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The Deeper Well


by James Bierly
Oct 21,2004


The Deeper Well


Hi, my name is James Bierly. I've been gamemastering RPGs for over seven years, and decided it was high time I tried my hand at writing a column for the web about my favorite pastime.

Roleplaying games are, at their core, about a group of people creating a story together. The most rewarding part of roleplaying, for me, is when my group and I can look back on a campaign and say "that was a really cool story." The greatest compliment a GM can receive is to overhear players talking about what a great movie or novel the RPG campaign would make. The purpose of "The Deeper Well" columns is to help GMs and players craft better, more satisfying tales with their games. I'll be examining some different elements of fiction writing and applying them to RPGs, as well as trying to give some applicable examples for people to use in their own games. So without further ado, let's tackle the first topic, "Theme."

In the Harry Potter books the plot revolves around a young wizard who attends school and fights the forces of evil. But the underlying themes of self-sacrifice, the price of fame, the value of compassion, and the consequences of one's actions, are what has made the series so immensely popular. To Kill A Mockingbird's themes of racial prejudice and heroism in confronting social injustice are what have made that book so enduring, not the details of the rape trial. "The Lord Of The Rings" has a plot about a short guy who travels a long way to throw a ring in a mountain in order to save the world. But its themes - the nature of evil, the easily corrupted nature of Man, the power of friendship - to name just a few, are what will keep scholars analyzing Tolkien's work for decades to come. Plot details fade, but the theme of a story will stay in your mind long after you forget the main character's name.

(Note: Themes are not necessarily the same as morals, although the two sometimes intersect. A theme is more subtle than a moral, and more broad. "Lust" would be a theme. "Don't commit adultery" would be a moral.)

In order to incorporate themes into your RPGs, try dividing your ideas for themes into three categories: Meta-themes, arc-themes, and episode themes.

Meta-themes are the big, central themes of your campaign. These should be simple and easily stated at the outset of the campaign, in order to allow your players to create characters that conform to the meta-themes. You will find that giving players themes to base characters around often results in a team of characters that are adventuring together because of compatible personalities and backgrounds, which makes for a much more believable campaign than "you all met in a bar" or "you all work for the same boss." Although you will probably still have to use these methods to get the characters physically together, the rationale for them staying together is stronger if the characters were created with specific thematic elements in mind.

Also, when creating arc-themes and episode themes, you should always keep the Meta-themes in mind. If your meta-theme is "hidden corruption is everywhere," then an arc-theme about characters discovering the faults of their parents would fit well, whereas an arc-theme about the heroic nature of politicians would not.

Arc-themes are themes that span a series of sessions, but not the entire campaign. I find that I like to divide my campaigns up into smaller story-arcs.

For example: The meta-themes of a Lord Of The Rings Campaign I ran awhile back were fairly simple: good versus evil and the qualities of heroism. The first third of the campaign (the first story-arc) was about pure, swashbuckling adventure. Themes were: courage in the face of danger and the triumph of good over evil.

The second arc involved the players allying themselves with an evil wizard, hoping to ultimately destroy him. But some of the characters began to be seduced by the temptations of power. The arc-theme was about doing good for its own sake (which, coincidentally, is also the central theme of the second installment in the LOTR trilogy).

The final arc featured the characters taking the fight to the forces of evil that had been gathering throughout the first two arcs. The themes focused around the strength gained from the experiences of the past, and the unrelenting, selfless nature of true heroes (a nature which the PCs had acquired after the events of the second season/story-arc, in which they eventually turned against the evil wizard).

Episode themes are individual thematic ideas that are used only in one or two sessions. These should be related to the arc-themes and meta-themes in some way. Perhaps the meta-theme is that power corrupts. The arc theme is the difficulty of holding onto acquired power. A good episode theme would be betrayal, as a weak PC turns against a powerful PC in hopes of gaining power. I find, however, that it is often best to simply use the meta-themes and arc-themes as your episode themes. Too many themes can spoil the broth.

Themes And Cooperative Storytelling

Always be on the look out for player generated themes. Be willing to change your ideas of what the campaign themes are going to be. In my example above, the somewhat shocking turn of events in the second arc was completely player generated. Once they had made this decision, I was able to step back and look at what thematic elements they had introduced, and incorporate them into the wider story. The great thing about themes is how flexible they are. A theme doesn't require any specific plot developments, just plot developments that are consistent with it. This allows you to provide structure for the game without resorting to railroading.

Also, make sure you talk to your players about the meta-themes, as they are the basis for the entire campaign. Talk about what themes the group wants in a campaign before it starts, and occasionally bring the subject up again for revision. That way everyone can stay somewhat on the same thematic page.


Here are some theme ideas to steal and use in your own games. :-) With a little modification, they can be used as meta-themes, arc-themes, or episode themes.

If you have any other ideas for themes suitable to RPGs, please post them below.

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