This entry is part 1 in the series Touchstones Of Unification
Don't get the connection between this illustration and the subject? Take another look after reading the article...

Don’t get the connection between this illustration and the subject under discussion? Take another look after reading the article, and it should make a lot more sense…

I was watching an interview with Jim Keays from 1975 the other day, discussing what was then his latest album. He was explaining that he had started with three or four songs that all had similar subject matter, and realized that he could build the entire album around that subject. The interviewer, as part of a follow-up question, then described the result as a concept album, a classification that Keays rejected; in his mind, it was a collection of music that had a similar theme running through each separate piece of music, not one central concept or narrative.

I found the distinction interesting, taken completely out of that context & applied to RPGs. What is the difference between a theme and a concept and how does that difference manifest in terms of the stories, characters, and adventures within a game?


From the outset, the two terms appear to have very similar meanings.

According to my Collins Concise English Dictionary, Theme is 1. an idea or topic expanded in a discourse, discussion, etc; 2. (in literature, music, art, etc) a unifying idea, image, or motif, repeated or developed throughout a work; 3. (in music) a group of notes forming a recognizable melodic unit, often used as the basis of the musical material in a composition; 4. a short essay, esp. one set as an exercise for a student; 5. (in Grammar) another word for root or stem.

A Concept is defined, according to the same source, as 1. something formed in the mind; a thought or general idea. Unlike the definition of Theme, this seemed inadequate; it certainly did not incorporate all the modern usages and implications of the term as I use it. So I looked further, and found: 2. An abstract idea, notion, or principle, esp. when used to unify disparate representations or interpretations of such abstractions; 3. A plan, internal narrative, intention, or philosophical principle or direction common to disparate works by a collective, group, organization, or individual; 4. An idea or invention used to help sell or publicize a commodity or service e.g. ‘a new concept in corporate hospitality’.

Clearly, some of those meanings aren’t especially relevant to RPGs. In terms of “Theme”, I can see relevance in both meanings 1 and 2, so there’s room for some more discussion there. And as for “Concept”, any of the first 3 interpretations could apply, so there’s more analysis needed in that department as well. Finally, there are two terms that aren’t even mentioned in the definitions given above, but that have pronounced relevance to the prospective subject matter: genre and style.


“Theme” to me seems to be about either a repeated pattern / motif, or to a single subject or small group of single subjects that are explored from multiple perspectives within a work. For example, a theme might be “alcoholism”, and the work might explore all aspects of the subject – social acceptability, the public mask, the phases of the disease’s progression, the cost to others, and the recovery process. Or the theme might be heroism, or civic responsibility, or any of a million other things.

Scope Of A Whole

A number of the definitions refer to a “single work” (or use other terms to that effect) and I think that’s a key aspect to unlocking aspects of the similarities and differences. Theme definition #1 refers to “a” discourse, discussion, etc, definition #2 refers to “a” work. “Concept” seems to refer to something broader, at least in the definitions listed, talking about “disparate” representations or works – so, collective, rather than individual works.

And yet, a theme can be so grand that it can be perceived as the connecting thread between many separate works, potentially the only thing they have in common. John W. Campbell sometimes used to give three or four of his authors a single thought, quotation, or idea and then let each discover his own story connecting to that theme.

On closer examination, though, these prove to be examples of separate works that individually cam be said to share the same theme. And that gives the first element of insight: “Theme” reduces to the smallest possible component of the whole which displays it, without any reduction in relevance to that individual component. Or, to put it another way, a theme is a motif that any work capable of being broken up into smaller units returns to repeatedly.

When the theme is re-used in the same way time after time, it can become dull and repetitive, like any storytelling element. Used differently, to show different aspects or impacts of the theme, it can unite a group of separate elements to produce a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. A theme might be something like “power corrupts”, which would have two separate axes of variation – all the different forms of power that can be imagined forming one axis and all the paths into corruption and the different ways it can manifest being the other.

Many Themes In One Body Of Work

When a collection of works that is bound together by some other commonality, many themes may be exhibited, recurring in any given component of the body of work, sometimes singly and sometimes in combination with other themes. But this implies a certain minimum size to the collection; a small group of works may have only a single theme, adequately explored. The alternative, a small group of works which have multiple themes inadequately explored, essentially amounts to no theme at all, because no one theme is dominant to a sufficient extent to recur sufficiently often to be considered a uniting element of the components.

Impact On Campaigns

That means that small, short campaigns will either have one theme, perhaps two at the outside, or none at all, while longer campaigns can have multiple themes that get touched on.

My current superhero campaign has at least 15 themes and it’s designed to last for a decade, as I revealed in Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part Two of Two: Sprouts and Saplings, which listed 14 of them.

The 14 themes, quoted from that article, are:

  1. In order to be a hero, one must do heroic things. Even if no-one is watching.
  2. A Villain is someone who does villainous things. No matter what their reputation or intent.
  3. Black & White morality can be fuzzy around the edges.
  4. For part to be saved, sometimes part must be lost. But who decides which part is which?
  5. Everything you thought you knew is wrong – except the parts that aren’t. Twists and turns await.
  6. Perspective or Insight can be more valuable than expertise.
  7. Technology can be useful or user-friendly; it’s rarely both at the same time.
  8. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
  9. Nothing is forever, and the more permanent it seems the more suddenly it can be swept away.
  10. We are all flawed. Sometimes those flaws can destroy us.
  11. Inevitability says nothing about Duration.
  12. There are more things in heaven and earth than exist in ANYone’s philosophy.
  13. All victories have a price.
  14. A team is more than the sum of its parts and no stronger than its weakest link.

    A fifteenth had earlier been revealed, in an article that I’ve discussed below:

  15. How far should heroes go when confronting the ultimate evil?

As I wrote at the time, “Virtually every adventure of significance in the campaign will play into one or more of those themes. The planned big finish to the campaign will involve almost all of them.” The current adventure, the 7th of the campaign, touches on five of them – I’m not saying which ones, though my players can probably pick them out. (That article goes on to identify and analyze 7 types of theme – worth checking out for more on the subject).

Impact On Adventures

In Theme vs Style vs Genre: Crafting Anniversary Special Adventures, in the section “The Theme Layer”, I listed the major themes of other campaigns that I have run or am running, and the relationship that themes should have to special adventures. To do so, I had to at least touch on the impact that themes had on “ordinary” adventures:

Many adventures that a GM runs may have nothing to do with the theme, included just because they are a good story or an interesting idea or because the GM ran out of time to think of a more appropriate adventure! This can only go on for so long before it becomes necessary to re-establish the theme, and that’s where Return-to-theme adventures come in.

Oh, and for those who really want to know:

  • The Rings Of Time Campaign – “The converse of responsibility is authority” and “Morality is relative – but the Gods are absolute.”
  • Fumanor: The Original Campaign – A post-apocalyptic fantasy as society struggles to recover from an almost-successful attempt to destroy it. I could now add: The Price Of Ambition. The Price of Overconfidence. Intelligence is not Wisdom, and Wisdom is not Intelligence.
  • Fumanor: One Faith – The struggles of a newly-unified Faith comprising members of multiple pantheons against the political, social, theological, and economic ramifications of that unification.
  • Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire – The growing pains of a society that has grown too large and complex NOT to become an Empire.
  • Shards Of Divinity – The indulgence of individual liberty and the quest for unlimited freedom.
  • The Adventurer’s Club – “The whole is stronger than the parts” in a larger-than-life Pulp World.
  • Warcry – Destiny collides with Free Will in this time-and-space spanning Space Opera superhero campaign.
  • My Original Champions Campaign – Evil believes that the end justifies the means; How far will the forces of Good go to thwart evil?
  • Zenith-3: The D-Halo Campaign – If the multiverse needs pseudo-divine beings to order it, can they be trusted? Is it better to destroy the universe than be subject to the decisions of cosmic authority? What is the true cost of “Liberty Or Death?”
Impact On Characters

In The Anatomy Of Evil: What Makes a Good Villain?, I offered the example of “Ullar-Omega”, and talked about how the campaign’s themes (including one not listed above, “Obsession”, played into the character of the ultimate Villain of that campaign:

…At the heart of that scenario was a revelation concerning the nature of the villain around which the entire campaign had been centered (even when it didn’t seem to be). This character started off as a Superman ripoff – the last member of his race, whose home galaxy had been destroyed by his father to prevent his people being corrupted and destroyed (elements of Sauron here) by a race of Moral Invaders who had a weapon that induced depression in others. This was all known by the players (and their characters) from the beginning of the campaign; they also knew that in their native timeline, the character had become a self-sacrificing and idealistic, humanistic, hero; while in this alternate timeline, he had arrived on Earth a decade later and had become an obsessed, ruthless, subversive, villain. Along the way, they discovered his motives and worldview; there were occasions when he was the villain of the piece, and occasions on which he was a (semi-)trusted ally. He even became the Godfather of the daughter of one of the PCs, a child which he helped deliver.

In the course of the final scenario, the players learned that neither incarnation of the character had been left untouched by the Depression Ray of his race’s enemies, and were driven by Survivor’s Guilt as a result – people who searched for a cause important enough for them to sacrifice their life in achieving, and then achieving it (if necessary at the cost of that life). This unified the two characters into different sides of the coin and put the entire campaign – which had the submerged theme throughout of “Obsession” – into context. And it suddenly revealed to the players the X-factor that had made the character Cool – the fact that (in his own mind) he was behaving heroically, sacrificing himself in a vain effort of achieving an ideal that could never exist in the real world. It was this Pathos of Superman-Gone-Wrong that had lain at the heart of the character concept from his very first appearance, and which had made the character Cool enough to be the central figure around which the entire campaign had been woven. Everything that the character had done – both good and bad – was consistent with this new perception of the character – it explained everything.

Several other characters had, along the way, displayed obsessive behaviors. Some overcame them, to become greater characters than they were before; others were destroyed by them, or ruined by them. Even an obsession for doing what the character thinks is right, or an obsessive faith in a particular ideology, can be destructive.

This shows an important point: the central NPCs should reflect and embody the themes, if any, of the campaign, for good or evil, as should their circumstances and ultimate destinies. To whatever extent it is possible, these themes should also be central to the stories of the PCs, the problems that confront them, the decisions that they make, and the outcomes and consequences of those decisions.

Dynamic Themes

Because the GM is not in command of the characters, and will often respond to the players by giving them more of what they want, whatever themes he initially envisages for the campaign can and should evolve as the campaign proceeds. Already, some of the campaign themes in the current Zenith-3 campaign have become more emphasized, some have changed somewhat, some have been deemphasized, and some have manifested even thought they weren’t on the original list. As the campaign proceeds, some will run their course and fade from the list, and others may “go underground” only to manifest themselves again. About half the list haven’t even featured yet.

Ideally, I like to connect a character’s ultimate goals with one of the campaign themes. By ensuring that difficulties and roadblocks that have to be overcome along the way make it impossible for the character to achieve that goal until the big finish of the campaign, but makes progress towards that goal an ongoing element of the campaign, I ensure that the theme is represented in that concluding adventure.

That suggests that a campaign should have as many themes as it has PCs, but such an analysis is incorrect. More than one PC can embody the same theme in different ways, and some characters may be required to function as foils to a PC who is linked to a theme.

There is also a danger in this linking – if the character leaves the game, or gives up on the goal, it can bring all the GMs planning undone, if these linkages are too strong. Characters are – and should be – people, evolving and growing as the campaign proceeds, and goals will and should evolve as a consequence. The implication is that themes must also evolve. Predicting this evolution is exceptionally and exceedingly difficult, and requires knowing the players in fine detail as well as the characters, and even then, fraught with danger of error. The GM is generally better off only committing himself to exploring a theme in the course of satisfying the player’s ambitions, rather than counting on that ambition to carry the theme to the end.

Impact On Game Elements

It doesn’t happen often, but some themes can have an impact on other game elements. Locations can manifest a philosophy in an abstract manner. So can certain magic items or high tech devices. Certain magic spells can reflect a theme either through scarcity or availability and frequency of use.

More frequently, some game elements might serve to manifest and reinforce the theme with a little small alteration. This also poses dangers; it’s easy to go too far. But when it works, it can recast the entire foundation of the game subtly in favor of the campaign. When developing a new campaign, I skim through the rules explicitly looking for game elements that can be emphasized or that may need to be de-emphasized in order to reinforce a theme.

And then I look at the impact on efficiency of the mechanics and ask whether or not I really need that House Rule.

The two-way street

In fact, every theme is a two-way street, regardless of what it is tied to by the GM. Themes may influence campaigns, themes may be embodied by individual adventures, themes may influence NPCs and the situations that PCs find themselves in, and themes may subtly reshape the game mechanics here and there – but all of those effects can also travel in the other direction.

A campaign may have no overt theme when it begins, but (as I have argued in the past) it will usually develop one or two as the unique combination of PC personalities, game mechanics, and game setting begin to interact in recurring motifs. Once it does, the GM will find himself incorporating it into his adventures deliberately rather than as a passing plot point.

When something works – be it a type of encounter, or an NPC personality, or whatever- the GM is likely to use it again – that’s human nature, and is part of the process of meeting player expectations and providing satisfaction. And if it works again, it’s well on its way to becoming a Theme.

Whew! I’m right out of time (yes, this article took longer than usual to research and plan), and we haven’t even gotten to the arguably bigger question of Concept – let alone the role of Genre, and how Themes, Concepts, and Genre interplay at the different strata of a campaign. At this rate, I’m going to need another two posts to finish this article…

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