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The Last Dark Art

Two: The Well-Tempered Cavalier: Themes and Variations, Harmonies and Grace-Notes

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Oct 23,2002


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Two: The Well-Tempered Cavalier: Themes and Variations, Harmonies and Grace-Notes

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

True story: An English teacher friend of mine, having given an assignment to write a paper on the theme of a book, had a sheepish student come up to her after class and say, "Mrs. K, I looked through this whole book and I didn't find any theme."

It's tempting to laugh at such an obvious display of thickheadedness, but it's not such a far cry from the way many of us feel; it seems like literature would be so much more accessible if only the theme were spelled out. Themes are elusive and tricky things, hard to spot and harder to weave into a work without a kind of heavy-handedness -- a theme that spends too much time drawing attention to itself is in danger of subverting its own purpose. But theme is, arguably, as important to the telling of tales as plot and character; themes reveal, or at least point to, what the story is really about underneath it all. And therefore they have a part to play in roleplaying games -- though the "text" of a game may offer even less clues to its possible themes than prose fiction does.

Dealing with themes in RPGs is a distinctive challenge in some ways, gaming being a narrative form where the strings, so to speak, are always visible. But I'd also say this affords a number of opportunities to gamers who want to deliberately explore certain ideas -- especially given that RPGs are prone to develop themes all on their own if the participants aren't careful (one widespread one being "If a creature doesn't look or act sufficiently human, it doesn't deserve to live"). Since in gaming audience and artist are the same, there is a unique potential in roleplaying for the participants to bring in exactly the themes that they feel will interest or challenge them. (Roleplaying games, in this sense, have an edge over other media, in that the players are free to choose themes instead of having to decipher them. But the ability to extract a theme from a text is a useful tool for gamers, as should be apparent shortly.)

I want to talk about two different but interrelated kinds of themes here, on two different scales. The first is the theme proper, in its literary sense: an idea or "message" that underlies a story. The second is what might be more correctly called a motif, a recurring image that points to larger themes. The first operates on a "deep" level, the second on the "surface," but they're interconnected and complementary, and both can be used to great effect in games with a little preparation and discussion beforehand.

For the first type, you can pirate whatever you like from any other kind of literature. A major theme of Lord of the Rings, and one that can translate well to gaming, is "The least powerful are the least corrupted by power." On the more contemporary end of high fantasy, a theme that runs through Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books might be put as "Good people can do evil things for virtuous reasons, and vice versa." There are obvious themes -- "Human beings are more monstrous than monsters," from the film Nightbreed -- and more subtle ones: "All morality is relative in a corrupt world," from Watchmen. Possibly more challenging to game are themes like "People create their own prisons, but you can leave any time" from Sandman, or the idea that "A malevolent cosmos lies at the heart of layers of illusion" that runs through the short stories of Thomas Ligotti.

Certain games themselves suggest their own themes as well. Call of Cthulhu seems to center on the idea that "Too much knowledge of the universe destroys the fragile human mind"; Mage implies the theme that "The true nature of the world is revealed to but a few." But it's not necessary to be bound to these themes. A rulebook, after all, is not a game any more than a map is the territory it describes, and players needn't feel constrained by the way a background is presented if the themes in the "text" don't resonate with their own ideas. Challenging the assumptions written into a system can produce some interesting games, though a bit of rules-tinkering might be called for; a Call of Cthulhu campaign might focus on the unearthly wonders revealed to those who are transfigured from their human nature (and still, incidentally, be true to certain themes in Lovecraft) and give some welcome relief from the routine of "investigators find forbidden lore, meet awful Thing, go mad if they live." The Keeper who chooses a theme like this faces the challenge of rewriting the Sanity rules a bit, but he's also going to give his players a game that will be memorable and thought-provoking in ways that a "cannon" CoC game will never be.

It needs hardly be said at this point, but selecting a major theme (or themes, though more than two or three major ones tend to muddy the metaphorical water of any narrative) takes some careful consideration. The "idea" behind the story they're about to tell should be one that will hold the interest of the players (and be one they're comfortable exploring). Not every group is going to be at ease with a heady, deep, intellectual theme -- and here is a fine place to point out that a theme can be lighthearted and still play a key role in making the game more enjoyable. There's no reason a theme has to be deep or serious for a game like Risus or Toon -- but remember that even comedy has themes. Most Warner Brothers cartoons have a theme that might be summed up as "The ridiculous always triumphs"; variations on that idea have been underlying comedy from the Saturnalia to Charlie Chaplin and on. Deliberately choosing a theme even in a less "dramatic" game can add shape and texture to the story, and suggest plot developments that might not otherwise reveal themselves.

For most groups, discussions about theme are probably most useful before play begins -- possibly even before the characters are created. While it's certainly possible for a GM to select a theme in secret and subtly build it into the storyline, this has quite a bit of potential to veer uncomfortably into railroading territory. More possibilities can present themselves when everyone's in on the theme, or even when the group itself reaches a consensus on a theme everyone would like to explore. Players who are conscious of the theme are more likely to let it inform the actions of their characters, and may be more satisfied knowing they're contributing real substance to the story by doing so.

That being said, a theme isn't something than can be "played," exactly. This is all the more reason a group should select a theme that interests everyone; a compelling idea will work itself into the story more readily if everyone agrees to it, and simply become an assumption of the underlying reality of the game. A theme written down and taped where everyone can see -- the back of the GM's screen, perhaps -- can infuse itself into the subconscious minds of the players and give direction to the plot. But a theme is a guide, not an imperative; its influence should be subtle and instinctive, a kind of mental background noise that, from time to time, resonates in harmony with the notes being played. It's certainly possible a group will find that it's exploring a different theme than the one it set out to, and that's okay too. One of the joys of improvisation, after all, is discovering you're somewhere you never expected to be in the story you're creating.

Motifs are in some ways much easier to deal with than "deep" themes, though the same kind of care put into choosing them doesn't go to waste. There are a lot of different forms motifs can take: recurring images, scenes that mirror each other, pervasive elements of whatever kind interest the GM and players. In a really well-constructed scenario, the motifs are echoes or reflections of the larger themes at work in the story. To revisit one of the literary examples above, the stories of Thomas Ligotti often feature disturbing images of masks and puppets, set in urban landscapes that take on a surreal, dreamlike quality -- images that point metaphorically to his ideas of a malevolent universe hidden behind the faade of illusion. The motifs of a game can often be suggested in similar ways by the themes the players want to explore.

But note that it can be just as interesting to work in the other direction, and discover a "deep" theme by way of the motifs the group is interested in. The recurring images of a really entertaining game should reflect the obsessions of the players and the GM -- it's this stuff, after all, that keeps a story engaging to its audience. (Steven Brust -- himself a sometime gamer -- calls this the Cool Stuff Theory of Literature, and suggests that a particular person's experience of any narrative might be influenced less by any lofty ideas it might contain than whether or not it has stuff in it that the author and audience agree are cool.) So if your games always seem to return to certain scenes or include certain memes -- virtuous paladins, or sinister, conspiratorial corporations, or brooding magicians in big coats -- it can be useful to consider what underlying themes are suggested by those images, and run with that idea in whatever direction seems appropriate.

Motifs, even more so than deeper themes, call for some discussion beforehand by the group, especially if the GM intends to deliberately create patterns of certain scenes or images. Players, whether they mean to or not, tend to think like detectives, and repetition that's meant for effect can be misconstrued as clues; letting the players in on this a little can avoid a lot of confusion and the pursuit of red herrings. And, as before, ideas that are agreed on or at least understood by everyone in the group can be contributed to by everyone. The one caveat to this is that less is frequently more when it comes to giving a motif (or the visitation of a theme) impact. This is especially true if the motif in question is a comic "bit" -- comedy almost universally relies on a "build of three," meaning that a recurring joke isn't as funny after the third time. (Pay attention sometime to when a Saturday Night Live sketch that started out clever starts being annoying -- it's almost always on the fourth repetition of the "bit.")

The notion of discussing themes in the context of RPGs may seem like a particularly pretentious one, and it's true that a gaming session can work perfectly well even if the participants don't concern themselves with such things. But gaming is a means of telling stories, and stories, whether they mean to or not, involve the exploration of ideas -- ideas that express the philosophies, the prejudices, the obsessions of the tellers. As I mentioned at the beginning, it's very easy for games to express ideas that the players don't necessarily intend, if only because no one at the table challenges the assumptions that seem to be present in the system or the scenario. Some deliberate thought put into the kind of ideas the players do want to explore can result in a better time had by all -- not to mention a tale that everyone will remember long after the dice go back in the bag.

Next month: we tinker with the nature of Reality itself. Fun for all! TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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