A Simple Concept

At the risk of diminishing my geek cred, I’m going to admit here that I’ve gone all these years as a fan of fantasy without having read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Thanks to Bryan’s prodigious book-buying habit, however, I’m now remedying that deficit. I’m almost finished, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel. Don’t worry, this isn’t a book review.

The reading reminded me of a related post over at Critical Hits in the “The Architect DM” series: Winter is Coming. As I pondered that post, and its gaming implications, I was reminded of Naming Your Campaign from Grognardia. That in turn brought me back to one of my own posts: the Importance of Theme.

The first is about the architecture of in-game buildings. The second is about campaign names, and the third is campaign themes. What do these seemingly disparate posts have in common? What tied them together in my wandering brain? Read on to find out!

Winter is Coming

In A Game of Thrones, each noble house has its own motto. That of the Starks, of whom most of the main characters are members, is “Winter is Coming.” Even outside the book’s fictional world of multi-year seasons, that mantra speaks of keeping one’s nose to the grindstone, remembering that hard times are ahead, and of always preparing for the worst. This one simple phrase tells you a lot about the family.

It also describes their seat of power, the castle Winterfell, which Bartoneus describes in his post. It’s a utilitarian place for defense- and survival. Its storerooms hold supplies for the long winters, and it’s built on hot springs to relieve the insidious cold.

The point of the post is to keep in mind the purpose for which places like Winterfell were built. Knowing this will guide you as you describe it to your players. Winterfell will not be light and airy like an Italian villa. It also works in the other direction. The book’s Castle Black has a wall only to the north, so what does that tell you about its purpose?

Naming Your Campaign

In “Naming Your Campaign”, James writes about the benefits of giving your ongoing games a unique title. This serves to plot out the boundaries of your game. This not only sets it apart as your game, but it also gives players a handle on what the game is about. Referring to “the Seven Swords campaign” is a lot more descriptive than “the D&D game.”

I’d also contend that the power of a name goes in the other direction. Naming your game not only sets it apart from other games, but will also affect the campaign itself. Players might start asking questions when they’ve been in the Seven Swords for a month without ever having heard of these “Seven Swords.” The title will serve to help keep GM focused.

Importance of Theme

In this post I suggested giving your game a theme before you play. A theme, much like a title, serves to tie the game together. If you’re asking yourself “Self, what should I do in response to these completely unexpected player actions,” you just need to think back to the theme. What response would best fit my intended theme? I also think the stories that result from such a game end up fitting better into a cohesive plot.


What do all these posts have in common? They’re all urging a GM to come up with the central concept. Whether it’s for a location, a campaign, or a plot, the concept will serve as a foundation upon which you build. You can apply this to just about every aspect of a game!


When you’re coming up with a character, either PC or NPC, brainstorm a few words of summary. When you need inspiration for what a character would do, just think back to her core concept.

Here are a few of mine:

  • Fun-loving violent rude redneck soldier
  • Pushy grumpy ancient wise witch
  • Teenage stoner reluctant shaman
  • Cunning ambitious protective mother noble


People often say that a good location can be as much a character in a story as the more… alive kind. As such, similar methods will often work for both. Like Bartoneus suggests, we should figure out what the place was intended for, and what sets it apart. From this, you can extrapolate many of the details as needed.

  • Trade-focused welcoming small town readying for winter
  • High security corporate office with a basement medical research facility
  • Eerily silent modern cave city in a fantasy setting
  • Remote hunting cabin haunted by an ancient spirit


You can even apply this strategy to objects, or at least the important ones. What does the object do? Why is it different from any other? How has its purpose shaped it?

  • Unassuming statue imprisons dangerous magical items
  • Well-used mundane heavy flail named Lucinda
  • Deceased father’s cloak of office
  • Secret society ring tingles near a safe-house


I’m not going to go into this one too much, since it would duplicate a lot of the Theme post.  When in doubt, just ask yourself your new idea fits the concept.


The next time you’re planning out an element of a game, try brainstorming an interesting core concept first. If you can put together a short elevator pitch that makes even you want to know more about it, then you’re on the right track. You might be surprised at how hard this is. Once you get it, you can put together that ten page writeup if that’s your thing. My bet, however, is that you’ll get more mileage out of the summary than the detail.

Have you used this or a similar method in your games? Do you have an interesting core concept idea? Were you expecting a Game of Thrones review? Let us know in the comments!