Thursday, February 15, 2024


R Studio & Javascript to analyze your Zotero reference library

My proposal to present the conference “Vous êtes dans une taverne… Retour sur 50 ans de jeux de rôle ” [You are in a tavern… A look back at 50 years of role-playing games] was accepted. Entitled “Historical evolution and bibliometric analysis of academic research on tabletop role-playing in academic publications”, it mainly consists of carrying out a descriptive study of the academic publication on tabletop role-playing since the 1980s.

Since 2014, I have undertaken to collect academic references relating to the study of tabletop role-playing games. This approach resulted in the creation of a database freely accessible via Zotero, comprising a total of 2400 references. Among these, there are 460 peer reviewed articles, 180 books, 300 theses, and many others.

The bibliographic database is freely accessible at: . Since 2019, Michael Freudenthal has joined me to manage this database.

Last Christmas, I gave you my R

In order to carry out a well-reproducible analysis, not only do I provide open access to the data but I also provide the algorithms that allow them to be analyzed. Everything is posted on GitHub at

First, I chose to use the R Studio software because I learned to use it in the context of my work, also because it is powerful and free software, and finally because it is easy to request to ChatGPT 3.5 from OpenAI to fix my coding bugs (which I do very often).

The principle is simple:
  • I export the bibliographic references from Zotero in the formatcsv
  • I import the data into R Studio
  • I grind the data in R Studio
  • R Studio produces nice graphs and other tables for mecsv
  • Along the way, I align my data with that of Wikidata to augment my data (in a process called "reconciliation", done by the OpenRefine software ). For example, with the list of names of academic journals, I will look for the date the journal was created and its country of origin to spot trends.
Secondly, my co-worker Philippe taught me how to use the platform ObservableHQ and JavaScript. I decided to translate part of the R code in JavaScript to benefit from the very user-friendly interface and visualisation functions of this platform. Anybody can make a fork of the code, upload their references and analyze them (in the open with a free account).

The code is here:

All I want for this graph is you

The original post was in French for Christmas (to explain the silly titles).

Here are some nice extractions in graphic form. Note that these are not the final versions because, between now and the conference, I will still “shampoo the data” to correct and improve it.



For the rest, I will meet you in Reims (I will be by Zoom), or on this blog, or later in a more definitive publication.

Appendix: text of proposal at the conference

“In the presentation, I will explain how the compilation of peer-reviewed articles and works published since the 1980s, both in English and French, is almost exhaustive and makes it possible to generalize the analyzes that will follow. I will also highlight possible selection and indexing biases that may be present.

“My project consists of carrying out a historical and bibliometric analysis of publications such as peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. This analysis will highlight the variations observed over the years, in various disciplines, for different research subjects, as well as the issues surrounding publication (notably pre-publications, systematic reviews, potentially predatory publications, retractions, etc. .). I will show, for example, how the first publications of the 1980s aimed to explain the rise in popularity of this passion and to respond to the moral panics of the time. Likewise, I will illustrate how recent publications focus more on themes such as gender, actual play and psychotherapeutic aspects linked to the practice of role-playing. I will also highlight the great diversity of academic fields addressing the study of role-playing, ranging from traditional disciplines such as sociology, psychology and the humanities, to more atypical fields such as music, neuroscience and the philosophy. This presentation also extends internationally, encompassing Europe, North America, as well as other parts of Latin America and Asia. I will highlight the predominance of the game Dungeons & Dragons , while identifying other games studied or mentioned alongside this preponderance.

“To enrich this analysis, I will discuss the theoretical and practical reflection of the gaming community on their leisure in parallel with the academic environment. I will also review conferences, congresses and symposia devoted to role-playing, as well as dissertations and theses addressing this subject. Finally, I will discuss citation practices in tabletop roleplaying, in its study, and in its communities of practitioners. »



Friday, June 10, 2022

Building community by citing each other's games

This post is part of the On the Shoulders of Cloud Giants series, studying citation practices in tabletop roleplaying games.


We've seen in previous posts that the earliest citation practices in tabletop role-playing games were primarily for the purpose of paying tribute or giving thanks. They appeared in prefaces and other introductory texts of games.

This early practice has been seriously undermined by lawsuits from major players like TSR. For many years, this type of citation has declined sharply. I am in the process of gathering data to quantify this phenomenon.

Since the birth of TTRPGs the fanzines (ALA publications, etc.) and specialized magazines supported the most interweaving work of referencing between games with critics, comments, comparisons, etc. 


The Forge

Around The Forge community, many role-playing game designers and contributors have devoted one or more paragraphs, even sometimes entire sections, to citing other role-playing games. Very often, the games cited are part of The Forge community. Again, I am gathering data to quantify this phenomenon.

It seems that the game Sorcerer (1996) holds an important place:

  •     In number of references (roleplaying games, fiction, people, etc.);
  •     In the number of citations by the community;
  •     In the diversity of types of references (bibliographies, acknowledgements, epigraphs, sourced notes of intent, etc.).

OSR blogosphere

The 2000s saw the advent of many amateur publications in the form of blogs, such as the community of gamers practicing so-called OSR (old-school renaissance) gameplay for example.

Blogues OSR
OSR Blogs and theirs links

Here is a graph of citations between OSR blogs. It has been published on Discord. The author is unknown to me. The method is unknown but it seems that the citation links come from the menu of each blog. Given the graphic appearance, it was produced by VOS Viewer (a very good free tool by the way). According to Josh, who relayed the information, it appears that red colors a "grognard" trend in the movement, while green colors an "artpunk" trend in the movement.

We can see that citations between blogs are important. In order to draw interesting conclusions, we would have to analyze the citation strategies (perhaps a questionnaire?). However, at first glance, I notice that the most visible blogs are also the ones that are original, or relevant, or erudite (and counting several years of existence).

Citing for Community Building

Zedeck Siew, a Malaysian role-playing game designer, recently emphasized the importance and duty of citing his sources, especially to prevent memory loss in a creative community :

According to him, « Interlocking chains of citation reinforce a creative culture for all working within it. An immune system against the attention economy, that: Has us bunkered / broken up by social media; Causes creators with less access to online time *appear* to stop working. » 

Very interestingly, he adds that « Plus, awareness of citation politics generally helps creators from less privileged contexts- Women; queer folk; non-White people; people from outside the West; people from non-English-language contexts; etc Who for a myriad reasons are often left un-cited. »

He witnessed that some designers mention their inspirations early in their creative process but that list diminishes as their work progresses. 

He concludes his loving ode to quotation [touching my librarian values] by saying that « Citation helps you understand your own work, too. (...) If you have nobody to cite- cite someone anyway. (...) You excavate unconscious antecedents. Situation it in an ecosystem. No work lives in a vacuum. »

Monday, May 30, 2022

Working with literary epigraphs in Wikidata

This post is part of the series on epigraphs. Many tabletop roleplaying games use this literary technique.

In 2019, a new property named epigraph (P7150) was created in Wikidata to index epigraphs in literary works*. This is a very interesting initiative as it proves that Wikidata can have a rich ontology with precise qualitative descriptions. For the moment, the property is quite little used (most of the contributions come from me**).

I dream that one day the data will be complete and meaningful enough to produce interesting results in digital humanity. This would be a nice topic for a thesis. 

Hypothesis (developed in a future post): Perhaps fantasy literatures are more referenced than the "normal" literary works, in the sense that they contain more diverse references to other works or sources.

Some examples of use

In speculative fiction

  • Foundation: the intra-diegetic epigraphs reveal the success of Hari Seldon's Encyclopedia Galactica project and thus frame the narrative.
  • In Dune, the epigraphs come from characters such as Princess Irulan, who will become central character later in the work. In general, they create a chorus style (before it was fashionable).
  • The Lord of the Rings: with its famous epigraphic poem that synthesizes past history, present situation and issues. Partly in the words of the main antagonist. Brr.
  • The Handmaid's Tale: with sourced epigraphs that reveal the conflict of values at play in the novel.
  • The King in Yellow contains one epigraph per chapter/novella, as well as an epigraph for the collection: some epigraphs refer to existing works, others to fictional ones. This creates an effect of confusion and surreal proper to the decadent movement, as well as a playful effect with the reader.

In the tabletop role-playing games

In videogames

  • Uncharted (Naughty Dog 2007, 2009, 2011, 2016)

Some SPARQL queries

  •     To find all the epigraphs in speculative fictions
  •     To list the works containing the most epigraphs
  •     To count how many epigraphs are indexed in Wikidata

How to contribute ?

Exemple d'indexation
Indexing example

For indexing specific epigraphs

  • P7150 (epigraph) =
    • Typing the body of the epigraph. No quotation marks like « » or "" "".
    • Indicating the language of the epigraph : en or fr or la (latin) or others. In case of multiple languages : mul. In case of unknown language : und.
  • Qualifiers of P7150 :
    • P1545 (series ordinal) : in case of several epigraph : 1, 2, 3,…
    • P5997 (stated in reference as): the reference of the epigraph as written in the work.
    • P1552 (has quality)
      • = Q96102813 (in-universe perspective) : in case of an epigraph from a fictive work in the work (true in the fiction). (Example : the poem at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings).
        • OR Q96102813 (fictional quotation)
      • = Q112046597 (made up quotation) : in the case of a false, invented, apocryphal quotation (Example : false quotation of Eleanor Roosevelt in Talladega Nights).
  • References of P7150:
    • P248 (stated in): QID of the work from which the epigraph is taken.
    • P50 (author) : QID of the author of the epigraph.
    • P792 (chapter) : where is the epigraph in the work (if not at the beginning : in this case don't indicate the location). Or P958 (section, verse, paragraph, or clause).

For indexing multiple epigraphs (without indexing specific ones) : 

  • P2283 (uses) =
  • epigraphs (Q669777)
    • has quality (P1552) = referenced value (Q71536081)
    • quantity (P114) = number of sourced epigraphs from existing other works 
  • fictional quotation (Q18011336)
    • has quality (P1552) = in-universe perspective (Q96102813)
    • quantity (P114) = number of forged epigraphs for this work  

Exampleemple de code Quickstatement pour une importation en lot :


* I have also clarified the ontology and other definitions of the term epigraph (in archaeology, mathematics, etc.).
** I have indexed the 84 crazy epigraphs of Moby-Dick for example.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Tabletop role-playing games as games of expectations

Last year, I concluded a presentation at « Donjons & Labo : les lieux du jeu » with a very sketchy slide saying TTRPG are also games about expectations. After reading the article “Pretensive Shared Reality: From Childhood Pretense to Adult Imaginative Play” (1), I finally have the opportunity to elaborate on this point.

Expectations, a subcategory of role

Any social role can be described with many elements: statuses, functions, … and role expectations:

  • expectations of others on the role holder,
  • or of the role holder on himself,
  • or of the role holder on the others.

When expectations are not explicit and shared people are making assumptions. Social relations are problematic when assumptions about others (knowledge, emotions, motivations) are wrong. The best way to eliminate assumptions is to ask appropriate questions.

In everyday life, everyone takes on a series of roles. These roles may interlock, overlap, conflict, alternate, etc. This multitude of roles comes with a multitude of expectations. In social psychology, role theory specifically studies these phenomena.

It can be difficult for someone to list/explain expectations, to prioritize them, to clarify them, to understand their extent or their limits. Some expectations may be perceived as unchosen and potentially infinite. This confusion can lead to anxiety.

Expectations in a role-playing session

When playing a role-play or pretend game in a pretense shared reality (1), one adopts only two clearly interlocking roles: a player role and a character role. Unlike expectations in real life, expectations in a play situation are delineated within the game (the magic circle concept) and are chosen (voluntary and conscious participation in the game).

Sometimes, when the role of player is predominant, then the expectations are mainly social. The dimension of hospitality can be important (2): some are hosts, others are guests. Some master the rules, some have authority over the narrative, some generate fiction, some react to it, etc.

Sometimes when the role of character is preponderant, then the emphasis is on immersion. In this case, the expectations are primarily narrative and diegetic (i.e., they come from the fiction).

Over the past decade, many games and accessories have pushed to clarify expectations around the table with so-called "emotional safety" tools. These innovations have met with resistance, mainly under the pretext that they were infantilizing methods. According to Ludomancien, clarifying expectations is a proof of maturity. Examples: John Stravopoulos's X Card (2012), Apocalypse World's MC principles, Bankui's Same Page Tool, etc.

Playing a role = decrease in brain activity 

A recent study (3) shows brain activity of actors decreases when they are acting, suggesting a loss of self as one plays a role and improvising answers (Romeo and Juliet).


  • A role-playing session is satisfying, enjoyable and memorable if the expectations of the player and character roles have been understood, acknowledged, met and fulfilled by everyone.
    • Conversely, a participant who did not understand the expectations of others, did not have their expectations met, etc. would not have a good game experience.
    • A game that knows how to structure the questions asked would mechanically reduce presumptions.
  • To enter a game session is to reduce the mental dimensions to a smaller set of expectations (simpler, easier to make explicit, less engaging,…) than in real life.
    • Tabletop role-playing would be the type of game that would least restrict the dimensions of real life since anything can be attempted, under the validation of one or more other players.
    • When acting and role playing, does a loss of self is linked to a reduction of expectations ?
  • If entering a shared alternate reality means traveling in a sub-universe with reduced dimensions:
    • Is there a specific pleasure in manipulating the meta? A kind of libido contextus? To know that one is able to move from one universe to another and bring things back (experiences, values, ideas, etc.)? To know that one is in the distance, the oversight or the irony?
  • The less expectations there are, the more mental savings we make and the easier it is to play, think, experience emotions, empathize and let oneself go.
    • As a result, are we less anxious or confused? Tabletop roleplayers may have more social anxiety than the average person and this would explain why they engage passionately in this highly relational hobby.
    • To what extent can this apply to simulations in general or to other types of games: “In games like chess, everybody has the same set of choices, so its easier to go into other peoples minds than regular interactions. Easier empathy.” (4)

  1. Pretensive Shared Reality: From Childhood Pretense to Adult Imaginative Play” by Kapitany, Hampejs and Goldstein (2022). Adults playing TTRPG = evolutionary spandrel of child pretend play. Same mechanisms BUT it needs to be socially shared, it uses more complex social contract & more rules, it uses cognitive quarantine to explore safely + Why studying TTRPG is good to understand human mind, play & agency.
  2. See series on Hospitality.
  3. Brown Steven, Cockett Peter and Yuan Ye , 2019, The neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: an fMRI study of acting. R. Soc. open sci.6181908181908
  4. Interview with C Thi Nguyen, around 00:12:00.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Starvation, famine and cannibalism in tabletop role-playing games

With climate change, it is possible that the first existential challenges are those of famine and its consequences, well before those of high temperatures or sea levels. Famine is sometimes used as background or as the main theme in imaginary fictions. While fictions can help prepare emotionally for difficult events, it may be interesting to consider the place of famine in tabletop role-playing games.

Warning: apart from the paintings by Goya, “Saturn devouring one of his sons” and Tattegrain’s “Useless mouths” and the engraving by De Bry, this post does not include images related to the topics covered.

Famine in fiction

In imaginary fictions, famine is sometimes approached as a central topic with ironic distance. For example, the movie Solyent Green (1973), which is set in 2022, reveals a conspiracy hiding the main food ingredient in a crowded world. In Love and Monsters (2020), food theft is featured with dark humor. In The Platform (2019), hunger and the distribution of food are told in a dystopian fable inviting analogy or allegorical reflection. In other imaginary fictions, the famine is hidden under a veil of shame like the Great Ravine in The Dark Forest (2008, Liu Cixin) which killed two thirds of humanity but is deliberately forgotten by the characters. The post-apocalyptic genre sometimes addresses hunger as in the Mad Max series where it explains savage behavior, or as in the series of the Hunger Games, where hunger is an instrument of political humiliation. In the zombie movie genre, hunger is the attribute of monsters and the analogy of the collapse of civilization.

«Saturn devouring one of his sons», Francisco de Goya, 1819-1823c. Wikimedia Commons.


Fictions as emotional preparation

It is possible that one of the first major challenges of climate change is the systemic scarcity of food resources, leading to major and little anticipated social changes. To mentally prepare for these challenges, or the associated eco-anxiety, you can make some thought experiments :

  • by vizualizing this future;
  • by discussing and debating;
  • in a ludic form :
    • With board games;
    • With life-sizes or megagames;
    • With role-playing games on the table.

It is this last dimension that we will explore. Indeed, in famines, the consequences of human decisions were often a more aggravating factor than that of the climate: arrogance, incompetence, power, etc. Furthermore, table-top role-playing games, are an excellent cognitive (+) and emotional (+++) framework for exploring the consequences of choices. We will see how hunger, famine and finally cannibalism are treated there.

Hunger in tabletop role-playing games

Individual hunger occupies a marginal place in tabletop role-playing games in terms of gameplay and description in the rules of the game.

Marginal mechanics

Although attrition mechanics were an essential part of the gameplay of early dungeon explorations, the hunger rules were very poorly developed there. Thereby,

"The rules of OD&D (1974), partially based on those of the board game Outdoor Survival (1972), had no mechanics for the consequences of lack of water or food. (DeltaD & D).

We have to wait for the Food & Water chapter of the Wilderness Survival Guide supplement (1986, p. 50-60) for AD&D 1st ed. to have more precise rules on the consequences of starvation. In module DL3 for Dragonlance, there is mechanics for supply and attrition to manage a column of refugees. In subsequent editions, hunger is barely developed with the notable exception of the Dark Sun campaign setting (see below). In some games of the OSR movement, fond of dark themes and gameplay around attrition, starvation is more or less mechanized by the rules.

Wilderness Survival Guide (1986), p.50.


Besides these “gritty dungeon crawling” type games, games that use hunger are often post-apocalyptic or horror games.

Short rules

In many games, there is a section on hunger or thirst that varies from one to a few paragraphs.

Games Rules of hunger / food Type
A Song of Ice and Fire vfr p.201
Animonde p.46
Basic Role-playing 4 p.219-220
Birthright d20 p.89
Bloodlust Metal p.259
Fellowship p.37
First Fantasy Campaign p.11
GURPS p.426
Holodomor p.7-11
Legends of the 5 Rings p.89
RuneQuest v3 p.81
Rêve de dragon 1ère ed. p.50
Rêve de dragon 2ème ed. p.54
D&D 3 p.86 DMG
D&D 4 p.159 DMG
D&D 5 p.185 PHB
AD&D1 Wilderness Survival Guide full chapter p.50-60 GDC
Lamentations of the Flame Princess p. 36 GDC
OD&D, Basic D&D, AD&D 1 partial GDC
MouseGuard p.123,127,186 and everywhere GDC
Symbaroum v1

optional rule in teacher’s guide

Torchbearer numerous mentions GDC
Call of Cthulhu v6en p.99 H
Aquelarre v3es p.108 H
Eclipse Phase p.208 H
Vampire: the Masquerade 1st ed. p.14-15 Devils H
Aftermath p.63-65 (2) PA
Apocalypse World v1fr p.262 PA
Bitume MK5 p.40 PA
Dark Sun p.42-43.89 PA
Twilight 2000 p.15 PHB PA
Twilight 2013 p.95-96, p.169-170 PA
Ultraviolet Grasslands p.153 PA

GDC = Gritty Dungeon Crawl; H = Horror; PA = Post-Apocalyptic

In MouseGuard (by Luke Crane, 2008), hunger takes center stage. It is listed in the Conditions right in the middle of the character sheet. The mechanics of Hunger (Hungry) is developed there and it influences all conflicts. The cook character class allows it to be lowered.

Mouse Guard, character sheet detail

In all of the games explored (except Dark Sun and Vampire), the consequences of hunger are purely physical and no mention is made of the mental consequences.

Spells and magic

In editions of D&D, spells related to the realms of food, hunger or famine are almost always divine cleric spells or druidic spells. In OD&D, both spells for creating water and food required having a very high level cleric for this game: level 6 (Create water) and 7 (Create Food). As later editions went on, the cleric level to cast this type of spell was lowered, as the gameplay moved away from attrition to a more heroic style: level 5 in AD&D 1st ed. (p. 46) for the spell Create food and water, level 3 in D&D 3rd ed. (p.189) (via TheAlexandrian). The Heroes ’Feast spell is a higher level spell that provides more powerful health and morale restoration. Note that it is possible for clerics to reverse these spells and spoil food and pollute the water.

In Rolemaster Classic (1981), the Creations spell list is used to create water and food in varying amounts. It is available for channeling type spellcasters (equivalent to divine spells). It seems that the hunger / thirst rules only appear in Companion V with the critical table named Starvation / Dehydration Crit. Strike Table (by Tim Taylor, p.109).

Rolemaster Companion V (1991), p.109.


In Dungeon Crawl Classics (2012), the divine spell is called Food of the Gods and it grows in power with the level of the character (p. 262). But there are no rules about hunger in this game.

In Unknown Armies, an example is given of a follower of the food realm and how the latter can color that realm with his own values, as bizarre and twisted they can be (3rd ed., 1998, p.133).


In most games, the creatures associated with hunger are primarily:

  • living dead (vampires, dhampirs, ghouls, ghasts,…)
  • spirits or gods such as Wendigo (D&D, Call of Cthulhu,…)
  • or demons such as Yeenoghu (D&D).

« The hunger felt by an undead with the need for sustenance is akin to an addiction. Like living creatures with an extreme craving for some chemical substance, hungry undead are prone to erratic, violent, and sometimes self-destructive behavior if they are denied their preferred morsels. » Dungeons & Dragons, “Libris Mortis: The Book of Undead, Chapter 1 All About Undead”

To go further, see the remarkable Tabletop Games section of the Horror Hunger article on TV Tropes which has lots of details about monsters and hunger in the settings of Deadlands, Dungeonverse, Exalted, Warhammer, W40K, World of Darkness, etc.


While individual hunger is seldom addressed in the games, famine is even less so. It is possible that this is due to its inherently disturbing nature and the emotional mechanisms of fear, denial, shame or forgetfulness associated with it. It is simply not fun to play with it.

You would think that board games might offer a better understanding of starvation because they frame the gaming experience with pure mechanics, not fiction. However, I think for starvation, role-playing can be relevant if it can produce an interactive, believable, and relentless framework for embedding emotions. Indeed, I think that tabletop role-playing games are distinguished from board games mainly by an emotional playful experience rather than a cognitive one 1 .

A tabletop role-playing game can frame this emotional experience using :

  • a campaign setting with a theme of famine;
  • domain management mechanics;
  • personality change mechanics.
“The useless mouths” by Francis Tattegrain (1886). Wikimedia Commons.

Famine, a campaign theme

Famine can be an integral part of the campaign setting at different levels of intensity.


In dungeon or outdoor exploration, starvation can condition the reaction of NPCs and creatures encountered (p.68 AD&D 1st ed. DMG). For example, in module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands for D&D, stirges are described as « quite hungry. In fact, this hunger makes it 90% likely that they will be squeaking and hooting to one another, so the party won’t be surprised. (…) Fire Beetles too are hungry and will hasten to attack any persons entering their area. » (p. 20)

In AD&D 1st ed., there is a cursed magic item called the Chime of Hunger, whose power is to change the behavior of all living things around.

"Chime of Hunger: This device exactly resembles a chime of opening. When it is struck all creatures within 6 ”are immediately struck with ravenous hunger. Characters will tear into their rations, ignoring everything else, and even dropping everything they are holding in order to eat. Creatures without food immediately available will rush to where the chime of hunger sounded and attack any creatures there in order to kill and eat them (…) ”(p. 140, Dungeon Master Guide)


In the module Famine in Far-Go (Michael Price, 1982) for Gamma World, the characters must save their famine-threatened farming community and travel to find a solution. Likewise, in the 1st edition of Rêve de Dragon (1985), hunger is the only motivation for going on an adventure and rediscovering the secret of Oyoulé, the Pastry-Warrior.

"His achievement is to have defeated a terrifying monster: the Tournedent, and to have accepted as reward only a little flour to make pancakes. Amazing pancakes, always fresh and capable of feeding an entire population. […] During the night, the characters will all have penetrating dreams […] It will […] appear that finding the Galettes is the only chance of survival for both the village and the characters themselves. "

In MouseGuard, famine is also a motivation for adventure (p.185-188). These motivations work if players have (or pretend to have) an attachment to their community. This works even better if the consequences of player decisions are the cause of starvation (see Hunger module for Paranoia, below).

Dark and distant omens

Starvation can serve as a distant threat. This is the case, for example, of the Cannibal Sectors of SLA Industries (1993). These are vast neighborhoods that have been sealed off within walls to contain a threat. The walled-in inhabitants survived by eating each other. While the game world is understandably dangerous, the Cannibal Sectors are in a different league and they impress the PCs when they are forced to visit them at some point in their careers.

As part of the Deadlands and Hell on Earth campaign, Famine is a powerful demon that roams the Wild West. For a time, Famine inspired Reverend Grimme’s faction and his cult in Lost Angels. Besides this faction, he is a source of power for many player antagonists. For example, the undead from Famine are called faminites and they spread rapidly by infection (HoER, p.188).

In Apocalypse World (2010), famine is one of the major threats of the post-apocalyptic world and it serves as a drive for in-game events and for the evolution of the campaign framework.

In Judge Dredd d20 (2002), the conflict between two antagonistic factions centers around food rationing and may offer the opportunity for scenarios:

"Segregation Blocks were conceived after the Apocalypse War to keep thousands of fatties from stealing from the food ration queues caused by war damage to the city’s food stocks. "(P. 123 and 133)

Dark setting

In GURPS 4th ed. (2004), a universe that suffered from a great famine, declined to a Tech Level 3, thus a medieval civilization level. It is described as an ecological disaster:

“On Lenin-2, this led to global warming, flooding, heavy weather, and a massive famine; the few million survivors are now living at TL3 . “(P. 528)” They wrecked the environment big time over the next century (…) famines killed billions of people (…) We wouldn’t have found that lost conveyer before the cannibals got to it. "(P. 322)

In the independent role-playing game Holodomor (2005), players take on the role of characters caught in the Ukraine famine of the same name of 1932-1933 and they simply have to to survive.

In module Qelong (by Kenneth Hite, 2013), refugees are described as starving and dehumanized:

"They can, if given food, tell the characters what they are fleeing from. They will also beg for food, protection, etc. and generally make a nuisance of themselves (…) A cruel Referee could hide a higher-level Specialist or spell-caster (in addition to the aakom-cursed) among their ranks, planning to strike from the protective coloring of a filthy, stinking mob of peasants. "(P. 31)

Domain management mechanics

The D&D Companion Set (1984) offers partial and incomplete rules for handling events in a domain. It lacks mechanics for consequences of resource losses, except the increase in the domain’s rebellion level (p.10). More generally, climatic spells (often possessed by priests and druids) often prove to be an essential asset in preserving the agricultural prosperity of a domain. Playing this dimension makes it possible to give them a central role in local politics.

In Dogs in the Vineyard (2004), famine is part of the second stage of community degeneration that players absolutely must purge with violence or else it will be destroyed by demons (p. 97).

In the game Sagas of the Icelanders (2014), a mechanic powered by the Apocalypse allows players to collect Food points to manage the household.

However, it is in a scenario for the game Paranoia that starvation is used in the most disturbing way for players as their decisions create and accelerate the famine of the place under their responsability. Indeed, in the scenario Hunger for Paranoia XP (by Dan Curtis Johnson, in the collection WMD, by Traitor Recyclying Studio, 2005), the players embody the managers of a part of the Alpha Complex in charge of a “miraculous” method of producing food in vats. Of course, the method does not work and players still have to produce positive results. The inexorable escalation of the worst, its explicit and sourced analogies with 20th century history, and the decision-making position of the players makes it one of the darkest scenario ever released for a role-playing game.

Mechanics of personality change

In Dark Sun (1991), an optional section of the base box (Alignment in Desperate Situations) is the first codification of moral change in deprivation time. All alignments are given behavioral cues. Additionally, in situations of intense and desperate thirst, any character’s alignment becomes temporarily Chaotic Evil if they fail a Wisdom check. The player must absolutely play this ruthless behavior, otherwise he loses control of his character who temporarily becomes an NPC of the gamemaster (p. 42-43).

The indie game Holodomor (from Sambucus, 2005) uses a Despair mechanic that reduces Morale. The Morale score is used in case of conflict or to inspire others. Emotions are free self-constraints (we cannot go against it) but they serve to resist Despair. The Will to Survive is an Emotion that every player has at the start of the game at a score of 10.

In Trail of Cthulhu (by Kenneth Hite, 2007), if the character finds out that he has committed an act of cannibalism, he loses 6 Stability points (in a list of weighted items from 1 to 8).

“Canibais” Theodor de Bry. Wikimedia Commons.

Famine and cannibalism

Cannibalism is a direct consequence of famine. Popular culture has taken hold of this subject, and so has role-playing games. If many games use this subject, it seems that it is mostly to give a color or to spice up a game setting because the subject is not developed in depth.

Mention of cannibalism in role-playing games

An asterisk * indicates that the subject is more developed than a short mention:

Games Anthropophagy / Cannibalism
Aftermath * Section on cannibalism p.65, with bibliography
Call of Cthulhu
D&D 5 Motivational random table
Dark Sun * Hobbit cannibals and Elf-eating Thri-kreen
Deadlands Reloaded: The Flood * chapter Famine's Domain p.36
Degenesis Cockroach clan
Eclipse Phase v1 Autophagy p.212, Exhumans p.362, Virus p.369
GURPS 4e World of Lenin-2
Hell of Earth Reloaded Famine and Grimme
Hot War p.165-171
Kult 1st ed. Limitation: Cannibalism, p.74
Qelong Random encounter, p. 24
SLA Industries Cannibal Sectors
Trail of Cthulhu Famines of the 1930s (p.170), Gol-Goroth (p.93), Ithaqua (p.95), rat-things (p.145)
Transhuman Space Clonibalism or clone-cannibalism (suppl. Toxic Memes, 2004, p.87)
Underground Tastee Ghoul fast-food chain


Aftermath! (1981), p.65.


Cannibalism is a powerful social taboo that has marked all civilizations. The Wendigo, used in several games (Deadlands, Hell on Earth, or also named Ithaqua in Call of Cthulhu) is a creature of Native American mythology whose function is to support this taboo. Legend has it that during a long winter’s famine, if you eat a human then you will wander as a monster in the forest, aimlessly and forever hungry.

In the The Flood campaign for Deadlands Reloaded, acts of cannibalism do not automatically translate into a consequence, other than the loss of reroll points for failure to roll the dice.

“Those who knowingly kill and eat a human being (or partake in human flesh more than a few times) must make a Spirit roll each time they do so. Success means they linger on in their contemptuous life. Failure means they succumb to the power of the Reckoning. In cold climes, eaters of flesh become wendigos, and in warmer locales, the sinners degenerate into wretched ghouls (see Deadlands Reloaded for both). "(P. 36)

In this campaign, the evil spirit Famine is the main antagonist. He works through Reverend Grimme, his cult and his monsters (pp. 26-34).

Subverted cliché

In the Dark Sun campaign, it is notable that the wild hobbits are organized into cannibalistic tribes. This information is scattered anecdotally in the description of the world of the base box but it is not explicit in the section which describes the race of the halfling (playable). The concept of the cannibal hobbit is one of the most interesting subversions of clichés in this game setting.

“A tribe of halflings tried to eat me” (p. 4)
"The greatest gift a clan can offer its chief is a feast. And the finest feast a halfling can imagine is a delicious human or demi-human who has wandered into their territory and been hunted down ”(p. 24)
“[On a raid] The animals (and sometimes the people) they eat immediately” (p. 34)
“They consider anything else (including intelligent races) fair game for the stew pot… I tried to explain that it is not common practice for humans to eat their guests, but my little friend refused to believe it. "(P. 36)
“I can terrify you with stories of being stalked through the forest by hungry halflings,” (p. 39)
"It is the halflings that you must watch out for. They consider anything that enters their territory including other intelligent races - fair game… Should you be taken alive, this is not a fate you should hope for. Some halfling kings are so savage that they prefer to eat humans and demihumans presented to them alive. Others are more civilized, and will at least have the decency to kill and cook their meals first. "(P. 62)

NB: In Dark Sun, there are also thri-kreen who are very fond of elves.

Hostility up to 11

As mentioned above, the Cannibal Sectors of SLA Industries provide a dreadful playing environment for the players. Likewise, the Isle of the Ape module for AD&D also offers an extremely difficult environment for players who must navigate a jungle inhabited by a cannibal tribe. In these two settings, the cannibals not only inhabit a very hostile environment, but this environment also defies the usual laws of the world (partially effective magic, rapid rotting of food, mutations, etc.).

Absorption of power

Even when playing a monster like in Vampire: the Masquerade, cannibalism (named Diablerie or Amaranth) is severely condemned socially by the vampire community. Indeed, drinking the blood of another vampire allows to absorb part of his soul and therefore of his power. If the cannibalized vampire is of a higher rank, it will bypass the established vampiric hierarchy of the Camarilla. Members of the Sabbath or the Assamites find this practice acceptable.

In several games, many monsters eat each other and absorb their powers. See the articles Cannibalism SuperPower and Monstrous Cannibalism (TV Tropes)

Games “Non-human” cannibalism
Call of Cthulhu Ghouls, Innsmouth horror
D&D Gnolls, Aboleths, Brain collectors,… *
D&D 5 motivation random table
Kobolds ate my baby Kobolds
Pathfinder Neothelids, Spawn of Rovagug
Shadowrun Ghoul virus, Ghoul Nation
Vampire: the Masquerade Devilishness
Warhammer Skavens, Ogre Kingdoms

* The ogre is a creature found in many campaign settings, and many monsters have similar attributes. In D&D and many heroic fantasy games, you could define all humanoids (trolls, goblins, orcs, etc.) as potentially cannibals. as if eating each other would push them beyond civilization.


Many role-playing games emulate the zombie movie genre (All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Outbreak: Undead, Zombie Apocalypse, Dark, etc). Not only the zombies are craving for human flesh but also the social collapse associated with their onslaught is an allegorical experience of the chaos and confusion caused by famine. A recent study showed that zombie movie fans had greater resilience in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic due to their “mental preparation”. Maybe zombie role-playing games have a similar effect …

The origin of games according to Herodotus: forgetting hunger

To end on a lighter note in this gloomy review, let us follow the report of Herodotus on the invention of games. According to him, the Lydians invented games (dice, knucklebones, balls) to distract their minds from a great famine.

“We played alternately for a whole day, in order to distract ourselves from the need to eat; and the next day, we ate, instead of playing.“ (Histories of Herodotus, Vol. I, no. 94)

It lasted 18 years. Then the king divided the population in two and half went on migration. While it is difficult to attest to the historical veracity of this passage, it is interesting to note a powerfully distractive nature of the game. It would appear that we see in it a sort of “pillar of sanity” 2 allowing us to escape the madness engendered by deprivation.

  1. By the way, even in a board game like _ [Pandemic] ( the-gift-of-world-disease) _, players adopting a purely functional role still have an emotional commitment. Indeed, epidemiologists played this game and they commented that while the mechanics were not conclusive from a biological point of view, the emotions involved were strong and interesting.

  2. The concept of pillar of sanity is a character sanity protection mechanic described in the Trail of Cthulhu game.

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