The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games

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  • The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games

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  • The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games


    McFarland & Company, Inc., PublishersJefferson, North Carolina, and London


    Cover, Jennifer Grouling.The creation of narrative in tabletop role-playing games /

    Jennifer Grouling Cover.p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN 978-0-7864-4451-9softcover : 50# alkaline paper

    1. Fantasy games. 2. Board games. 3. Role playingSocial aspects. I. Title.GV1202.F35C68 2010793.93'2dc22 2010016058

    British Library cataloguing data are available

    2010 Jennifer Grouling Cover. All rights reserved

    No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

    Cover imagery 200 Shutterstock

    Manufactured in the United States of America

    McFarland & Company, Inc., PublishersBox 611, Jeerson, North Carolina 28640

  • To my husband, Scott, for introducing me to D&D

    and to the wonderful worlds he creates.

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  • Contents

    Abbreviations, Terms, and Transcription Symbols ix

    Preface and Acknowledgments 1

    Introduction: Defining the Tabletop Role-Playing Game 5

    1. Early Models of Interactive Narrative 21

    2. Role-Playing Game Genres 38

    3. A Transmedia TaleThe Temple of Elemental Evil 54

    4. The Reconciliation of Narrative and Game 72

    5. Frames of Narrativity in the TRPG 88

    6. Immersion in the TRPG 106

    7. Levels of AuthorshipHow Gamers Interact with Texts and Create Their Own 124

    8. The Culture of TRPG Fans 148

    9. Conclusions, Definitions, Implications, and Limitations 165

    Appendix: The Orc Adventure at Blaze Arrow 179

    Chapter Notes 191

    References 197

    Index 201


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  • Abbreviations, Terms, and Transcription Symbols

    Gaming Terms

    CRPG: computer role-playing gameD&D: Dungeons and DragonsDM: dungeon master, the term for the gamemaster in D&DDMG: Dungeon Masters GuideGM: gamemaster, the one who runs a TRPG campaignLARP: live action role-playMMORPG: massively multiplayer online role-playing gameNPC: non-player characterRPGA: role-playing game association, an organization for D&D

    playersTRPG: tabletop role-playing gameXP: experience points

    Terms from Possible-World Theory (adapted from Ryan, Possible Worlds, vii)

    APW: An alternative possible world in a different system of reality, a fictionthat is accepted as true when the reader shifts to this world.

    AW: The actual world is our reality.NAW: The narratorial actual world is the world that the narrator presents

    to the narratee.TAW: The textual actual world is the view of the text reference world that

    is presented by the author.


  • TRW: The textual reference world is the world that the text claims as fac-tual. It is the alternative possible world that the text refers to.

    Transcription Symbols

    [ overlapping utterances(#) length of pause in seconds, noted if 3+: extension of sound or syllable/ rise in intonationCAPS loud and emphasized utterance(laughter) general laughter in the group(laugh) laughter by participant indicated... speaker trails off--- speaker self-corrects

    x Abbreviations, Terms, and Transcription Symbols

  • Preface and Acknowledgments

    It was the fall of 2003, and my first semester of graduate school. Isigned up for a course called Discourse Analysis, thinking it had some-thing to do with Foucault. As it turned out, it was really a methods coursein linguistics, and when my professor David Herman told us weneeded to tape record a conversation, I had the perfect idea: I would recordpart of a session from my Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) group. I signedup to present to the class under the unit called narrative analysis, think-ing my recording would be a perfect fit. I quickly came up against the tra-ditional linguistic definitions of narrativethat it was a story, told aboutan event in the past by a narrator to a narratee. Maybe its not a narra-tive, David Herman said in reference to my D&D transcript. But as I satthere week after week engrossed in the story of Whisper and her compan-ions in the world of Sorpraedor, I knew that at least part of what kept meinterested was the story I was experiencing. And thus, I continued toattempt to reconcile my personal experience with the narrative theory thatdrew my academic attention.

    My course project turned into other course projects, including a sem-inar paper for Carolyn Millers rhetorical criticism class where I first testedout some of my ideas on the rhetoric exigence behind the tabletop role-playing game. These course projects turned into a thesis, under the direc-tion of David Herman, David Rieder, and Mike Carter. I can not thankmy committee enough for their input in this process. It was one the mostrewarding writing experiences, and when David Herman suggested thatmy thesis had the potential for a book, I was floored. After my defense, Iwent out and bought some shiny new dice for my D&D game.

    At times, I wished that, like my sorceress Whisper, I could have sum-


  • moned some magic energies, perhaps a polymorph spell, to magically trans-form the thesis into a book length project. Of course, I found it wasntthat simple. However, with the help of many people, I was able to com-plete what really is a transformation. I added massive amounts of researchto this book project, I completely rewrote nearly everything, and I evenchanged some of my ideas.

    I would first and foremost like to thank my research participants.From those anonymous gamers who completed a survey to my long-timegaming companions, this book is about you and in many ways by you.Even if your names do not appear here, your words and your stories do.I hope I have represented you well.

    Then there were those who accompanied me on my writing journey.Like in D&D, some companions were with me all the way, while otherscame and went. My officemate Dan Lawson was rather like an oracle, whoI consulted multiple times over the course of the book in times of need.We talked about ideas, and he directed me to several key sources.

    Patrick Johnson was the equivalent of the fellow adventurer met in atavern in the D&D world, who says, what is your quest? And when youtell him, responds, Cool. Can I come along? I met Pat in line for lunchat the Writing Program Administrators (WPA) conference in July 2009 asI was finishing this book, and our conversation quickly turned to myresearch and D&D. Pat kindly volunteered to provide additional feedbackon one of my revised chapters.

    There were others who helped me out along the way, from ProfessorBrian Epstein, who fielded my questions about possible-worlds theory tomy many professors at Virginia Tech who were flexible with my while I was writing and who answered any number of questions onpublishing and book writing. There are my parents, who raised me to bean academic and a writer, and my husband who is the backbone of thisbook. Scott not only got me interested in D&D, but also pushed me tocontinue my academic work on the topic. He has held my hand when Iwas frustrated, and celebrated with me when I was excited, and is the mainreason this book exists. Without the support of these people, I could nothave completed this project.

    Finally, there are those who would be considered members of myadventuring party, had this book been a D&D campaign. Dean Browelland Tim Lockridge are two of the smartest, most talented people I know,and I was extremely fortunate to have their feedback through the entirecourse of writing this book. Dean, who wrote a dissertation on World ofWarcraft, served as my MMORPG police, helping me see beyond D&D

    2 Preface and Acknowledgments

  • to where my book might interact with videogame research. Tim is every-thing one could ask for in a readerhe is the type of guy that finds theloose thread in your writing, pulls on it just hard enough that everythingstarts to fall apart, and then hands you what you need to sew it back upagain. This book is inordinately better because of his feedback.

    However, all of these efforts would be in vain if it werent for youmy reader. Whether you are a gamer, a researcher, or just a curiousonlooker, I invite you to take an active role as you read this book. I havetried here to write a book that will be useful in multiple disciplines, andit is my hope that it will help spur discussion about tabletop role-playingin multiple forums. Whatever your position in relation to this text, I hopethat I have shown here that your voice counts. I have been told multipletimes by multiple people that Im not supposed to write a book yet, thatas a graduate student I dont have a book in me. As the physical artifactin your hand provesI did. Likewise, I believe that you, my reader, hassomething to say, and I, for one, would like to hear it.

    Preface and Acknowledgments 3

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  • Introduction: Defining the Tabletop Role-Playing Game

    You approach the Blaze Arrow outpost. The bastion that guards thefrontier of the city of Gateway is silent except for the distant cry ofgathering carrion birds. You notice that the ground around the out-post has been scarred by the hobnailed feet of dozens of invaders. Thethree-story tower is surrounded by a now broken gate. The smell ofburning orcish flesh, the smell of death, profanes the air. As you enterthe gate, you find the remains of a ballista that once defended the out-post. Another rests farther in, still fully loaded, its human operatordead beside it. All in all, twelve human bodies lie around, evidenceof the attack that took place only hours ago. It appears the victors havesuffered losses as well, but their dead have undergone the cremationrituals known to exist in orcish societies. There are also orc bodiespiled up and smoldering. Yet the process seems to have been donequickly and was perhaps not completed. Some remains of orcish cloth-ing and some shields have been left behind. They are marked withthe symbol of a bloody hand, which you recognize as the sign of theBlood Fist tribe of orcs.

    What do you do?

    The passage above is very similar to one that was told on a Sundayafternoon around a kitchen table during a session of the Sorpraedor Dun-geons and Dragons (D&D) role-playing campaign. Yet, it fails to representthe complexity of tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs). No one passagecan represent the complexity of player interaction, textual manipulation,or cultural significance of the TRPG. For those of you who are familiarwith the game, this passage might bring up memories of your own gam-ing session. For those who are less familiar with gaming, you may be won-dering how this story is different from any other story told in any othermedium. Whatever your relationship to the game, this book is intended


  • offer a scholarly look at TRPGs that highlights both their complex narra-tive and social structure.

    If you are unfamiliar with TRPGs, you may first be wondering whatexactly happens in a gaming session. As the book progresses, we will seethat the answer is more complex than it first appears; however, I offer abrief introduction here. As suggested by the name, TRPGs are played face-to-face (around a table, most likely), and involve players acting out arole. This acting is not always literal. Players do not arrive in costume orspeak exclusively in-charactersomething that differentiates TRPGs fromlive-action role-playing games (LARPs). Instead, players develop charac-ters based on certain rules and are responsible for deciding what thosecharacters do over the course of the game. The DM, or dungeon masternow called the gamemaster (GM) in some TRPGsdevelops a settingwhere the game takes place, a basic storyline, and any characters not beingrepresented by the players of the game. The DM presents the players withsituations, such as the one above, and asks the players, What do you do?at which point the players offer up actions for their characters. Many ofthese situations, referred to as encounters, involve fighting a monster or anevil villain. Most TRPGs also involve rolling dice to see whether certainactions succeed, and some involve positioning miniature figures on a bat-tle map. Games may be played over the course of years, where a groupcontinually meets to extend the same story with the same characters timeafter time, or they can be played over a few hours (usually at least four)as a one time endeavor. There is no winning in a TRPG, although char-acters do gain experience points for completing certain challenges, and inan ongoing game, these experience points allow the player to continuebuilding his or her character. However, these challenges are met as a group,not as individuals.

    TRPGs were introduced in 1974, and by the year 2000 they com-prised a two billion-dollar industry (Dancey 2000). In addition, they haveinfluenced countless other enterprises from other games to novels andmovies. Despite their widely recognized influence, there is limited schol-arship specifically on TRPGs. Gary Fines ethnographic study Shared Fan-tasy (1983) lays a useful foundation for studying the TRPG and gamingculture, but is now outdated. In the past 27 years, there have been changesto both the D&D game itself as well as the community of gamers. DanielMackay builds on Fines study in his 2001 book, The Fantasy Role-Play-ing Game, and shifts to view the TRPG as performance art. Mackays studyis useful in terms of looking at the TRPG as an aesthetic text and as aprocess-performance but does not include a specific discussion of the

    6 Introduction

  • TRPG as a genre or relate it to other games. More recent work has con-tinued to place the TRPG alongside other fantasy games in terms of cul-tural significance. Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity andExperience in Fantasy Games (Williams et al., 2006) features several essaysthat focus on aspects of the TRPG from gender and identity issues1 tospecific linguistic analysis.2

    These texts can be said to be foundational; however, with games stud-ies (not to be confused with game theory) emerging as its own discipline,more work clearly needs to be done on such a fundamental game as D&D.Some have called this new discipline ludolog y, but have limited it to thestudy of videogames rather than all games; not only has scholarship leftTRPGs in the dust, but so have those seeking to define the boundaries ofgames studies as a discipline. Furthermore, the study of TRPGs serves animportant role in the context of other scholarship as these games are highlycomplex, both in terms of narrative structure and their social interaction.Fines book focuses on sociology, and Mackays on performance studies. Iengage with narrative, linguistic, cultural, and writing studies in this book,although, as a scholar I primarily identify with the disciplines of rhetoricand composition. The...


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