Just Like Smoke Through Fingers – Theme Take 2

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0741

Just Like Smoke Through Fingers – Theme Take 2

RPT GM Mike asks:

Johnn, I just read your musings on theme. Do you assign a theme to an adventure or to a campaign? Can you have more than one theme?

Theme is a fuzzy thing, in my experience. It offers huge rewards when done right (LotFP, Dark Sun, Battlestar Galactica). But just when it crystallizes in my head and I try to explain it to others, it becomes smoke slipping through my fingers.

Let’s turn to my go-to game design resource, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, and see what it says about theme.

Lens #9: The Lens of Unification

“The theme is what your game is about. It is the idea that ties your entire game together — the idea that all the elements must support. If you don’t know what your theme is, it is very likely that your game is not engaging people as much as it could. Most games are experience-based; that is, the goal of the design is to deliver an essential experience to the player.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Smoke through fingers, right? Theme is a central idea, an aesthetic or style, and design all rolled into one.

Tricky stuff.

To answer your questions, yes, you assign a theme to your adventure and campaign. And yes, you can have more than one theme. Here’s why.

Most campaigns take place over a long time. Months, even years. When you give your campaign a theme, you have a long time to demonstrate, communicate, and play it.

Adventures are shorter. An evening or a few sessions. You can cycle through a theme pretty fast compared to a lifecycle of a campaign’s theme.

Therefore, to keep things fresh and engaging, change theme with your adventures.

Roll Adventure Themes Up Into Your Campaign

Here’s the kicker though. Have each adventure theme tie into your campaign theme. This allows variance, but supports a greater and profound experience over time.

Think of it like Star Wars. Each movie explores various themes. But they support an overall series theme, whether it’s Good vs. Evil, how individuals can make a difference, or something else.

In addition, you wouldn’t mix Blade Runner style into the Star Wars movies. Each theme gives you a fantastic, memorable, yet distinct experience. Thus, the power of having a theme.

Player & Character Themes Too

To further stir the pot, we’re playing a multi-player game, not creating a linear fiction solo experience. Therefore, I think you want to consider theme for each player. Because each player experiences your game in their own way. They have their own character, their own experiences with gaming and genres and stories.

Therefore, as an advanced GMing technique, you want to consider how you can tailor the ultimate experience of your campaign and adventures for each player.

How is the rogue’s playthrough different and just as awesome as the wizard’s? And how is Bob’s gameplay experience engaging to him, Barbara’s to hers, and Sandy’s to his?

In my experience, theme is tough. But like water, where everyone benefits when it’s amazing, clean, and cool, and everybody instantly notices when it’s brown and muddy, I advise working on your themes and using them.

Campaign Themes Update Dec 9

Mike emailed me back with info about his campaign. I’m swamped helping Adventure Building Course members with their Razors and other activities. But theme is important and very intriguing to me, so I replied.

Here’s a snippet of that conversation, as I think it helps clarify a teeny bit more about what theme is.

Johnn: Theme to me is designery. Meaning, do what you want, experiment, and learn. You’ll know when it’s been botched and when it made gameplay stronger. I don’t think there’s a specific single approach, answer, or solution.

Mike: So…  do I have one campaign theme?  Two?  What would you suggest for a Lovecraft-inspired campaign?  Secrets?  Forbidden Lore? (Two words I know, but one concept). 

Johnn: One definition of theme is a central idea. You turn that into a style or sub-ideas that reinforce the Big Idea.

Here, I feel one Big Idea is that horrific aliens present an impending doom. Try to picture that. What’s it look like? What’s it feel like? What gameplay would support that look and feel?

For example, this feels more like Cthulhu horror to me, than techno-thriller horror or carnival/clown horror.

Therefore, the necromancer takes his design cues from your Cthulhu-esque theme, and serves to bring another, on-theme impending doom to the PCs.

Mike: Is this thematic enough?  All of this already exists, but I could twist future ideas to fit the theme as well.

Johnn: How would you summarize your campaign into one Big Idea, such that the summary would inspire visuals, mechanics, and situations? Give that a try. A sentence or three max.

So, make of that what you will.

Smoke through fingers.