Theme and Flavor (1)

So you’ve decided to GM a roleplaying game. Awesome! You’ve got a system all picked out, your players are excited and you’ve started doing some prep for your campaign. You’re figuring out names for towns and what optional rules to use. You’ve read the rulebook again and are starting to draw up some NPCs and potential plotlines.

But now comes the hard part of creating and running a successful campaign. You somehow have to wrangle and wrestle all of your ideas into a cohesive whole and then herd the cats that are your players in the right direction to actually experience all that content you’ve made for them. And that’s not easy.

But fear not, dear reader. There are tricks to be employed, ruses to use and techniques to master that’ll make this if not easy, at least doable.

You see, creating and running a compelling and natural-feeling campaign doesn’t require all that much. Humans are creatures who love storytelling. It’s in our blood, in our history and in our culture and as long as the story holds up, people will go along with it. Hell, even if the story gets dumb and contradictory, people will still go along with it. So as long as you can keep your player’s attention and enthusiasm, you’re pretty much set.

So how do you accomplish that, keeping their attention? Well, there are a few ways to accomplish this and here we’ll be talking about one of them: Consistent theme.  A theme, for the purposes of this discussion is either a single idea or simple set of ideas that is present, in some way, in most of your campaign. Not everything has to be related to it, but you should be able to bring it up at least once per session without it feeling jarring.

Let’s give an example to make it all a little clearer. I ran a Dark Heresy game a good few years ago that had a fairly simple theme: No-one is incorruptible.
Dark Heresy is a game that naturally lends itself to this sort of theme. It is (supposed to be) about investigating heretics, finding out their many sins against the emperor and either reporting them to your superiors or burning them at the stake (or whatever creative means of execution you can imagine). The trick about Dark Heresy is that there are a lot of normal behaviors that COULD be heretical. Enjoying sexytimes isn’t bad per se, but too much sexytimes or sufficiently deviant sexytimes are ways to worship the dark god Slaanesh. And that’s a surefire way to eternal damnation or a one-way trip to the pyre. Similarly, killing in the name of the God-Emperor is fine, but enjoying it too much, or killing too much is the purview of the blood god, Khorne and a problem.

So throughout that campaign, my players kept running into things that weren’t heresy by their nature, but were pretty close. Nobles who enjoyed wine and women a little too much. Soldiers who had a thing for righteously slaughtering their foes. A Magus Biologis who studied disease and viral weaponry. Revolutionaries who stood against a corrupt government. And they faced challenges themselves. Some characters were bloodthirsty by their nature and got the opportunity to slake their bloodlust (Khorne is watching). Others got the chance to indulge the pleasures of the flesh (but not for Slaanesh) or to overthrow governments (Tzeench sees what you’re doing) or purge the metaphorical rot of society (papa Nurgle likes your moxie).

As you can see, the theme was present in many situations and that’s partly because I defined it in advance. Whenever I was stuck, I could go back to my theme and try to apply it to the situation at hand. Player characters encountered a guard? of course they can bribe him. Player characters are interacting with a priest? of course she’s skimming money for her own personal purposes.

However, you shouldn’t always force your theme onto people or situations. The most compelling scenarios occur when your theme meets something or someone that stands in opposition to it. Sometimes, this can be your players. In the example above, if all the player characters were paragons of virtue, they would form a perfect contrast to the greasy, slimy world that such a theme produces. On the other hand, if your player characters are the only points of light in an otherwise murky world, it quickly results in a very antagonistic feeling campaign, which may not be something you’re interested in.
Throwing in a friendly NPC who’s in opposition to the theme is a great way to spice things up. In my campaign, I introduced a religious woman who’s purity was her primary character trait. She provided a perfect contrast to the world and often went a bit overboard in the other direction, causing some great roleplaying moment.
Even better is throwing in an NPC or organisation who’s opposed to the PCs in some way but also opposes the theme in some way. Consider a D&D style campaign with “Dark falls and all shall be consumed” as a theme. Your PCs are probably the traditional group of murderhobos who slaughter their way through hordes of orcs and undead on their way to loot and the final boss. An order of paladins who are, ostensibly, good guys, are a fantastic foil here. Sure, the PCs could kill them and be done with them. But they’re paladins. They’re the good guys. They fight undead and orcs and whatnot. Is it right to kill them?

As you can see, a strong theme is a great way to give your campaign a distinct feeling and flavor. Next time you start a campaign, pick a theme in advance and see if it helps you. Or think of an old campaign and try to find the theme there. Next week, we’ll discuss some of the pitfalls of strong themes and i’ll provide some more insights into working them into your games.

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