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.


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