Tabletop Role-Playing Games: Perspectives from Narrative, Game, and Rhetorical Theory.

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Miller (1984) notes that when a communicative action is repeated and acquires a name within a community, it is probably functioning as a genre. In conjunction with the creation of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in 1974, the term 'role-playing game' has been used by gamers to specify a particular type of game that involves face-to-face interaction between a gamemaster and players with the intention of creating a narrative. Theorists of games often acknowledge D&D as a foundational text, but do not consider it a separate genre from games that involve the control of an avatar in a computer-mediated environment. However, that tabletop RPGs have not been replaced by computer games and that gaming communities continue to refer to them by separate terms suggests that there are generic differences at work. The purpose of this thesis is to begin a more detailed study of the RPG genre by examining specific examples from a D&D adventure. I build on the work of Fine and Mackay but offer perspectives from narrative, game, and rhetorical theory. While my own study must be limited in scope, I suggest a possible framework for future study of RPGs as a rhetorical genre. To establish this framework, I use Ryan's (2001) study of narrative as virtual reality to explain how RPGs are examples of texts that involve productive interactivity. In Ryan's terms, they combine elements of immersion and interactivity, and of narrative and game. I propose viewing RPGs as a system of frames based on Ryan's (1991) possible-worlds terminology and Cook-Gumperz's (1992) account of forms of talk in make-believe games. I define these frames in terms of their reference to a social sphere, a game sphere, and a narrative sphere. To explain the structure of the plot in RPGs, I compare them to Ryan's (2001) tree-diagram format for interactive texts and Aarseth's (1997) cybertext model. I conclude that none of these formats fits the RPG completely, and that it should be viewed as its own genre. Because they combine qualities of immersion and interactivity in a way that offers productive interactivity, RPGs grant players a narrative control that is not possible in computer-mediated environments. I conclude by defining RPGs as immersive and interactive story-creation systems that involve a group of players and a gamemaster who appropriate popular culture to create new texts as a way of connecting with each other in a social setting. Finally, I point out the possible implications this rhetorical definition has for the ways in which we talk about authors, audiences, and texts.



genre, narrative, dungeons and dragons, role-playing games