Days of High Adventure
A Key Tip to Creating a Memorable Tabletop RPG Campaign

CJ Miozzi | 2 Sep 2014 00:00
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Be subtle

You don't want to hit your players over the head with your theme for fear of coming across as being heavy-handed or preachy. Not every scene needs to include a background element related to your theme. Subtle thematic elements will continue to carry your theme in your players' subconscious, making them think of your theme without you seeming like you are intending to make them think of it.

"War. War never changes."

For instance, a dramatic scene in my campaign involved a player and an NPC engaged in a game of chess. The NPC was expounding on the definition of what true power is, but the theme of war snuck its way in with the chess pieces: rather than black and white, one set was black and the other red, each carved into the likeness of devils and demons, representing the eternal war between these two factions.

Another scene took place at a cemetery that housed the remains of generations of soldiers who fell in battle. Yet another took place in the ruins of an ancient, war-bent empire - and a follow-up scene took place in the ancient ruins of the rival empire that ensured their mutual destruction. Some of the magic items the players acquired were artifacts from war heroes.

If your theme is greed, include scenes with vast treasure hoards. If it's heroism, adorn walls with paintings of valiant knights. If it's magic, highlight uses of magic with evocative descriptions.

Humanize your theme

We discussed showing the effects of a theme on the people of your world, but this can be intensified by having one or more important NPCs in your story embody the theme in some way. This needn't be as blatant as having an NPC who is faithful if the theme is faith - you can explore the nuances of your theme in depth with characterization.

"Subtle thematic elements will continue to carry your theme in your players' subconscious..."

For instance, in my campaign, the players embarked on a mission with a decorated war veteran. Beyond that obvious connection to the theme, he was a representation of the consequences of war: his body was scarred, he wore an eye patch, and his hand was amputated. While the initial impression he gave was that of "the good soldier," stoically following the orders of his superiors and displaying loyalty, honor, and courage, the players started to learn that deep inside, he may harbor some regret over not being able to be a father to his children and going years without seeing them while he was deployed, to the point that he was a stranger to them.

Another important NPC, in a dramatic scene of characterization that showed the first glimpses of softness in an otherwise tough personality, offered her fatalistic viewpoint on war: it will exist as long as humanoids do. Because of that, she has to work tirelessly to keep her homeland safe.

If your theme is greed, one of your major NPC's identity may have been shaped by a greedy business partner that screwed him out his money when he was young. If it's heroism, an NPC may be the lonely spouse of a world-traveling hero; when his wife leaves on adventures for months at a time, he's left with mixed feelings of adoration and contempt. If it's magic, an NPC may be fascinated with all things magical and fill his house with minor enchanted trinkets.

Sidebar: War never changes

For those interested, I've included herein the exact passage I read to my players when the NPC gave her fatalistic viewpoint in a scene that closely parallels the famous Fallout monologue, ""War never changes." You can see advice from a previous Days of High Adventure piece included herein.

You find Shala with her back to you, staring at a painting of a forest. She sighs longingly and lightly caresses the frame with a hand.

"Do you know why I joined the Order of Solis?"

[I waited for the players to guess or otherwise respond.]

"Because I would do anything to keep my homeland safe, even if it means that I'll never live there again."

She turns around and leans over the map on her desk.

"Humanity is, presently, the greatest potential risk to the safety of the elven realm, for whatever fires are started in the Kingdom of Man shall spread to the rest of the world."

She unfurls one end of the map with a swipe of her hand, revealing the lands to the East before the map furls once more, hiding all but the Kingdom of Galefridus.

"Every race takes it turn at the helm of the ship that steers our world to war. And as long as humanity is at the helm, I must remain here to do what I can to divert its path."

She taps Lionburh's location [the city they are in] on the map with her finger.

"It truly is a sad reality that what separates us from the animals is what drives us to war."

She shuffles through a mess of weighty tomes scattered about her desk as she speaks, picking up select volumes.

"And as long as humanoids exist in this world, so too, shall war. The reasons are in constant flux."

With three tomes in hand, she plops down one at a time as she goes on. [I held my three rulebooks as I spoke and plopped them down on the game table to mimic the action.]

"[Thump] The Dwarves waged war to gather slaves and wealth. [Thump] Heskan shaped a battered Arkhosia into an economic superpower. [Thump] Bael Turath built an empire from his lust for gold and territory. But war..."

She brushes open the topmost tome, letting its pages cascade down after its cover.

"War never changes."

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