Basically, the Theme is the idea or concept that runs throughout the entire chronicle, helping provide a unified feel for what the chronicle is about. Mood on the other hand, can be a more temporary, thing, with the Mood changing from session to session or episode to episode. Mood is the underlying feel of the game. Of the two, I've always been much better with Mood. This post will focus on Theme and my thoughts on how I'm going to work it into the chronicles I'm planning.
Re-reading the old WoD books for the Storytelling hints on Theme and Mood reminded me how well those games handled storytelling. The GM advice isn't on how to construct encounters, but on how to tell a decent story. (Of course, this focus also meant that I always felt blind trying to construct a combat encounter, but that's neither here nor there.)
So, with my upcoming Reign and Fading Suns games in mind, I cracked open a few WoD books and took a look at what I could pillage from them. I started with Wraith: The Oblivion, because that's one of the WoD games I always wished I could have done more with. In addition to the expected hints about working theme into your descriptions, Wraith gives some sample themes:
- Inner Conflict
Taking a look at Changeling: The Dreaming, a game I've previously run a fair amount, I get a different set of possible themes, also very well tailored to that game and setting, where changelings struggle to maintain both a fae side and a human persona:
Unknown Armies is another game I love and have run a fair amount previously, and has a fantastic section about working in Theme and Mood into the game, giving some concrete and detailed examples about how to work a major and minor theme into a chronicle. While I'll definately be borrowing that, unfortunately, as a game of postmodern horror about obsessive occultists, UA doesn't have a long or very translatable themes:
Fading Suns does cover theme and mood, though without as much implementation advice as WoD or UA, and some of the themes presented are less bullet points and more questions, which could be interesting...
- What sort of leader do people need?
- The ends do not justify the means.
- The ends justify the means.
- What causes people to hate one another?
- Things are never as they seem.
- Justice (Retribution)
But how to implement Themes into my upcoming chronicles. I definately want to take the advice from Wraith and use the Theme to flavor my descriptions of events, people and places that come up in the game. If the theme is freedom, I'll want to emphasize the freedom (or lack of it) that the players come across, making sure to note prisons, to describe rebels with flair and so forth. I also definately want to utilize the Unknown Armies recommendation of having major and minor themes and having NPCs embody minor themes.
Looking back at the plot lines I proposed to my Reign players, I can imagine a few possible themes for each plot:
- Across the Ashen Border
- Wherein our heroes cross the perilous border between the Free Valleys and the Ashen Kingdom, the dangers they encounter, the rivals they find and those who attempt to stop them.
- Possible Themes: Defiance, Freedom, Loyalty
- Unrest in Last Rest
- Wherein our heroes find themselves in the midst of political turmoil in the city of Last Rest as one of the Five Families that rules the city sways and seems ready to topple. Will our heroes seek to keep the status quo, foment total revolution or merely take advantage of the chaos to cement their own influence?
- Possible Themes: Intrigue, Loyalty, Greed
- What to Call the Last Port of Call
- Wherein our heroes are swept up in an attempted revolution that would break the rule of the Five Families of Last Rest over Restport. Will our heroes support the noble family of Restport, a sailor democracy or a merchant oligarchy or will they make use of the chaos to enrich themselves?
- Possible Themes: Defiance, Justice, What sort of leader do people need?
- Unknown Legacy of the Last Hero
- Wherein our heroes discover hidden secrets about Gerard, the Last Hero who shattered the Old Empire and kept the Free Valleys unconquered. What motivations send them after this hidden knowledge, who will they have to wrest it from and what will they do with it?
- Possible Themes: Questing, Do the Ends Justify the Means?, Pride, Heroism
- Seekers of the Lost Temples
- Wherein our heroes seek out and explore ancient and ruined temples of the Lost Gods. What treasures, mysteries or knowledge do they seek, who else haunts these old ruins?
- Possible Themes: Mystery, Questing, Decay
My potential Fading Suns plot lines are in a much more tentative stage, but seeing how many of my Reign plot lines share so many of the same themes is certainly going to encourage me to give my FS plot lines the potential of a little more thematic diversity.