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Thematic Voyage: The Unseen Art of Gamemastering

Lean on Me

Jocelyn Robitaille
June 8, 2001  
Over the last month, I've asked myself a question that deserves an answer: where is Thematic Voyage going? Am I going to focus on techniques or actual themes? In the end, instead of trying to tackle a specific approach, I decided to wonder what I felt like writing. After much reflection, I give you the definite form of Thematic Voyage: one technique per month, and one theme that's explored in general and in regard to the technique presented.

Over the next months, I'll take a deeper look at the techniques, which I first presented in Courage. Thus, the present column deals with the use of NPCs in the implementation of a theme. Our theme of choice: friendship.

Friendship, at first glance, sounds as corny as it gets. But it is perhaps the most common theme in stories everywhere. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Consider John Woo's The Killer. Consider, in fact, any story, and the theme of friendship's bound to be there, for it is an essential and amoral part of the human experience.

When it comes to implementing friendship as a theme, frequency is both a great advantage and a great inconvenience. On the plus side, since everyone has experienced friendship, it makes it a theme that's very easy to relate to, to connect with. On the minus side, in order not to break your players' suspension of disbelief, you have to make "friendship" appear as frequently as possible in your stories-- for everyone has friends and it should be so in your game too. The danger here is redundancy.

This very danger mimics the danger of using NPCs as a technique to implement themes. There is a huge difference in players' expectations in regard to NPCs and the rest of your game world. To put it simply, players expect a game world that's constant and coherent while they want NPCs that are diverse and different. Thus, when you use a theme through your game world, players perceive it as constancy, whereas when the theme is presented through NPCs, it tends to appear as mindless repetition.

Considering those two very similar pitfalls of theme implementation, it seemed only natural to tackle both at the same time for this installment, because they have the same solution: diversity.

When a theme is used, one must consider both the roots and the effects of the theme. Then, a list of diverse elements is drawn and the theme can be presented as a complex mosaic, just like any emotional matter should be. When using NPCs, this mean that one NPC will represent a root of the theme, another one of the effects, and so on.

When using friendship as a theme, you must ask yourself two questions when it comes to NPCs. First, what are all the possible ways two people can become friends? Using your answers, you can design lots of character background that will then, by themselves, manifest in your game as expressions of your themes (provided that your players actually want to know the characters in your campaign).

Second, ask yourselves what are all the possible effects a friendship can have on personality? Again, the list is endless; friendship can bring confidence, just like it can bring on jealousy, and so on. Then, using the elements in the list that spark your imagination, you can write plots that will have friendship as a character motivation or a character trait for your main NPCs, thus implementing your theme without much worries.

One last thing to remember is to use your theme both for big and small things, when using NPCs. Indeed, maybe your major villain is just a puppet for one of his manipulative friends, while a bartender accepts to give this piece of information to them because they're the friends of a friend. And maybe the beggar they'll give some money to when they come out of the bar has sunk into his drunken life after his best friend died without him having a chance to say good-bye.

As a final note, the best way to create a theme about something is to experience it to its fullest. If you plan to use friendship as a theme, really the best technique is to go out with some friends, have a good time, and reflect upon it while coming back to your place. Themes are all about emotional involvement.

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

What do you think?

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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

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