing amongst themselves and the elderly walking around and talking to their neighbours.

“Hang on,” I said, “There are children and elderly here?” “Well yeah,” my friend replied, “it’s a village. Where else would they be?”

I doubt many goblins would live long enough to become elderly, so we weren’t ready for this. Or at least Mazira and I weren’t ready for this. Rhogar seemed rather unconcerned about the small-scale genocide we were about to commit. And yet, Rhogar was probably the most in-character of the three of us.

I am not proposing that back up at level one (real life) the player would be fine with the wholesale slaughter of children and the elderly. Rather, at level three—using the logic of the world—destroying the village and all its inhabitants made perfect sense. They were deadly pirates who smeared local travellers in honey, fed them to ravenous insects and then stuck their skulls on pikes. We had literally passed the heads on the way in. But still… children and the elderly? That was a step too far.

And even though, by razing the village to the ground while the young and old escaped into the jungle, we would probably doom those poor sods to die in the snapping teeth of dinosaurs, this was still the only real option we could stomach.

This tension between levels of meaning is not the result of luck or circumstance—it is built into the game mechanics. I don’t doubt that lots of adventurers set out to slay the dragon, take its gold and just generally be heroes without worrying about the moral repercussions (I would imagine that dragons are a critically endangered species in Faerûn, judging by how uncommon they are). Nevertheless, Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s publishers) and Gary Gygax (its inventor) created a system that has this moral ambiguity built into its core.

D&D prejudice

It starts at the very beginning, with the creation of a player’s character. D&D has been around for literally decades, so there is a multitude of races to play. Nevertheless, races that were perhaps intrinsically ‘the bad guys’ have, since almost the earliest, been playable. Not only that, but in every iteration, Wizards of the Coast has emphasised that while these races may tend towards evil because of various social reasons (and I’d say it’s important to note they are social reasons), they can have any sort of alignment from lawful good through to chaotic evil. Want to be a half-orc with a heart of gold? Not a problem. Want to get justice on those evil adventurers who razed your village, slaughtered nearly all the able-bodied adults and effectively condemned the majority of the young and elderly to perish in the jungle? Well, goblins are a playable character. There are enough dark-elves struggling to overcome the reputation of their evil kin that it’s a positive cliché.

So, where does this leave the player? Madly trying to construct meaning from three different levels while at the same time trying to tell a cohesive story in a social setting. And it’s not so simple as needing to keep the levels separate.


Only focusing on ‘the real world’ would just be a group of friends having fun, eating pizza and cracking jokes. Only focusing on the in-game world would be a delusion. Instead, the ‘bleeding through’ I mentioned earlier isn’t just a side-effect of the game, but essential to its enjoyment (and horror).

I can’t speak from personal experience, but I would assume that an actual halfling rogue/mage –  having narrowly escaped a dragon’s fiery blast by using spider climb to scale the wall of a cave, only to then leap off and behead the foul beast by dealing sneak attack damage due to being directly opposite a teammate who is also engaged in hand-to-hand combat with said opponent – would not then take a moment to turn her compatriots and chat about how freaking awesome that was.

Critical separation

Yet, it’s the separation of levels that allows for a proper appreciation of the incredible actions characters perform. Or, sometimes the reverse; it is only the separation of the player from the character that allows you to hoot with laughter when a bad roll makes an otherwise stealthy ranger fall flat on his face while sneaking up on a party of orcs.

I haven’t talked much about the second level (the rules) but it is having this level separate that allows players to appreciate a crafty use of the rules to eke out every last advantage (or to be pissed off for ‘rules-lawyering’).

I suspect the importance of this separation of levels is not unique to role-playing but essential to most forms of storytelling—the ability to be sufficiently in the world to have a sense of reality, but also removed enough to be able to reflect upon it. To keep with the fantasy theme, you need to be sufficiently invested in Middle Earth to care about Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring, but sufficiently removed from the survival of all free peoples in the realm to appreciate Golem’s story arc of near-redemption.

This double-movement—between the lived experience and the more removed analysis—is rather like participant-observation. Given that ‘anthropologist’ is now an official background in D&D, you might conceivably find yourself reflecting on the lived experience of a character reflecting on their own lived experience in a fantasy world. An entirely new level of ‘meta-gaming’.

[Feature image sourced at pixabay:

[Image of D&D dice, ‘Ready to Roll’ by Benjamin Esham sourced at Flickr:

4 thoughts on “Anthropologists and Dragons

  1. As both a student of anthropology and an avid D&D player, I hope you continue on to write that blog combining the two! I look forward to reading it!

    • I’m just putting my notes together for a first post. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Dialectics and Dragons’, so keep an eye out!

  2. Pingback: Ep#63 Culture Shock, Storytelling, Pungent Masculinity & Rule Based Imaginations: This Month on TFS | The Familiar Strange

Leave a Reply