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 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.

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.

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

Friday, April 23, 2021

Epigraphs in tabletop role-playing games (2/2)

This essay is part of the On the Shoulders of Cloud Giants project which studies citation practices in tabletop role-playing games. This post follows a first post published last year.

Some method adjustments

Coding of variables

The encoding of the variables was compiled in a CSV file deposited in the OtSoCG project on GitHub. The file is updated as it goes. R scripts will retrieve data from this file.

I changed the way of encoding variables. For example, for the epigraph type, instead of putting all the types together in the same column (ex: lahr) I put each of them in a separate column (ex: column l, column a, column h, etc.). I am following the advices of our data librarian who has relayed the Tidy data principles from Hadley Wickham.

Note: I would have to learn to use Jupyter notebooks to build code dictionaries for variables (name, format, selection, etc.).

Variable names

  • qid : Wikidata identifier of the generic game, or sometimes of the specific edition (ex: Q5457).
  • edition : label of the name of the edition (ex: 2nd, 2nd revised, etc.).
  • series_ordinal : rank of the edition in whole number.
  • label : name of the set (generic name of the game line). Group the games as much as possible to be able to make longitudinal series.
  • date : date of publication.
  • nb_forged : total number of epigraphs invented by the game (intra-diegetic).
  • nb_work : total number of epigraphs taken from pre-existing works in the game 
  • Type of epigraphs (ie. the game contains at least one) :
    • academic (coded as a) : essay, history book, article, etc.
    • literature (l) : novel, short story, poetry, etc.
    • historical (h) : quote from a historical figure
    • music (m): song lyrics
    • religious (r) : from sacred, religious or spiritual texts
    • game (g) : game (board, board, card, life-size, etc.) or quotation of game designers
    • unknown (u) : I did not find the type
    • bd (b) : comic strip, comic book, manga, manwa, etc.
    • cinema (c) : movie or tv series
    • videogame (v) : video game
    • franchise (f) : literary or other work, preceding the game and from which the game is derived or which is a direct explicit inspiration.
  • confusing_mix (x) : if the epigraphs invented by the game's designers and those taken from existing works mix together and create fiction-real confusion.
  • notes  (not coded): various notes


The following items were excluded from the survey :

  • Epigraphic texts from the scenarios (often props: press articles, letters etc.).
  • The epigraphs attributed to a character class to illustrate that class.
  • Epigraphs without a source.

First results

Some remarks during this review work.

Layout of epigraphs

In role-playing games, most epigraphs have a similar formatting :

  • Section: Often in the "fluff" part of the playbook. More rarely in the rule part. Almost never among the lists of items in the rules (spell lists, equipment lists, skill lists).
  • Positioning: At the head of the chapter, under the title of the chapter; or at the head of a paragraph, under the paragraph title. More rarely, in a boxed insert.
  • Structure: Text of the epigraph, followed by the source.
  • Paragraph: Indent to the right, or to the left or both.
  • Font: Slightly different from the regular text of the whole game (eg in italics, or in a different font, or smaller or larger).
  • Source formatting: Author, followed by the name of the work. Often preceded by an em dash. Example:
Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo (2006), p. 5


In my teachings, I often warn my students against misquotation so that they do not make the mistake of including them in their work. For them, it is an immediate loss of credit since it proves they did not verify that the author of the quote really said one thing and in what document.

What was my surprise to see a (probable) false quotation from Einstein in Faery’s Tales Deluxe (p. 1) and in Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo (p. 89)!

A librarian at the Library of Congress investigated this false quotation.

Graphic epigraphs

Sometimes I've come across quotations from comic book boxes (Prince Valiant, The Four of Baker Street), or captioned prints (Baron Munchausen).

Source : Prince Valiant : The Story-Telling Game (1989)

Quantitative data

The R code to produce the results below can be found here:
It can also be run online from this page (where I posted most of the scripts:

Intra-diegetic invented epigraphs

Some games make extensive use of epigraphic quotes invented by the game's designers. The main goal is to increase the immersion in the game world by adding a touch of verisimilitude. Indeed, they are intra-diegetic epigraphs giving voice to non-player characters.

Games    EditionNumber of invented epigraphs
Nobilis1st. ed.373
Earthdawn3rd ed.111
Rogue Trader
ChampionsThe New Millenium92
SLA Industries1.1 (2000)73
SLA Industries1st ed. (1993)73
Nephilim20e anniversaire64
                                    Top 10

 Confusion between real and fictional works

Edgar Alan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft liked to mix fictional works (e.g. the Necronomicon) with real works (Harnušek 2013). No doubt to produce an effect of verisimilitude of fictitious works, to disturb the reader, to play with him and to put him in a state of confusion.

Some games invent fictional books and mix them up with existing books. For example Call of Cthulhu takes up what Lovecraft was doing by listing books of Mythos with existing occult books. Or Baron Munchausen 3rd ed. mentions a dozen fake book titles with a clever mix of humor and geek scholarship.

However, the essence of this literary process is taken up in the epigraphs. Indeed, I spotted 21 epigraphs of invented works mixed with epigraphs of existing works, or pseudo-historical quotes from historical figures who have existed alongside actual quotations from other historical figures. Most of these games can be categorized as urban fantasy or contemporary horror genre.
Source : Godlike: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946 (2001)
Achtung Cthulhu!
Armageddon: The End Times2nd ed.
Bitume10e anniversaire
Changeling: The Dreaming1st ed.
Cypher System
Fanhunter, el juego de rol épicodecadente
In Nomine Satanis – Magna Veritas1ere éd.
In Nomine Satanis – Magna Veritas4e éd.
Nephilim3e éd.
Nephilim20e anniv. (4e)
Over the Edge2nd ed.
Space Master2nd ed.
The Laundry
Werewolf: The Apocalypse2nd ed.
List of the 21 games mixing real epigraphs with invented fictitious epigraphs

Epigraphs of existing works

Among the existing works, the most represented types of epigraphs (in general, see note below) are :

Types Number of time represented
confusing mix21
bd, comic, manga20
I did not indicate the proportional% of each type because there can be several types for the same game.

Note: I did not count the number of each type of epigraph. I think this is a mistake because I could have had finer and more relevant coding. I didn't do it believing I would save myself time, but in the end I don't think it would have created more work for me.

GamesEditionNumber of epigraphs of existing works
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game
SengokuRevised ed.310
The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game
Arcana Mvndi
Mage: The Ascension1st ed.112
Vampire: The Masquerade1st ed.93
A Game of Thrones
The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game
Miles Christi
The One Ring Roleplaying GameAdventurer’s book90
Top 10 games that cite the most existing works

Future avenues of research

  • Include other games in the survey.
  • Identify citing practices in bibliographies, inspiration lists, reading tips, historical references, etc.
    • Compare if games with a bibliography are also games with epigraphs. Correlations?
  • Build a list of notable games with a weighting system. For example, Vampire: The Masquerade has not had the same weight in role-playing culture as La méthode du Dr. Chestel. Establish objective criteria: number of editions, number of translations, number of citations by other games, existence of a Wikipedia page, etc.
    • Indeed, I realized that presenting data without this type of weighting had less relevance and less value because we cannot generalize.
    • Once the list of games with notability index has been compiled, draw a graph with the number of epigraphs per year to see if there are any trends.

But why all this?

  • Tabletop role-playing games and thei citation practices allow me to do some amateur science.
  • It produces a modest knowledge about tabletop role-playing games, a niche area that I have had at heart since elementary school.
  • It allows me to practice methods and then be cognitively and emotionally closer to the students and researchers I support.
  • In the scientific process, there is an important aspect: a painful irrational obession. We cannot do without grueling and costly data collection. A bit like the scientists who count birds on rocky islands. I think that science cannot be done without this tedious process. Knowing that fact is good, but practicing it helps to empathize.
  • I think studying a subject thoroughly, whatever it is, you increase your general knowledge. In addition, by studying this subject in depth, it forces us to discover methods and good practices (which can then be applied elsewhere).

References : how to embedded R code in a webpage

Harnušek, Ondřej. « Lovecraft and Poe: Masters of the Macabre of Providence ». B.A. English Language and Literature, Masaryk University, 2013.

Rothman, Joshua. « How Does Science Really Work? » The New Yorker, Consulté le 15 avril 2021.

Szalai, Jennifer. « Modern Science Didn’t Appear Until the 17th Century. What Took So Long? » The New York Times, 7 octobre 2020.,

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Epigraphs in TTRPGs (1/2)

This essay is part of the On the Shoulders of Cloud Giants project that studies citation practices in tabletop role-playing games. I got the idea from a Podcast Science episode a few years ago where a speaker wanted to conduct a research on the use of epigraphs in scientific articles.

General information on epigraphs


An epigraph is a short quotation, usually from another author, displayed at the beginning of a text (a book or a chapter of example). It is usually a proverb, a line of dialogue, a sentence from a novel, etc. This paratext element can have different purposes : creating an atmosphere, playing with the reader, etc.


Examples of influential works containing epigraphs (1,2,5):

  • The oldest that my sources (1-5) have investigated date back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c.1400).
  • Fictitious epigraphs are found in Don Quixote (1605) and in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) explaining that Gulliver exists.
  • In Latin: in The Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu (1748) or the Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand (1848).
  • For each chapter in many Gothic novels: The Monk of Lewis (1796), Melmoth of Maturin (1820), Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, etc.
  • It seems that the Romantics made extensive use of it compared to their predecessors: as in Victor Hugo’s Hans of Iceland (1823).
  • Moby-Dick de Melville (1851) contains perhaps the longest epigraph.
  • Stylish fashion in the 1920s with Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
  • Lots of fantasy writers use them [future project: review them]: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, me, etc.

[NB: The following information does not constitute legal advice.]

Even though an epigraph is a short excerpt, that does not exempt the person using an epigraph from requesting permission. For example, song lyrics or poetry lines, even quoted very laconically, are likely to be problematic. Some scholars are advocating for a more open use of quotation in published works (6).

In some special cases, fair use may be invoked. For example, if the meaning of the epigraph is directly related to the meaning of the text that follows, it is therefore not purely decorative, so fair use can be invoked.


All of the functions of a traditional citation can be used to explain the purpose of an epigraph (see the post Citation Practices in Games. Why Citing or Not Citing ?).

Additionnaly, there are « appetizer » functions, specific to the epigraphs (2,3,4,5):

  • Arousing an emotion in the reader: a mood, a disposition. And thus give insight into the spirit of the text, tone, genre, theme, or change of tone.
  • Challenging the reader’s ability of interpretation: teaser, key to understanding, text commentary, new light on a character, magnifying glass effect on an idea.
  • Revealing or predicting an event to come (foreshadowing), or creating an expectation in the reader.
  • Exposing the universe in a diegetic and non-masterful way to give an effect of plausibility and immersion. Example: The Lord of the Rings epigraph
Épigraphe des 3 volumes du Seigneur des Annneaux
Epigraph of the 3 volumes of The Lord of the Rings

But also :

  • Playing with the reader: apocryphal epigraphs (purely invented), in counterpoint or as an ironic distance from the text.
  • Adding the intellectual or moral guarantee of the cited authors, or connecting of the text to a larger body of works.
  • Exhibiting of the cultural universe of the author of the text, and let’s say it a display of his culture or his erudition.
  • Giving the feeling of mise en abyme with mini-stories behind each epigraph.
  • Reminding the reader that the author is a reader too.
  • Beautifying the layout of the first page.

In tabletop role-playing games?

The TV Tropes site brilliantly synthesized the concept of epigraph as an element of diegetic exhibition with the term “Encyclopedia Exposita” (the site also details the term Epigraph, but it is less comprehensive). In the Tabletop Games subsection, it lists a few role-playing games that use epigraphs as painless exposure tools.

There is (in May 2020):

  • A mention of the fluff text of Magic: The Gathering cards.
  • A commentary on the very numerous epigraphs of Nobilis, epigraphs of works that do not exist.
  • A mention that White Wolf games, TSR’s Van Richten’s Guides, Shadowrun, Paranoia XP, Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine and the Warhammer 40,000 line are using epigraphs.

To my knowledge, this is the only web page with information on epigraphs in role-playing games (other than a forum discussion of epigraphs in SJG games).


As part of my On the Shoulders of Cloud Giants project, I decided to add an Epigraph variable to identify all types of epigraphs and their quantity in a given role play.

Variable encoding

The variable is encoded according to a series of characters. For example, a value can be hrs or gcab. There is no order in the letters

s: several (more than 10)
0: none (no epigraph)
l: literary, written arts
a: academic, essay
h: historical
r: religious
p: pseudo-historical
f: in fiction / purely diegetic
g: game designers
m: music
c: cinema / tv
v: videogame
b: bd, manga, comics
u: unknown

R Studio script to merge a variable in a local table with an existing data table

Epigraph encoding is done by hand in a csv file formatted as follows:

"", "citing", "citingLabel", "epigraph"
"94", "", "Athanor", "rmlu"

See the code

First impressions

While waiting for the full results, here’s what I noticed:

  • Dungeon World (25 epigraphs), Nobilis and Sorcerer (19) are great champions of the number of epigraphs.
  • Nobilis contains completely fictitious epigraphs. It is not obvious at first glance since they look like epigraphs of works that might exist. This creates an interesting confusing effect.
  • Several games have exactly six (6) epigraphs.
  • Pendragon explains (p. 6) the three types of epigraphic quotes included in the rulebook and their meanings.



Epigraph graphically highlighted in the game Kult (v.1 English), p.240.
Excerpt from the Dead Can Dance lyrics.

And then ?

To be continued for the results of the analysis …


  1. Genette, Gérard, Seuils, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1987, p. 136-148.
  2. Ahern, Rosemary, ed. The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin. New York: Atria Books, 2012.
  3. Thiebaut, Guy. “The epigraph effect in D.F. Sarmiento’s Facundo”. América: Cahiers du CRICCAL, Short forms of cultural expression in Latin America from 1850 to the present day: Poetry, Theater, Song, Chronicle, Essay, 18, nᵒ 2 (1997): 547-57.
  4. Kieffer, Kristen. “Should You Include an Epigraph in Your Novel? Well-Storied (blog), 2016.
  5. Shemshurenko, Oksana, Guzel Golikova, and Monika Ševečková. “Poetics of the Psychological Game: The Role of the Epigraph in the Short Stories by E. A. Poe”. Astra Salvensis 1, No. 4 (2017): 95-101.
  6. Bently, Lionel. 2020. « Copyright and Quotation in Film and TV ». CREATe working paper 2020 (8): 1‑33. Summary here.


Saturday, August 1, 2020

How the Cease & Desist orders reduced the citation practices in the TTRPG publishing industry

Cease-and-desist orders are an important element in the history and culture of intellectual property of the tabletop role-playing game industry. I will show how these legal actions had a negative impact on citation practices and how they hampered the explicit dedications, tributes, attributions and acknowledgments in the published works.


The purpose of a cease & desist letters is to precisely, explicitly and formally warn a person or an organization about a conflict. It can be written by anyone (a law firm can bring a little more credit and potentially more legal precisions). It also often contains a way to resolve this conflict, usually ceasing an activity (cease) and making a commitment not to undertake it again (desist).

Games copyright lawyer Zachary C. Strebeck estimated that in the United States a C&D letter sent by a lawyer costs between $ 300 and $ 1,000 (for 1 to 2 hours of work) in 2018. He said it can vary a lot between law firms (8).

C&D and D&D

Dungeons & Dragons was the first role-playing game released, and TSR's C&D were the firsts legal actions to impact the role-playing community (the company earned the nickname «T$R» or «They Sue Regularly»). Furthermore, TSR and WotC being the main players in the role-playing industry, their practices have had a significant influence. Later, the introduction of the Open Game License by WotC was a pivotal moment for intellectual property and it was a kind of reversal of C&D values.

Tactical Studies Rules (1973-1975)

TSR received a C&D in 1974 from the E.R. Burrough Estate Foundation for Warriors of Mars (15).

TSR sent a C&D in 1975 against Robert Ruppert, who was selling character sheets stamped “Dungeons & Dragons Character Sheet” for 2 cents (3, p.108).

TSR Hobbies, Inc. (1975-1983)

With Tunnels & Trolls

In the first edition of Tunnels & Trolls (1975), published by Flying Buffalo, its author Ken St-André mentioned ans scknowledged Dungeons & Dragons in his discovery of role-play gaming.

Tunnels & Trolls 1st ed. p. 4

TSR sends out a C&D circa 1975 or 1976 against the Flying Buffalo Company and Metagaming Concepts magazine for their advertisements and reviews of Tunnels & Trolls, defined as a game "like D&D".

«The lawyers claimed that using the words "Dungeons & Dragons" to help describe Tunnels & Trolls infringed on TSR’s rights. Flying Buffalo deleted any such comparisons from future advertisements. » (3, p.108)

Without surprise, the reference to D&D disappears in subsequent editions of Tunnels & Trolls.

With Tolkien

TSR receives a C&D at the end of 1977, from Saul Zaentz (via its Elan Merchandising division which had acquired the non-literary derivative rights from Tolkien) for the named creatures like Hobbit, Ent, Balrog, etc. (5, p. 29).

With Arduin Grimoire

TSR sends a C&D between 1977-1979 against David Hargrave for his Arduin Grimoire (4). In the preface to the first volume of Arduin Grimoire, David Hargrave is explicit about the change in tone and values in the role-playing community due to huge commercial success.
Arduin Grimoire, vol. 1. p. 2.

With Chaosium

Jeff Pimper and Steve Perrin approached TSR to publish a collection of monsters and they received a C&D letter from TSR in return (5, p. 250). Finally, they published their famous All the Worlds’ Monsters with Chaosium in 1977, a few months before TSR's Monster Manual. Since this success, Chaosium has grown into a major TTRPG publisher.

In 1978 and 1979, the authors of RuneQuest (Chaosium) dedicated the first two editions of their game to Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax and Ken St-André (discussed in a previous post).

RuneQuest 1st ed., p. 1.

RuneQuest 2nd ed., p. 1.

The second edition of RuneQuest included a full page of bibliographic references, among them : AD&D, D&D, but also Tunnels & Trolls and Arduin Grimoire.
RuneQuest 2nd ed. p.111

TSR received a C&D in 1981 from Chaosium for the inspired section of H.P. Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock in Deities & Demigods (9; 12).

The dedications and the bibliography disappeared in RuneQuest 3rd edition (from Games Workshop in 1984). The mention of D&D reappeared in the 6th ed. of the game (p. 4, 2012). A literary bibliography reappeared in HeroQuest - Roleplaying in Glorantha (p. 266, 2003).

TSR, Inc. (1983-2003)

TSR sent a C&D in 1992 against Gary Gygax and his game Dangerous Dimensions (DD) before its publication, renaming it Dangerous Journey. (5, p.101)

TSR sent C&D in 1993 against a large number of FTP sites or websites that contained material for D&D, even sites without copyright material (2).

"As the Internet exploded onto the public consciousness in the early-to mid-90's, D&D players naturally brought their chosen hobby online. TSR followed them, issuing dozens of cease and desist orders that shut down fan sites. The company even tried to prevent D&D fans from discussing the game in chat rooms and on message boards, earning derisive nicknames such as: “They Sue Regularly” (TSR) or “T $ R”, to stress the appetence for money of TSR managers ." (11). This caused significant animosity in tabletop role-playing communities (1, p.155).

Between 1991 and 1994, Shannon Appelcline, now WotC product historian, remembers being very angry when he received an email from TSR for a C&D website that he administered but which did not contain any content related to D&D (16, 9 min. 30 s.):

"Most of the people would have had the same reaction, hey we don’t like this already [T$R] and now they send these nasty letters for legal rights they probably don’t have, and they are doing it incorrectly too. (...) After receiving that letter, I didn’t touch anything related to TSR until 98-99 or so. (…) It pretty damages my relation with the company as a fan, yes. "

This wave of C&D seems to have been quite massive and has been dubbed “TSR vs. The Internet ”(17).
(Edit 2020-09-06: It seems that in the 90s «  it was a scary time for IP rights, there was a real concern about losing rights because of the assine way US law forces active defense to retain things. Case law didn't exist yet to protect rights-holders from fan-work. » (Armorlord).
(UPDATE: read more Games & The Law, Part Seven: The D&D Dilemma)

Wizards of the Coast (1997-now)

2000. WotC introduced a new practice in the tabletop role-playing games publishing industry: the Open Game License (v.1.0). It matches a spirit of the time : the free software licensing and copyleft movement. It also provides a counterpoint to the values ​​and damage done by TSR's C&D waves.

2008. WotC backtracking towards a more restrictive license (Game System License, GSL).

WotC sends a C&D in 2010 against Die Cast Games (6).

WotC sends a C&D in 2010 against Masterplan where a fan comments: “It’s almost a badge of fandom. Only the Real Fans of the game get C&D letters - the ones who genuinely care about and love the game so much that they’re willing to invest substantial time and effort into building tools, forums and sites which support it. (…) A friendly email request would doubtless resolve any issues born out of simple ignorance or over-enthusiasm. Using C&D as a first solution is like burning a Daily Power on a Minion - total overkill (…) ”.

2016. WotC reverts to a more open OGL license (v.1.0a).

Others Cease & Desist

By doing some research on the Internet, I spotted these few other cases. Like the facts listed before, there is a search bias and selection bias, so these facts are not representative.

The term Fanwork Ban from the TV Tropes wiki brings together several interesting cases.

Palladium Books is famous in the role-playing hobby for its numerous C&D letters sent to companies or individuals, especially to those who are converting its rules to other game rules (7; 14).

Games Workshop also restricts the distribution of fan material or homemade miniatures made by fans.

In 2001, Other Hands Magazine, made by a MERP fan, received a C&D from Tolkien Enterprises.

In 2007, the Fallout-based RPG Exodus received a C&D from Bethesda.

2011. 20th Century Fox sends C&D to a club of Firefly RPG fans.

2015. The amateur role-playing game Mass Effect RPG for Fate was removed from the Ennies Awards competition by a C&D from BioWare / EA.

Unknown date. C&D received by a GM for an online game of Harry Potter, from Warner Bros.

Impact on citation practices

In Colin Stricklin's memoir, he argues that role-playing games are incomplete products which require dialogue between the authority of the higher order author of the games and the authority of the lower order author, ie. game masters. Their interaction creates an equitable and more democratic culture of convergence. According to him, Cease & Desist are naturally less frequent there than in other cultural media (10, p. 67). I don't agree. No comparison study has been done with other media. Moreover, by seeing this review, it would appear that this is not the case. Finally, savvy hobby participants are familiar with the practice of C&D and know that it is not uncommon.

Thus, it can reasonably be argued that the issuing of Cease & Desist orders have had a profound impact on the role-playing industry and fan communities. More specifically, they have potentially negatively influenced citation, dedication, tribute, attribution, and explicit recognition practices in published works. Indeed, we often quote and cite to be part of a community. However, the exclusion and rejection outcomes of a C&D letter directly hurt this desire of belonging and being included.

I will elaborate in a future post how the Open Game License lead to systematic citation.

(UPDATE : 2021-01-06: a .csv file of these data is available here

(UPDATE : 2021-04-08 : A GREAT graph vizualization of the TSR C&D by Shannon Appelcline)


(1) Peterson, Jon (2012). Playing at the World. San Diego, California: Unreason Press.

(2) Brown, Janelle (1997). Disaffected Fans Cheer D&D Buyout. Wired.

(3) Ewalt, David M. (2014) Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It, Simon and Schuster. p.108.

(4) Hartlage, David (2015, juin 24). Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games. DMDavid.

(5) Appelcline, Shannon. 2015. Designers & Dragons: The 70s. 2nd ed. Silver Spring, MD: Evil Hat Productions.

(6) « Insidious (DCG1 Version) ». s. d. RPGGeek.

(7) Ninjafingers. 2010. « Why the Palladium Hate? » RPGnet Forums.

(8) Strebeck, Zachary C. 2018. « How Much Does a Trademark Attorney Cost? [And What Do They Do?] ». Video Game Lawyer | Zachary C. Strebeck | Attorney at Law (blog). 2 octobre 2018.

(9) Collins, Daniel R. « James Ward on Deities & Demigods ». Delta’s D&D Hotspot (blog), 6 mars 2015.

(10) Stricklin, Colin. 2017. « Off the Rails: Convergence through Tabletop Role-Playing Modules ». M.A. English Literature, Laramie, WY: University of Wyoming.

(11) Demil, Benoît, et Xavier Lecocq. 2014. « ‪The Rise and Fall of an Open Business Model‪ ». Revue d’économie industrielle 146 (2): 85‑113.

(12) Hartlage, David. « The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods ». DMDavid (blog), 8 janvier 2019.

(13) Peterson, Jon. 2013. « Character Sheets in 1975 ». Playing at the World (blog). 7 juillet 2013.

(14) Alien Rope Burn. 2004. « The Palladium Megaverse Gigathread ». The Something Awful Forums.

(15) Steve Zieser. « Warriors of Mars », Iron Rationales, August 28, 2010; et James Maliszewski « Retrospective: Warriors of Mars », Grognardia, March 14, 2012.

(16) « RPG Historian Shannon Appelcline Told to Cease & Desist by TSR ». 2019. Plot Points.

(17) Vassilakos, Jim. 1995. « TSR vs. The Internet ». 1995.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Tabletop role-playing games as hospitality and hosting rituals (part 1/?)

This post is the continuation of Tabletop role-playing games as hospitality and hosting rituals (introduction) of April 2018. Since this post, I gave a conference on hospitality applied to active learning workshops « From teacher-students to guest-host: revisiting the relations in library training activities ». (CPI, October 2019). This gave me the opportunity to deepen what an hospitable relationship is.


Hospitality is one of the foundations of social life. It is a series of codified and universal behaviors that reduce the emotion of stress when meeting strangers. It is played on short term, has a fixed duration and usually takes place once.

All participants will pretend they have en equal peer-like status. Except that one will have the role of host and the other will have the role of guest. These roles are clearly defined, separate and distinct.

For the host, the motivation to receive with hospitality is to maintain or increase its reputation. More spiritually, hospitality is a test of humility for the host and for the guest. This test is mainly expressed by a test of service for the host, and a test of voluntary dependance for the guest. (Shryock 2012)

Walter Crist, archeologist, claims ancient boardgames were functioning as social lubricants and ludic lingua franca between different societies. “People will play games when they vaguely know each other, to get to know one another.” The ability to judge another person was valuable. It helped find answers to important questions: Are you good enough to be part of my family? Should I trust you enough to trade with you? “This is how games passed between cultures” (Crist, 2019). [added 2020-12-02]


In contemporary sociability, invitations look like hospitality rituals. However, people are more familiar to each others and invitations can be recurring. (Augustin 2018; Burn 2017)

Good practices


The host has to prepare something. It is a question of reputation, sovereignty, wealth and generosity. He should even do a little too much. The guest has to taste it a bit at least. Hospitality being a test of humility, it is up to the host to adapt his service to his guests. Whatever the ranks of different guests, he should have spoken to at least each of them once.

Role-playing applications:

If you are doing low prep, remember that it is thanks to your years of experience, your culture and your ability to listen to players. If you do a lot of preparation, don't neglect listening to the players and adapt your work.

Even if all players do not have the same appetite for attention, focus the spotlight on each of them and actively manage the speaking time. If you are too much on laissez-faire, you may have given up your role as sovereign host. Everyone should feel like they are receiving fair attention (not necessarily equal attention).


The host does not ask their guest who they are, where they come from, what is their identity. A host must first receive his guest, feed him and entertain him. An example of a bad host: the giant Polyphemus, who eats his visitors, but also who harasses Odysseus with the question "Who are you?". Barbaric question to which Odysseus is well justified to lie by answering "My name is nobody." (Potter 2013)

Application for role playing:

Do not make a thorough presentation of the characters from the start. Let's play them first, do flashbacks later. Players, don't push the content of your 10-page background right away in one block. You are the guest: gradually weave it with the current game when an opportunity is served/offered.

Layers of the game

It is up to the host to accompany each descent or ascent from one game layer to another (Sniezak 2016). Each social layer is included/nested in another one (maybe: to explore). Each one is a new dimension, a new frame, with its rules, limits, roles, expectations, emotions.


A game master can invite in his home, in his campaign with a specific genre, in such a scenario, in this scene played in the first person, rules by this mechanic.

Favor a gradual entry into the game, with physical rituals (dim light, specific local, etc.) or communication rituals (key phrases, reminder of the past session, etc.). It clarifies the confusion of role, layers, playful attitude, etc.
The Top Traits of a Good Dungeon Master: Sly Flourish
The Top Traits of a Good Dungeon Master: Sly Flourish (Shea 2017).
The vast majority of traits are linked to an hospitable personality.

Sometimes the game master is a guest in the house of one of the players. The more explicit, discussed and shared each layers, the better.


The host must guarantee the safety and protection of his guests. In the old days, it was mainly about the physical safety.

Applications :

Emotional security around the table. The game master try not to confront the fears of his players: the fear of ridicule (“they will make fun of me”), the fear of madness (“they will find me weird”) and the fear of the obscene (“they will find it shocking ”) (qui revient de loin 2019).

« The one who lose a character, a fight, a contest, who lose face, etc. has a final word on what happen to his character.» (Eugénie 2017).

The game master can facilitate a debriefing /feedback after the game to reduce confusion, prioritize the information, improve for the next times, listen to what was not said or heard during the game, etc.


At all times, the host must be sovereign and remain so, without losing this role. He is the only one who can exclude. Its better if he follows pre-established rules ("explicit, official, precise, transparent, auditable, deemed intangible, and leaving no room for arbitrariness"). The people you never want to be invited to game with are are the fairies because they are known to turn any social exchange into a justification.
   « Interactions with faeries in folklore and fiction are one part entertainment to three parts weaponized manners. » (Lauer 2019)  


"I will not abandon you" (Baker & Care Boss 2006). The game master is present and active for his players, whatever happens. He does not disappear unexpectedly. He does not delegate his role as host to another player (if he does, he trusts that player will not abuse this temporary role).

The game contract is an asset (Coeymans 2019).


The guests leave with gifts from the host. These gifts create a bond and they invite reciprocity. (Dobrin 2013)


Symbolic rewards (XPs, powers, etc.), invitations to collaborative worldbuilding, physical props (cards, texts, etc.), propose a player to be the next game master, etc.

Bad practices


The guest arrives unexpectedly, without letting the host prepare. This can be interpreted as a [mise en defaut] by the guest to the host who is unable to serve properly (Zink 2010).


Players who do not respond to an invitation to play, but invite themselves when they want at the times they choose.

The players decide that their characters leave the thorougline of the current campaign to go in another direction. The game master must readjust immediately his weekly campaign. (I was one of those players).

Host exhaustion

The guest should not exhaust the resources of the host. It is up to him to figure out how to politely refuse an overly generous preparation or invitation. Examples of bad guests who exhaust the resources of a small poor kingdom: the pretenders of Penelope of Ithaca who will be killed (with the maids of Ithaca too).


Do not stay too long and go home, even if you are offered to stay a little longer. (I was one of those players)

Dear guests, minimize your personal footprint. Remember that you have accepted a voluntary temporary dependance to the host. The expression "Make yourself at home!" is only an figure of speech of politeness.

Understanding the power gamer

If being a power gamer (munchkin, Monty Haul, etc.) type of player means "pulling the game towards yourself, to the detriment of the other participants, via the abilities of your character," then such behavior can be seen as a breach of the hospitality relationship. Indeed, by pulling the invitation to himself to the detriment of the host and other guests, this kind of player oversteps the humility necessary for his role and he is stepping outside the framework in which he agreed to be welcomed. [added Jan 24, 2021]

Host > guest?

Like gift exchanges, the success of a transformative hospitality for both the host and the guest, is when the guest has a real opportunity of expressing a reciprocity. And this reciprocity is received in return by the host.

    "Hospitality is not about changing people, but about providing a space where change can take place. "(Henri Nouwen, 1986)

Abraham received guests who turned out to be God and his angels, Zeus was the patron of foreign visitors, ... you never know how a guest can transform us.

Wikimédia Commons - L'hospitalité d'Abraham, Arent de Gelder vers 1680.
Wikimédia Commons – The Hospitality of Abraham, Arent de Gelder vers 1680.



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Zink, Michel. 2010. « Humbles et humiliés. Récits médiévaux de l’abaissement ». In Littératures de la France médiévale (1995-2016). Paris: College de France.

Special dedication

To all the hospitable game masters who welcome me in their stories : Gregory, Laurent, Alex, Yohann, Berli, Nico, Hélios, Florient, Zulaan, Olivier, Oliviorc, Fabrice, Janus, Christian, Cyril, …