As we discussed last week, a proper theme can really help guide you in planning a campaign. Today I’d like to talk about using theme to not guide your own campaign but to guide your players.
You see, players are tricky creatures and will subconsciously pick up on the themes you’re putting down. You can use this to both make your game more compelling and to pull the rug out from under them for a surprising upset. How to do this, well, that’s what we’ll be talking about here.
First of all, let’s recap our definition of a theme, just so everyone’s on the same page. A theme, for the purposes of this discussion, is an idea or set of ideas that represent a recurring and important element for your campaign. For this part, we’ll separate themes into two different categories: visual themes and story themes. These two can overlap in places but the big distinction comes in their use.
This week, we’ll talk visual themes. Visual themes are something most of you will be familiar with from various movies. They’re easily identifiable aspects of a production that make it clear who belongs to what group, what sort of environment they’re in and much more. Now, I do call them visual themes because sight is the sense we rely on most, but these kinds of themes can also be expressed through sound, or if we ever get full immersion VR working, smell or even touch or taste.
A few examples to illustrate. In Star Wars, the empire’s spaceships all conform to a unified theme. They’re all angular, are painted in stark white-black tones and project the feeling of a military-industrial complex. This is further underlined by their choices of uniform. These too are stark white and black with a very military cut. The sole exception are the emperor’s personal guard who wear a deep red. This is an excellent use of color as a theme and how to subvert it. When the viewer or in our case, players expect a certain thing that’s been established (all imperials wear black, white or grey military uniforms), it’s much more striking when that’s suddenly changed.
Similarly, the rebel alliance expresses their origin clearly in their choice of outfits, banner and even ships. They’re not an organised military and are the underdog. As such, none of them have uniforms, their ships and gear is all a little dirty and well worn. Their colors are much warmer, leaning towards brown and warm grays to indicate their more homely, protagonist nature.
In Game of Thrones (show, not books) we see a dramatic change in visual theme to accompany a character’s internal changes. Some spoilers ahead for seasons 6 and 7.
The Lannisters as a family have, up to the end of season 6, always been depicted wearing at least some of their primary colors: red and gold. Cercei Lannister has more or less followed that tradition although she’s been favoring darker clothing later in the show. Similarly, the kingsguard and other soldiers and guards in town generally wear gold or yellow with some green or red, depending on whether they belong to the Lanisters’ army or the local garrison. These colors are bright and warm, expressing a certain amount of hope and ‘good’. However, when Cercei decides to step off the moral cliff and commits wholly to being evil, we see a change in outfits. The formerly gold and red or green accented soldiers change their uniforms for a stark black and silver armor, showing her change in their colors. This change is underlined by Jaime Lannister’s choice of outfit. He still wears the original colors, both of his family and his position, indicating the rift between them.
As a final example, we have another one from Game of Thrones. There’s a specific song (or at least musical theme) that’s used frequently throughout the series.
This song, the rains of castamere, is one that’s frequently used as a background for scenes, particularly when something horrible is about to happen to a character or when they’re about to do something bad. It’s subtle but very effective. If you’re the kind of GM who likes to play custom music during your sessions, this can work very well.
A similar effect can be achieved by playing with the weather in your game. By setting your scene in a drizzle, downpour or bright sunny weather, you evoke certain feelings in your players and they’ll quickly pick up on the feel of the scene.
As you can see, a clever choice of words and descriptions can easily set the scene for your players to make (correct) assumptions in the world. This is one of the things I highly recommend choosing in advance and taking your time to think about. As an example of this, i’ll list some of the visual theme preparation I’ve done for my current D&D campaign.
The Orcs in my campaign are demon worshipers. As such, most of their descriptions are focused on brutish shapes, black colors, rough forged iron weaponry, with glowing coal as a color accent. This lends them a threatening look that players are quick to pick up on. As a bonus, their demon overlords tend to apply ‘blessings’ in the form of smoldering scars or brands that have shapes and forms the human mind can’t grasp.
The elves in my campaign are transhumanist (transelfist?) in nature, focusing on necromancy and crude clockwork augmentations. As such, most of their descriptions are centered on their delicate nature, the neat balance of color. Materials like white ceramic, bone, golden filigree and shining polished black are frequent in their description, leaning towards a militaristic look.
The third faction skulking around in my dungeon are the remnants of an ancient empire. They mastered magic a long time ago but have faded from the world. They’re a mix of natural and unnatural elements, featuring carved stone and brass banding mixed with glowing red or purple markings and energy.
You might be wondering what the point of these visual themes is. One of the important reasons for this is to keep expectations consistent. If the players enter an area that’s lit by coal braziers, they know to expect orcs, demons and straight up fights. If the area is littered with glowing runes and statues, there’s going to be magic afoot. And when skeletons with golden markings stare at them from concealed locations and gold and white banners decorate the walls, they can count on being stalked by pointy-eared necromancers.
The other reason is to allow your players to make decisions that their characters could also make. What do I mean by this? Well, no matter how good you are at running games, you’re never going to be able to totally accurately describe the world, the people in it and their attitudes. So by providing your players with a shorthand, they can pick up on clues that their characters would figure out based on things you didn’t think to describe.
An example: An NPC in one of my games is secretly a cultist. They’ve started fairly innocently but as the campaign moves along, they get deeper and deeper in the cult. The PCs have, of course, already tangled with the cult in the past and their calling card is their bright blue robes and oxidized copper jewelry. If the NPC is described more and more in those terms, the players will pick up on it, even though his wardrobe change might not mean anything in-universe.
I hope that this exploration of visual themes has been of some use to you. Next time, we’re delving a little deeper into story themes and have a look at what they can be used to accomplish.