Thursday, 14 June 2012

Theme: How do you game?

Thursday Theories


Hey all, Welcome back.
Today I want to talk a little about the concept of Theme in Roleplaying, or more accurately the role of theme as a defining and confining factor in roleplaying settings, for both the player and the GM.

First of all, What does Theme mean? For the sake of the article, theme is defined (by

theme [theem] (abbr.)
1. a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition; topic: The need for world peace was the theme of the meeting.
2. a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art.

A unifying/dominant idea or motif huh? Let me put that into context. Lets take a few major gaming worlds in roleplaying and see how theme defines the gaming world and what players do within it. For sake of arguement let's take Dark Sun for D&D and it's sci-fi opposite the Rifts world from Palladium, as champions of successful thematic usages, and... say... Forgotten Realms and Vampire the masquerade (or whatever the hell it's called now-a-days) as examples of "unsuccessful" settings.

You all know who this is... don't lie.
 Forgotten Realms Is the "generic" setting most people who play D&D think about when they think of fantasy roleplaying. Elves and dragons. Priests and Mages. Mighty lords like Elminster and the Red Wizards of Thay and GODS WALKING THE EARTH dabbling, Zeus like, in the affairs of mortals. It's had reams and reams of books written about it. Every square inch of the world has been explored over and over throughout 30+ years of novelization and world-wide gaming. And it's INCREDIBLY restrictive. The game world itself allows a player to make almost anything: Want to be a Samurai? you're from Khara-tur (or in the last couple editions, Rokugan). Want to be a fish-man? how about a Sahuagin from the inner-seas or a Triton from the burning southern seas? Want to do anything important? Go Ahead..... BUT  (and there is always a but...)
The GM has to come up with a reason why the shakers and movers of the world arn't involved.
Deamons invading the Realms? Why can't the Purple Dragons deal with it? Gods got you down? What's Elminster doing? What nation is Drizzt dealing with single-handedly this week?
The problem with so much paper-work having been written about so many EPIC characters is that everyone KNOWS what is in the world and it takes away from the enjoyment. It requires constant rationalization to be fabricated about why all the big-guys don't deal with everything. The problem with "anything goes fantasy" is that there is no restrictions for players to work out of.
Plus I hate  how goody-goody the Harpers are. But that's just me.

Admit it. This is the only reason anyone every started playing Vampire...
Vampire is, according to my biased opinion, a game about screwing over your group. Once you move past the teenage, over-sexualized angst AND MIDNIGHT SHOVEL PARTIES prerequisite to the game (or you are goth/emo/some other stereotype where this is the majority concept required to belong), you are left with a game about power struggles. Whether it's modern anne-rice-ian pretty vampires agonizing over the effects of diablerie to direct power increase (the only game mechanic built-in to gain power other than angst and waiting), or a Stoker-esque medieval dark prince(ss) hell bent on survival, the game devolves, irrevocably towards power struggles. Princes and sects, camarilla and Sabat, Setties and everyone else. In the end, the game comes back to politics and, as within every household, politics causes fights. And fights END games.
Don't get me wrong, I've played in games that have lasted months and years... Oft times with an amazing GM. But it still ends with GAME OVER, EVERYONE LOOSES. It's inescapable, because the THEME of the system is political intrigue with a side of angst.

These two settings just don't work. The main reason is that the Theme itself is the problem. Everyone wants to play a game to become better than everything before them (in the setting). Going up against nigh-unstoppable creatures and people that can swat you at anytime is not fun. Players play games to WIN, no matter what people say. Yes we play to have fun. and it's just a game. But seriously, when the game is designed for you to NEVER win.. to literally be INCAPABLE of winning... you move on.
Pure and simple.

Now let me show you two examples of Thematic settings that do work:

Why Yes, the sun IS bright today... No not Dark at all...

Dark Sun is, as I define it, a post-magical-apocalyptic world, where only the strongest survive. Life has adapted from what was once a fertile, magic heavy world of dragons, and faeries and elves, to a deadly, sand-swept wasteland of psionics and bloodshed. Slavery is accepted, the masses are kept in squalor by their sorcerer-king/defiler overlords, gladiatorial blood games are the common past-time, the gods have abandoned the world AND psionics have replaced magic as the go-to powers of choice (as magic draws on the life-force of everything around it and therefor is directly responsible for the current blasted landscape of the world of Athas). Players take on the role of gladiators and slaves and tyrants, fighting to either bring the dying world back into the hands of the people, or attempting to crush the last survivors of the resistance into the dust for their sorcerer-king lords. It's a bleak game of hard lessons, harsh rules, and is personally one of my favorite settings of all time, as it turns common fantasy tropes on their heads and says "what if?"

All those eyes and he keeps none for himself to watch those ladies...

Rifts, on the other hand, is a true post-apocalyptic world. A sudden nuclear strike (at just the right time) resulted in a planetary and cosmic upheaval. The ley-lines (mythical lines of magical energy that criss-cross the globe) flared up at the sudden massive loss of billions of lives, causing magic to surge throughout the lands once more. This mystical tsunami caused portals to open up all over the world (hence the name RIFTS) unleashing ancient terrors, supernatural beasties and extra-terrestrial outer-dimensional beings to traipse about earth causing even more death, destruction and general mayhem. The game world itself lets a player be ANYTHING, from a dragon to a cyborg to a time-travelling werewolf jesus (don't ask). This game is famous for letting the players be and do anything (and it's serious power creep  issues). Again, one of my favorite settings of all time, mostly due to the sheer amount of creative license given to players and the many, many, MANY options available. Oh, and the Coalition... which is just an awesome concept.

Now WHY OH WHY do I think these settings work so well?
Because, despite having such heavy thematic settings, the players are still free to be and do anything they want. The setting is defined by it's theme, not restricted by it. They have in-built precedents for players and GM's to make and or do whatever they want in order to create a good story, WITHOUT RESTRICTION. No super-mega characters sitting around waiting to correct everything in the world.. they have too much to do making sure the worlds themselves don't collapse in on themselves. This leaves enough "space" for player-characters to walk in and take an active part in shaping the game world without the GM having to worry about Deus-Ex-ing the results. No Uber-lords and ladies to outscore the players. The theme of the settings is built to support the players and enhance their enjoyment of the game, not squeeze them into a cozy box. To help them WIN.

And dammit I want to WIN when I Run or play a roleplaying game.

Now, for all those nay-sayers who say "but it's all fun and games and you CAN'T win a roleplaying game" I say only this:


It is basic human nature to want to do well in something. Winning is defined:
1. the act of a person or thing that wins.
2. Usually, winnings. something that is won, especially money.
4. that wins;  successful or victorious, as in a contest: the winning team.
5. charming; engaging; pleasing: a winning child; a winning smile.

 That's right. SUCCESSFUL or VICTORIOUS, as in a contest: the winning team. CHARLIE SHEEN.  Roleplaying is a contest of actors. We compete with our GM to, as a group (including the GM) overcome the obstacles set in our path to come to a successful conclusion of an adventure or story. And by definition, completing the quest, and not losing (aka dying, failing to meet objectives, etc.) is to WIN the game.
So that, my friends/readers/people strapped to chairs forced to read this,  is what I define as successful and unsuccessful use of Theme in a roleplaying environment.
Feel free to comment, bitch, moan, etc in the comments below.
Until then I'm going to zip up this article and keep on keeping on, trying to WIN.

Heh... Zip up...

Until next time,
As the mighty Mr.Sheen once quote:

Bean out~

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