RPG Theme Example: Beauty, Value, Usefulness

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0839

Adventure themes create deeper immersion and better play experiences. It’s like the difference between drawing with random crayons or painting with a coherent colour palette.

If the theme you’ve picked resonates with your players, they will see the patterns and theme-connected relationships of your people, places, things, and plots.

You can game this for clues, world-building, hooks, and storytelling.

Roleplaying Tips GM Greg Shafer wrote in with this fantastic example of how he’s themed an adventure:

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I think pulling off a true resonant theme is what separates the good adventures from the great — and it’s really freaking hard.

I’m about to start an adventure where the theme is “beauty, value, and usefulness.” The players are plundering a sunken city in a science fiction setting to recover lost art pieces they then need to evaluate and sell.

The theme allows me to play with all sort of art related tropes.

  • The big art piece they are looking for is duplicated endlessly on cheap postcards they find all over the place, but when they find the real painting, it’s been destroyed by looters.
  • Journals and clues throughout the sunken city reveal how people valued the masterpieces more than the suffering of their fellow man. The high-minded art world of the old city is completely destroyed, but the slums that have popped up in their place are filled with low brow comedy clubs.
  • The crass gang leader the players thought was an imbecile actually has a pretty refined collection herself. The players will recover a subversive painting at great cost to themselves and then sell it to the highest bidder, who will burn it before their eyes so no one will ever be able to see its scandalous message again. The players get the money, but have to deal with the pain of watching a treasure they worked hard for destroyed.

At the core, I wanted to play around with loot that was valuable, but offered the players no mechanical game benefit, but also had more emotional significance than mere gold or gems.

So I created nine or so artworks with pictures, descriptions, histories, and fun ways to “read” meaning into them. This also helped to exposit the world they play in a little bit.

It’s been great fun for me to ask these questions to myself. Whether or not my players will pick up on them is another story.

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Those are fantastic examples from Greg. Try picking a simple theme for your next adventure and testing this advanced storytelling technique out.

For example, use a colour as your theme. Let’s say, blue. What can you connect in your adventure with the colour and symbolic meanings of blue?

Think monsters, encounter environments, factions, items, events, villains and minions, and plot threads. You will find it tough, as Greg mentioned. But practice will help you and I create and GM themes better with each attempt, so keep trying.