As we discussed two weeks ago and the week before, Themes can be a very powerful tool for structuring your campaign. Picking the right theme for your campaign can turn a mediocre idea into a tale of heroism talked about for years to come and drifting from theme to theme with no direction can turn the greatest campaign into a meaningless meandering soup of conflicting ideas.
So in our third installment of talking about themes, we’re going to tackle the one-two-three punch of setting up a theme, revealing its actors and smacking the characters with the consequences of what you’ve just done. This part will be focused mostly on story themes, although you can certainly apply what we learned last time about visual themes. I’ll be using two examples as a guideline for this article. Feel free to steal them for your home game.
First, the setup: I’ve already told you about the importance of choosing a theme in advance and taking the time to really think about it. There’s two ways you can go about it. Either you’ve already got a plot point in your campaign that works (The evil dracolich Nerofax wishes to rule the world) or you’ve got an idea for a theme but lack a proper set of events and actors (All evil springs forth from magic). Let’s go over both of those.
First our dracolich. Start by asking yourself what they’re about, why they want what they want. If you’re playing D&D, what’s their alignment? Examine the parts of your bad guy and figure out what they’re really about. In this case, barring any extra information, we’ve got an immortal dragon who wishes to rule. So perhaps a theme like ‘Death is the ultimate arbiter of power’ is appropriate for this campaign.
For our second theme, we’ll need a main actor to express this theme in our campaign world. You could go with the obvious and introduce a nation of wizards (such as Eberron’s Red Wizards for example) or be more subtle about it and go for a more witch-hunter vibe. Let’s go for the latter as a nice contrast to our unsubtle dracolich.
Now that you’ve chosen a theme and know about the Main actors, it’s time to start weaving them into the story. As with all things, moderation is the key. Sure, you could start a campaign with “You enter a village. There’s a witch. She does magic. She’s evil. What do you do?” but generally themes work a lot better when introduced in a subtle manner. A suspiciously high number of enemies are spellcasters of some type. The ostensibly good church has an open bounty on spellbooks (for burning). The king came to power by killing his uncle. The most powerful empires in the world are ruled by liches, vampires or other immortal creatures. The PCs gain bonus xp when they take their enemies alive. There’s all manner of things that can be done to reinforce your themes. This is where the meat and potatoes of your game will come from.
For our Dracolich, there’s a few things that can be done to reinforce the theme of death being the ultimate arbiter of power. Brutal killing should be the main tool the player’s opposition use to enforce their authority and to further their goal. The dead should feature prominently in schemes of power, be it as ghosts haunting rules, arcane lore from ancient realms being used to further agendas or just literal skeleton armies. A good mid-point of the campaign might be a confrontation with Nerofax himself where the PCs get killed. Depending on how subtle you want to be, they would be revived later, either by good aligned clerics, their allies or, if you want to lift the conflict to a higher level, death itself.
For the ‘all evil springs forth from magic’ theme, you could start the game with a witch hunt. Introducing an international or well connected cabal of sorcerers that seek to overthrow the world order is also a good plan. But if you really want to drive it home, include a few rituals in your game that anyone can learn (for a price). Let the players use these powerful magics but make it clear that they’re not good tools for good people.
So now you’ve done the necessary setup for your theme. You’ve got your actors, they’re moving about and doing things in your world. Your players are going to be running into them. But in order to make it clear where your themes are at, you’re going to have to include agents of those themes. Agents here is a general term meaning NPCs who embody the theme, whether they know it or not. In our example, those would be Nerofax, undead, witches and so on.
For these agents I highly recommend figuring out a few visual themes as well as a basic guideline of how they behave in relation to the themes. That way you have something to fall back onto when your players encounter them.
It is very important to be consistent with regards to portraying those directly involved with your different themes. That’s why I recommend making a list of what agents of a particular theme tend to be like so i’m nice and consistent.
So, you’ve got your agents and you know how to present them. The last part involves turning up the heat and bringing the theme to the fore. Usually you’ll do this over the course of a campaign with a single theme but some campaigns can have two or even half a dozen themes so it’s important to touch on it here.
Not every confrontation with an agent of your campaign’s themes should be an epic fight to the death. In some cases, that will be blatantly impossible. However, each one of these confrontations should be memorable. Now, this is a hard thing to do but if you’ve built up your themes well over the campaign, turning the descriptions you’ve used for them up here can serve as the perfect indication that it’s about to get real. Don’t be afraid to be a little dramatic about things. After all, you want your players to know that it’s game time.
I’ll probably go into more detail about how to make scenes memorable in the future but for now, this will have to do. I hope this three-parter on themes has been of some use to you.