RPG Adventure Themes Tie The Room Together

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0728


Use Themes to Tie Your RPG Adventure’s Room Together

A reader asked me about theme. Theme is the rug that ties the whole room together, man. As I teach in my adventure building course, get theme right, and you intensify your adventures, deepen your players’ experience, and sharpen your stories.

Here’s an example. The hanged man.

As the PCs wander the wilderness, they spot a man riding lifelessly on a horse. He can barely stay in the saddle. His head is lowered, and no one can make out his face or who he is. Around the man’s neck is a noose, frayed end dangling.

When close, the man jerks to life. He recognizes the player characters and his eyes grow wide.

“You! Look at what you’ve done. This is your fault!”

During the encounter, the man will parley. But if provoked, he will attack.

That’s the scenario wireframed. Now let’s add theme.

You can boil theme down to a pithy word, like Revenge, Justice, Regret.

Literary critics will cringe. But for us game masters, this word is all we need to tie the room together.

However, if your inner designer craves more, make your theme a dramatic question [The Dramatic Question and Suspense in Fiction].

Let’s pick Justice. Or, If the PCs are confronted with the terrible consequences of past actions, will they take their punishment and change their ways?

We theme using the Encounter Triangle [Encounter Triangles – A New Design Tool For Your Gm Toolbox]. We make each element as thematic as possible.

Once you pick your campaign themes, you make your encounter elements on-theme as much as possible without overkill.

Which brings us back to our hanged man.

Who is he? Why was he hanged? How were the PCs involved? Why does he think the PCs are responsible?

Make those plot and NPC decisions so they resonate with your theme.

Perhaps the PCs murder hobo’d three sessions ago, and this guy took the blame. That would resonate with Justice.

Because we’re playing a game, we also need to look at mechanics. Those should be on-theme too. It’s another opportunity to intensify player experience.

For example, maybe the man is a ghost. Can he harm the PCs physically, psychically, spiritually? Maybe he can help or heal them?

In your first few tries at theming, be direct. Then aim for subtle as you get better. Signals, clues, and trappings of theme take you further in the long run, else players feel clubbed over the head with it.

Right now I’m thinking about the Hanged Man for my next Demonplague campaign session. Theme is like a skin. Change it to suit your needs.

Instead of Revenge, I’m thinking Community. The man stole food, was hung, and his restless spirit now wanders.

If the PCs don’t agree to help his starving family, he will attack in fear and frustration. Questions about whether the community meted proper punishment will surface through parley.

This sets the tone for upcoming Village Council elections in Tomar’s Crossing. Will the PCs intervene, and if so, for which side? Do they want more punishment or something else as civilization tries to rebuild itself after the catastrophic deluge?

Do you see how you can overlay theme on encounters using Who, Where, and Plot? We haven’t changed the central notion of a man on a horse with a noose around his neck. But we can take the encounter where we want using theme.

It’s like seeing the Matrix of your game.

And it’s a pretty cool tool for your GMing toolbox. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!