A Closer Look at the (Rule-) Books: Framings and Paratexts in Tabletop Role-playing Games


  • David Jara




role-playing games, paratext, narrative, rules, paratexts


As texts which are based on collaborative and interactive narration, tabletop – also known as “pen and paper” – role-playing games (TRPGs) are distinct in their technological simplicity. Indeed, in their traditional form all they require is the physical presence of a group of players – commonly around a table, hence “tabletop” – who collaboratively participate in developing a narrative; and a system of rules which allow resolving the outcome of situations in which different levels of chance may be involved – the need to write down statistic information making them “pen and paper”. Evidently, this apparent lack of sophistication makes role-playing games – as a clearly contemporary cultural
phenomenon (cf. Punday, 2005; Nephew, 2004; Harrigan, 2007; Mackay, 2001) – stand out in the context of a world that is becoming ever more dependent on technology. All the more so, considering the persistence of TRPGs in the face of its “descendants” in other more technologically advanced media and despite what has become the popular notion of “the bigger, the faster, the better.” Nevertheless, that which occurs during a role-playing game session – the level of interactivity, player immersion in the narrative, flexibility of the rules, etc. - generally surpasses, even today, what many of its “successors” achieve. How does this
occur? How is it possible; through what mechanisms do TRPGs allow such sophistication when relying solely on the “old fashioned” technologies of (hand-) writing and oral narration? Approaching these questions from the general perspective of literary studies, the following paper problematizes what can be called a “naïve view” of communication technology by addressing the complex relationship between the printed texts used for role-playing – such as rule- and sourcebooks – and the narratives created during game-play. To do so, it addresses the fundamental influence that framings, such as rules, character sheets
and setting, as well as paratextual elements contained within or at the borders of these texts, such as cover illustrations, prologues and epilogues, just to name a few – have on participants’ interpretation and, most importantly, creation of TRPG narratives.




How to Cite

Jara, D. (2013). A Closer Look at the (Rule-) Books: Framings and Paratexts in Tabletop Role-playing Games. International Journal of Role-Playing, (4), 39–54. https://doi.org/10.33063/ijrp.vi4.228