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Thematic Voyage: The Unseen Art of Gamemastering


Jocelyn Robitaille
May 11, 2001  
Courage is an essential element of any RPG; nobody would even think of denying that. After all, the stories we tell around the game-master's screen are stories of great heroism and battles against skewed odds. Even in games less centered around traditional heroism, courage is still present. High tech mercenaries still need courage to do their job, no matter how criminal it might be, and crummy old archeology teachers do need quite a bit of it too in order to dare read some eldrich tone more likely to make them attempt suicide rather than educate them, no matter how likely they are to die an unpleasant death eventually anyway. Indeed, courage is part of every RPG.

However, despite this truism, or perhaps because of it, courage is rarely exploited as a theme in our games. In order for a theme to play its tune on the emotional harp of your players' subconscious, the elements evoking the theme in question need to be salient, to be distinct, even if subtly, from the rest of the roleplaying experience of your players. Here lies the problem with courage: it is so common in RPGs that it has lost it's salient nature and thus rarely creates the low-key emotions we're trying to get through themes. Thus, trying to make courage a theme in your game is a venture better left to a fool.

Fortunately, a fool is exactly what I am.

The first objective in the creation of any theme, and especially courage, is finding out how to make your emotional ground (the theme) salient enough to end up with a figure (the adventure) somewhat dyed by the feel you're aiming for. How does one make courage salient? The best way to do it is by working on 5 axis: the Players, the NPCs, the Villain, the Imagery and finally, yes, the PCs.

The first axis, the players, is more of a rule of thumb for the four other ways to evoke courage rather than a method in itself. This rule of thumb is very simple, in fact: never forget the inter-influential nature of party dynamics. As you might remember, where themes are concerned, the player/character dyad needs to be considered as 1 person, because the low-key emotions evoked are the player's, not the character's. Emotions, low-key or otherwise, have the annoying tendency of being contagious; thus, it is important, when you want to work a theme into your game, to make sure that, exceptions aside, your players experience the theme in a relatively homogeneous fashion.

The idea behind this simple rule is the fact that your players are going to convey the theme as much as you are once the theme has started to manifest itself. Thus, if your players feel the theme of courage, they're likely to behave in such a fashion that will reflect this subconscious knowledge of the them, and their behavior is going to work itself in your theme as much as the other theme-evokers you insert in the pattern yourself. Under the same principle, if one of your players misinterpret your courage theme, he'll most likely act as if no theme was invoked in him, or worse yet, as if another theme was invoked in him; at that point, you're screwed, since your player's theme-reactions are going to impact on the other players' theme-reactions, and work against your other theme-evokers, which are still aligned with your original theme idea.

The purpose of the rule of thumb, then, is simply to remind oneself that the elements used to evoke the theme, courage in this case, should be devoid of ambiguity; this way, your players all get the same message and their inter-influential nature works for you, and not against you.

The second axis, NPCs, relates to the minor NPCs of your setting, those that usually serve more as set than actor. Such crowd is a priceless source of theme creation. Through them, you can evoke a whole range of emotions. In the case of courage, you can use them in two ways. The first way, and the most obvious, is the way they interact with your plot. The players are often the only people able to do something about the evil overlord/industry/druglord/eldrich-god. Indeed, since role-playing games are all about heroism, this is a sine qua non prerequisite, for there can be no heroism if everybody can do what needs to be done.

Minor NPCs, however, tend to be quite rational about the whole thing and wait for the heroes to solve the problem. When one wants to make Courage a theme in his game, this is a big faux pas. Courage isn't about succeeding, but about trying. Thus, NPCs upon NPCs trying to do something about the problem and failing awfully and then trying again is a perfect example of courage. With a few emotional cues, like the courageous NPC saying good-bye to his loved ones and crying while departing to confront the problem, such scenes will almost certainly be felt as courage by your players rather than fool-hardiness.

Children are also a big theme carrier; seeing a four year old charging at a dragon to defend his village is always a good courage-evoker. There is, however, a second, more subtle way of depicting courage through NPCs: using everyday courage in a frequent fashion. Things like a pregnant woman working the fields until she's almost at the last stages of labor because the winter promises to be harsh, or a child caring for his sick parents day and night until he collapses from fatigue, are sure to make your players comment, if only to themselves, about how your NPCs are a though, courageous bunch. By using such images often, you're setting an ambiance of courage.

The third axis, the Villain, deserves a better look, even if he's an NPC too. Note here that this axis relates to the Villain as well as to his minions and lackeys. Courage, through the Villain, can be done in two opposed fashions. The first, and again, the easiest, way to use the Villain is through contrast. If your villain is a coward that acts in ways where he can always save his butt by fleeing, your minor NPCs and your PCs are going to look more courageous to the naked eye than if he would've acted in a traditional fashion.

Contrast, however, is a dangerous tool that can work against a GM; by having a cowardly Villain, confrontation between him and the PCs becomes less intense and seem less like an act of courage. Indeed, since themes are something you notice after the theme has been explored, having a plot climax (fighting the villain) that is a theme anticlimax (fighting a cowardly villain) will most likely ruin your carefully built Courage theme.

Enter the second way: simile. Ever noticed how movies where the protagonist and the antagonist have an healthy respect for each usually end up being enjoyable movies? The same thing goes with role-playing games. If your villain and his men are courageous, albeit in their evil deeds, chances are your players are going to notice and respect that. This way to depict a villain is a very efficient way to set courage as a theme, because it holds both an explicit and an implicit presence of courage: explicitly, if the villain acts with courage, he's courageous, but, implicitly, that means that the players are going to need a lot of courage to face such a brave person.

Another big issue with the whole contrast-simile problem of the villain is the idea of salience. Through simile, the courage of the Villain and of the PCs is made salient, whereas with contrast, it's the courage of the minor NPCs and of the PCs that is made salient. Considering how the minor NPCs can be made salient through other means, making another elements salient (i.e.: the villain) is the best way to go if you want to make sure that your theme gets across.

The fourth way to work courage into your adventure is through imagery, which is somewhat trickier than the two previous ways. Imagery, here, will be defined broadly as any passive element which evokes a specific feel. The tricky nature of imagery can be made obvious by reading pretty much any poem, since poetry relies on imagery a lot; as you might have noticed at some point in your life, each person's interpretation of a poem is never quite the same as someone else's.

The danger in imagery, then, lies in the fact that an element of imagery might not trigger the same emotion for each of your players. The answer to this problem lies in the concept of an archetype, which is something that is basically so rooted in popular wisdom that it becomes a universal symbol, a symbol that (almost everybody) agrees on, at least in a specific culture or sub-culture.

For courage, the best example of an archetype is a symphony we all know: the Star Wars symphony. Even among non-Star Wars junkies or even non-geeks, it's mighty hard to find someone who, upon hearing the music of the Holy Trilogy's scrolling preface, doesn't feel the strange urge to grab a lightsaber and bash some Stormtroopers. Sadly, unless you're playing Star Wars, the symphony is so rooted in Lucas' stories that it won't evoke courage, it'll simply evoke Star Wars.

Thus, we need to find other archetypal symbols related to courage. Since we all know a tune or two evoking courage, I'll skip the music part and move on to less obvious ideas. The problem with courage is that it's a very complex concept, far less simple than love, for instance, which can be evoked by a red rose. Symbols of courage, then, need to be a bit more complex than a simple object.

Bards telling a legend can be a good courage evoker, as long as the legend deals with courage and is similar enough to a popular legend who's simple name evoke courage; a legend so closely based on The Lord of the Rings, for instance, that your players recognize it instantly, works well.

Another good symbol imagery is the tombs of heroes past, where people go for inspiration; the mere mention of the tombstone of a hero is likely to evoke courage in your players, at least in a small amount. The possibilities, here, are limitless, and should be tailored on the archetypes you know your players will recognize. The only important thing to keep in mind is that imagery works by itself: the trigger is simply inserted in your game and then the imagination of your player does the rest of the work, evoking by itself the various instances of courage surrounding your trigger.

If we go back to the Star Wars Symphony example, most people, when they hear it, are haunted by something somewhat similar to a theatrical trailer built from their favorite scenes, and then feel the urge to bash some Stormtroopers; this is the way an imagery trigger works. Again, imagery is a tricky business that requires some more thought that other methods, partly because it is gaming-group specific, but when used properly, the pay-off is more than worth it.

The fifth and final axis, and maybe the most simple in the case of courage, is the players. Once the theme is built through the four previous axis, what remains to be done is have the players enter the theme as active elements, thus identifying themselves with it, and making it an immersive experience rather than a passive one.

With courage, there's really only one way to do it: whatever is asked of the characters must require guts. It must be clear for the character that they'll lose something if they fail, and that they have a pretty good chance of failing. An important nuance, however, lies in the reason why they will act despite the risk, a nuance that will distinguish between courage and rational reaction. In order for the players to be courageous, what is to be gained by succeeding should not be essential or crucial.

Indeed, risking one's life to save the world isn't really courage, because they'll die anyway if the world ends. Risking one's life to prevent the world from being destroyed in 200 years, however, is courage, because what they're trying to stop has no real impact on them. In a similar vein, a woman risking the life of the man she loves to save her child isn't really courage, but risking the life of the man she loves in order to defend some ideal is.

The mercenary is a interesting exception, because his actions are almost always based on courage, since he could have chosen some less dangerous line of work; however, it is obvious that without other evokers bringing courage into emotional focus, it rarely is a theme of mercenary stories. Again, the possibilities are limitless, as long as courage remains a requirement in order to attempt the action.

In sum, in order for courage to be worked as a theme into an adventure, it needs to be constantly present in one form or another. Not so with other themes, as will be shown in the following months, because they aren't part of RPGs per se, but since courage is, a GM needs to go the extra mile if courage is to be a theme rather than a simple element. The rewards, however, are worth the load of work required.

Indeed, the most memorable, the most epic stories in gamer subculture, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, for example, all have courage as one of their main themes, and this is precisely what gives them an epic feel. Even with less heroic stories, courage makes them greater than they would have been if they didn't have it as an inlaid theme; Die Hard, for instance, wouldn't be so great if McClaine's motivation wasn't "those freakin' terrorists are ruining my Christmas Eve!".

Have fun,
Jocelyn Robitaille 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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All Thematic Voyage columns

  • Of Dread and Wonder (part 2) March 21, 2002
  • Of Dread and Wonder (part 1) February 12, 2002
  • The world is out to get you November 21, 2001
  • When fantasy and RL mix October 11, 2001
  • Leap of Faith, Part 2 September 6, 2001
  • Leap of Faith July 6, 2001
  • Lean on Me June 8, 2001
  • Courage May 11, 2001
  • Emotional Landscapes March 14, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

    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