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 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.

Select a repo

Friday, September 10, 2021

Dante's Inferno in tabletop role-playing games

September 14 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, the 14th century Italian poet and author of the Divina Commedia ("The Divine Comedy"). In first person, he tells an initiatory quest for personal transformation. The first part, Inferno, possesses a strong evocative power due to the description of multiple infernal underground places, haunted by the torments of the sinners. It has a lot of influence on culture, popular culture,... and tabletop role-playing games culture. Dante was a chess player, was he also a distant ancestor of RPG gamers ?

«Keep going in the obscure forest, go to 13.
Give up and come back, go to 256

Dungeon railroading ?

Dante's Inferno could be an old inspiration for dungeon crawling, at least aesthetically because of its underground, gloomy and fantastical themes. It is possible that the domains of Moria and Mordor of The Lord of the Rings borrowed patterns from it. However, structurally, we could qualify Dante's quest being being very railroaded. Its journey is more a linear church labyrinth than a maze full of choices. Dante has very limited agency: he only has the choice to enter the underworld and continue. 

At first, Dante is lost in a dark forest. He tries to avoid successively 3 wild beasts which push him to meet Virgil. Virgil is a poet admired by Dante, but above all he is a quest giver and a tour guide NPC who will be abandoned at the end of the Inferno. Virgil will be replaced by Beatrice and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux for the Purgatorio (Purgatory) and the Paradiso (Paradise). These NPCs are ubiquitous, they answer questions (even the most daring ones) and they keep Dante from getting lost.

The door which leads to the underworld, and which may be enchanted with the spell Magic Mouth, announces:

    « You who enter, abandon all hope. » (Inferno III, 3).
It’s a great start to a dungeon crawl. Auguste Rodin made this door his masterpiece.

Extraplanar exploration

Rather than dungeon crawl, Dante's quest is more akin to a planar crawl, a visit to ordered parallel worlds. Dante travels the nine concentric circles of the underworld, then the ascending spiral of the mount of Purgatory and finally the celestial circles of Paradise.

Plane structure of The Divine comedy, Michelangelo Caetani, 1855, CC0.

The first sketches of the « Outer planes » in Dragon Magazine for OD&D (1977, no. 8, p. 4) and in the Players Handbook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1978, p. 120-121) seemed to owe much to Dante when they described the « Nine Hells of Absolute Lawful Evil ». The other Outer planes had the same stacked structure (eg. the 666 chaotic evil Abyss, etc.). Usually, one had to go through the first layer before accessing the deeper levels. There was also a hierarchy of power (D&D) or severity (Dante) between the upper circles of the underworld that were lighter and larger levels than the deeper levels.

Outer planes
Top : outer plane in OD&D (Dragon Magazine no. 8, p.4, 1977) Bottom : outer planes in AD&D (Players Handbook, 1978, p. 120-121)

In Dragon Magazine no. 35 (1980), William Fawcett, game designer and future co-founder of Mayfair Games, mentioned in his article « Angels in Dungeons & Dragons » (p.18) [added after suggestion by Jon Peterson] :

« This article is intended as a supplement to the games of D&D and AD&D. Though the information it contains is based on both religious literature and theological speculations, it is not intended to be representative of any religion’s actual beliefs. Its sources also include popular fiction such as Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. »

In Dragon Magazine no. 75 (1983), Ed Greenwood, future designer of The Forgotten Realms mentioned in his article « Nine Hells, part I » (p. 17) :

« A vast number of writers have offered their own religious or primarily fantastic conceptions of the infernal regions (those lands of the dead that are linked with evil spirits and, usually, punishment of the souls of the dead). The chief sources of geographically detailed descriptions of the hells are listed here, for DMs who want to develop their own versions: Dante'’s Inferno; Homer’'s Odyssey, book XI; Virgil’'s Aeneid, book VI; Spenser’'s Faerie Queene, book II canto 7; Ariosto'’s Orlando Furioso, book XVII; Tasso' ’s Jerusalem Delivered, book IV; Milton’' s Paradise Lost; Fenelon'’s Telemaque, book XVIII; and William Backford’'s fantasy romance Vuthek. Libraries are the best sources for the above books. » [bold are mine]

The Inferno module (1980) attempted an exploration directly inspired by Dante, but it was never  followed up. In it, there was the 3 beasts, but also Charon, Minos, etc. The supplement To Hell and Back by Role Aids (1993) was also based on Dante's Inferno. The role-playing game Abyss (1997) also explicitly took Dante's Inferno as a campaign setting and allows conflict between different lords of the underworld or interposition forces to be played out. Most recently, Inferno: Dante’s Guide to Hell (2021) is a crowsourced D&D 5e campaign and the latest attempt at exploring Dante’s Inferno.

Visiting other worlds

Another common trope between The Divine Comedy and fantasy role-playing games is the « visitation theme » which was summarized by Jon Peterson in Playing at the World as an early litterary trope preceding TTRPGs. They are escapism journeys of personal transformation. The protagonist primarily faces the emotion of fear and overcomes it before returning to his homeworld. :

« The formula is a simple one: plausible contemporary persons undertake a journey to an undiscovered, fantastic realm, where after some adventures they return to their place of origin. » (Jon Peterson, PatW).

Examples: Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court,...

" - Only kobolds ?
- Only kobolds. "

According to Edgar Dubourg, The Divine Comedy is one of the first fiction to give an important place to the imaginary world. Indeed, its description is independent of the needs of the plot and it explores structural and detailed aspects that go beyond the story. “In fact, during the 15th century, an architect by the name of Antionio Maneti created a map from this text. This first imaginary map launched a very original debate from 1450 to 1600. Italian intellectuals debated it, while trying to improve it. It's one of the first signs, in the history of literary reception, of a strong interest in an imaginary world in itself ”. [added Sept. 29]

Reenchantment of the World

In addition to this theme of the visit, Dante incorporates in his journey people from his humanist culture (Virgil, Homer, etc.) or from his daily life (politicians, religious, etc.).

This process of sublimating emotions (anger or bitterness in the face of injustice or corruption, sadness or nostalgia for lost love) by incorporating them into a fiction can be close to the creative process of players and gamemasters (sometimes also close to the approach of the authors of fanfictions).

Economy of salvation & gamification

In the places visited by Dante, sinners are punished according to the faults committed. From Purgatory to Paradise, there is a progression by trials and by levels, with key locations and rewards. For example, in the Purgatory, Dante received 7 times the letter P on his forehead. Then, for each upper layer he went through, an angel removed one P.

This scripted and simple action-consequence modeling corresponds to the gamification models of ludic games and serious games. Salvation is a personal and collaborative, progressive, negotiated, educational, measurable / quantifiable and autotelic process. Like [tabletop role-playing] games.

It is interesting to note a theological shift in the meaning of the Underworld. In Dante and Christian theology, the devil is an angel who refuses the alliance with God, turns away from him, betrays him, leaves him to remain alone. In D&D, Asmodeus is an angel who tricked the gods into signing a contract containing hidden clauses to his advantage. From a theology of obedience, we switch to a theology of the contract. The latter is undoubtedly a more meaningful value in the publishing industry.


The magical world, accessible and decryptable, also refers to many themes of urban fantasy. Sometimes a key symbolic interpretation gives access to, or helps in understanding or mastering the magical world or the real world. In a sort of Gnostic approach, some role-playing games like Nephilim or Kult have used this theme of deciphered symbolism to acquire knowledge that gives more power to the characters.

In Nephilim (French 3rd ed, 2001, Manuel des joueurs, p. 102) Dante is revealed to be a Rosicrucian, along with Paracelse, Aggripa, Descartes or Goethe. Inferno (2003), a French supplement of Kult 3rd edition quotes and takes up lightly elements of Dante. In Tenebrae (2013), Dante's Hell is touched upon briefly in the Game Universe Secrets of Playing Paladins during the 30 Years War. In Mélencholia (2020), a storyline for Mantra - Oniropunk, players must travel through the underworld to collect nine shards.

Some games offer a player-character journey close to the narrative arc of the discovery of Dante's salvation:

  •     the divine ascension in D&D Immortal rules.
  •     the awakening in Kult.
  •     the quest for Ascension in Mage : The Ascension (obviously!).
  •     the spiritual enlightenment of Agartha in Nephilim.

In cyberpunk games

In some cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic games, Dante is mentioned as a wink.

In Shadowrun, Dante’s Inferno is a huge iconic night club in Seattle, the central city of the game universe. It has 9 floors with many holograms simulating flames. We enter through the roof passing in front of Charon, the bouncer, and we go down the floors. On each floor, with filtered access, corresponds a sin. The lowest floor is called Hell.

In the World of Progress, the game world of SLA Industries, Dante is a "war world" type planet, in perpetual conflict, where the average life expectancy of a dismounted soldier is no more than a few minutes. Those who come back are mad war veterans. In the game world, there is also a huge and multi-level nightclub: The Pit :

« At the entrance (“Deth’s Door”, after the Shaktar that runs gate security for The Pit) the words “Lasieate ogin sperenga voi ch’entrate” are written, which is Killian for “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” »
    SLA Industries: Mort Sourcebook (1995).

In Mage: the Ascension (1st ed.), The character on the tarot card on the cover of the game is a virtual devotee called Dante. He is an important NPC in the game. In the post-apocalyptic game Stygmata, Dante's Angels are "bikers who believe [the Europe of] Eden is a hell to rule. "

Certain events in the various matrix (a digital parallel world) of cyberpuk worlds can be compared to the Dantesque hellish journey.

Dante, a role-playing game author?

In Wraith: The Oblivion, Dante is the apocryphal (ie. fictional) author of Historia Popularis Stygiae (“A Folk History of Stygia”). This is a section of the base role-playing game describing the history of the Shadowlands (2nd Edition, pp. 59-75):

 «   (…) Here I cannot be silent, Readers. Hear me swear to you, as you go through this world, do not forget hope. Feed it, nourish it, conjoin with one another and encourage it, make it a powerful, lively thing. Do not forget the words of Charon, or the Lady of Fate, who have promised for us the path to eternal peace. I charge thee all, be faithful to the great goal, and there shall we all find Transcendence.
    By Charon’s Oar, »
    Dante Aligheri (apocryph)
A non-apocryphal (ie. true) epigraphic quote from Dante is also present on page 236:
   « Trasumanar significar per verba non si poria. »
     - Dante, Paradiso, Canto I. 70–71

NB: trasumanar is a word invented by Dante. Translation : « Passing beyond humanity cannot be worded. »

Citations and quotations of Dante

Whether Dante's Inferno is used directly or indirectly, Dante is cited quite often in tabletop role-playing games. It is in White Wolf's World of Darkness games that we find the most direct quotations, or references in the text, or in the bibliography (and even in apocryphal texts, see above).

GameIn bibliography
Quoted in epigraph
In text
Players Handbook. AD&D (1978) 0 0 0
Inferno (1980) 0 0 1
Dragon Magazine no. 35 (1980) 0 0 1
Dragon Magazine no. 75 (1983)
1 0 0
Abyss (1997)      
The Book of Madness (1994) for Mage The Ascension 1st ed. 1    
Wraith : The Oblivion 1st ed. (1994)
1   1
Wraith : Player’s guide (1995)
0   1
Wraith : The Oblivion 2nd ed. (1996)
0 1 p. 59-75
Mage: The Sorcerer’s Crusade (1998)
0 2.5  
Nephilim, Manuel des joueurs (3rd ed. fr 2001)
Inferno, pour Kult 3rd ed. fr (2003) 0
p. 6-11
Casus Belli magazine (3rd ed. no.3)
Tenebrae (2013)
Mélencholia (2020)
Inferno: Dante’s Guide to Hell (2021)

Without these explicit citation links, it is reasonable to think that The Divine Comedy indirectly or directly influenced many tabletop role-playing games. The aesthetic motifs of Inferno, the progression of the quest, and the orderly organization of the planes would be the main manifestations of this influence.


Written with the help of Le Guide du Rôliste Galactique, Wikipédia, DragonDex (index of Dragon Magazine) and RPGGeek. Walkthrough the Commedia (en, fr, it).

Thanks for sharing in the comments your references or toughts on Dante in TTRPGs!