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Thematic Voyage: The Unseen Art of Gamemastering

A Leap of Faith - Part 2

Jocelyn Robitaille
September 6, 2001  
Welcome again to my humble abode, readers. Before picking up where we left (the exploration of symbolism in the implementation of themes), I'd like to apologize for missing a month in my column. Sometimes Real Life (TM) gets in the way, as you all know.

Those of you who, like me, don't read my column twice a day might want to read A Leap of Faith - Part 1 again before going any further. Because now that we've explored the potential dangers of symbolism to a theme, it is time to illustrate those dangers through an example and propose a few solutions.

Picture your standard fare weeknight game. It can be fantasy, it can be sci-fi, it can be horror. But you, foolish GM that you are, decide that you want a strong faith theme to your game. And amongst other techniques to implement it, you decide to use symbolism. Even though you're not using real religions, you decide that those religions are pretty close to those we know, so you figure the imagery is analogous. Quickly, you draft a list of a few things you think are pretty clear symbols that faith is running abroad:

  • A devout immolating himself
  • A group of nuns praying
  • Holy warriors charging into battle without a second thought
  • People dying with a smile

Wanting to start your campaign with a bang, you decide to cram all those images into one big first scene. The players are outside, and there's a big melee of some kind. Maybe the enemy's invading, or maybe the state outlawed a religion. Yelling out loud that the madness shall stop, a monk immolates himself. Hiding in a corner, safe from the violent combat, a group of nuns are praying fervently. Holy warriors charge into the enemy with an enthusiasm rarely seen, even though they are outnumbered. And people all around, from one side of the battle, seem serene when they die.

All in all, this sounds like a pretty good set up to establish the theme of faith. However, you have been informed that this was my intent, and recently, at that. That is never the case, for players, because themes lose their power when they're underlined and in bold.

Is the monk pious, or just insane? Why would a man burn himself anyway? His religion probably has a huge hold on his fragile mind, if he's willing to do things like that.

Look at the nuns over there. They're so scared of the fight that the only thing they do is hide and pray that they be spared. Cowards. They're nuns! Aren't they supposed to help those who are in pain or something?

The holy warriors are way too overconfident, too. They're outnumbered. How come they're so sure they will win? Hey, maybe they have a magic item or something. Let's steal it!

And life must sure be hard, around here. People smile when they die. Living here must be worst than death.

Now, players having different point of views on the same events is all part of the fun that comes from RPGs. Usually, however, these diverging opinions happen around the topic of the game. Players usually argue on what's happening, and what's behind what's happening. Sometimes, even, they argue about what's behind what's behind what's happening.

When it comes to themes, however, you want your players to be on the same wavelength. Themes being the emotional fabric of your game, you want them to be something that simply is. Let's go back to the melancholy example from part 1, to see why. Let's assume that Karine feels sad, but that the GM, his techniques being not so clever after all, conveys instead a strong disgust to Charles. Karine and Charles look at each other, and see they've got different messages from the same symbol. Thus, they step back from their subjective vision and take a more objective one. You can kiss good-bye to the low-key emotion that is your theme, because objective and emotional never go hand in hand. And of course, William can't get that he's supposed to roleplay melancholy, since neither Charles nor Karine are melancholic.

Of course, one might add, making everyone interpret a symbol in the same fashion, thus turning this interpretation into truth rather than perception, is damn near impossible. And one would be pretty right to argue that.

Basically, there are only three solutions to this problem:

  1. Don't use symbolism to implement your theme.
  2. Make sure you know your players all think very alike. Obviously, to do that, you need to know them very well.
  3. Take some time to build a symbolism specific to your campaign world before starting to use themes, either by pointing the symbols out in a straightforward manner while providing them with the initial background info or by building the symbols slowly through actual play. In either way, be careful to remain subtle nonetheless, which will be harder since you'll have a smaller bank of symbols to tap into than you'd have using "real life" symbols.
  4. .

    If you ask me, unless you have a lot of time to dedicate to the creation of a campaign-specific symbolism, you're better off taking option A, and use them on a strictly intellectual level. The techniques to implement a theme are many, and none of them are as likely to backfire than symbolism is. As for option B, while possible in theory, I've never encountered any group of persons whose frame of mind is exactly the same, so I wouldn't bet on that.

    Same time next month, rain or shine,

    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

    What do you think?

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    All Thematic Voyage columns

  5. Of Dread and Wonder (part 2) March 21, 2002
  6. Of Dread and Wonder (part 1) February 12, 2002
  7. The world is out to get you November 21, 2001
  8. When fantasy and RL mix October 11, 2001
  9. Leap of Faith, Part 2 September 6, 2001
  10. Leap of Faith July 6, 2001
  11. Lean on Me June 8, 2001
  12. Courage May 11, 2001
  13. 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