Theme as an Adventure Tool

Last time we talked about Theme, verses the modern story-lines that one finds in more current products. It is my opinion that providing just a theme creates a more usable product, but what is a theme? The answer to this question is simple, at least in theory.

The primary element of a theme is setting. Now, I’m not talking a setting such as World of Greyhawk, Dark Sun, or Forgotten Realms, but a smaller setting. A genre, a relationship between a set number of settings that pulls them all together. This theme can be extended to a permanent thing, but it can be a one-time thing too. A PC character such as Van Helsing, for example would carry a theme of hunting undead where they can be found. Darkness would be the theme. Abandoned places, rotten areas which have been left to time.

A setting is just that, a place or area where the adventures take place. In the mountains, in the city, at sea, underground, or wherever. Of course the other factor in a theme is whatever.

A theme has a specific type of monster palate. Monsters which fit a profile and enhance the theme, perhaps they give hints at what is behind the central mystery at hand, or perhaps they are just the type of humanoid that a boss prefers to work with and can better control?

The monster palate, like an artists color palate, should be appropriate to the theme. They compliment the theme and enhance it. They bring it to life, but in a way that is independent of any story, they are in the key encounters, and the random encounters, not to mention in the written encounters which you create. It should make sense that the monsters be there, if it doesn’t, then there is a mysterious reason why they are where they don’t belong which the DM must be aware of, as this is a big part of the theme.

The reason for being someplace is also defined, if not by the players, then by the DM because that is what he prepared for. A trip someplace which completes the theme, hunting a ghost requires the players to hunt for the location and once they find it, THAT is the finale, exploring the haunted castle, and the theme reaches its climax once the players confront the ghost and a “hopefully” epic battle.

That is the brilliant side of classic modules, they supply the setting, the monster palate, and the locations which the DM can use as a base to which he can add or subtract what he wants. Because they aren’t defined by limitations, or the false belief that all players are just going to cooperate with a specific story, they will have to cooperate with what you have planed, at least the big stuff! Such as finding the abandoned mine, the pirate cove, the windmill, or whatever. This final setting should be the ultimate completion of the theme, and once it is over, then a new theme begins, the PC’s move on or find some other theme within the area that peeks their interest.

A good definition of theme at work is with Batman. Everybody knows who Batman is, and there is a definite theme involved in everything that he does. You have Gotham City, a dark and industrial wasteland of crime and violence. The police force is corrupt, yet key members are tough, smart, and dedicated. This reflects Batman too, this is who he is. His villains define him as well. From Scarecrow who, like Batman, uses fear as a weapon, right up to Joker who is Batman’s polar opposite, yet his blood brother at the same time. Of course we don’t want to center our theme too closely around a specific player character to many times, we can create the perfect world in which our villains can thrive and grow. Every aspect of what the players see will, unknowingly, express some reflection of who, or what they are chasing, and what is chasing them.

Wrapping a theme around a PC character shouldn’t be avoided either. Once in a while it is good to remind the players that they shine, and have other goals besides just being adventurers. Taking small periods of time to help the characters learn more about his or her Priesthood, Thieves Guild, or what have you. Paladins require a specific life-style and provide wonderful challenges that are unique to their class, don’t avoid these subjects, embrace them! A set story-line doesn’t care who the party is, and that right there defies a major law of Encounters. A good theme should hook at least one of the Player Characters directly, but care must be given as if you focus too much on one player, then the others will feel like they are NPCs out on some romp in the woods which doesn’t involve them, and they are right! Don’t play favorites! But don’t ignore your players either. They should be the focus, and everyone in the group should have some opportunity to shine. You as the DM need to be aware of any goals or motivations which the player might have set for his character, and do your best to give the player all of the tools and space that they need to get what they want done, done. They are the real writers of this thing, not you or some professional writer whose out to make a buck and a name for himself.

This approach to gaming, unfortunately, requires talent to do and do well. The DM must know what he is doing, and how to create drama. He must know how to use timing in his favor and how to allow a mystery to unfold before him in an interesting way. He has to know when and how to turn the screws to increase or decrease tension as he sees fit. This can’t be taught, this requires experience and a natural ability to be a storyteller . . . but I just said that story is bad didn’t I? Not at all, I said that providing a theme is better then relying on a story. We are telling the story in a very open way through our theme.

We still need to develop and describe what the players see, hear, smell, and feel. THAT is our story. The lives of NPCs who may be living or long since dead, that is our story. How the game develops and where it truly ends up, well, that is the Players story, & we have to have the courage and trust in our players to get that done, but on their terms, not yours.

That, I believe leads to thrilling games. I’m not sure that one should totally sandbox something. I’m not quite that laid back and creative of a player, a theme helps us shrink down the scale of a game and make it more manageable. Extremes of anything is no good, if we give them too many options then they might not know what to do. A theme is just restrictive enough to allow the players to provide all of the input, it keeps them from feeling like they are trying to search for a needle in a haystack, but at the same time you can write a theme in a way where you’ll be prepared for the players to come up with brilliant ideas or to fall on their face as they see fit.

I don’t think that you can get TRUE encounters out of a story driven plot, and I think that that is the direction where we should all be heading to. That is were the real gold and guts of why we play D&D is found. It isn’t about rolling dice, but about exploring, and when exploring we have to have walls to keep things worth exploring inside. The theme provides this in a less restrictive way then story does. It allows more options then you’ll ever get by even the most brilliant computers, an interaction between character and setting which can only be found by having a human mind behind the DM screen. A story that constantly changes depending on the actions of the players, not in spite of them. Yes, the players will still find themselves exploring the spooky castle they know darn well is haunted by a murderous ghost, and yes they will be there because that is what we prepped for them that week, but how they got there will be different and probably a better story in its own right then anything that we could ever imagine or concoct on our own.

Pick up a classic mod and look it over, is it really without an ending? Or does it go someplace that maybe you just aren’t seeing yet? I think our brains want this, but on the surface, they look prehistoric and incomplete, when they are truly just vehicles waiting for you and your group to finish them and polish them in an honest-to-god mutually told story. These seemingly simple sketches have a potential to go into a direction that nobody has ever gone before, that is their gift, and in my opinion, that is what makes them superior products to anything else on the market. Is this old-school, or new-school? Who cares, but this should be the direction that we’ve always been going, but I think that the folks who depend upon this stuff to put bread on the table don’t want you to know about it because once you figure out this code, and this style, then they are afraid that you won’t have any need for their products anymore. They try to dazzle you with show, but you didn’t really pay for the show . . . you paid for a tool but instead you get something that kills creativity. Should we be angry? Maybe, but I think that there will always be a demand for simple tools. Once the companies understand the medium, instead of trying to force a round peg in a square hole with a hammer, they can begin creating the products that everyone finds useful again.

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