The Importance of Theme

Remember back in school when your English teacher would have you find the main components of a story?  Who are the protagonist and antagonist?  Where is the climax of the plot?  What is the theme?Odysseus

You might have hated doing all that stuff then, but there was a reason for it.  Though it’s much more fun just reading a story than picking it apart, doing so forced you look beneath the story to see the tools the author used to tell it effectively.  Many of those same tools can be used in gaming.

Take the theme for instance.  If an author has a theme in mind from the beginning, it can help to focus a story.  The same is true when a GM runs a game.  In this post I’ll go over my experiences using themes in games.

I think the idea of creating themes for my games started with the old Sons of Kryos show, now long since podfaded.  One of their episodes was a recording of a game design workshop.  A repeated mantra of that workshop was a pair of questions:

  1. What is your game about?
  2. How does it accomplish that?

While those questions were meant for designers of game mechanics, I contend that they work just as well for a GM running a game.  After all, figuring out how your particular campaign reacts to the players is somewhat akin to designing rules.  You may not have written down a formula, but hopefully the fictional game world responds in a deterministic way to the actions of players.  That model of the world in your head that reacts is built on a foundation of rules.

Just as they did for game designers, those two questions help to channel what takes place in your game.  They aim the  collection of events that happen to tell a story at a single idea.  This will hopefully enhance the power of the story and the game as a whole.

A First Try

The first game in which I tried this method was to be a “sandbox” type game set in a jungle setting.  I decided to focus on: exploration, mystery, and discovery.  Unfortunately, the game didn’t last long enough to get a good feel for whether the theme made a difference.  What I did realize though is that I’d picked a focus, but hadn’t figured out how my game implemented it.

Once More, With Feeling

My next attempt went a little better.  I decided that this game would be about home and family amid a hostile world.  I would promote this theme in several ways.

First, the game would center on a little village in a remote area.  A winter storm would soon hit, along with an outside attack, forcing the townsfolk to rely on each other.  The characters were either from the village, or from a caravan that would be stranded there.  The locals all knew each other, including the PCs, and would react warmly to their neighbors.  The PCs would never have to pay for shelter or food while in town.  Finally, danger would always come from outside the town.

This seemed to work beautifully.  I got several remarks from the players that the game setting seemed realistic and alive.  The PCs inevitably returned to their home town when wounded, despite several other villages laying within a small journey.  They also showed concern that the townsfolk or caravan would be harmed, going out of their way to protect them.

Third Try’s a Charm?

Instead of aiming for an idea on my third try, I focused on more of a feeling.  It was our inaugural run of Shadowrun Anniversary Edition, and I wanted to focus on learning the game rather than deeper meaning.  I therefore tried to give the game as much of a action/sci-fi/heist feel as possible.

You don’t have to go far to get our group to cause some chaos, but when it inevitably happened, I played it up.  Explosions were massive, car crashes were intense, close up combat was straight out of a kung-fu movie, and the bullets flew liberally.  Like an action movie, it may not have been deep, but it was certainly fun.

Pushing the Threshold

My latest attempt at theming a game centered on leaving home to be a hero.  In a way, the game was about the Crossing the First Threshold stage of the Hero’s Journey that I mentioned in last week’s post.  Getting this out of the game essentially required splitting it into two phases.

First, the PCs were at “home”.  As members of a traveling caravan, I tried to give them a sense of the daily life their characters had lived.  The one encounter in this phase was pretty mundane, defending a family member from some local thugs.

Then, however, everything changed.  The characters were given an item, and forced to flee the caravan.  From this point, the PCs were “beyond the threshold”, and everything got steadily weirder.  As they moved farther from “home”, each encounter became more fantastic.  Every NPC grew a bit less familiar.  Near the end, I stopped introducing them to named NPCs, and their surroundings flew by in a blur as they neared their goal.  Ultimately, the PCs physically left behind the land on which they had been born, and were transported to as foreign a place as exists in that campaign world.

From what I hear, this game succeeded wonderfully.  Since we were playing in D&D 4E, one player likened it to experiencing the transition from Heroic to Paragon tier.  It’s probably my most effective game to date, and I attribute this, in part, to having a theme in mind from the beginning to bring it to a laser focus.

Guidelines For Theming a Game

I always start out planning a game with the two questions mentioned above:

  1. What is your game about?
  2. How does it accomplish that?

For number one, pick something interesting and complex.  “Good versus evil” might be a good theme, but it’s so simple and basic that it’s essentially what every other game is about.  Changing it to “Good versus evil in oneself” or “good versus evil in religion” not only gives you more focus, but makes for a much more interesting story.

Don’t forget the second question!  Having made this mistake myself, I can attest to it’s importance.  Coming up with an answer forces you to think of a strategy.  How will the world respond in ways that emphasize the theme?  Make thematically appropriate actions easier for the PCs.  Ensure that all roads lead to theme!  You’ll probably come up with even more ideas during the game, but giving it some thought from the beginning ties everything together right from the start.

Theming for Fun and Profit

I’ve found that coming up with themes for my games makes their stories much more effective.  It ensures that the events that occur do so for a reason, and it channels the game to flow in one direction.  If you’re still on the fence, think of it this way: your game will still have themes, even if they’re unintended.  You can either have them grow haphazardly from play, or intentionally from your own design.

One Response to The Importance of Theme

  1. I have a decent track record on defining what a game is about but I generally fail as I try to transition the theme into a storyline. I trend toward completely open games, which defy story lines, if not somewhat constrained. My ability to channel the engagement needs more work in a lot of settings. Some come easier than others.