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.
Trying Cyberpunk 2020 for the first time was a blast. The tabletop RPG was showing it's age of course, but it allowed me and my friends to experience a totally different RPG experience. First thing I learned though: worldbuilding for a modern world is really, really different.
The Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop RPG, the inspiration behind the Cyberpunk game you might already be familiar with, provides a completely different experience to Dungeons and Dragons. The combat mechanics are unfair, every session is roleplay heavy and nothing is actually balanced. It's more Blade Runner, less Fast & Furious.
What makes setting the stage for this type of game harder, I think, is that the dark future of 2020 (lol) is very similar to our world in terms of "feel." Characters have office jobs, go to Not-McDonalds™ for cheap food, turn on the TV when they get home etc. Highlighting the key differences between the dystopian reality of CP2020 and our world is in the details. To this end, I made more visual handouts that give glimpses into those differences: players get the news, emails, text messages and paper reports as often as I can make them.
And if there's one thing that handouts are useful for, it's pushing advertisements in the players faces, of course! After all, advertising is the most obvious visual signifier of one of the genre's main pillar: late-capitalism’s chokehold on every aspect of life... and that's worldbuilding baby!
When I started, I tried figuring out how these ads should work. I figured out how to make them both fun to create and useful in the context of the game:
Down below, you'll find all of the ads I made for these handouts.
I give credit to ideas I’ve adapted and I've linked to the sources of the images I’ve used. I do not own the rights of these images. These are fan projects, not meant for commercial distribution.
I've tried to make images into similar sizes, to facilitate re-appropriation into your own games. The resolution between images sometimes varies.
I wanted to show how ubiquitous weaponry had become in my “Americanized” version of Canada.
Yes, the "parody" aspect of this ad is the “available everywhere” part.
The gun I used to represent Militech’s most popular handgun is a 3D model created by professional concept artist Andre-Lang Huynh. The Militech logo is, of course, the one created by CD Projekt Red.
Sex House is basically Big Brother taken to the extreme. The name is ripped from that parody show from the Onion.
The Sex House is filmed all day and the feeds of the various cameras are streamed to the NET. Contestants go to find love but are strongly incentivized to have sex with other contestants. The blatant voyeurism and pornographic content are, of course, the point. Network News 54 creates constant hype around the Sex House and always has a “today in the Sex House” segment at 9 PM every day.
This one was probably the longest concept to make and it strained my amateur designer muscles to their limit. I think there are improvements to be made, but still.
ICON America is a company from the Chromebooks expansions. It is a fashion brand specialized in the Urban Flash and Edgerunner clothing styles.
Because of these characteristics, I figured that ICON America would work well as a mid-range fashion shop, kind of like a stepping stone between clothing from European haute-couture brands and stuff you find at H&M. In that way, ICON America is about looking unique and, dare I say, iconic.
My goal with this ad was to inspire players in their clothing choices.
Of course, the price is available directly on the ad, for the curious edgerunner. I used the price calculation rules published in the Chromebooks to figure out the prices of the items.
The main inspiration for the layout is from this set of designs from Zeka Design. Credits for the original pictures:
I found this image, on my journey to find inspiration and I was immediately hooked (I am NOT sorry). I instantly imagined the fish and waves being animated on the tongue, and I went "Yup, that's Synthskin".
Cyphire is a French cyberware company mentioned the Chromebooks and I chose to make it into a manufacturer of high-end fashionware. To this effect, the logo is made to look like a signature, more than a symbol.
Trauma Team International is the rich man’s ambulance service and this ad shows off their most popular selling point: their armed troopers who can rescue wounded customers in (as little as) three minutes.
The concept is not mine: The Secure/Extract/Diagnose/3 minutes thing is from an ad shown in the Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay showcase from 2018. The Trauma Team logo is also from CD Projekt Red.
My work here was adapting the concept to a print format and making the trooper into the tricolor flat design.
I wanted to create a very "normal people-centered" ad, which would not directly resonate with (or even be remotely useful to) my players.
It does still show how Alicia Poitiers, a relevant character in the current campaign, is seen by the public.
Finally, a corporation willing to do what's necessary to protect you! Not that they will do it if you get hacked. They’re just saying that they can do it.
Pro tip: The rule book says that cellphone plans are 100eb. a month. In this ad, WORLDSAT promises plans that “start at” 30 eurodollars, because they’re talking about the price of a basic landline connection. This is not a mistake, it's just a creative interpretation by WORLDSAT.
The WORLDSAT logo is based on the great work by Deviantart user zoopee, which I manually flattened so I could use it. I also built upon their design choices for this ad.
The man dying a horrible death is, of course, courtesy of CD Projekt Red.
You can download all of these ads at once here. I hope some of them will find their way into your games!
I do hope to have the opportunity to keep making ads like these and, most of all, to keep plugging these everywhere the players look.
Hope you enjoyed, choombas.