A theme is a literary tool used to convey to the reader the deeper meaning of the story beyond just the story told. In classical music, the musicians play the theme as a memorable piece right at the beginning of the song in order to establish the overall idea of the piece of music. In pop music, a theme is the melody lick that everyone recognizes as the song is beginning.
Roleplaying games, like Dungeons and Dragons (I play 5th edition), are played over not 3 minutes like a pop song, or even 100 minutes, like a classical piece. Some campaigns last anywhere from a 2 hour one shot to 10 years of friends gathering around the table.
So, how then would you deepen the meaning of your roleplaying games with themes? Here is how i think you can!
The first thing you can do
Besides setting up great encounters (I view them as recipes for adventure), you may want decide sometime during your campaign an overall idea that you want your players to take away from each game. Some themes that I think work well with roleplaying games include the following:
- no matter how bad it gets, good always wins
- light vs dark
- hope for a new dawn
- confronting the evil within
- the horizon always holds adventure and fun
Do a quick search for “literary themes” and find websites like this one!
The above themes are melodies that you want your players to take away from each game, but besides overtly stating the theme at the beginning and ending of each game (nothing wrong with that!) you can associate icons to the themes.
For example in light vs dark, the theme explores the competing forces of light and dark and whether they correlate to good and evil, respectively. The dungeon master asks each of the players to describe a feature of their character that they would like to highlight to embody a theme. The dungeon master then makes the effort to bring up those features all throughout important moments in the campaign. Also, the dungeon master uses similar features in the descriptions of the worlds to convey the theme in the moment of the story.
Player’s responsibility: Ted chooses a dwarven fighter that features a warhammer to exemplfy his stubborn resolve to hold out the light even in darkest of times. You had better believe a thematic dungeon master will make sure to bring up that warhammer at key times in the adventure
Where to place the theme:
the beginning as the war hammer glistens in the morning light
the middle as the war hammer soiled with dirt and blood
the climax as the war hammer, still clutched in the frozen grip of the fighter fallen, dying in the shadows
the resolution as the war hammer erupts in burning blue light charactering the fighters successful death save
One time I had a player who chose red ale as their feature. All throughout the campaign, the theme was ‘making the world a better place than how you found it” and along the way, that mug of red ale at level 3 turned into a tavern selling red ale by level 10! Every time I wanted to highlight that theme, I brought red ale in the scene to make an example of “making the world a better place.”
If you feel like your adventure is just a random set of encounters, a theme will help tie up your encounters to give that deeper meaning you are looking for. Dare I say, it will feel more than a game, it will feel like a story.
The second thing you can do
in developing a theme in your games is to decorate your monsters with that theme.
In the light vs dark theme, every monster, especially the main ones, should have a feature that holds up the antithesis of your chosen theme.
Color them in shadows, black holes and secretive whispers. Let them be orcs, but with hollow eyes and blindsight. Let them be dragons, but able to shift silently in shadows, able to cast pass without a trace on their minions. Let your monsters drive home the threat if the players fail to accomplish their mission.
To use a more funny example, each monster who fought against the Red Ale crew somehow featured really poor quality beer. The villain, with all of their crimes committed, also sold nasty beverages that furthered the resolve of the heroes to get out there and make a difference!
This is a simple technique to choose one theme for your campaign and then connect it to each of your player’s features for their character. Then go ahead and choose 3 other features in your world to exemplify your theme. Bring the features up as often as possible to play your theme and enjoy!
May your story continue!