International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: How Dungeons & Dragons Can Help Us See Beyond International Legal Appearances and Formalism

International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: How Dungeons & Dragons Can Help Us See Beyond International Legal Appearances and Formalism

[Nicolás Carrillo-Santarelli is Associate Researcher of the Human Rights and Business Institute of the University of Monterrey (UDEM). He holds a PhD degree in International Law and International Relations, and a Master’s degree in Human Rights Protection. Previously, he worked as Associate Professor of International Law at La Sabana University, as Lecturer and Researcher at the Autónoma de Madrid University (Spain), and worked as judicial assistant at the Colombian Constitutional Court.]

Both role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and international law share a non-enviable trait: their having been derided or scorned in the past. This is the case of the former in regards to the panic about its supposed spiritual dangers or association with ‘nerdy’ culture; and that of the latter when it comes to its branding by some as a system devoid of any legal nature or, if it is any consolation, a true but somewhat ‘primitive’ legal system, as even Kelsen himself would go on to say -in this regard, I prefer Virally’s stressing of the fact that as a system oriented towards a different socio-legal reality, it stands to reason that its features should not be identical to those of frameworks addressed to different cultural contexts.

Be it as it may, D&D has experienced a hitherto unknown explosion of popularity, and international law is a narrative or system that is still studied and influential in different regards. But aside from the derision both have endured, might there be other commonalities or interfaces between them? More than one, I venture to say. What is more: their exploration can prove quite fruitful and enriching both from a legal and extra-legal perspective, as I will argue in this post. In it, I will limit myself to positing two claims: D&D can operate as a catalyst to imagine another international legal reality (literature permits to “envisag[e] alternative worlds”, as written by Kiera Dolin), on the one hand; and as a medium through which awareness about the relevance of the impact of legal institutions on human beings and others can be explored in terms of an empathetic exploration, on the other. There are additional potential connections, which I explore in this article I wrote in Spanish on the subject.

Let us begin with my -partly constructivist, among others- conception of the international law as contingent, molded by several social and individual influences, through the furnace of a space of contested interpretations and invocations. This being so, positive international legal developments are by no means ‘necessary’ propositions in nature, but rather contingent, insofar as it would be possible to conceive different (international) legal realities in other worlds.

This being so, role-playing games offer, with their narrative and simulation dimensions, first of all, a most interesting possibility to explore possible -now popular in different media and accounts- ‘what if’ scenarios. This serves as a much-needed reminder of what some comparative legal studies highlight in terms of drawing attention to the fact that existing legal institutions are but some possibilities and alternatives can and do exist. But beyond this, and precisely because of this, they open our eyes to the possibility of imagining or questioning if some or any alternatives are preferrable from a given point of view.

In other words, this imagining encourages us to think in normative lex ferenda terms, by their very act of drawing attention to the possibility of conceiving alternatives and thus breaking away from the ‘coherentist’ tendency to think and see through the prism of majoritarian or prevalent narratives or world views and from the ‘Rashomon effect’ that makes us ‘perceive’ ‘realities’ (legal ones included, I might add) through our fragile memories and biases. In other words, showing that hegemonic teachings have no monopoly on the realm of possibility. But how can a game achieve or prompt this, one may ask. This requires a brief explanation of what D&D is about and on what levels it can be experienced.

Dungeons and Dragons (the basic rules of which can be accessed here for free) is a game in which most of those who are playing take on the role of a -traditionally- ‘adventurer’, called a player character (PC); while another player takes on the mantle of ‘Dungeon/Game Master’, who simultaneously performs different roles: that of narrating what takes place, impersonating non-player characters or NPCs (i.e. all subjects and persons different from PCs), and serving as a rules-arbiter in terms of determining the outcome of the actions, influences and attempts of PCs, NPCs, and the environment. The game can be played in a rules-heavy or (my preference) rules-light fashion, insofar as rather than playing by fiat, when players seek to achieve something and there is a possibility of failure or success certain rules determine what befalls, based on rolling dice with the likelihood of success increasing if the characters attempting a certain action have pertinent attributes/skills required to do that.

Accordingly, the game is quite open in nature, insofar as players can attempt to do many things in often creative and unexpected ways. Thus, it is not constrained by the limits of video games or traditional board games. Imagination is, in truth, the limit –which does not mean every crazy initiative will succeed.

This being the way in which the game takes place, characters find themselves embroiled in adventures which, in turn, take place in –fictional or not— worlds. And this is where the connections are made evident: while it is possible to play in straightforward adventures –e.g. rescue those who have been kidnapped!, etc.—, politically-loaded games are not unknown, there being official and unofficial worlds in which characters e.g. take on the role of (religious, political, economic, or otherwise) rulers, this being the case of the world of Birthright; or play in a cold-war-style world in which peace was achieved by the adoption and implementation of a tenuous peace treaty after the dissolution of an imperial structure and a little-to-no respected international tribunal is entrusted to prosecute and try war criminals with states having no real interest in surrendering their national suspects to them (sounds familiar? Well, this is the world of Eberron, not an Earth-ICC one…), among others.

This, thus, permits one to conceive of fully alternative or partly different international legal institutions, which convey a medium in which, as mind-related studies on role-playing games indicate, through art (as Nietzchean readings suggest) and also games it is possible to explore horrible and sensitive issues in a psychologically-safe space. What would persuade your PCs to abide by international law? Can its legitimacy increase the likelihood of this being so, or a content-related justice criterion? These and other questions can be explored

One might, in the light of the preceding ideas, consider that these layers are only evident when all of those playing are savvy in terms of international (or domestic) law. Actually, this is not the case by any means. In fact, things get interesting when lawyers and non-lawyers share the (virtual in these pandemic times, or physical) game table. Why so? Because lawyers can experience challenges and questioning by non-lawyers, and the latter learn a bit about legal discussions.

Take an example from one of the games I directed as a DM: a quest to find out what was causing the illness of several individuals led some PC investigators to a land that recently freed itself from the shackles of colonial oppression. Some NPCs had a desire to ‘reconquer’ said land, while locals expressed outrage at their past exploitation. This medium allowed for my players (none of whom were lawyers) to discuss and desire to learn about developments, perspectives and issues related to self-determination and (post-)colonization without attending a lecture or reading from a textbook, with analogies and even reference to international legal developments being pointed out while players showed an interest in discussing these matters.

After all, role-playing allows to engage, among others, in dimensions that are not restricted to those called ‘gamist’ but also to ‘simulationist’ ones in which an alternative reality is ‘experienced’ and explored with a narrative. Hold a second, some might ask: in such a collaborative game (remember, DMs do not dictate what befalls, but impersonate NPCs and must fairly –a loaded term I do not shy away from- adjudicate) is there a ‘narration’? Yes, there can be one.

Why? Because storytelling forms are not restricted to those created by a single author –even Dworkin thought about law as resembling literature in terms of something akin to a collective or chain novel written by different interpreter actors and authorities. And ‘literature’ is not necessarily limited to texts but can embrace different forms of narration, including those made in collective ways, among which RPGs can be seen as an interactive form of literature, as argued by David Jara and Evan Torner. Thus, the rules and the (free-form to a large degree) game allow to ‘narrate’ whilst ‘exploring’ what has been narrated. And this opens up the door to a tremendously important possibility: that of empathetic explorations of the impact of the law, especially considering how storytelling has been an expression that allows humans to forge bonds and cooperation, better understand, and spark the imagination. How come? Let us see.

Law is often explored in a theoretical way, which may be overtly rationalistic (as I explored in this article) or carried out with a (passionate or not) agenda –which in itself often happens, as New Haven school explanations of interactions with legal reality posit. Something that is sometimes missing when the adequacy of the law is analyzed is how its impact and effects on individuals, communities, and the environment, are perceived and felt. Yet, the exploration of why the law says something and how it produces effects affecting entities is quite important, and so is considering their points of view.

Role-playing games, with their open texture and freedom of choice, are perfect possibilities to collectively explore such an impact, even, I dare say, if there is no express allusion to legal matters or legal formation. And this might happen also in ‘straightforward’ or simple plot traditional adventures -but responsibility is required on the part of players. I will provide a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario example. Suppose that your Dungeon Master tells you that someone your characters have a connection with has been kidnapped by a stereotypical villain who threatens to kill them. Further imagine that your adventurers, exploring the lair of said villain, stumble upon one of their henchmen or minions, who they defeat in combat. Then, what can happen? Many things! This is where the openness of the game and creativity are put in the spotlight.

Clever and pacifist PCs may say, for instance, that they befriend and release said henchmen, only to stealthily follow them to the whereabouts of their superior. But other options can be imagined: their documents may be searched to find out a map or, sadly and regrettably, some players might be tempted to ‘intimidate’ that underling. As a Dungeon Master, in that case, I would use that as an opportunity to send an ethical and legal message on the absolute inadmissibility of torture. How? For instance, by showing that, as Beccaria and others have indicated, the intimidated person blurts out anything to spare themselves and hastily provides false information. As has been pointed out, torture should not ever be rewarded or accommodated in D&D.

PCs will hence later see that they did not discover anything and desperation made the other say something. Furthermore, apart from stressing its consequentialist ‘ineffectiveness’ I would insist on the finding and causing of psychological and other scars, trying to show that torture is not only ineffective but intrinsically and categorically reprehensible and horrible in deontological or virtue-based terms, thus sending a message about why we have the jus cogens stance on it we have. I would try to make PCs see and experience the effects of what they have done. Or imagine other scenarios in which they are rulers and enact a new taxation or other kind of law giving privileges to economic actors over the needs of the inhabitants: peasants will endure hardships in their kingdom; or the failure to abide by a peace treaty may end up generating geopolitical implications in other scenarios and many individuals will suffer due to conscription and the senseless and always tragic resort to war by others.

Thus, just like other narratives or ‘literary’ mediums, the game permits all those embroiled in this collective experience, as happens to the reader of novels, to have the opportunity to experience by seeing through the eyes of others thanks to the capacity of art to transmit sensations and feelings (as Tolstoy argued in ‘what is Art’) and have empathy in this safe space, seeing the horrors of cruelty, of unjust laws (I know some positivists will jump at me, but hey, I’m a positivist who also happens to have morality criteria through which I explore the law from a non-positivist perspective), or of the disregard of reasonable laws. For example, in the world of Eberron there is something akin to an IHL that addresses, among others, why it is not acceptable to directly target civilians, among others. A game session can exemplify why its respect is crucial All of this permits the channel of a game to explore and think about the law in terms of alternatives and thinking about our positive legal realities, and also to considerf their everyday or possible impacts in empathetic ways and in dynamics of sensitization, perhaps in terms of poetic justice and other considerations (issues about which Martha Nussbaum has written), among other possibilities, which in the domain of RPGs is, as I have said, may be endless or at the very least quite open

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