The Storyteller’s Secret Weapon That Most Game Masters Struggle With
I recently interviewed former WotC employee, writer, and editor, Philip Athans. (I’ll be sharing the MP3 audio of it with you soon.) One of the questions I asked was about a GM’s secret weapon — how to show, not tell.
Philip said it was all about getting players to feel like they are their characters and that they are in your world and adventure.
Players want to play a game and experience an interactive adventure, not listen to endless facts, details, and descriptions. Players want to explore stuff, be surprised and scared and excited, and be immersed in your world.
The Power of Theme
One of the best ways to do this is through theme. Applying a consistent theme to your game gives players information, details, and clues about what’s happening through gameplay. It allows you to say things without saying them.
Example Theme vs. Evil Monks
For example, perhaps your theme is inner strength versus outer strength. This is a nice theme because it can speak to how players value, roleplay, and run their characters, in addition to giving you a great platform for NPCs, cultures, and plots.
And let’s say a recurring foe is a group of evil monks. In addition to training their bodies to be weapons, they’ve also mastered their minds. Fear, charm, greed, and other willful ego foibles fail to work on them, much to the party’s dismay. Inner vs. outer strength in play.
One day, the characters find a cadre of monks shaking down the market. They are intimidating merchants, screaming and yelling at them, showing off by damaging things with their bare hands and feet, and strutting around like they own the place.
The players realise something’s wrong. These aren’t the self-controlled monks they know. The raw emotions on display, the rage, the strutting and bullying.
The good news, which the players can discover, is these different monks are susceptible to the bard’s taunting, the cleric’s divine fear, and the wizard’s charm.
The bad news is there’s some power or villain at play here stronger than the monks, manipulating them.
All this is revealed via gameplay. You’ve shown something’s not right. The players have used observation, questions to you, and their senses of theme and patterns to realise a nefarious plot is afoot.
You could have just said, hey gang, you hear a rumour that mind flayers have infiltrated the evil monk faction and you gotta stop it.
Instead, you’ve shown, not told, and given your players the gift of discovery, excitement, and immersion.
List of Themes
On this same topic comes a question from RPT reader Pier Bianchi:
I was talking about introducing themes into adventures or encounters to create resonance. And you can create a different resonance and mood by just inserting one theme instead of another.
So my question is, do you have a list of such themes that can be used? For example, something like Payback, Romance, Vengeance, Power, Money.
Great question, Pier!
Here’s a fantastic list of themes to give you ideas for your campaigns: A Huge List of Common Themes
And remember, you can make up your own themes about anything you want. There’s no official list anywhere. There’s no right or wrong. It’s all about crafting an experience for your players focusing on one or two central ideas. Out of this comes the ability to put things in your game and make them plot hooks, clues, and roleplay opportunities. You get to amp up the intensity, drama, and story without having to do a lot of extra work. Just stay on theme.