For my Master’s Thesis, I study why tabletop role-playing game players change the rules of that type of game. During my Video Games and Society course at UQÀM, I decided to work on a small-scale qualitative study related to my subject by studying the rule modification practices of a small online community. This article is a cut down version of that essay.
The Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D 5e) is currently the most popular tabletop role-playing games (TRPG) on the market. In 2020, more than 50 million players have played it (Wieland, 2021). The modification of the rules in TRPGs is an omnipresent reality of its practice in communities dedicated to playing these games. On platforms like DriveThruRPG.com and dmsguild.com, creators share rules adventures and optional content that players can choose to integrate to their games.
On Reddit, fans of the game share alternative player options, house rules and rule rewrites in online communities such as /r/DnD (2,5 million subscribers), /r/dndnext (552 000 subscribers), /r/DMAcademy (467 000 subscribers), /r/dndmaps (224 000 subscribers) or /r/dndmemes (894 000 subscribers).
To study one example of this phenomenon, this article elaborates on the ways this practice appears in an online community dedicated specifically to D&D 5e. We ask the following research question: how do the members of the /r/UnearthedArcana online community negotiate their relationship with the original rules of the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons?
To study how the /r/UnerthedArcana community modifies the rules, I use three principal ideas:
The modification of rules as an example of appropriation
Appropriation is a phenomenon that we are confronted to when we play. When we play, we have a freedom of action: after all, if we do not press any buttons, we do not play. However, a game cannot force us to execute precise actions, rather, the decision of how we play is under the control of each player (Bonenfant, 2008, p.63).
In a video game, this means that, while it is true that we de not have control over the game’s rules, we choose how we interpret the game, and translate that interpretation into game actions. A player can choose to jump in place for 10 minutes in a video game, if she so desires.
This is different in TRPGs. The rules of TRPGs are not preprogrammed. Rather, the “programming” of the rules is a part of the players’ role. The Game Master and the players are free to follow (or not) the procedures that are suggested in the game’s rule book to solve the narrative situations they are confronted to. Because of this, the application of the rules itself is a part of the game’s appropriation space in this type of game.
As such, we perceive modifying the rules as an example of appropriation from players.
In her chapter Agency and Authority in Role-Playing “Texts” from the book New literacies sampler, Jessica Hammer argues that this type of decision is a part of the collaborative process inherent with TRPGs (Hammer, 2007, p. 70).
In TRPGs, many authors fight to gain authority and agency within a game session. TRPGs, she writes, are the result of three different texts that come together to create a story at the table.
There is the primary author, which is the writer of the rule books. They write the primary text, which codifies the rules of the game and the setting in which the game takes place.
The secondary author, often the Game Master, creates scenarios within the game’s setting and using the rules established by the primary author.
The tertiary author is the players, who “write,” through their actions during play, the final text, which is “read” during the game session (Hammer, 2007: 70–71).
Each of those authors has authority (meaning, the power to restrain the actions of the other authors) and agency (the power to take actions within creation of the roleplaying text) (Hammer, 2007, p. 74). A player, for example, can use their agency to declare that they are doing an action, but the Game Master has the authority to frame her actions within the rules by making her roll to see if she succeeds in that action. In that example, the Game Master did not challenge the player’s power to declare that action but used her authority to decide how it would be played out.
Colin Stricklin, in his master’s thesis, proposes to add the concept of authors of “different order” to Hammer’s model. Authors that are of inferior order to others have less authority or agency than other authors of a superior order, even if they have the same role within the creation of the final text (Stricklin, 2017, p. 34). Stricklin argues that the author of an adventure module (a book which contains a scenario which guides the actions of the players) is a secondary author of superior order to the Game Master. The Adventure Module is also a scenario created within the rules of the game, but is also considered to be more authoritative, because they are official products printed by the game’s producers.
Within the context of this article, the negotiation of agency is perceivable through the way users will collectively decide which rules can be changed and which rules can’t be changed.
For this study, we observe how communities encourage and discourage certain types of contents. Socialization is the process through which individuals internalize and learn the norms and rules of a social community. This phenomenon also happens in online communities (IGI Global, 2022).
We specifically study Reddit. Reddit is a social media agglomeration website. Users subscribe to communities which gather links, images and text posts. Users can subscribe to subcommunities, which allows them to filter for the type of content they want to see. These subcommunities, called “subreddits” often have their own rules, allowed types of contents and social norms (Chandrasekharan et al., 2018, pp. 2–3; Fiesler, 2018).
On Reddit, users can vote on posts, assign posts with special rewards or publish comments under posts. This feedback can impact the visibility of the post. Posts with more upvotes often attract more positive feedback (Lee et al., 2014, pp. 351–352).
Using these feedback tools, Reddit’s community users can boost some types of contents and suppress others. Chandrasekharan et al.identify several orders of norms on Reddit: while some norms are encouraged or discouraged on the whole website, certain, more specific rules, only apply in some online communities. Generally, racist and homophobic content is removed by all moderation teams, but this does not apply in all communities (Chandrasekharan et al., 2018, pp. 16–20). Users of an online community are generally encouraged to share more content if they receive strong feedback on the content that they share (Lee et al., 2014, pp. 351–352).
All of this to say that we understand positive feedback (upvotes, positive and constructive comments, rewards) as being elements that help “good” content be more visible, while negative feedback (downvotes, reports and negative contents) are used by the community to reject some types of content. With these feedback tools, communities socialize users to see some types of contents as good and useful and to see others as bad or “outside the norms.”
A Reddit community of more than 200 000 users, /r/UnerthedArcana was chosen because it is specifically dedicated to the modification of the game’s rules. On the 5th of December, its description read: “A subreddit for D&D 5e homebrew. Fun and smart additions to the game, the friendly Discord of Many Things, and thousands of past submissions to search.” Popular posts on /r/UnearthedArcana are a mix of Game Master tools, new player options and new rules systems for D&D 5e.
The community takes its name the Unearthed Arcana initiative from D&D 5e’s publisher, which consists in publishing content ahead of it being included in a printed product for play testing purposes. The community is only one of many Reddit communities dedicated to discussing D&D 5e.
An online qualitative ethnographic study of 10 /r/UnearthedArcana posts was conducted. Half of the studied posts were selected using the “Best Posts” tool, which filters population according to their number of upvotes, and the other half was picked using the “Controversial” tool, which filters posts with a higher rate of downvotes. Controversial posts were chosen because, while they were slightly less popular, they accumulated a high number of interactions and feedback. Controversial posts with few comments were discarded, to gather more useful data.
The posts mentioned in this article are archived, but screenshots of the posts are also presented throughout the article.
Of the ten selected posts, four add character options for players, two add game mechanics to the game, two are magical items and two are revisions of published spells from the Player’s Handbook.
In general, we notice that the selected posts encourage the addition of options and content to the game. Only two of the 10 selected posts have the explicit goal of directly changing published content. Selected posts seemed to look to create options which could be easily “slid into” the D&D 5e system.
The content’s appearance appears to be heavily codified. Selected posts put considerable efforts to copy the design and aesthetic of the D&DN 5e rule books, through the use of fantasy artworks and the way they organize information.
The only selected post that radically veers away from the book’s artistic direction (Post 9) received downvotes at a much higher rate than most other selected posts. It also received negative feedback in the comments about its appearance.
Moreover, we notice how users copy the way the published rules are written. As part of maintaining rule coherence, Wizards of the Coasts has adopted a codified sentence and wording structure to present the rule of the game. This practice is imitated by users who post content in the community.
We interpret this adoption of the style, disposition and wording in the selected posts as a form of appeal to authority. Copying the primary author’s aesthetic choices seems to be a factor important to increase visibility on /r/UnearthedArcana. Users are socialized to publish content which is beautiful and in line with published D&D 5e content. The omnipresence of these elements within the selected posts leads us to believe that users appeal to the authority of the primary text to have their content is accepted by the community.
The users of /r/UnearthedArcana seemingly concern themselves heavily with “balancing.” The idea of “game balance” is that game abilities unlocked at a similar time should have a relatively equal power level in game. To separate balanced content from unbalanced content, the community compares the content of the selected posts to official rules. This is used to determine the validity of the content:
These comments that concern themselves over the content’s balancing are also present under controversial posts but have a noticeably more negative tone. Many of these comments are not constructive.
We also notice the use of what I would call argumentative theorycrafting in the comments. Some users invent scenarios and combine ability effects to prove that some content is unbalanced. This type of comment generally receives positive feedback.
The method is quasi-scientific: by showing how game abilities interact with the proposed rule modifications, the users can “prove” the unbalanced aspect of the content. This is used to fabricate a justification to reject the content or ask that the content be changed.
The efforts of the community’s members to encourage “balanced” modifications and to criticize “unbalanced” modifications generates an environment where the original rules are elevated as the ultimate decider of the usefulness of a modification.
Some selected posts (1, 7, 9) have generated comments which discouraged some types of rule changes.
In Post 1, the usage of feats and attunement were judged as incoherent with the game’s design intentions. For those who don’t know, feats are optional, generic, abilities that all characters can unlock if they meet the requirements and attunement is a rule that says that a character must magically “connect” to certain magical items to use their power. Normally, characters can only be attuned to three items at a time.
In Post 7, the fact that the user created a magic item ability that used an "Action" rather than an "attack" was heavily criticized.
In the only comment chain under Post 9, the user Bjorn_styrkr argues that the content is unbalanced because it goes against many game principles.
In the three Posts where the phenomenon was observed, users seemingly argued that there was a correct way to use the game’s mechanics when changing the rules. Additional attunements should not be a benefit given to everyone, magical weapons need to be more powerful on martial characters, healing HP should be done a certain way etc.
In these three examples, community members seem to have interpreted design intentions within D&D 5e’s rule books. These design intentions are vague and imprecise, but, whatever they are, users are socialized to respect them and use their feedback tools to impose them on other users’ content.
We argued that modifying the rules is a form of appropriation. The selected posts are, in addition to that, mediatized products. They are media products, created by users who were inspired by the original game. In a way, these TRPG modifications are fanfictions for tabletop role-playing games: the user uses their own creativity and the game’s content to create their own, entirely new, content, which she posts online for feedback.
The community seemingly has decided that the definition of “changing the rules” is the addition of contents and systems which do not unbalance the experience and who respect D&D 5e’s design intentions.
On /r/UnearthedArcana, many appropriations are judged harshly. The community seemingly has decided that the definition of “changing the rules” is the addition of contents and systems which do not unbalance the experience and who respect D&D 5e’s design intentions. The selected controversial posts infringe on this definition in some way. Reddit’s feedback tools are used to limit the visibility of posts who features unbalanced ideas or ideas which “use the rules badly.”
It is interesting to note that the two posts that features proposals to rewrite rules were both found using the “controversial” tool. In the comments, users did not directly criticize the idea of changing the spells, but rather the way that the spells were changed. We hypothesize that this could show that the “social proof” needed to modify published rules is greater than other contents.
The majority of the selected posts instead take the shapes of additions to the game’s rules: new subclasses, new magic items, new mechanics, etc. These additions respect the published content and invest a lot of effort to mimic the aesthetic and the wording of the original books. 9 of the 10 selected posts made the effort to copy the disposition of information, the wording of the rules and the artistic direction of the published books.
This section refers to the concepts presented by Jessica Hammer (2008) to the previous observations. This research does not assume the role played by each user in their own game and only attempts to observe mediatized discussions about the phenomenon. At the end of the day, the only text accessible by the /r/UnearthedArcana community is the primary text, the rule books.
In a way, the community negotiates its framework agency with the primary text. The rule books are the main source of authority on /r/UnearthedArcana. This authority translates into an important preoccupation from users that the content of the posts should be balanced with the rest of the game. Comparisons with the rule books, argumentative theorycrafting and arguments based on respecting D&D 5e’s design intents are tools used to denounce the users who “attack” D&D 5e’s basic premises. Reddit’s feedback tools are used to socialize users into creating modifications which do not oppose D&D 5e’s system.
It is important to note, however, that the rule books are not seen as untouchable. The controversial Post 6 proposes changing the True Strike spell. In the comments, users do not criticize that premise (some users even agree that the spell is underpowered), but remain critical towards the content of Post 6. Popular posts 1 and 4 both contain users who say that the proposed modifications are relevant because they perceive problems with the game’s published rules.
The community gives itself the agency to add elements to D&D 5e’s rules and the ability to change them but codifies the ways that this can be achieved. When the community agrees that the content of the posts is inadequate in some way, it imposes the rules’ authority by denouncing the content in the comments or by downvoting.
Negotiation with the primary text also happens between the users who publish content and the /r/UnearthedArcana community. Colin Stricklin’s concept of authors of different relative order is useful here. Users who publish present themselves to the community as potential "primary authors", who are of inferior order to the published texts. The posts they share can be conceptualized as lower order primary texts, relative to the rule books.
The users who share this content do not have any authority to start with, and their agency is limited by the primary text’s authority and by the community’s approval. The posts they publish are visual and textual arguments to justify their potential addition to the primary text.
Let’s go back to the appeal to authority metaphor that we used earlier. The usage of the rule books aesthetic, the “correct” wording and the respect of the game’s balance are negotiation efforts made to showcase the relevancy of the content as a primary text. These elements are what allow, in the eyes of the community, invented rules to be integrated to the primary text of the game.
“I would add this to my game” is the ultimate form of approval of a modified rule on /r/UnearthedArcana, because it means that the community judges the content to be “close enough to the original content” to be integrated into the primary text.
Obviously, this integration is purely hypothetical: users on /r/UnearthedArcana talk about D&D 5e, but do not play D&D 5e. Changing the game’s framework, changing the rule, is still ultimately decided by each play group individually.
This article used the concepts of RPG authorship by Jessica Hammer, Maude Bonenfant’s appropriation, and online socialization to understand how the /r/UnearthedArcana community modifies the rules of D&D 5e. By studying the content, the comments, and the votes of 10 posts who generated a good amount of feedback during the month of November 2021, certain findings were formulated.
The /r/UnearthedArcana community places the primary text of the game as the most important source of authority to identify the quality of the posts submitted by users. Popular posts adopt the aesthetic and the wording of the official rules. This aesthetic effort functions as an appeal to authority: if the modified rules are well presented, they can be considered “serious” alterations.
Moreover, we noticed how the community socializes its users to create content that was balanced with the classes, abilities and magical items published by Wizards of the Coast. Content that is seen as unbalanced receives more negative feedback and derogatory comments, while content that is seen as balanced receives positive and constructive feedback.
On /r/UnearthedArcana, changing the rules is all about adding balanced content to the game. Good modifications take the form of content who respects the “design intents” of D&D 5e and that can easily slide into the published rules. The community encourages some forms of appropriation but rejects others.
It is important to note that this ethnographic analysis has a very limited range. Only 10 posts were selected for the study, and these posts only represent a small part of the content posted in the community during the period. These results are therefore not generalizable. Moreover, this article does not consider the demography and the motivation of the users of /r/UnearthedArcana.
With that being said, studying the 10 selected posts revealed that the /r/UnearthedArcana has developed a relationship with the rules of D&D 5e which frames the modification of its rules as adding content rather than other forms, like rewriting the rules. The posts that were judged unbalanced or that failed to consider the design intents of D&D 5e were discarded through the use of Reddit’s feedback tools. The rule books, as the only common text, was employed as the ultimate source of authority to determine the relevancy of a rules modification over another.
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Lukasz, Mélodia, Jaënie, Bolgeirr and Azura, STAY OUT! You'll only ruin your own fun if you read this.
This is an after-action report about my backstory canonization method, which I describe here.
The “Vampires of Varmand” campaign started as a one shot, probably, like two years ago? I did not expect my players, at the time, to have backstories for their characters. Well, the one shot ended up lasting two sessions and then we were all available to play every two weeks for a while, so what was supposed to be a one-shot ended up lasting 15 sessions. We then took an extended break, mostly because I left to go start work as an intern in another city.
This year, we decided that we wanted to reboot the campaign. We did a time skip and my players told me that they wanted to go to another country: the island “nation” (it’s complicated) of Dobrovnia: a region mostly inhabited by Not-Polish™ halflings and goliaths.
When we started back up, I realized just how vague the PC’s backstories still were. This is not a problem, really: DnD is what happens at the table, not what happened in the mysterious past of the player characters. However, I wanted to flesh the stories out, because there was some stuff in there that I wanted to use in the game, but, with no specific details to use, I would end up basically having to reinvent my player's backstory to create NPCs and events, which, I feel, would have been a bit impolite.
It’s not that my players had no backstories, it’s that these backstories were vague and unusable. One of my players had written great pages-long short stories. Another player had invented a nomadic desert culture and created words to use from her mother tongue. Another had attracted the ire of an imperial guild, but what she had done was unclear. Another had no backstory, but we were going to spend the next 6 sessions in the kingdom he grew up in.
I wanted to transform these disparate pieces of information into something I could easily reuse in the upcoming sessions, so I summoned my players one by one, over the course of two weeks, to have a chat about their backstory and, well, make them canon.
Lukasz had basically no backstory when we started, except for a single incident. The player had created the character because he retired his old one, an elvish bard named Théodore Isaa and had given little thought on the life of Lukasz.
Lukasz, we knew, was a sailor, whose father died during a storm while he was on board. He ended up washing ashore in the Kingdom of Bélor (where our campaign was taking place at the time) and took up adventuring to pay for a trip back to Dobrovnia. Lukasz’s player had mentioned off-handedly that his character had been a soldier as well. That’s what I wanted to flesh out.
We started the "canonization" session with me explaining to him the political situation in Dobrovnia (long story short: Viking invasion of Polish-England). I explained to him that the current war was driven to a stalemate, but that, if he still wanted to have been a soldier in the past he could have participated in that war. He was still interested. We decided that his home city had raised an army to face one of the warring kingdoms and that he was conscripted. Lukasz took part in a disastrous battle and basically “deserted” by going back to his family fishing job and getting stuck in a storm.
From this, we derived many NPCs that were a part of Lukasz’s squad. He will probably/most definitely run into them in the coming sessions.
Mélodia was the character that had wronged a guild in the past, but like, the details were confusing. When I met with her, my goal was to figure out exactly what happened and what the consequences of those actions were.
Now, this character plays as a Genasi, but she's actually a shapeshifter under an assumed identity (we decided not to name the character, only her identities). From this, we talked about how shapeshifters were treated in the Empire of Sollais, where she came from. We talked about how, while living in poverty, she attracted the attention of an NPC, who saw her potential and allowed her to join the Imperial Guild of Engineers of Sollais. At the time, she had another identity, which we built. The Guild proved really useful to inspire NPCs: we invented a rival, a mentor figure and a friend that she had.
Things, of course, went wrong. I asked my player why her character had betrayed the guild and how she had done so. She said that one of her inventions (the Thundercannon, from the Unearthed Arcana Artificer) was going to be tested by a particularly cruel officer. Mélodia rebelled, destroyed all the copies of the schematics she made for the Guild and ran away. After this, she explained how she would have hidden from the Guild. We invented how she almost got caught by Imperial Spies (and the NPCs that almost caught her!). This session ended up providing me with very interesting future plot hooks and some very interesting world building to implement in future games.
This is the character of a player who had written a very deep backstory for her character. My goal, with this meeting, was to decide where these events took place and make sure that the details in my head lined up with the details in her head.
I added details to her tragic story about her home village being sacked. I mentionned some symbols she could recognize in game, modified some of the events she had written about to better fit with what I had planned, stuff like that. This event was a big deal in her backstory. My goal was to make her creation work better with the bad guys I had decided were responsible for these awful events. This, let's be clear, wasn't about removing her ideas from her backstory, but rather about making sure that everything lined up, so that we wouldn't end up in an awkward situation where I would have had to tell her the details of her backstory at the table, y'know?
Then, we detailed what happened in between this event and the start of the campaign. She explained that her character would have been obsessed with finding out more about the people who destroyed her old life. We created events to explain how she found additional clues about what happened to her village during her voyages and created NPCs she met during her journey. Again, this ended up being very productive, and I hope I will get to use this stuff soon.
The player who created Bolgeirr was a new addition to the group, and his character came in at the same time as the reboot of the campaign. My goals with my meeting with him was to figure out how the character became friends with an NPC that I used to introduce him in the game, but we ended up creating more.
First, we invented how monasteries in his Viking-like culture worked. We invented the god they worshiped, their philosophy and how they practiced rituals to celebrate their goddess of the hunt. We talked about the character's education. We created NPCs from the monastery, such as a teacher, a friend and a rival. We decided that he met Martiin (the NPC from the campaign) when he was washed ashore their island. Martiin, a monster hunter by trade, inspired adolescent Bolgeirr to travel the world, which he eventually ended up doing, leaving his monastery to find his own glory in the thrill of the hunt.
During this new part of his backstory, we solved another issue we had with the character. Bolgeirr was underpowered compared to the other characters in play, because of his lack of magical items. We decided that he had created (as in built and had someone else enchant) some +1 tridents with unique abilities, based on the numerous monsters he had hunted in the past. During this phase of his life, he met Martiin again (yay!) and was recruited to join the campaign, as a “professional” monster hunter. Some very interesting world building happened, and we managed to patch up his character, that felt a bit lackluster in his current form, in comparison with the other veterans of the campaign.
At time of writing, I haven’t had the opportunity to play many sessions of this campaign since doing this process. However, I find it much easier to use the player’s backstories for the campaign. Plus, I find the collaborative world building we did to be interesting, and they really helped to flesh out my world.
I will flesh this part out more as I gather more examples of how this helped me in the game! Thanks for reading! I hope you got something out of it.
If you want to read after-action reports of this method, click below!
Creating backstories for players characters in roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons is often a task entirely relegated to the players. This is fine, of course. In my experience, however, I feel that working like that can lead to the backstory being underutilized in-game.
One of the examples I lived through was a player who made a very complex backstory with interwoven plot hooks and character motivations. It was a good backstory, but I never really found opportunities to have encounters related to it.
So, I took the initiative to “canonize” my players’ backstories. We met on Discord and we decided built their backstory together. I would share my screen, put up a map of my world, and we would talk about their character. Players get to ask questions; you get to come up with answers. The result is a much richer backstory and world. Usually, this conversation will last an hour or two, depending on the player.
What does the player want to happen in their backstories? Where did the events happen in the world? Did they meet cool NPCs along the way?
During the session, you question your player, and you make their answers fit in the world. When they say that their cousin was a noble, you can tell them how nobles exist in your world and decide what kind of power their noble cousin have. The player came up with the idea. You made it work.
The goal, in so many words, was to turn those backstories into elements I could easily use at the table.
This type of session nothing new, of course, but I never really found tips on how to do it. So, I am writing it down, now that I’ve done it with over ten players in two games.
Here are the basic steps I follow.
This comes with making the character sheet.
The player probably has answers to these questions before the backstory session.
Next, we start establishing what the previous decisions mean in your world. If your world is already well thought out, you can suggest areas, locations, and societies from where the player character might have come from. It is my opinion that you should always prioritize making your player’s ideas work, rather than making their ideas bend to your world. If your player says they come from a magical forest, but you don’t have one, invent one!
You should always prioritize making your player’s ideas work, rather than making their ideas bend to your world.
Players often have ideas for their backstory. Work with these ideas. The player should feel like they can modify your world and leave their mark on it. Then, I usually divide the backstory into periods of the character’s life. Something like this:
These general periods can then be slowly filled chronologically with the player. The goal is not to be thorough: being overly detailed will take way too much time and end up stifling creativity down the line.
Rather, the goal here is to provide yourself with narrative tools with the player’s help. Create NPCs you can use. Create interesting locations, cities or landmarks. Develop NPC factions that the player knows and would recognize.
Rather, the goal here is to provide yourself with narrative tools with the player’s help. Create NPCs you can use. Create interesting locations, cities or landmarks. Develop NPC factions that the player knows and would recognize.
In the previous example, you could ask the player what growing up in that forest was like, what kind of relationship they had with their parents or friend and why they felt the need to leave. The player might come up with very complex answers or very simple ones. Just with these questions, we can decide on a few named NPCs. Did that PC have a friend in the forest? A rival? What about their parent? Are they still alive? Where are they now?
Once done, you end up with a few locations that the player helped build and a handful of NPCs that you can have show up in play.
It all seems a bit underwhelming, doesn’t it?
Your players will ask questions, you will provide or invent answers and discover more details about how your world works.
If anything, this is simply a post to say, “this is something you can do!”.
I don’t recommend this for every game. In some games, the player’s backstories are not the point, while in others, the backstories are thoroughly mined for plot hooks.
This is a very time-consuming process. Honestly, I would recommend doing this process after a few sessions of play. Doing it before the first session might lead to you overworking yourself unnecessarily and might lead to disappointment if a character ends up dying during the first levels of the game.
Those that know me might know that I am slightly fascinated by tabletop role-playing games. Fascinated enough, at least, to make it into my research subject for my master’s thesis. This article is my attempt to summarize my research subject, which I am about to dedicate a whole year of my life to.
I’m not intimidated at all by that idea, what are you talking about?
For this article, I hope to quickly summarize what I will be studying for my master’s thesis: the rules of Dungeons and Dragons’ 5th edition (DnD 5e).
I am of the opinion, an opinion stolen by a certain Matt Colville, that Dungeons and Dragons is the most fun activity to do with your brain. However, it is an activity that is kind of hard to summarize, because it is both … mmmh … simple AND complicated.
Fundamentally, a tabletop role-playing game (tabletop RPGs) is a collective hallucination. It’s an activity where a group of players create a story together. Players control a character. Each player decides how their character acts, thinks, and reacts to the eventsin the story. One of the players takes up the role of the Game Master (GM). That role involves describing the space, the events of the story and the reactions of the world to the player’s actions. These two roles are limited (we will come back to this idea, promise) by the game’s rules, which suggest several procedures to decide how the result of many dramatic situations should be resolved.
The “collective hallucination” part comes up when we learn that all game actions are often only imagined. Most of the time, players do not use figurines, maps and objects, except in some situations, like during combat scenes. Most of the time, narrative events are told orally.
“Your character climbs over the rocks and spots a ravine a few meters in front of her. What do you do?”
“I want to make a running jump over the ravine!”
“Perfect. That would be an Athletics roll. Can you do that for me?”
“Your character runs the few meters and throws themselves over the several meters deep ravine. Your feet touch the ground on the other side without issue.”
Writing a story, creating a text, requires an author (meaning “someone who writes it”). I hope to teach you nothing here. The Lords of the Rings would not exist without J.R.R. Tolkien. Garfield wouldn’t exist without Jim Davis.
(I know that naming these authors side by side is sacrilegious. No, I will not apologize.)
However, what happens when a story has many authors, many simultaneous texts? It’s complicated, but tabletop RPGs are an example of such a situation.
In the example of the player jumping over the ravine, we can see of the authors in action. Jessica Hammer talks about the various texts which fight over authority in an RPG session. These texts are primary, secondary and tertiary. The rule book, here, is the primary text: it codifies the rules of the game. The secondary text is created by the GM, which establishes the specific challenges and the environment of the game. The tertiary text is generated with the help of the player, when she took the decision that her character would jump over the ravine (Hammer, 2007: 70–71).
The player has a very powerful power of authorship over the story, even if she only comes in when creating the tertiary text. What would have happened if the player had instead chosen to analyze the environment to find another way to cross? The Game master would have had to react. While doing so, she would have had to take many creative decisions. Are there other ways to cross? Are these other ways obvious enough, or would they require a dice roll? If they require a roll, how should she use the rules?
The game is also an author (or rather, the team behind the game is an author) to consider during a session. In the rules of the game, it is written that dangerous challenges (jumping over the ravine) should be solved with a dice roll, because it is possible for the player to fail.
These different texts impose restrictions on each other. The rules of the game impose procedures to the players and the Game Master. The challenges thusly created restrict player actions. However, the inverse is also true. The player can invent creative solutions to invalidate the “planned text” of the GM. The GM can refuse to work with the rules and invent new solutions to better fit with the ideas of the tertiary text (when the player faces the challenges of the GM and the rules) (Stricklin, 2017: 34–35).
“Okay, but, you’re in communication studies. What’s the link between all this and communication?”
I’m getting there, imaginary person. I swear.
A rule book, like the Player’s Handbook in Dungeons and Dragons, is a mediated product. It is a book, it has words in it. We understand these words and we use them to understand how we should play the game. Let me invoke the name of a guy here, Stuart Hall.
Hall says that there is no link between the message that the creators of a piece of media wish to send and the message that the spectators understand. In a movie, the images, words, camera angles, colors, etc., are chosen by the creators to try to communicate a specific message. Then, people like us interpret the content of the piece. To do so, we use what we know of the world and what we believe in, because, in the end, we do not have access to the heads of the creators. Hall estimates that there are three ways to receive such a message:
I am supposed to be talking about Dungeons and Dragons. I’m coming back to that. The rules of a tabletop role-playing game are generally propagated by a rule book. These games are complex but will always be unable to provide rules for every imaginable situation. Rather, the game assumes that the GM can use her power of authorship over the story to improvise solutions when the rules would be inadequate. In the DnD 5e rule book, it is even written in the first pages (on the 5th page of the Player’s Handbookand on the 4th page of the Dungeon Master’s Guide).
I hypothesize, therefore, that different players will have different interpretations of the rules and that they will apply them differently. Every player chooses which rules are okay to change and which rules that should not be changed. Let me reword this: players can sometimes accept the hegemonic message of the media, or reject it and generate their own interpretations, in opposition to what the book says.
An example that I found fascinating of the variety of interpretations of the game rules comes from Émilie Paquin’s master’s thesis on group dynamics in RPGs, published last year. She observed three groups in play. In one section, she summarizes their relationship with the game rules.
In the first group, players were conformists with the rules: players limited their character’s actions according to the possibilities encouraged by the game they played. In another group, the players kept testing the limits of the system and questioned the GM on if the rules could be modified. The GM in this group sometimes chose to ignore the result of some dice rolls, for narrative reasons. In a third group, the players, less used to tabletop RPGs, referred to the procedures of the game they played and on the knowledge of the GM. The Game Master, in this group, created a rule to reward player actions that fit with their character (Paquin, 2020: 133). The GM also modified the rules to better represent the actions the players chose to do (Paquin, 2020: 131–134).
Her research subject is barely related to mine, but we can still notice how the players’ relationship with the game changed drastically between different groups. Some players respected the limits imposed by the rules so much as to base their decision-making on what the game “allowed them” to do. Others expected the rules to bend in ways to make their in-game ideas possible. In some cases, the players created new rules to encourage new behaviors.
It only takes a few conversations with DnD players to see just how much this relation with the rules varies. In some groups, races (elves, dwarves, etc.) are absent, replaced by others. In other groups, homemade classes are made for players and monsters are created to provide unique challenges. Some create rules for systems that do not exist in the base game, like rule sets to allow players to fabricate potions, facilitate exploration of the game world or systems to negotiate item prices for merchants. In online communities, such as the/r/DnDBehindTheScreen (408 k subscribers), /r/DnDHomebrew (119 k subscribers) and/r/UnearthedArcana (179 k subscribers) subreddits, thousands of players share custom rule sets.
Finally, let's talk about my research subject. For real, this time. I prefer not formulating a complete research question, to avoid embarrassing myself when I end up changing it in like two days, but here goes.
What I would like to study is how the interpretation of the rules varies from player to player. Why do some players, but not all of them, modify the rules? Which rules are changed? Why change these rules, but keep others?
The objective of this project would be to establish a solid theoretical foundation of this phenomenon and then interview DnD 5e players. I want to understand how they interpret the rules and, moreover, how they ended up creating their own changes to the rules. In the future, I wish to use 4 cafés as my space to share my progress and my discoveries on the subject!
If this is a subject that interests you, contact me! It would make me tremendously happy to learn about your opinions and discuss!
Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and Decoding in the television discourse, 22.
Hammer, J. (2007). Agency and authority in role-playing texts. Dans M. Knobel et C. Lankshear (under the direction of.), A new literacies sampler (vol. 29, p. 67‑94). Peter Lang Publishing.
Paquin, É. (2020, april). Dynamiques des groupes restreints dans les jeux de rôle sur table [thesis accepted]. Université du Québec à Montréal.
Stricklin, C. (2017, may). Off the Rails: Convergence through Tabletop Role-Playing Modules [University of Wyoming].
Wizard of the Coast. (2014a). Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition, Dungeon Master’s Guide. Wizard of the Coast.
Wizard of the Coast. (2014b). Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition, Player’s Handbook. Wizard of the Coast.