Define your tabletop RPG campaign in one word.
Go ahead; I’ll wait.
If an answer came to mind immediately, odds are that word encompasses one of the major themes of your story. If nothing came to mind, fret not – you maybe just haven’t thought about your campaign this way before. But we’ll get you thinking that way, because when you’re designing encounters and developing your story with a central theme in the back of your mind, your campaign will gain something that will help solidify it in the memories of players for years to come: cohesion.
Human beings like patterns. Subconsciously, we look for patterns everywhere – it is our mind’s way of trying to bring order to chaos. Think of all the superstitions players have about dice rolls, when the reality is that random is just random. A theme is a pattern in a story, and perhaps without even realizing it, players will anchor themselves to themes in a manner similar to how you may find yourself tapping your foot in beat to a rhythm.
Almost every memory trick in the book somehow revolves around patterns. Patterns help us remember. Random stimuli is difficult to follow and recall, and can often also be unpleasant. We’ve all seen some high-octane action movie that is jam-packed with random fighting sequences that may all be very cool, but when we think back, we have difficulty remembering much about the film as a whole.
Similarly, a campaign can easily become a jumbled mess of encounters in a player’s mind. Years later, fond memories of that time Hektor bullrushed the lich into a pit trap may come up at the game table, but once the smiles have faded, furrowed brows may follow, along with the question: “What was that campaign about, again?”
While there’s nothing wrong with that – the point of a game is simply to have fun, after all – you can deliver an even greater experience by adding themes to your story.
How to add a theme
How does one add a theme? We’ll take, for example, one of my campaigns, in which a central theme was war. A backdrop to the campaign’s story was a war happening between two kingdoms – a major event with global consequences. The player characters were assembled as a special task force for an organization, sent on secret missions which they eventually learned were in an effort to put an end to the war.
“What was that campaign about, again?”
Without the characters ever directly participating in the war or even seeing it take place, war was a pervasive theme throughout the campaign. How?
While traveling through the kingdom that had the upper hand, the players would hear grumblings about tax hikes to support the war effort and concerns about the next conscription wave. While traveling through the rival kingdom, they would see the famine and poverty that was bringing the nation to its knees as it poured all its resources into the war. While traveling through a faraway kingdom, they would hear gossip and rumors about the war in taverns, and merchants would lament about closed trade routes and difficulties importing goods.
The war was omnipresent. The clashing of armies never took center stage, but the effects of the war could be seen, lending background flavor to the setting. Show the effects of your theme on the world: if it’s greed, focus on the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor; if it’s heroism, highlight the bards singing songs of heroes and the hope it brings to those gathered; if it’s magic, highlight the way different groups of people react to magic and the ways it helps or hinders society.
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.”
Sometimes, the opposite of subtlety is desired. The theme is important to your story, so suitably important events should revolve around your theme.
“Your players will tap their feet to the rhythm of the beat.”
In my campaign, the players found themselves traveling through an isolated mountain range and became implicated in a longstanding rivalry between a camp of trolls and a camp of ettins. They wound up having to pick a side and partake in an all-out war that would completely wipe out one side or the other. The entire scenario actually served as an allegory for the two warring kingdoms.
An important scene involved the players passing through the war front during a lull in the action. After two dozen sessions spent hearing about the war and seeing the effects of the war, they were finally going to get a glimpse of the armies. To lend proper pomp to the scene, I provided evocative descriptions and accompanying music.
The final mission of the campaign was when they actually fought small-scale skirmishes against the enemy army in a strategically important location that was impassable by an entire army, and the conclusion of the campaign saw an end to the war.
Send a message
Themes in stories often carry a message, often out of necessity based on the actions taken by the protagonists and antagonists. Again, it’s best to avoid being heavy-handed here unless you know your players feel the same way as you. If your theme is religion and your message is “religion is bad,” you may offend someone.
While you may think that the message of my campaign was “war is bad,” the actual message is simply, “war is.” It exists because we do; it’s part of human nature. In fact, the final irony of the campaign was that war against a common enemy (an invasion of devils) ended up uniting the two warring kingdoms in a lasting truce. After spending the campaign focusing on the more negative aspects of war, the twist ending provokes thought and discussion: “Well, is war good or bad, then?” This ties into the other major theme of my campaign: morality. Do the ends justify the means?
They got it!
How do you know if you’ve successfully communicated your campaign’s theme(s)? Your players will tap their feet to the rhythm of the beat.
A tabletop RPG is collaborative storytelling. The theme of your campaign becomes a theme in the story of the player characters, and when your players start running with your theme, you know they got it.
When my players went on a mission to steal a precious gem from a faraway kingdom (they only needed to borrow it as part of a magic ritual), they became concerned about the politics. “What if we’re caught?” one asked. “They’ll be able to tie us back to our home kingdom. This gem is their kingdom’s most prized possession – we may spark a whole new war.”
“A tabletop RPG is collaborative storytelling.”
There it was. Without me breathing a word about the potential ramifications, without me even hinting at any war tie-in, and – if I’m to be honest – without me even considering what that player had brought up, he carried the theme of war into this mission. Why? Because the thematic pattern kept “war” at the back of his mind.
Another example was a player who came from the kingdom that was ruining itself in pursuit of this war – in fact, he was a former soldier. Part of his character development included frustration over the stubborn ways of his warmongering people and concern for what would happen to his brethren, his family, and his homeland as a result of this war.
When your players embrace your theme and begin using it to shape the story, you know that you’ve successfully communicated your theme. The result? Your campaign will have cohesion in your players’ minds, and you’ve paved the road to a memorable story.
Sidebar: Crossing the war front
I leave you with a final sidebar: the passages I read to my players when they crossed through the two rival armies at the war front. Included are the two songs I played alongside the descriptions; hit play on the video and read slowly, letting the feel of the music carry you through the descriptions.
You approach a town built between the crests of two cliffs, with a heavily fortified wall running between them. A watch tower stands at the pinnacle of each cliff, flying the colors of the Lion Kingdom, and as you grow nearer, you see the Galefridish army stationed behind the fortifications: thousands of tents, enough to house a couple hundred thousand men. Soldiers mill about, helping unload supplies from legions of caravans. You’ve never before seen such a large gathering of armed forces.
As you cross through the town, cavalry men ride by on armored steeds, nodding to you in greeting. You pass a group of Gold-Trims – higher-rank Galefridish soldiers – as they are discussing logistics. You spot two knights dismount from ivory horses in front of a commander’s tent, their polished, golden plate armor shimmering in the radiant sunlight. Their white tabards bear the symbol of the sun god, confirming that these are the famed Knights Hospitalers of Pelor.
From out of the tent strides a regal man wearing a helmet stylized to resemble a lion’s head, with a white-plumed transverse crest that flows behind him like a mane – one of the Knight Commanders of the Lion. You know that within that tent, some of the world’s most brilliant tacticians are strategizing.
You pass an awe-struck crowd gathered around a woman who seems to almost glow with the Light of Pelor. She is handing out rations; dressed in chainmail armor, she wears a cloth of gold tabard, and out of the back of her gorget rises a large holy symbol, like a golden halo behind her head – the Radiant Servants of Pelor are present as well.
As you near the fortified wall to exit the town, it stands tall before you with dignity, its smooth surfaces carrying the decorum of the knights in shining armor at your backs.
And so you leave Crestburgh.
As you travel the road, you spot a town in the distance, swallowed whole by a sea of grey: Brushmoor, and the Gavric army stationed around it. Drab tents pierce through a mass of grey-furred soldiers in unfathomable numbers, easily twice the size of the Galefridish army stationed at Crestburgh.
Trebuchets loom at the rear, casting harsh shadows across the landscape. Innumerable Gavric battle standards brandish that fist clenched in defiance of any who would oppose the Kingdom.
Everywhere, soldiers spar; weapons clang and thud against sword and shield. Warriors wearing horned helmets consort in gruff voices, and a black-furred commander barks at an assembled crowd – one of the infamous Veterans of the Black Baron. The crowd barks back a cheer, and in rhythmic unison, weapons are thrust skyward: sword, spear and axe.
As you continue down the road, flanked by tents, deeper into the Gavric war machine, soldiers glare at you with scarred faces and black eyes. Sharpened logs jut out of the ground, both off and on the road, daring the foolhardy to impale themselves. Around the town walls lies a fresh moat filled with wooden spikes.
You arrive before the Brushmoor gates, ready to enter the belly of the beast.