Anthropology and D&D

All worlds should be explored.

When I was young I wanted to be an Anthropologist. I could imagine myself living with an ancient culture halfway around the world, participating in spiritual rituals that would turn the stomach of an average American citizen. I sat in Anthropology 103 (Culture and Language) amongst forty anthropology major hopefuls a few years ago and listened to professor Rickli talk about this fascinating subject. While strange rituals were not addressed in her classroom lecture, I did learn a lot about the subject that I was not aware of before.

I consulted another expert, my friend Mike, who is educated in another field. Mike does not have a degree in Anthropology but he is the self-proclaimed King of Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons (also known as D&D) is a table top role playing game that has achieved legend status among gamers since its debut in the early 70s. If there was a new doctorate program offered at NAU in role playing games Mike would have already graduated from the university’s program with honors. After talking to Mike about my fieldtrip to anthropology 103 I realized that there are many fascinating parallels between the two topics.

Anthropology is the study of people. In the case of D&D, anthropology would be the study of all humans and humanoid races such as elves, gnomes, dwarves, and giants. There are four sub-divisions of anthropology; physical or biological anthropology, archeology, cultural anthropology, and linguistics. The handout that Professor Rickli gave the class described each of the subdivisions in detail. The first discipline listed was linguistics. According to the handout, linguistics is the study of human languages.

When I showed the handout to Mike he grinned and said, “It looks a lot like the campaign charts in the player’s handbook.” He went on to inform me that in the D&D universe, a wizard may choose to study different languages of various cultures around the world of Fayrune to be able to cast spells that would otherwise be inaccessible to him. It reminded me of something Professor Rickli had noted in her lecture. She had said with pride, “Languages often times link cultural groups together and studying linguistic patterns can show where certain cultural groups originated.”

In the case of sorcerers, studying their language has revealed that they’re cultural group originated in the center of the game world of Fayrune and migrated outward through the intermarriage of other cultural groups over time. Professor Rickli mentioned that the field of linguistics is also a window into culture’s way of viewing the world. This made Mike clap his hands together in excitement. “It’s just like the cultures in the game,” he belted out unexpectedly. He added, “Dwarves for example have 2,400 words for rock and over 20,000 words for gem which shows the significance of mining in their culture.” The correlation was interesting. It made me ponder the next subfield professor Rickli had discussed. According to the handout (and the class notes that I took) physical or biological anthropology studies human (or humanoid) biological change over time.

When reading the D&D players manual I saw a passage about elves. It mentioned the distinctions between light elves and dark elves, the most noticeable difference being the color of their skin. This genetic difference is related to their adaptation to their environments. In relation to anthropology, it is possible that the light elves evolved to absorb more vitamin D into their skin through sunlight, hence why their skin is light and their complexion is fair. Dark elves tend live in warmer climates which caused their skin to darken and repeal harmful UV rays.

Archeology is the study of past cultures or material remains (the things people left behind). In the case of D&D, past cultures include ancient races of Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings that are no longer present on the world. Mrs. Rickli told me an interesting tidbit about this topic after class. She said with a hint of excitement in her eyes, “Something important to note about the study of past cultures is that the groups never just ‘disappear.’ Generally what you will see is a migration of those groups to other places where they set up a new, modern community.”

In D&D, the tribe of Amealites (ancient light elves) left their civilization and eventually became a separate modern race of light elves which is found frequently in Fayrune. This made me think of Professor Rickli’s words of wisdom. She had told me that ancient races DO NOT die out; they simply abandon old practices for new ways of life and form modern societies based on those new cultural systems. In the words of Professor Rickli, “One can think of it as cultural (non-biological) evolution.”

Cultural anthropology studies the learned behavior (culture), social structure, ideologies, dress, food, belief systems, and economies of human or humanoid civilizations. In the case of D&D, cultural anthropology would focus on ethnographic studies (written cultural studies) of different races such as the religious practices, food, dress and behavior of the goblins as opposed to those of the orcs. In the words of professor Rickli, “Cultural anthropology is very complex and is rich in applied anthropology, or the practical use of cultural exploration.” I imagined that an applied anthropologist living in the world of Fayrune might study a frost giant culture to obtain information on how to make their diet better which in turn will increase their population’s probability of living longer and passing their frost making abilities on to their offspring.

Looking at the handout Professor Rickli gave the class I saw that there are six main sub-fields within Physical anthropology; primatology, genetics, osteology, paleoanthropology, paleopathology, and forensic anthropology. The other side of the handout explained that Primatology studies living non-human primates. I gave Mike the handout to look over and he stopped when he got to primatology on the second page. “This reminds me of a campaign I wrote last year,” he said, as he fetched one of his notebooks out of a book bag by his kitchen counter.

He turned somewhere in the middle of the notebook and pointed to some notes he took from the Dungeon Master’s Handbook. “As you can see, I have researched D&D field scientists for many of my game settings. That’s how I know that rangers might track dire apes and study them or druids may attempt to communicate with dire apes to see their genetic connection to other races through learning about their migratory routes.” Dire is a word to describe something large in the D&D universe. It was an interesting parallel to draw between the two worlds. Although the comparison between the two topics was a bit farfetched, I couldn’t argue with the logic of a D&D God like Mike.

Scientists are a type of God that we seem to have an unhealthy fascination with in our modern society. They sit in labs tinkering with DNA strands, the building block of life, as if they were nothing more or less complex than building towers with a Lego set. This brings us to the next topic professor Rickli addressed in her lecture; Genetics. Genetics is the study of the DNA strand and related structures.

I imagined after reading several of Mike’ game manuals that dwarves of one area in the world of Fayrune may vary greatly from dwarves in another region based on their adaptation to their natural environment. Reviewing the DNA strand may reveal that certain groups of dwarves have sickle cell anemia (or are carriers for the disease) while dwarves in other areas do not. The dwarves with sickle-cell anemia may live in a region that has an unusually high dire mosquito population. Because their blood cells are sickle shaped, mosquitoes are less likely to give them blood related illnesses. This is an example of microevolution, a small adaptation to the environment.

The next topic on the handout was the subfield of Osteology. Osteology is the study of human or humanoid bones. Every player starts out being level 1 in D&D. The more experience one get the more they powers and items they will receive. From my day with Mike and learning many things about the D&D universe I imagined that a paladin of 25th level may be interested in studying the bones of an orc grave site to determine what killed them in the past to be better prepared for an orc invasion in the future. Mrs. Rickli talked a bit about Paleopathology during her lecture.

Paleopathology is the study cause of death in ancient hominid or humanoid sites. A Bard of 5th level may be very interested to learn why his ancestors died in a certain region to know what steps to take if those certain diseases or illness rose again. He may learn songs that will counteract the illness with magical properties. Paleoanthropology is the study of ancient hominids or humanoids. A cleric of 15th level may be interested in studying the ancient remains of a civilization buried underneath their monastery to ensure that the past peoples are pleased and do not need a sacrifice of human blood.

Forensic anthropology is used in determining identities of humans or humanoids and their cause of death. She said with great enthusiasm, “It is used almost exclusively in criminal investigations.” Mike was excited when I mentioned this topic. “You know, this reminds me of a little situation I put my team through last Sunday.” While he did not go into much detail about what happened in the game, he informed me that a gnome shopkeeper may be interested in finding out whether or not his sister is still alive after being dragged away forcefully by a red dragon.

Gnome forensic investigators would take samples of his sister’s hair, blood, and any other gnome remains left at the crime scene to aid in the investigation. He ended his thought by saying, “Often times, I regret to say, red dragons swallow their victims whole so finding humanoid remains is a difficult task.” I wasn’t quite sure whether or not Mike was joking or serious when making the last comment. I didn’t want to offend my host so I didn’t bring it up. I will leave the information for the reader to ponder for themselves.

The next topic Dr. Rickli addressed in class was speciation. Speciation is genetic changes in populations over time resulting in the appearance of a new species or genus. From what I read in the D&D Player’s Handbook, I found that it is widely accepted that dragons evolved from basilisks, though the council of silver dragons to the north denies this scientific claim. In regards to speciation, I figured that this was due to a genetic change in one of their Dd allele pairings that ultimately made them more suited to living in their environment.

The topic of speciation led into the next topic of Macroevolution. Macroevolution is a change in a species at the level of speciation. Mike grinned. “In other words,’ he said, “the basilisk evolving into the various dragon races found throughout Fayrune is an example of macroevolution.” I couldn’t argue with that logic. Mike knows the laws of D&D better than Isaac Newton understood the laws of gravity. Mrs. Rickli turned to address the class after talking about Macroevolution. “Whatever you do, don’t confuse this with what I am going to talk about next!” The next topic she was referring to was Microevolution.

Microevolution is genetic alterations within populations that may or may not lead to speciation and often causes populations of a species to differ from one another. It seemed to me that an example of microevolution could be found with the Halflings from the Shar. Halflings in this area have a greater tolerance to milk than Halflings in other regions of Fayrune. This is because many of these Halflings keep domesticated farm animals such as dire goats, dire pigs, and dire sheep. Since they are accustomed to drinking milk (especially in their evening tea) their body has built up immunity to the harmful bacteria in milk, and thus has made a genetic alteration that allows them to digest milk better than Halflings in other regions.

Empirical evidence is tangible or physical evidence. I described the concept to Mike and he said, “Empirical evidence may be left behind in a black dragon cave where the bones of an unprepared knight remain. His bones may serve as a grim reminder to the community of what happens to those who forget to bring an acid repellant weapon to a fight a black dragon.” The metaphors that Mike came up with during our interview never ceased to amaze me. A part of me wished that there really was a D&D degree out there to award him for acquiring the amount of knowledge he had in such an obscure subject matter.

At some point I learned that theoretic anthropology focuses on publishing ethnographic studies about cultural groups around the world. I imagined that this artistic form must be practiced among many of the wizards that live in the world of Fayrune. According to what I learned from Mike, wizards like to study cultural groups in Fayrune and publish informative books about them but they rarely do anything to help the cultures they observe.

After coming up with this metaphor I realized that I was just as enthusiastic about D&D as Mike. If my English Major didn’t work out I could always become an anthropologist and teach lectures using D&D as a metaphor. Perhaps the purpose of this paper is to prepare me for a future career in studying the cultural significant of D&D in the game and the effect on its players. On second thought, perhaps I ought to keep my day job. The next topic professor Rickli discussed seemed a bit above my level of knowledge in anthropology or its overall relationship with the world of D&D.

Dr. Rickli explained that applied anthropology seeks to help cultural groups by observing the daily practices of the people. I recalled that sorcerers are more apt to try to help cultural groups by studying them than wizards. The reasons for their behavior are still unknown. Every cultural group in the world of Fayrune has a creation story. Professor Rickli talked to the class about creation stories and said that “Many of these cultures see their creation story as the ultimate answer to the universe and reject the theory of natural selection and evolution for this reason.”

I imagined that in D&D terms that there was probably a council of alchemists that have debated this topic for thousands of years and have yet to come up with a point of view that satisfies all of the races in the fantasy world. For the purpose of the particular class I attended, we will say that evolution and natural selection are theories and the best way to describe the world of Fayrune that alchemists (fantasy-based scientists) have come up with so far. These theories may be later disproved by hotshot wizards attempting to boost their magical careers.

Professor Rickli told the class that the theory of evolution and natural selection has been formulated through the scientific method. According to the handout, the steps of the scientific method are as follows; observation, formation of a hypothesis, testing of the hypothesis, and the reaching of some form of conclusion. If the conclusion shows that the observation was wrong, a new hypothesis must be formed and the process must be tested again following the same process. Mike told me that a good example of this rests with the breeding customs of griffins.

Druids observing their mating rituals made the mistake of assuming that they practice incest. Further testing using the scientific method showed their hypothesis to be wrong. Griffins are not incestuous in any way. It only appeared that brothers and sister were mating, due to the lack of migration to other areas of Fayrune during the mating season and the similarity of male and female griffins within certain geographic areas.

After sitting in Professor Rickli’s class I had a strange feeling of accomplishment. I felt that I walked away from her lecture learning things about humanity that helped broaden my own understanding of cultural practices around the world. If anything, Mike helped me appreciate the dedication that gamers have to D&D. He encouraged me to look for the fascinating parallels between D&D and the real world in other aspects of my life.

When you think about it, life is a big role playing game. It’s not how many items you have, how smart you are, or your physical strength that gives you the winning hand in life; it’s how willing you are to adapt to the game you are playing and how much effort you are willing to put into achieving that winning hand. This concept can be applied to both the area of studying humans and engaging in something as simple as playing D&D.


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