RPGaDay 2021 #19: Theme

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Theme”, which is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Much as I think that every RPG should be about something, I want stories to have a point to make. In order words, narratives should have a central subject or message to convey. That provides an interesting problem when running RPGs, though, as the stories are more interactive than one person telling a story to a group is. The goal of an RPG is to tell a story together as a group, and so there will always be some measure of improvisational nature to the storytelling process. I do think that it’s the task of the host of the game to try and bring that theme into the experience. Since you cannot control the actions of the players, the main method of bringing theme into focus is the opposition or conflict provided to the players, whether it’s the desires of the enemies that they meet or the recurring nature of problems that they must overcome.

This is also one of the reasons why I tend to dislike continous games: they’ll end up losing focus. If there’s no central theme beyond “we’re a group of adventurers going on an adventure”, and the game is essentially just an ongoing simulation, then my attention tends to waver and ends up waning. As I write this, I realize that this is also the reason why I do enjoy strings of smaller or medium-sized campaigns, even though practically they may ask the same time-investment as a longer game would: there, at least, I would expect each of the smaller campaigns to have its own theme, and therefore provide a coherent experience to enjoy. Without conscious effort to introduce themes to the narrative of the game, all that remains is the subconscious themes introduced by the biases of the participants, and that doesn’t interest me too much.

It’s somewhat thought-provoking to me that, reading back what I just wrote, I naturally assumed it was the host of the game that carried the responsibility of managing the theme of the game. However, at the same time, I cannot think of serious reasons why the players wouldn’t be able to be the ones introducing theme by coordinating their actions and characterization. Even in that situation, I’m realizing, it still requires the host of the game to recognize the theme that the players are bringing in and to ensure that the rest of the experience that’s outside of the players’ control matches that theme.

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