Saturday, September 8, 2012

Theme and Mood, pt 1: Theme

So, as I prep for my new Reign chronicle and a possible Fading Suns game, Thomas (of the Tower of Infinite Evil), in his ongoing role as my RPG Spiritual advisor, has admonished me to think about Themes and Moods, and specifically directed my attention to the game-mastering sections of the old World of Darkness books that cover these topics.

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:
  • Adventure
  • Defiance
  • Fear
  • Immortality
  • Inner Conflict
  • Intrigue
  • Mystery
  • Triumph 
Not too far off what you'd think for a game about ghosts who struggle with a second dark self that wants to drag them off to oblivion, but many are unsuitable for my Reign or FS game (for non-immortal characters, immortality is tougher to make the theme of the chronicle, and inner conflict works for Wraith where everyone has a shadow, but it might work less for a game where not everyone is wrestling with their sense of self. 

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:
  • Isolation/Alienation
  • Family
  • Romance
  • Wonder
  • Nightmares
  • Freedom/Wildness
  • Madness
  • Humor
Again, some things that work really well for Changeling, like Nightmares, which are important in a game that's about dreaming, but harder to transfer out of the original setting.

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:
  • Alienation
  • Caring
  • Decay
  • Heroism
  • Perversion
  • Transcendence
Turning to the games that I'm going to run, Reign, unfortunately does not have any Theme/Mood advice.  In fact, one of my few complaints about the Reign book, is that it has precious little GM advice or guidance at all.

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.
  • Morality
  • What causes people to hate one another?
  • Things are never as they seem.
  • Exploration
But re-reading the FS core book section on history, I came across a list of the Virtuous Disciples of the Church which gave a nice list of virtues and sins which could easily be turned into themes.
  • Questing
  • Loyalty
  • Compassion
  • Protection
  • Justice (Retribution)
  • Wisdom
  • Humility
  • Discipline
  • Pride
  • Greed
  • Lust
  • Envy
  • Sloth
  • Wrath
  • Oathbreaking
  I like these, because they'd be easy to tie into the Church of the FS setting, and the Universal Church of the Pancreator is one of my favorite parts of said setting.

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
Looking back at these plots, I can see that because I wanted to focus my Reign chronicle on political plots (for the most part) that many of the plots share or could share the same themes.  And there are other themes I'd love to include, but depend on the characters the players create.  I'd love to have 'Family' as a theme in the game, but that requires the PCs to share a family or to have several PCs who have important family ties.  And, of course, I'm certain I'll want to revisit the themes for the plot line that's chosen to make sure that the themes I use fit with the characters created.

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. 


  1. When I looked through the Fading Suns stuff a while back, one part that stuck in my craw a bit was the notion of family. I think family should be played up a bit more in that setting than I've done in the past. The flaws like being a black-sheep or orphan or cloistered will actually mean a bit when everyone else in the party is able to rely on their families for something here and there. I'd avoid the cliche'd plot where everyone's mothers are all kidnapped by the antagonists (though maybe it could be done well), but that setting begs for a bit of that, even if family isn't the driving theme.

    But, just like a thesis statement in the college essay, that mood or theme can really help a DM decide which encounters are really necessary, and what's just a shopping adventure.

    1. I am big proponent of Family in RPGs. I do still someday dream of running/playing in a game where everyone is the various children of a crazy old human wizard who mated with every race he could as part of some wacky experiment (or just because he was a randy old coot).

      But also, the best tie PC/NPC tie from my last D&D game was the changeling assassin having his adopted brother be the captain of the guard. And the most fun I've had playing D&D in the last year was as part of a trio of impulsive hobbit siblings.

      I definately will be having family be a part of the thematic oeuvre of both of my upcoming games, whether or not I can con my Reign players into having their Company be their family, I definately will make sure I know a little about everyone's family. Plus there's about a dozen various Unusual Experiences in the Reign character creation charts I'm using, which should help the players think about their families up front.

      I do agree that Fading Suns is well suited to families, both biological (Nobles) and metaphorical (Church or Guild) and the family flaws and benefices, as well as the character history options themselves will also help players think about their character's family as opposed to being an elven bow ranger who sprang fully formed from a tree just outside the inn the campaign starts at.

    2. I'm still contemplating how you could really add some good story/background stuff into a class-based system like D&D. Cause that stuff really is pretty sweet. My most recent Dark Sun game's character backgrounds: few-to-none. The only character with much of a background had lost her family, and the other's was just a vague "I'm a Tiefling" background.


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