A Good Argument Is Like A Good Game Of Dungeons And Dragons.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I spent all day Saturday planning how to murder my best friend. But come Sunday morning, there it was: five levels of the deadliest dungeons that my fourteen-year-old brain could devise.

This was gonna be the best D&D game ever.

Even now, I can recall that dungeon’s particulars: there were hidden traps designed to pulp Bryan’s character, long line-ups of monsters that would eviscerate him, and in the end sat Asmodeus – the devil with the most hit points I could find in the Monster Manual.

As a fourteen-year-old Dungeonmaster, my goal was to obliterate my friend in the shortest time possible. In retrospect, had Bryan showed up, his fifteenth-level wizard wouldn’t have made it past the first room, and I would have crowed in triumph at having defeated him.

Fortunately, Bryan was sick that Sunday, so I never got to run it. Which is just as well. It would have been a crappy game.

What I’ve learned since is that as a DM, it’s pretty easy to kill your characters. “[https://somethingpositive.net/comic/peejee-dragons-pt-6/][Rocks fall, everyone dies]” is a trope for a reason – when you have infinite power, it’s trivial to throw increasing hazards in your players’ way until they’re crushed.

But that’s not an interesting story.

And what my fourteen-year-old self didn’t understand is that good roleplaying is not a combative experience – it’s a cooperative one. I don’t “win” the game by defeating my opponents, I win the game by telling a story that satisfies all of us. And yes, that story often involves throwing hazards in people’s way – what fun is a tale that involves no challenges? – but I’m not there to stare my players down, I’m there to join hands with them to find a central truth.

Now here’s the trick:

Arguing is the same way. The good versions are collaborative, not oppositional.

I can always tell when a conversation’s going to be unproductive, because too many doofuses approach arguing in format debate terms: Two of you step into the ring with your assertions, and one person emerges victorious.

There’s a problem with that framing, though. Note how your goal is not to “arrive at the truth,” but rather “to prove you are correct.”

A bad argument is the equivalent of “Rocks fall, everyone dies.” Trust me, I’m a writer: there are hundreds of techniques I can pull out to make my shit look shiny.

People would have you believe that “winning an argument” exposes the truth, but that’s simply not true: all too often, “winning an argument” means that you’re quicker on your feet than your opponent, that you’re wittier than your opponent, that you’re better at deflecting questions than your opponent, that you’re more shameless about lying than your opponent, or – especially on the Internet – that you have more time than your opponent.

If “winning an argument” invariably meant the truth emerged victorious along with you, then we’d have no creationists, or holocaust deniers, or anti-vaxxers. But there’s been any number of confident scientists who’ve stepped into the ring with people whose thoughts were absolute garbage, only to find that whoah, a winning smile and a torrent of cheerful bullshit won over the crowd.

This doesn’t just apply to political debates, either. All too often relationship arguments consist of two people staking out their corners – “You hurt me” “No, you hurt me” – and bashing until someone surrenders. All too often, the victors in those engagements aren’t winning because they are correct, they’re winning because they have a greater tolerance for the pain of emotional conflict.

Making arguments into oppositional engagements leads to, well, rocks falling. And everybody dying.

Whereas I argue that fruitful arguments should be collaborative endeavors – not “You must be wrong,” but rather two people honestly asking, “What is the truth, and how do we find it?”

That’s a tricky thing to find, because you have to find fundamentally honest people to engage with. As I’ve noted, it’s trivially easy to poison an argument by lying, deflecting, or just plain charisma.

Then again, it’s not always easy to find good players for D&D, either.

But if you can find someone whose goal is “What is the truth?” then suddenly you have astounding possibilities – the largest of which is that someone can admit they’re wrong and not be penalized for it.

More importantly – particularly in emotional conflicts – the collaborative approach turns questions from “Who hurt who?” into “What went wrong, and can we fix it?”

The collaborative approach is a lot trickier, because like D&D, it’s a lot easier to just throw the biggest monsters in front of someone and let ’em try to battle through. Honestly asking “What went wrong?” opens the possibility that you did something to contribute to the hurt you’re feeling – or even that the hurt you’re feeling is unjustified, and your angry reaction is perhaps the result of buried trauma you’ve never gotten over. And yet you have to be careful to protect yourself, because yes, perhaps, your reaction was unjustified, but you’re also not a robot and sometimes a good partner has to work around irrational hot buttons that can’t be easily defused through therapy.

Collaborative arguments lead to hard discussions – politically, you run straight into the issues of “compassion vs limited resources,” “security versus freedom,” of “your personal boundaries versus people’s rights to speak out.” And emotionally, you run into the problems that people are complex, illogical beings with their own desires, where “compassion” looks very different to almost every person who needs it.

And in all of those arguments lies that careful balance of “Being understanding of other people’s potentially reasonable viewpoints without selling your own needs and philosophies out from underneath yourself.” (Or even, at the extremes, understanding that you don’t have enough common ground to work with and have to be honestly oppositional – which means a breakup if it’s personal.)

Collaboratively arguing is hard. But, I’d argue, oppositionally arguing is equally hard, and it accomplishes almost nothing except for spectacle and temporary satisfaction. Dropping the rocks on someone when you’re in the GM’s seat has the fierce joy that crushing a bad arguer in your comments section does, but does it accomplish all that much?

Does it get you closer to the truth?

I dunno. I try to be as humble as possible in my interactions with people, but the biggest problem I see is people confusing “arguments” for “two people yell loud at one another until one stops posting.” They’re not actually interacting, except to prove each other wrong; there’s no possibility of the other admitting fault. It’s just this ritual interaction, like my friend Bryan showing up to face down Asmodeus, knowing that this would accomplish nothing except a lot of broken rocks and a lot of dead bodies.

Bryan didn’t show up that Sunday.

It was the smartest move he could have made.

1 Comment

  1. Doug S.
    Dec 9, 2020

    “Can we fix it” is often not the mode someone is operating in. People don’t always want solutions to the things they’re complaining about.

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