Date of Award

May 2023

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Stuart Moulthrop

Committee Members

Thomas Malaby, Jennifer Grouling, Michael Newman, Lane Hall


In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published the world’s first commercial role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. The tabletop roleplaying game provoked a new form of textual engagement: it entangled the fantastic tales of early 20th Century pulp fiction with the practice of play. The tabletop role-playing game initiated new perspectives on how classic texts could not only be read but also played. Our contemporary world is becoming increasingly gamified: digital media applications (from mobile phones to the personal home computer) have embedded game elements, structures, processes, and lexicons in our modern lives. Tabletop role-playing was a herald for, and catalyst, of this contemporary phenomenon. Espen Aarseth notes that tabletop role-playing games can be considered as an early from of the “cybertext,” a text that requires “non-trivial” effort for its engagement, and is “the oral predecessor to computerized, written, adventure games.”The project of this dissertation offers an approach of examining and understanding the practice of tabletop role-playing through Karen Barad’s concept of agential realism. Agential realism is based on concepts of Niels Bohr’s “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum phenomenon and its premise that nothing can be observed without changing what is observed. Agential realism requires us to accept and acknowledge our complicity in the creation, physical and sociocultural, of the realities which surround, bound, and interpellate us. This dissertation complicates the notion of singular authorship of isolated texts and realities by examining all the relationships necessary to produce a tabletop roleplaying game text. The first chapter of this dissertation introduces the concepts of agential realism while the second offers the historical context for the emergence of tabletop role-playing games. The third chapter analyzes the affective and aesthetic inspirations for Dungeons & Dragons to consider the conditions for the emergence of the first commercial tabletop role-playing game and how it would reconfigure the pulp and classic mythologies that inspired it. In the fourth chapter, I examine the rules for Traveller, an early science fiction tabletop role-playing game directly inspired by the practice of Dungeons & Dragons play, to consider how the procedural mechanics of games impact their authorship. The fifth chapter analyzes another mode of authorship for the role-playing game by analyzing its actual play; in this chapter, I examine specific game sessions from a campaign of the tabletop role-playing game, Call of Cthulhu. Throughout these chapters, we understand how the tabletop role-playing game text, like our physical and sociocultural realities, exist within states of radical possibility. Each mode of authorship, through a text’s inspiration, mechanical construction, and subjective interpretation are observations that fix the tabletop role-playing text into a specific manifestation – thought it may exist within any a priori of an observation. This dissertation advocates for an approach to consider realities, within and beyond the games we play, not as isolated moments of objective experience, but as the inevitable consequences of entanglements with all the authors (and players) that share them.