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Thematic Voyage: The Unseen Art of Gamemastering

Emotional Landscapes

Jocelyn Robitaille
March 14, 2001

Hello everyone. The name's Jocelyn Robitaille and I will be your pilot for this voyage. Over the next months, we will soar over the boundless world of RPGs and you will be invited to look down, now and then, and feast upon the so often fleeting view of themes, recurring or otherwise. Yes, this journey will border on the mystical, for you will be invited to gaze at the great invisibles of what makes a great setting or adventure: underlying themes.

Lyrical tone aside, after about eight years of gaming, mostly as a GM, I have found that the biggest kick I get out of it comes from wielding the great unseen arts of game-mastering. What I'm talking about here is not the writing of an adventure, which is obviously not an unseen art, but the meticulous attention one can lend to creating the right tone. This is often through seemingly useless details that, while playing no pragmatic part whatsoever in the advancement of the plot, sets the pace, the mood, and the ambiance. And, in the end, it has an even greater impact on the game than the adventure itself.

This "unseen art of GMing" is something the players never notice unless they pay close attention to it or unless you mention it to them. Yet it is what creates the magic of playing RPGs, the uniqueness of the experience that keeps gamers wanting more, even after 20, 30, 40 years of gaming.

It is appropriate to take a good look at how and why the best adventures always have themes. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, take a moment and have a good look at the well-known illustration by psychologist Edgar Ruban presented herein.
Ruban's Faces/Vase

As you may note, Ruban's vase/profile illusion can either be seen as two faces facing each other or as a vase, slightly reminiscent, might I add, of the Holy Grail. While the whole phenomenon of the shift between what you perceive as figure and what you perceive as ground is an absolutely fascinating one, let's look at the case where the vase is the figure and that what remains is the ground.

Now here's a koan: should you remove the ground, what would be left of the figure, of the vase? I think it's pretty safe to assume here that you either answered "nothing" or became enlightened and left our world of illusions for the nirvana.

Enlightenment aside, what is true for the vase is also true for the game. Our deepest wish, as GMs, is ending up creating a game that will be memorable, a game that your players will annoy other players at other games with, ten years later, by continuously mentioning how good it was.

Themes, then, are the ground of role-playing, that vague stuff that appears shapeless and meaningless; however, without such a ground, your game quickly dissolves itself in the role-playing reality of your players and becomes "just another way to spend a Friday night", just like the vase without the profiles becomes "white pixels amongst plenty of other white pixels just like it". Although we might not care about the vase, the game is definitely something we care about, and this is why themes are an essential part of any adventure with the ambition of being itself rather than just being.

The hard question, however, is exactly how themes have the impact they do. What makes them so powerful? Surely, an answer here is essential, for to truly master a process, one must understand why it does what it does. For a game to be memorable, it has to be a gestalt, to be more than the sum of its parts. Thus, the memorable adventure needs to be more than scenes here and there: it needs to be a whole. The first factor that makes a series of scenes a whole is one that we all know very well: those scenes have to be linked by a plot of some sort, no matter how tortuous.

There is, however, a second factor that creates unity in the gaming experience that is far less known, because it almost works on a subconscious level, a level that isn't noticed unless there is specific intent to do so (like a secret door when using a decent rules system). As you might have guessed, this second factor is the theme, which unites the various parts of the gaming experience not on the cognitive level but on the emotional level.

While the plot provides the mind with a way to link every event in the game together, the theme, through the feel it provides, leaves the guts of your players with the impression (even though they can't quite pin why) that their emotional experience, throughout the game, has been one and the same, event-triggered deviations aside.

So how does one use themes to create a rich emotional world in a game? Here lies the most important paradox of themes. While we can all agree that it is best for everyone if we keep the character and the player as two separate entities in a RPG, to use themes, they must be considered as 1 person.

Take a moment and consider actors: whatever their method for doing it, it always require an immense effort of immersion in their character for them to let the character's emotion rise and appear; role-players do that too, albeit lest often.

Themes are different than "acting emotions", however, since they call upon a non-volitional response from the players: a subconscious, low-key emotion, if you will. No matter how much we might want to, RPG characters will never be complex enough to possess a subconscious, which is made of collective archetypes, personal memories, symbols, attractions and aversions. It is thus necessary that we consider the player-character dyad as one and a half entity using themes; the theme-invoking devices are targeted at the player's subconscious, and the player's psyche applies the low-key emotions evoked to the character rather than the player because currently, on the conscious level, the character is the entity interacting with the world, even if said world isn't real.

How does one target a player's subconscious? There are countless ways to do it, and gamers invent new ones all the time. The choice of devices often varies depending on the genre of the game, the setting, the players, the GM and many more factors. In the upcoming months, I will try to tackle different themes and examine with you how they can be brought into your game; for this reason, I will remain fairly generic in my choice of devices. I am confident, however, that such generic devices can be used as a good basis to develop player-specific devices, setting-specific devices and so on.

As a final note, I would like to signal that my reflections on the function and functioning of themes are not meant to be an accurate depiction of how themes actually work in the player's mind. I'm guessing it works more as an analog; a description that resembles what truly happens but cuts corners while doing it. I have found, however, that this way to conceive themes has enabled me to create themes that worked, that had the effect I wanted them to have. It is thus presented here as a conceptual framework upon which I will base, if somewhat implicitly, the future installments of this column, which will deal with a new theme every month. Now we're all set.

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