theme (n.) a unifying idea that is a recurrent element in literary or artistic work (Wordnet)
Today the prompts were very interesting, but Theme seemed like the most interesting to talk about because, well, I usually consider theme to be one of the most important things when playing, running and, of course, when writing one. Although it took me some time to find tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) that actually incorporated theme.
The Case of D&D
Most TTRPGs I’ve read, played, run, or written had a very clear theme to them. Interestingly enough, when I began playing the first two TTRPGs I played and run—MERP (Middle-earth Role Playing) and AD&D 2nd Edition, respectively—didn’t have a clear theme to them beyond the wide “medieval fantasy”. MERP had Tolkien’s Middle-earth as setting, yes, but the mechanics had little to do with emulating the Professor’s particular kind of fantasy.
The case of D&D is not particular to that edition, though. I’d argue that D&D’s biggest issue (and strength, if you can believe it) as a TTRPG is its lack of a core theme beyond the vague aforementioned “medieval fantasy”. Some D&D settings have tried to further differentiate through themes—Ravenloft with gothic horror, Dark Sun with post-apocalyptic fiction, and Eberron with fantasy steampunk, just to name a few—but they’ve been the exception rather than the rule.
In fact, D&D’s most popular settings have a little to no defining theme. Forgotten Realms is often defined by players as “kitchen-sink fantasy” due to its lack of theme, and Dragonlance has sometimes been classified as “romantic fantasy”, in the sense of rescuing lots of the chivalric romance genre tropes, with its focus on relationships, social, political and, well, romantic, but it still feels like a generic “medieval fantasy” most of the time.
Still, this lack of a well-defined theme has turned D&D from a purely medieval fantasy TTRPG into an almost generic system. To this day there’s a lot of people using D&D to play the most disparate genres, from procedural investigation to science fiction. And, with the huge influence that Critical Role had on people playing all around the world, this adoption of D&D as the basis for any type of genre won’t probably slow down.
Strong Themes (?)
The next two TTRPGs that I played a lot had strong themes that were part of their presentation. Both Call of Cthulhu (CoC) and Vampire: The Masquerade (VtM) defined themselves as horror games, but very different ones at that. Whereas CoC is mostly “Lovecraft & co. horror”, VtM had the famous subtitle “A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror”.
Sadly, however, I’d argue that both games mostly fail at their intended theme because their underlying mechanics had little in the way of enforcing those themes.
CoC, on the one hand, has a Sanity Score you need to preserve because, if you lose it all, you lose your character. What this creates is a paradoxical design, in which mostly experienced players tend to interact very little with their environment, not acting at all like the protagonists of Lovecraft & co. horror, who are mostly obsessed or dragged into learning truths that mankind wasn’t supposed to know. So, you play CoC because you want to experience Lovecraft & co. horror, but then you don’t do what you’re supposed to do if you play the game to the best of your ability as a player. Moreover, the design of the game doesn’t present the players with any guidance or rules that help reward the players who do understand the theme of the game they’re playing.
The case of VtM is even worse. At least CoC has a Sanity Score and combat is deadly, as it’s appropriate to its theme. I remember complaining in 2002-03 that people didn’t know how to play VtM “correctly”—as the personal horror game it describe itself to be—but, instead, focused on combat and bloodshed, in stupid fights between vampires or between vampires and werewolves.
Turns out that that’s what happens when you spend a huge amount of your word count in describing weapons, combat, and special “powers”; people want to get the most out of the system and so they use what they have available to them.
To make matters worse, the character creation part shows no guidance or rules that enforce the narrative that we’re presented with throughout the book. You can squeeze the rules and create a war machine with no moral conflict or issues who only cares about destroying older vampires to drink their blood and become even more powerful (following the game rules on Diablerie).
So, you can see, I spent my first years in the hobby playing games that said that they were about one thing, but with little to no rule support for that, or they care little about their theme.
And then I read AGON (1st Edition, 2006)
AGON (2006) was the first game that I read whose theme and mechanics were perfectly intertwined. This is a game that defines itself as about heroic struggle in mythic Greece and that’s what you get: Greek heroes who compete for glory with one another and that, once they accumulate enough glory, bring upon themselves a heroic end.
I don’t think I have to mention that it blew my mind.
Of course, once I started delving deep into independent/small publisher TTRPGs—traditionally known as “the Indies”—I discovered that most of the games of this kind were laser-focused on one specific theme, and that they had rules that actually helped you to get that theme across for all players to experience.
That type of design is the one that I prefer, and the one I’ve adopted throughout both freelance and personal TTRPG projects. I think that it’s the one that really help you create memorable experiences at the table and, what’s better, it lends the games a level of consistency in doing so that other games just don’t have, instead relying on the Game Master (GM) to somehow try to imbue the game with the theme that the mechanics barely support at all.
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