Wizards and clerics, democracies and autocracies

This years marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). For those unfamiliar with it, D&D was the grandfather of tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs), which mix storytelling, improv, strategy and chance: each player assumes the role of one character with attributes and skills, vices and virtues, and together they face the challenges put forth by one of the players – the Dungeon Master or Game Master – who controls the narration and plays all other characters and creatures. It’s a simple notion, but over the last forty years D&D has had a considerable influence on a large swatch of modern pop culture.It’s not just geeks who say so: when Gary Gygax – one of D&D‘s co-creators – passed away in 2008 even The Economist published an obituary:

His influence extends even to people who have never conjured a fireball in anger. Today’s world is a nerd’s world, and Mr Gygax did much to shape it. Blockbuster fantasy films like “The Lord of the Rings” are produced and directed by people who grew up with the game. Computer games are part of mainstream culture; “World of Warcraft”, an internet-based D&D clone, boasts 10m subscribers. Many of the people who built the internet (and their fortunes) spent their childhoods playing the game.

Besides being a really entertaining game which can actually strengthen some of the qualities needed for professional and impersonal success, D&D‘s imagined worlds also force you to think about questions of morality, religion, legitimacy and even social science theory. For instance, the success of player characters in overcoming obstacles in their path depends crucially on their ability to work together; free-riders tend to endanger the group, and so D&D players learn to solve collective action problems. But perhaps the most interesting analogy that we can find in Dungeons & Dragons is the usefulness of typological theory for explaining the world.

Much of our theory on the politics of development is built on types of things: Are democracies better at poverty-reduction than autocracies? Do governed markets generate more growth than free ones? Are strong states better the poor than weak ones? But typologies are tricky analytical instruments. In the past twenty years the field of democratization studies has illustrated very clearly the trade-offs of defining types as scholars and practitioners began discussing the various forms of hybrid regimes between democracy and autocracy. These days in development politics it is the concept of political settlement – espoused by DFID itself and widely employed by ESID – that promises to explain the difference between cases of competitive clientelism and dominant parties. The latest thinking on the matter is that two types may be too simplistic a distinction, that more granularity is needed for theory to have practical relevance. But how many types are too many?

Roll 1d20 against your skill on typology
Roll 1d20 and add your typology skill bonus

If you started playing Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 you had the choice of creating three types of characters: Cleric, Fighting-man, and Magic-user. Each character class was based on a broad archetype drawn from sword and sorcery fiction: your character could invoke the power of the gods to heal and protect, master the use of weapons and armor, or manipulate the world through the use of magic. An early supplement to the original game soon added a fourth class, the Thief, thus forming the canon of core D&D characters types to this day. But as the game evolved and became a hobby players and creators alike introduced new types to the rules: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977) added the Bard and the Monk as standard classes, as well as a number of sub-classes: the Druid, a sub-type of Cleric who worships nature; the Assassin, a sub-type of Thief who specializes in murder and poison; the Paladin and Ranger, sub-types of Fighting-man (now called Fighter) who combine martial prowess with – respectively -holy powers and wilderness skills; and the Illusionist, a sub-type of Magic-user specializing in magic that deceives.

In its first three years of existence D&D went from 3 character classes to 6 base classes plus 5 sub-classes. When the 2nd edition of Advanced D&D hit the shelves in 1989 the core book included 8 core classes divided into four “groups”: Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue. In 2000 the game’s 3rd edition added included the Barbarian and Sorcerer (a less bookish Wizard) as core classes; and in 2008 the 4th edition included the Warlock (an even less bookish Wizard) as well as the Warlord (a charismatic combat leader). That got the running total over the years to 13 core character types, expanded with endless specializations and sub-classes. Are all those classes representative of fictional archetypes? Was there such a big difference between a Cleric and a Wizard to begin with? What happens when a typology ceases to be a flexible ideal for simplifying reality and becomes instead a constraining set of boxes in which everything must fit?

Classic D&D: black & white and no Warlocks
Classic D&D: black & white and no hybrid regimes

A backlash to the proliferation of options has been a mass desertion of players back to the earlier editions of the game, deliberately confining themselves to the original 3 or 4 classes that – paradoxically – allowed for greater flexibility in character creation. As the upcoming 5th edition of the game takes shape, a lot of the online chatter among D&D geeks has centered on this dilemma: what is a class, what should be a sub-class, and how many of them should be included in the rulebook. The search for context and uniqueness has muddled the original typology beyond recognition, even raising the questions of whether a typology is even useful to begin with.

The proliferation of such terms as “illiberal democracy”, “competitive authoritarianism”, “dominant-party democracy”, “developmental autocracy”, and so on, betrays the same typological problem as the proliferation of Paladin, Ranger, Barbarian, Monk and Warlord: “democracy with adjectives” for the former, “Fighter-with-adjectives” for the latter. And right now that is precisely the dilemma that theorists of development confront: there is an overwhelming consensus that no single template or best practice can hope to solve development challenges everywhere (some prominent researchers are making a career out of repeatedly stating this truth), and yet many of us question whether just saying “context matters” can lead to anything but the dilution of our analytical typologies, which are the basis for most the causal analysis that we do. Surely two types of political settlement or regime are not enough: the world is far too complex for that. But where is the threshold beyond which we abandon typological theory and enter instead the realm of interval coding, which has little significance for policy-makers?

Perhaps we could take a cue from D&D co-creator Gary Gygax and restrict ourselves to 3 or 4 basic types; Max Weber himself did that when he devised his three modes of domination: law, tradition and charisma. The trap of typological thinking is forgetting that types are not supposed to capture all empirical outcomes, but only the basic analytical categories which allow us to establish meaningful comparisons by making reference to them. Typologies are models, not representations; tools, not contexts. And the minute a tool starts to create more problems than it solves perhaps the time has come to abandon it. So stop coming up with new types of political regime, and go play some Dungeons & Dragons.