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.