This trilogy of articles looks at Theme and Concept, how they interrelate, and how these elements and their relationship affect RPG campaigns.
In part one, I looked at Theme, what it means, and how it manifests within a campaign in the form of repeated motifs within individual adventures, and argued that Themes would manifest in an uncontrolled manner if not specified in advance, and would – or at least, should – evolve in response to actual play. I also offered a set of dictionary definitions for Theme and Concept to serve as road-maps to the discussion. In the case of Concept, the definitions found were:
1. something formed in the mind, a thought or general idea; 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’.
While the fourth seems hyperbole, and not really all that relevant to the subject, the other three are – at first glance – bang on the money. So let’s look at the role of Concept in RPGs in detail…
For my money, when applied to RPGs, none of these definitions quite hits the mark. I think of a concept as firstly, and undeveloped idea or principle, whose ramifications have not been developed, or two, a central thematic connection point between the in-game expressions of those ramifications when they are developed and incorporated into the game.
Every RPG is a collection of concepts and ideas. The game mechanics give them structure, and the interaction with the player characters defines the game itself.
That means that concepts come in all shapes and sizes.
Overarching Campaign Concepts
The biggest concepts are those that affect and shape the entire campaign. These cover everything from races to societies to types of adventure to the structure of reality. Any idea that can directly or indirectly shape events and interactions within the game is a concept, and most games start with a central concept or idea. Why not a Kingdom under siege from the afterworld? Why not link clerical magic to a network of shrines and cathedrals? Why not have a legendary and much-prophesied ruler who doesn’t deserve the prominence accorded him by destiny – but who is desperate to keep up appearances? Why not have Dwarves and Elves be (secretly) interstellar refugees from some dreadful conflict who have resettled on Earth – with that conflict about to follow them? Why not make healing different?
- Too Much Life for The Living
- Alternative Damage rules for 3.x
- Bone-breaking damage for 3.x
- The Healing Imperative Part 1 and Part 2
Big concepts that will undoubtedly influence the campaign throughout.
Internal Campaign-level Concepts
Slightly smaller in scale, these ideas affect the campaign for only part of it’s existence, but may still span considerable sections of it. For example, my Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire Campaign has multiple phases:
- In the first phase, the characters were exploring the Golden Empire – and then fleeing from it.
- In the second, they were discovering some of the elements of the campaign cosmology and getting drawn into the conflict between Gods and Chaos Powers.
- In the third, they are actively seeking a weapon to use against the Golden Empire before it’s too late, while becoming enmeshed in the latest scheme of Lolth – they are very close to the end of this phase at the moment.
- In the phase to come, they will devastate the Golden Empire, and,
- in the phase to follow that, they will confront Lolth and begin a war of liberation for the Elves.
- In the final phase of the campaign, all these plot elements will come together for a big finale.
A good way to think of these is to use a series of novels as an analogy for the entire campaign, while each internal campaign-level concept unifies the contents, escapades, and adventures that lie within a single volume of the series. Each volume will have some attributes in common with the one before it, but can also have a substantial change from that preceding work.
Smaller in scale once again, these are what Johnn used to call Plot Loops and what I refer to as Plot Arcs or Ongoing Subplots. A mini-plotline that gets told over multiple adventures, or may be spread over the course of an entire campaign in sporadic intervals. For example, an adventure-linking concept may relate to the entry into politics of an NPC, his rise and rise to the ultimate political office of his nation, his greatest triumph, his fall from grace, the fallout from his greatest mistake, and his personal redemption. While this character may not figure into every adventure, each time he does appear, he will advance, or will have just advanced, his personal narrative. Sometimes his presence will assist the PCs, sometimes it will hinder, and most often, it will simply be there.
Or perhaps the nature of magic is changing from one thing to another through the course of a series of adventures – first the phenomenon is observed, then a theory as to the nature of the change emerges, then that theory is shown to be incomplete or inadequate, and it is replaced with a successor that manages to explain whatever the previous one did not, then the theory is confirmed, then the cause is identified, and then the PCs have a choice between letting the change take its course or trying to stop it. But this synopsis places more emphasis on this connecting concept than is warranted; early on, the concept would be a footnote, a minor incident that is not understood. It might not even be noticed for adventure after adventure. Only when the cause is discovered and the PCs are propelled into a position of decision does this connecting subplot really have to take center stage within the plotline.
Or perhaps its as simple as an idea for a recurring NPC – one who will change little if at all in the course of the adventure, but who will be prominent within the adventures in which he does appear. Or a magic item that is central to a series of adventures or encounters. Or just about anything else that can connect one adventure to another in terms of continuity.
- A ghost haunts an abbey searching for the name of the man who killed his wife.
- A villain invades the PCs nightmares to discover what they fear.
- A researcher, driven insane by his research, knows too much; held captive by his former employer, he manages to escape and seeks help from the PCs, only for his former employer to attempt an assassination at the last minute.
- The headstones in a small Scottish town are found to all be written backwards one morning – why?
- Why is a crop circle in Laughtonshire suddenly appearing on Heathrow’s air traffic control radar?
- Who is the Green Menace, and why is he stalking the PCs?
- An elf offers a priceless magic item for sale in the Thraxton Central Marketplace for the first person to sell him their sister.
These are all examples of adventure concepts. Each is (probably) self-contained, forming a single adventure, no matter how many game sessions may be required to complete that adventure. Since I made most of them up off the top of my head, they aren’t necessarily very goof ideas, by the way!
Although they may appear to be bigger at times than smaller adventure-linking concepts, in reality they are smaller by virtue of that self-containment – which does not preclude future adventures involving repercussions or consequences, by the way.
And the smallest concepts are those that aren’t even big enough to be a complete adventure. These might be an idea for an interesting location (Stonehenge? cool!), or an idea for an interesting NPC (Thanos as an Eco-terrorist? Cool!!), or an idea for an interesting encounter (A Lava Kraken!? Way Cool!!!). But at best they may form a central component of an adventure.
The connections between Themes and Concepts
A theme has to manifest as multiple concepts, many of them variations on each other. In addition, that theme has to relate to many other concepts within a campaign, even if only indirectly.
You can think of a theme as a general statement or principle, while concepts describe all the ways that principle manifests within the campaign. Alternatively, you can think of a concept as an idea that has to fit within one of the themes of the campaign. These are alternative ways of describing the same relationship between the two. At the same time, your themes all start as ideas, upper-level concepts that hold the potential to glue a campaign together. Put those two elements of the relationship between Theme and Concept together, and you start to glimpse the full picture.
Central concepts are used to generate and select themes, which are then explored through subordinate, secondary, concepts. Other, tertiary, concepts that don’t connect directly to the central concepts are then used to explore the ramifications of those subordinate concepts. Those tertiary concepts combine with the central concepts via the themes and secondary concepts to create a web of ideas that, in their totality, define the campaign. Every other important idea has to connect with one or more piece of this web. The less significant the concept, the greater the distance possible between the ‘web’ and that concept.
You can have characters that don’t connect to this central web. You can have encounters that don’t relate to it. Not all the adventures will connect with it, but most will have at least a tangential relationship to one part or another. All the adventure-linking concepts should relate to the web, and most of them should relate in some way to the central part of that web, the themes and central concepts. Your internal campaign-level concepts should all relate to the web, if they aren’t already an integral component of its structure.
It all seems so simple and straightforward, doesn’t it?
Exploring The Theme
Central to this snapshot of the relationship between Theme and Concept is the idea of exploring the Theme(s). How exactly do you do that?
Well, let’s start with a fundamental truth: the bigger the concept, the more central to the campaign it should be, and the more exploration will be required to manifest all its consequences and ramifications, and the more often it will interact with smaller campaign elements like adventures, characters, encounters, and available choices in affected circumstances. Those consequences and ramifications are one of the defining features of this particular campaign. And that in turn means that for a theme to be big enough to be central to the campaign, it’s going to have to manifest in a fairly major or fundamental concept.
A Theme is explored by looking at all the ways it can be expressed or can manifest. How many sides to a story are there? How many ways can that theme complicate situations? Is the theme recognized as valid by society at large? How does it impact social institutions and accepted social practices? How can someone take advantage of the theme – because these types of behaviors will be more prone to become accepted practice. How does the theme interact with religious doctrines? What becomes possible because of the theme that wasn’t possible before? What becomes impossible that would otherwise have been possible? What has a higher price, and what has a lower price (and not just in terms of material values)? …and so on. The more questions you can ask about how [X] is affected by the theme, or accommodates the theme, where “X” is something very specific, the more ways that theme is going to connect with the campaign.
Not all themes are of the sort that they affect the world; there are themes that purely affect the sort of adventures that are going to take place. However, every example that I can think of, on closer inspection, should be reflected in a larger way on the campaign environment in general.
A small example
For example, “Victory always comes at a price” might start out as a theme that you initially intend to apply only to the adventures of the PCs, but this restriction raises more questions than it answers. Why do the PCs have this “privileged” position? It makes more sense for this to be a general principle within the game world, and one that will therefore have impacted on the history of the campaign world, or on the way that this history is perceived by the inhabitants.
Exploring this theme means:
- Every PC victory should exact a price, either obviously, inobviously, or collaterally.
- The nature of the “price” may vary.
- There will be greater emphasis on celebrations of past victories by society, with a more mournful aspect. Think Veteran’s Day in the US, or ANZAC day in Australia. I’m not sure what the English equivalent is, but you get the idea.
- There will be a more brutal assessment of the prices of projects in general. I forget the name of the story, but I’m reminded of a piece of fiction in which a project is quoted as costing so many billions of dollars and three-point-five lives, or something like that. (I think it’s in an EE “Doc” Smith novel, possibly one of the Skylark Of Space series). The manager baulks, saying that the board would never approve of a project with a cost like that, to which the reply comes that industrial accidents are a statistical certainty, no matter what one does to prevent them, and that in a project of this scale, it is statistically certain that this number of lives will be lost in such accidents. In a world in which it is commonly held that “Victory always comes at a price”, there would be no reaction at such a bottom line – that’s the sort of thing that would be expected, forewarning of the scale of the insurance payouts that would need to be accommodated, and an accepted part of risk management.
- What are synonyms for “Victory” and how true is this theme in relation to such synonyms? “Success always comes at a price” – sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? Longer working hours, greater responsibility, greater accountability. Certainly sounds plausible. But there would be an implicit recognition that those who seek success are willing to pay the price, whatever it may be. This alters the perceptions of those in senior positions in a subtle but profound manner. Consider a politician – there would be a far more pragmatic appraisal of his entitlement to respect, and recompense. At the same time, a politician is implicitly recognized as one willing to pay the price, and any attempts to deflect or avoid doing so would arouse even more public ire and vehemence. The result is a far more 1950s attitude towards CEOs and leaders.
- There would be an implicit sense of entitlement that comes from paying the price of success. If such success does not result in the expected manner, society would implicitly seek to confer a different form of success on those that have earned it. That might be public recognition, social authority, moral leadership, or public recompense outside normal channels.
- Laws, and the way society relates to them, would also be subtly transformed. Some behaviors would cause more severe approbation than in our world. For example, admissions of guilt, surrender to the authorities, etc, would result in even greater leniency than we are used to, while fleeing a crime scene would be perceived as attempting to avoid paying the price for committing the crime, and would result in a much harsher sentence. Falsely accusing another would be a heinous crime in its own right. Libel laws would be far more ruthless and black and white in their interpretation. White collar crime would be considered just as serious as street crime, and prosecuted and sentenced accordingly. That means that there would be a greater need for low-security prisons, and more of the population would have a criminal record – but there would also be a far greater respect for someone having a “clean slate” after “paying their debt to society”.
Each of these effects needs a stage and a spotlight to shine upon them – in other words, they need to be integral to a smaller concept. Some are obvious – meeting and interacting with authority figures, meeting and interacting with former criminals, and so on. Others may require greater effort. In the case of the very first item, the GM should determine what the price will be of every victory or success that the PCs enjoy as part of the process of creating the adventure. They might make a new enemy – or a new friend to whom they will become beholden – or suffer personal harm – or any of a myriad of alternatives. But these “prices” should be prominently mentioned in synopses and often made obvious in advance.
Developing A Concept
The more central a concept is, the more exploration it needs, as I’ve already said, and the more important to the campaign it needs to be. Small concepts have a limited scope, and need to be connected to something larger to be central to a campaign.
The basic process is still the same – a matter of looking at as many details of the world around you and asking how each item within it would be altered or affected by the concept.
A small example
There is a city which is shared between the living and the undead. At sunset, the living quit the streets and lock their doors and windows behind them, and the undead begin to emerge from their crypts and tombs. The undead rule the streets overnight, only to return to their sleeping places at the dawn. Despite appearances, the town is at peace, civil order is maintained, and anyone seeking to attack will find it defended by whoever is in charge at the time. There are complete hand-overs of authority every dawn and sunset, each population has its own ruling council, and there are regular dusk and dawn meetings between the two sets of administrators to deal with any issues that might affect both populations.
This is a relatively small concept, for all that there can be a number of interesting encounters and adventures in such a setting. Interactions with the authorities. Crimes committed by a member of one group against a member of the other. Unified defenses. Trade deals done with competing interests. A Romeo-and-Juliet story with a twist.
There is also a larger theme buried in the assumptions: that undead and the living don’t have to be at war, that the undead are something more than ravening savages (even the lower-order undead like zombies and ghouls). And that means that the “normal” behavior of undead is something external that doesn’t have to be part of the package. An integrated society is possible.
That means that there should be adventures exploring the nature of undeath, and why the undead in this city are different, or perhaps why the undead everywhere else are so hostile. You have the space to look at stories of religious and social intolerance, and racial prejudice. Necromantic creation of undead becomes something more akin to slavery, another big subject that you can build adventures around.
Then we get to an unspoken assumption: that most if not all undead are human or partially human. You can either explain this, or broaden the range of undead to include Elves and Dwarves and so on.
Nevertheless, it is only by virtue of connecting the initial concept to those larger themes that this can become a central pillar of the whole campaign. Without doing so, the location is simply an interesting anomaly, the setting for one or two adventures before the PCs move on.
A larger example
For comparison, let’s look briefly at a much bigger concept: “Karmic Justice is a real force within the world; Karmic Debts can be bought and sold, and Good and Bad Karma can be bottled and traded like wine”.
Wow. Where do you start with an idea that big? It’s so broad that it will affect every being within the campaign. That makes it a central concept by definition. A campaign with any concept this big built into it can’t help but make it a central element. It will have an impact on every adventure, either directly or indirectly.
- First, you need some house rules to describe the basic tenets of Karma and Karmic Debt. Because these are going to be so ubiquitous in their application, they will need to be very quick and easy to implement in-game – no long tables, no complex math, no die rolls.
- Secondly, you may need more house rules to simply other aspects of the game mechanics to make room for them – especially since Karma is almost certain to have an impact on combat.
- Next you need to think about the social impact. If Karma can be bought and sold, how is it extracted? Is the intent enough? Or is Karmic Manipulation a new form of Magic? How will social conventions change? What is the market value of Karma?
- What happens to Karma at death? Does this have anything to do with mid-level Undeath like Ghosts? Or high-level like Vampires? Is Karma inherited (“The sins of the father”)? Do wills explicitly have to distribute Karma from the wealthy? Can those with high Karma gift some of it to the poor and downtrodden, thereby generating still more Karma?
- Crime, Laws, Law-enforcement and Justice. Can Karma be stolen? Can criminals pay their debt to society by going into Karmic Debt? What’s the economic impact of no longer needing to build prisons? Are more policemen needed, or less? Do they need to be better equipped, differently equipped, or less well equipped?
- Politics. Is buying Karma the same as rigging an election? Is it better to vote for someone with Good Karma – or with Bad Karma that needs to be expiated with public service? Or do you need a balance?
- Social Status. Is having a high Karma the same thing as being wealthy, or renowned for your charity, or does society demand that it be synonymous with noble rank?
- Theology and Religious Practices. Is there a God of Karma? Or are there several – an entire Divine Karmic Industry?
- War and Conflict. Can an army ensure victory by building a bigger refugee camp than their enemies, thereby accruing more Good Karma? How would people in the game world attempt to “game” the system?
- Trade. How does Karma factor into merchant agreements? Is bartering illegal because one side gets a Karmic advantage, or is it encouraged? Are there minimum prices to protect the merchant from those with excess Karma?
- Economics. How does Karma influence crop failures and bumper crops? Is there a net Karmic imbalance between one part of the economy and another, what are the consequences, and what social institutions and practices have evolved to attempt to redress the balance? Is there a Karmic Boom-and-Bust cycle, and how to the authorities attempt to manage it if there is?
By the time you’ve finished dealing with all these issues – and others that I haven’t even mentioned, like Insurance, and Shipping/Transport, and Medicine, and the occasional oddball question such as “Can Karma be weaponized?”, you will have a very different campaign world, and a central concept that will impact on virtually every character and adventure.
What of the Concept when the Theme evolves?
An evolution in Theme generally amounts to a deemphasis of an existing theme to make room for another theme that has manifested from the interaction of Players and Campaign. It’s incredibly useful to actually have the intended central concepts and themes written down somewhere so that you can assess the impact on the campaign. Ultimately, it means building more adventures around the PCs and fewer around the game world, and that’s a good thing.
But you can go further. Themes and Central Concepts can be defined as Dynamic – changing in emphasis as the campaign proceeds. You can start with one set being dominant and gradually de-emphasize them, elevating other themes from such obscurity that they might not even have been noticed at the start – and leaving room for newly-evolved themes. This manifests as adventures that slowly evolve in the course of the campaign in tone, style, and even content.
While the “five-year plan” of Babylon-5 is quite often, and quite rightly, lauded by fans and those looking to take inspiration from J. Michael Straczynski’s science-fiction epic, the way some of the themes and central concepts evolved in the course of the series, while others remained fixed to serve as unifying touchstones, is too-often overlooked.
An evolving theme generally means simply that the Adventures change to accommodate the new emphasis. The stories that the collaboration between players and GM are telling change, evolving in response to the stories that have already resulted from that collaboration. The concepts on which the collaboration were founded remain, but some are diminished in frequency and intensity.
But some evolution is more profound. A campaign theme can be completely inverted in the course of a campaign, or can even experience a full cycle. A good example might be an optimism-pessimism-optimism cycle built into the campaign – at first, the stories are positive ones, and the future looks rosy; then a gathering shadow begins to loom, eventually reaching the point where prospects look grim no matter how successful the PCs are, but there is still a single slender sliver of hope; and then, as the campaign rushes toward a crescendo, the darkness is beaten back, inch by inch, until there is an ultimate confrontation with the architect of the darkness, and the prospect of a lasting victory and a newly-rosy future in prospect.
Or perhaps the transition is going to be from soft low-fantasy to gritty and grim, and then to epic high fantasy. The only limits are your imagination, the length of the campaign, and what your players are willing to accept and tolerate.
The Suitability of Concepts & Themes
Not all concepts will fit every campaign. A concept might find itself in direct conflict with one of the themes. That’s why you should start with one or two central concepts, then determine your central themes from those concepts, and then generate the rest of the campaign-level concepts – so that you can filter out the things that just don’t work.
Hint: Don’t throw these ideas away! Using them as a central focus for your next campaign automatically means that it will contrast strongly with the one you are creating now – which elevates both of them by clarifying the unique flavors of each.
Rejected ideas from my Fumanor campaign formed the basis of my ad-hoc Rings Of Time campaign (intended to be a one-off adventure, but so compelling to the players that they insisted on continuing it); rejected ideas from the Rings Of Time campaign then formed the basis of the Shards Of Divinity campaign.
Every time you think of two explanations for something that is going to happen, or has happened, and reject one in favor of the other, record the rejected one – you can never tell when it will come in handy!
The most common reasons for rejection of a concept, other than direct thematic conflict, is that the concept does not fit the genre or style of the planned campaign. And that’s a whole new ball of wax – one that I’ll peel away in Part Three of this mini-series!
- Touchstones Of Unification Pt 1 – Themes
- Touchstones Of Unification Pt 2 – Concepts
- Touchstones Of Unification Pt 3 – The Big Picture (Genre and Style)