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A Dicey Affair: Reading the Role-playing Game…

July 26, 2013

By GreyRaptor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

By GreyRaptor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

In honour of the recently passed “Read an RPG Book in Public Week” (September 21st through 27th – as explained here by the Escapist I would like to publicly admit that I spend a lot of time with table-top role-playing games (for those of you in the dark as to what a “roleplaying game” or “RPG” is, here’s a great explanation from John H. Kim  along with RPG Geek’s glossary of roleplaying terms).

I play three times a fortnight, read this-or-that rulebook (currently that rulebook is Black Crusade – Fantasy Flight Games, 2011) each day and write my own game – Frankenstein Atomic Frontier (Owlman Press, 2012) and Big Damn Sci-Fi (Owlman Press, 2013) – the latter co-authored with my wife, Stacey. And through it all I find it’s something often forgotten about table-top role-playing games is the relationship between play and reading. Sure, playing the game itself is somewhere between an improvised theatre of the mind and collaborative storytelling with a group of players taking the role of characters in a world, while another guides the narrative’s twists and turns as the Game Master. But it’s still a game in which most of the details for the act of play – from the rules of the game to the background of the story – are contained within generally hefty books that live on the table and are thumbed through during play. But most of all, role-playing game rulebooks are read before play even begins to gain an understanding of the setting, the rules and how the two interact. I also find myself frequently re-reading rulebooks with a propensity that dwarfs my favourite comic book or novel. To underscore my point, reading is not a peripheral act to play regarding the role-playing game, but integral and integrated. Indeed, my own collection pen-and-paper role-playing game rulebooks contains – like many avid role-players and Game Masters –many books for many games that I have never actually found time to play (and possibly may never). Yet I’ve spent many hours reading and re-reading them, often devoting more time to reading the rulebooks than I do playing the games.

So, where does one find enjoyment in simply reading the rulebook for a game? I find it in two things… invitation and immersion.

Reading a role-playing game rulebook is something a distinct act compared with, say, a novel. The experience itself is a curious kind of fictional-non-fiction. The intent of the rulebook is to give the players the tools to tell stories within the game’s fictional world. Different games do this in different ways. The Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Player’s Handbook (Wizards of the Coast, 2008), for instance, offers its players little more detail than a list of professions (classes), ethnicities (races), religions (gods) and a general set of rules – leaving most of the actual details of the Dungeons & Dragons world for the players to establish. A firmer hand is offered by 7th Sea (Alderac Entertainment Group, 1999) with it’s a precise game world with details of geography, history, nations, individuals, culture, customs and even accents (my Vodacce is still sloppy). Rules provide the Game Master with a utensil for almost every imaginable circumstance, including aging and marriage. Thus while each game is distinct, in essence any rulebook contains details of the fictional world the game is set in as a prompt and guide for both characters and story along with the rules of the game itself. All the details – even for games set within our own world, such as World of Darkness – are invented by an author and are fictional in that sense. Yet, overwhelmingly the details are structured in the manner of non-fiction; culture, politics, history, Newtonian laws, formulas and systems. And within all these details and rules there is an initiation to create, to tell a story, to dream, to imagine. The thrill of my reading a good role-playing game rulebook is driven not by the possibility of what might happen next but by the possibility of unborn narratives. Those stories I might create next, using the game as my vehicle. What strange vistas have been inspired? What kinds of colourful characters might I create? And most of all… what stories can I tell?

I find the inviting quality of potential narrative is usually heightened by the absence of narrative and protagonist. It’s something like a game of “connect the dots” without any numbers to guide the lines. Sure, there are certain details and certain points already worked out for me and my fellow players. But there is also a lot blank space for us to connect those points through our narrative in ways that are not necessarily conventional but also typically very personal. Deadlands, for instance, has always balanced detail and blank space very well throughout its various rulebooks, providing information to players in the form of guidebooks to the Old West. In particular, its classic core guidebook – Deadlands: The Quick and the Dead (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 1997) – was authored in the voice of a fictional 19th century reporter, the guidebook presents the broad canvas of its “weird west” setting – from Deadwood to Doc Holiday – as a background for players to craft their own legends alongside those of history (and even re-write the information presented, the guidebook author is noted to be less than 100% reliable). Dyvil (Nuelow Games, 2005), in contrast, takes a minimalist approach – presenting a few lines about the setting and the character’s place within it (the players take on the role of demons escaped from Hell to Earth after the Devil’s final defeat by Heaven), leaving most of the details to be established by the player’s themselves (are they failed villains or anti-heroes? What does a world where sin is dying actually look like?). Within this protagonist-free encouragement to personalization of fiction a reading a good role-playing game offers a particular style of immersion, one the stems from a deep understanding of how a fictional world function. I gain a sense not simply how one individual’s feelings and struggles, but a omnipotent panorama of how every potential inhabitant of this world moves and feels. As a player, I refine this feeling into an individual character, as a Game Master, into a single narrative within a finite geography. But as a reader the outlook remains lofty and encourages countless immersive identification from numerous perspectives. On closing the book, I have not simply read a description of the antics of being some fantastic individual. Rather, I’ve been encouraged to think and feel as a high-flying superhero, a hell-spawned monster, sword-swinging barbarian, gun-slinging cowboy and so on.

Again, where does one find enjoyment in simply reading the rulebook for a game? To be honest, “rulebook” feels like a bit of a misnomer at times. While some are certainly more “rule” heavy than others, many good role-playing game rulebooks are guides to understanding fictional settings at an intimate level – not merely in terms of narrative events or through external characters. And it is the invitation to create fiction and the immersion that such an act offer – both as play and a reading experience – that I enjoy most about reading the role-playing game.

Nicholas William Moll @NWM_OvO is an Australian academic and fiction writer. He is currently undertaking his PhD and teaching at the University of Ballarat whilst managing his small press role-playing game company, Owlman Press.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 27, 2013 2:05 pm

    There is certainly a difference between a rule book and a settings book. Some rules systems by their nature are intertwined with the setting while others are not. For D&D a games in the official worlds of Athas, Faerun, Eberron, and Greyhawk are going to be very different. But with systems such as 7th Sea, Dogs in the Vineyard, or Deadlands the setting is a major component of the game’s form and function. Also, there are systems such as Savage Worlds and GURPS which by their very intent must be setting and genre neutral.

    So for me at least I read rules books to compare/contrast mechanics for new ideas and how to improve the nuts and bolts of my campaigns. I read setting books, novels, and watch television/film for story ideas.

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