The power of story telling worlds played with character sheet and dice

The classic TRPG is Gygax and Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons (TSR, 1974). The original game was derived from table-top war gaming and introduced the fantasy element which is often assumed to comprise the form although more recent examples of TRPGs are exploring historical and domestic situations with more confidence. Table-top Role Playing Games (TRPGs), sometimes called ‘pen and paper role playing games’, are games in which participants take on a character and a role and describe their character’s actions in response to game events through speech. These games are played face to face in sessions which can range from a few hours to sessions which might take place over many weeks. A TRPG begins with a game world (typically presented in written form as a game story world book), lists of the kinds of characters that might be active in that world and a rule system that scaffolds the player’s activities within the game world. Participants describe the actions of their game characters based on their individualised character sheet and the outcomes of their decisions are randomized through throwing dice and calculated according to the formal rules of the game. Player trajectory through the game story world is typically collaborative and a ‘Game Master’ (GM) will usually offer a quest of some sort that requires a collaborative team. The GM also plots a map for the players and takes on the roles of any Non Player Characters (NPCs) that the players might meet in the course of their actions. The traditional Dungeons & Dragons style TRPG depends on the GM to hold the game world story information and plan confrontations and quests but contemporary TRPG systems are often far more narrative driven and can be run without a GM. The rolling Stories project is inspired by these contemporary, narrative driven TRPGs.

For someone who has never played or seen a TRPG in action, it is best imagined as a kind of unscripted radio drama where each individual actor can make his or her own decisions within the constraints of the story world. The essential form of the game actually has more in common with improvisational drama (Johnstone, 1981) and Boal’s forum theatre (1995). In a TRPG, a world is designed for players who then explore the parameters of the world, usually together, through narration. A group of players might be exploring an environmental crisis in different roles (ecologist, artist, designer). They might be faced with a decision during an encounter. Dice are thrown to create outcomes. The most important aspect of the TRPG for the RS project is that the world itself is created by the players as they traverse it and in so doing the players tell their own stories, making connections with other players and exploring meaning in an empowering way.

Table-top RPGs – basic resources

Meaningful agent performances and player stories

The current project is inspired by, and contributes to, contemporary research (Bowman, 2007) into use of TRPGs as opportunities for meaningful story telling and agency within a community group. For example Hawkes-Robinson’s (2016) work on use of RPGs as therapeutic activity for young people and Raffael Boccamazzo’s work on the use of TRPGs and autism. Such research builds on educational research which investigates potentials for using role-play for cultural competence (e.g. Kodotchigova, 2002) and drama and ‘impro’ for critical thinking (O’Toole & Dunn, 2002). In contrast to popular conceptions about TRPGs, this research highlights the potential of the form for social cohesion, identity confidence, creativity and communication or “connection, knowledge and empowerment”.

Meaningful playful role play – basic resources

Bowman, S. L. (2010). The functions of role-playing games: How participants create community, solve problems and explore identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2005). Game design and meaningful play. In J. Raessens & J. Goldstein (Eds.), Handbook of computer game studies (pp. 59 – 79): The MIT Press.

From player stories to designed story worlds

The enduring popularity of the TRPG is evidenced by the fact that the original Dungeons & Dragons franchise is now in its 5th edition (TSR, 2014) and there are now numerous titles that offer TRPG game world books and rule systems for story worlds which range from dystopian futuristic settings to the mundane domestic dinner party. While many players purchase already designed story worlds for their TRPG sessions, players will frequently either modify a game world for their own purposes and specific play sessions or design their own entirely new game worlds and rule sets. Some of these are play tested and polished and offered up for sale through online portals such as DrivethruRPG, others remain as the focus for communities of play.

The ease with which a TRPG story world book can be created is enticing and a second important aspect of the RS project: players can, not only create their own stories within the TRPG form, they can create their own meaningful story worlds for others to explore.

The Rolling Stories project concept is also inspired by a number of TRPGs which forefront world making. Games such as Ben Robbins’ Microscope where players construct whole worlds and histories and Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year where players construct a map of their experienced world during play.

Designing Table-top RPGs – basic resources

Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals: MIT press.