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Thematic Voyage: The Unseen Art of Gamemastering

A Leap of Faith

Jocelyn Robitaille
July 6, 2001  

Whenever the word "theme" is mentioned in regard to a roleplaying game, most people react by thinking "oh yeah, that thing that uses symbols". As past installments of this column have shown, theme is implemented through much more than the use of symbolism, and it will continue to do so in the future. This month's installment, however, will indeed tackle symbolism.

The common association between themes and symbolism is almost ironic. Indeed, symbolism is the most dangerous tool a GM can use to implement a theme; it is much more likely to blow up in his or her face, like an old arquebus, than to actually work.

The issue of themes and symbolism is too complex for me to tackle it in a single installment. Thus, the current installment will take a rather analytic look at symbolism and the dangers found in its use. Next month, those problems will be examined de facto through a concrete example. In a fitting way, the actual theme that will be used to illustrate the problems linked to the technique of symbolism, is in itself also a very volatile topic. The theme is prone to create bursts of passion and discord? Faith.

However, before we leap into faith and its implementation into symbolism, it is appropriate to take a long hard look at symbolism itself, to see why it is so likely to fail when it comes to implementing a theme.

All in all, symbolism is most used by poets. Haikus aside, most poems aim to carry a meaning greater than the words used. Whitman talks of nature but all the while talks of freedom. Garcia-Lorca talks of beauty but also of the wisdom behind it. Baudelaire also speaks of beauty, but he warns us about its siren song.

At this point, someone somewhere is disagreeing vehemently on my interpretation of one of those poets, and is about to flame me nine ways to hell to show me how wrong I am. Which proves my point. The human experience is too diverse to ensure that a symbol will be interpreted the same way by everyone.

This is all good and fine for poetry, where the work of a poet is actually enhanced by the many meanings attached to it, but for a roleplaying game, it's not. The big issue here is party dynamics. If you want a theme to be felt by your players, its presence has to be constant and coherent in every aspect of the game. Considering the very essence of those games we play, the player characters play about the biggest part. Moreover, it is they who must feel your theme.

As I pointed out in an earlier installment, players influence each other, especially when it comes to perceiving the game world. As a general tendency, after a few game sessions, your players are going to have more or less the same vision, having homogenized their view in order to be able to play together. When themes come into play, this is a powerful phenomenon, due to the low-key nature of the emotions evoked by themes.

Allow me to demonstrate. Charles plays in a game with two other fellow players: Karine and William. Charles, through the clever use of melancholy as a theme by his GM, feels sad during a particular scene. Since his sadness is low-key, he is slightly perplexed by it. He looks at Karine, and sees she's sad too. He figures out that what he feels is related to the game, and plays along. William, normally an insensitive guy, sees Charles and Karine's mood. He figures it's appropriate for his character to be sad in this situation, and starts to roleplay accordingly. Voil! Inter-party dynamics have implemented the theme better than the GM could have ever done by himself.

This is where the problems begin, with symbolism. If you advertise your symbols each time you use them, like Bugs Bunny trying to catch the police's attention, you'll waste them. In order for them to work, like any other theme device, you have to let the players figure it out for themselves. However, as with poetry, your players are much more likely to interpret the symbols in a different fashion than their peers.

Hence the danger of symbols. Just like a similar experience for each of your players will enhance greatly the power of a theme, a divergent experience will most likely ruin your theme.

That's it for today. Next month on Jerry Springer... err, Thematic Voyage: "My GM's faith theme has brought a holy war to our game table". Until then, take care of yourself, and each other.

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