Deeper Themes

A recent Grognardia post about Tolkien and Howard proposes that “as the years have worn on, [RPGs have] become more focused on surface elements of their supposed inspirations than on their deeper themes.” Commenters on the post discuss whether RPGs need or benefit from deeper themes, and a different guy called James suggests:

Players & DM’s will create their own thematic elements. Hopefully, there will be some synergy here, but, an amusing exercise might be to ask your players, after a year or so of play, how they would describe the deeper elements within the campaign.

I’ll bite! I think the amusingness is supposed to come from the match or lack thereof between what the DM sees as the themes and what the players do, so let’s have our DMs wait to weigh in on the themes until the players have had a chance. Here, though, are what I’d identify as the themes of Eric’s Glantri campaign:

– Mortality. Arguably this is not unique to Glantri, but is the theme of any old-school campaign that starts at first level. Nevertheless, our experience of play is shaped largely by the extreme transience of the adventurers involved.

– Belief. This relates to mortality in the usual way religions do; also in that it creates the need to regularly introduce new cleric PCs, which makes “what is the nature of your faith” an oft-asked question, and that the cult of the Boss is all about meeting an untimely end. The existence of that cult has also provoked interactions with other Glantrian religions, further exploring this theme.

– Family history. This is the one that seems to most emerge from Eric’s side of the screen rather than ours. As a player, though, I’ve been intrigued and impressed by the way that doors in the Caves of Chaos are marked with crests of different branches of the D’Amberville family, for example. So far this theme hasn’t been used much by players, although the arrival of Francois’s brother as a PC may change that.

Do y’all agree or disagree with these, and what do you think are the themes of the White Sandbox or James’ With Great Power game?

(We might need to have the ‘what is a theme’ conversation too.)

3 Responses to “Deeper Themes”

  1. October 22, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    I agree with you, Tavis. I find it interesting that these themes have developed with little conscious effort or intervention on my part, as the players are rummaging around in a sandbox of retooled published D&D modules rather than a pre-planned, DM-generated storyline. The noble families are a thread I’ve integrated into the setting to explain the prevalence of magic-filled dungeons, while the religious angle is a mish-mosh of player-generated material and pregenerated NPCs from the Keep on the Borderlands. And as you rightly note, any old-school D&D game with first level characters must deal with the consequences of mortality.

    The White Sandbox game deals in large part with matters of allegiance and trust. We’ve made all sorts of bargains with various factions and their leaders, not to mention certain sentient swords, and dealt with the consequences, irregularities and occasional failures of those bargains. Examples include Chrystos’ efforts to weasel around the terms of his pact with Patriarch Zekon, or the breakdown of our dealing with the Patriarch of the Dark One. We even have John Fighter’s background as a lost prince; now that his memories are restored, he has to deal with his obligations to his kingdom sooner or later…

  2. October 22, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    The broad theme of Gygaxian D&D in general seems to be: “Persistence, creativity, and luck can solve any problem, usually creating worse ones in the process.”

  3. 3 maldoor
    October 23, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    One emergent theme in the red box game has been various ways logic (or narration) and chance battle for our attention.

    First in the archetypal set-up of the sandbox, where forces of the old, chaotic non-human-centric universe are battling with the newer age of human-led order. As players we have curiously not delved into what this means in the setting.

    In direction: sessions where we focus on the (relatively) linear, pre-determined (by Mr. Jaquays) exploration of the dungeon, and sessions where we instead explore and invent the fuller bounds of the setting.

    In group dynamics: the tension between individual action and having a caller, particularly in problem solving and negotiations.

    Randomness in rule set: where we are letting the dice tell the story versus a by-the-book interpretation of events.

    This last thing is most interesting for me, and obviously for the DM. It is fun to see where the dice can be inserted to shake things up. In the last session, my character Maldoor cast a limited wish spell. The DM asked if after reading the scroll and feeling the very warp and weft of reality ready to be re-woven, if Maldoor wanted to proceed with the wish as planned, or had some other thing in mind.

    I decided the temptation would truly be terrible, especially for such a low-level magic-user, and rolled a saving throw (I decided on a 2 in 20 chance that he would be overcome with greed and power). Maldoor made the throw, but I personally enjoyed the moment more because I had introduced some randomness.

    It is easy to argue too many random rolls spoils the reward schedule, but adding a judicious number of random moments adds to the fun. Of course this has to work both ways: players and DMs have to roll both for and against themselves, and be ready to “play through” whatever the dice provide. As each session goes by I think the group is coming closer to a shared feeling of where the right balance lies (for us as a troupe).

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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