Thematic Play

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Simon C:
This is a continuation of the other threads I've been writing, expressing dissatisfaction with GNS, because I don't think it usefully describes inherant differences in how people play rpgs, and even if it does, I'm not sure that the distinctions it provides are useful for informing design (except for Story Now, which I think is very useful for informing design).

Those threads have forced me to reconsider a little bit.  The play people are describing in those threads (specifically Roger in this thread:, and contracycle in this thread: don't appear to be particularly informed by an overarching theme, in the way I was arguning most or all rpg play is.  I still have some quibbles in those threads, but the arguments weren't going very far, and I'm happy to concede that for people playing in the way described in those threads, perhaps theme isn't a useful thing to think about.  BUT! I also think that the play styles described in those threads are kind of on the extremes of play.  I don't have any data to back this up, but my sense from reading about peoples' play online is that for many people, their play doesn't resemble either of the two styles presented in those threads, and nor does it resemble the style of play described as "Story Now".

I want to give an actual play account to describe an example of a type of play that is very different from how Roger plays, is very different from how I now play, and also, from what contracycle says in that other thread, doesn't seem to fit with that style of play either.

We were playing Savage Worlds, in a fantasy setting (we used the setting from the old turn-based strategy game "Warlords".  I hand-drew a map and everything).  The original pitch was "go anywhere, do whatever, but there'll be world-spanning events happening in the background".  What happened very quickly was that the characters got caught up in those world-spanning events, and the game became pretty much a "save the world" scenario, with the characters combatting the various machinations of the evil Lord Bane.  

I think we started with a fairly incoherant mode of play, but developed towards a very strong aesthetic of play.  The players had complete authority over their characters, and the characters were free to take whatever path they wanted.  At the same time, there was a strong sense that the characters should remain invested in being the "good guys" and combating Lord Bane, in various ways.  So what that did was kind of limit the scope of play - the players had complete autonomy in playing a character who wanted to beat Lord Bane.  

From the GM's side, my responsibility was to make sure that whatever path the PCs chose, they'd face interesting and appropriate challenges, with the possibility of successfully combating Lord Bane.  It was ok for things to be very difficult, or only loosely connected to Bane, (like, it was fine to be helping enemies of Bane against a third party).  It was ok to question the morality of the enemies of Bane (like, we had a few sessions where the PCs were involved in supressing a rebellion of Elves in the Selentine empire.  The Elves were presented as having a righteous cause, but violent and unscrupulous means, and their success would have crippled the Selentines against Lord Bane.)  So some moral ambiguity was ok, but it would have been totally wrong to suggest that Lord Bane was actually an ok guy, or that it wasn't worthwhile stopping him.

What resulted was a kind of dialogue between players and GM.  The players would choose a path, I'd present what was possible along that path, and then te players would choose what they were interested in from among those options.  We'd reach a kind of consensus on what was interesting to play.

There were a few moments that kind of tested this setup.  

In the setting, there are 12 or so magic items, which are very powerful, and the only magic objects in the setting.  One of them, the Darksword, was a very powerful sword that also corrupted its weilder.  One of the PCs took control of this item for a while, using it to defeat some powerful foes.  The player did a great job of roleplaying his character slowly falling under the influence of the sword (there were no mechanics to enforce this), becoming more agressive, violent, and unethical.  A crisis point came when they decided to turn the sword over to an order of monastic knights (the Sirians) for storage and safekeeping.  The player of the character with the sword had to choose whether to hand the sword over, or to keep it and turn against the party.  A tense scene was roleplayed out, but I think in reality there was very little tension in the scene.  The player was essentially choosing between keeping his character (and losing the sword), or keeping the sword (and essentially having an unplayable character).  

That having your character turn against the party, or seriously question their cause, would result in the character leaving the game was demonstrated later on, near the end of the campaign.  One of the characters was lured away from the party, just before an ambuh was to occurr.  The woman he met, an ex-servant of Bane, told him that the party would have by now fallen to the ambush, that it was hopeless for him to try to help them, and that he should leave with her, and they could have a life together.  The player chose to have his character leave with the woman, and the character essentially left play.

Now, there was no suggestion that what the player did was out of line.  In fact, we all thought it was awesome.  But the decision also took the character outside the scope of play.  There was no way for that character to continue to contribute to what we were doing in the game.

I should talk a little more about the ambush I mentioned earlier.  This was supposed to be the climax of the campaign.  The characters had chosen not to back down against an overwhelming force, choosing to protect a village (some of whom were family of one character), instead of abandoning or evacuating it.  The players knew that the choices they had made put their characters into an almost impossible position.  As GM, I knew I had the responsibility, the expectation even, to throw something against them that validated their choices.  It was my intention to send them up against a fight that would be impossible to overcome.  I was fully expecting for the characters to go out in a blaze of glory.

What happened instead was that the characters won the fight.  It was a close thing, and one of the characters was mortally wounded (surviving only due to the power of the magical Spear of Ank).  But they won, and were able to go on to defeat the thing threatening the village, and have a happy ending.  Hurrah!

I think it's useful to look at this game as being organised around a theme, a theme that would be something like "Can a small group of heroes overcome evil?" I think that theme informed pretty much every decision made in play.  Notice how that theme is also kind of a situation? We had a small group of heroes, working together, fighting against evil.  I think the first word in the theme is key.  "Can".  So what was key in play was finding that out.  Can they? It was an honest question.  We went in hoping that the answer would be yes, but for play to be meaningful, "no" had to be a possible outcome as well.  That required challenge.  Not the illusion of challenge, but real, honest challenge, where it was likely that the PCs would succeed, but where there was a real chance as well that they would fail.  

We also needed there to be a meaningful distinction between being a hero, and being evil.  That meant that it was ok to explore a little about what it meant to be a hero, what it might cost, and what it took to be a good hero (but that wasn't usually the focus of play), but it wasn't ok to undercut the idea of there being heroes, or of palpable, objective evil existing.  

So that's why I think theme is a useful way to look at play, and why a lot of play that's been called Right to Dream or Step on Up might be more usefully understood as thematic play, but with themes that require certain unquestioned assumptions in play.

Frank Tarcikowski:
Hi Simon,

I completely agree that this is an interesting and relevant angle to look at a game of role-playing, for scenario prep and possibly even game design. I think we have, or used to have, a lot in common as players (that Warlords game certainly sounds plain awesome to me). For my part, by Big Model terms, I am probably Sim inclined but favor the ends of that Creative Agenda that lean heavily towards Nar or Gam (or both, at times), charging play up with moral questions and Challenge. Therefore, the distinctions made by GNS are not extremely helpful to me either in analyzing my games.

If Theme helps you nail what a game is about, that's great and noteworthy. Personally I thought you had nailed it pretty well even before you started discussing Theme.

- Frank


A warning up front that I may come across as a bit of a jerk here and I'm making judgements about an event I didnt take part in.  I admit my characterization of your game may be off and am reading things into it but these are my impressions of what you've described based on my play experience with various groups.

I'm not sold on your use of the word can.  You try and defend it pretty hard but I'm not sure it's valid.  You said the situation was practically impossible and the group was virtually doomed to defeat and the one character who was mortally wounded could only be healed by a magic artifact that just happend to be there.

I'm sorry but I've been around long enough to see that when that many long odds come out in someones favor that there is something at work here beyond just random luck.  I remember a scenario I ran long ago with 1st ed. AD&D with the published Against the Giants module where our group stumbled into a fortress of frost giants and the whole clan reacted to their presence.  By all rights we were in a dire situation and should have tried to run but we had cavaliers in the group and they believed in death before dishonour and never running from a foe so the group attacked and miraculously won.  It really pumped this group up but it wasnt really miraculous.  I felt like I ran the situation straight up but on reflection I was pretty easily swayed by arguements like "only so many giants can get at one individual so much smaller" and didnt have them use any really intelligent tactics that they could have taken advantage of to turn the battle in their favor.

I'm not saying that your group didnt face the chance of failure but I'm saying that the chance wasnt nearly as large as you make it seem.  The illusion of the chance of failure was more important than the actual chance.  I think the heart of Right to Dream play is the emotional impact you get from being in a situation and it's amplified if the scene does have tension to it.  That tension can come from a sense of threat or challenge but I think there are a lot of "hollywood" style tricks that can get you that feeling without actually facing the danger that actually comes from long odds.   Poorly done these tricks come across as railroading but when they are well done no one realizes or cares for the most part.   

Would you play that game again?
Would you sit down with the same group of players, have them make characters in the same way, and play the same theme ?
Personally, I would take a lot of convincing to play that same "Defeat Lord Bane" game again.  I would feel that I've answered that thematic question.

I think Playing To A Theme is an admirable way to play.  I won't play with groups that are similar to Roger, because I've learned that style of play doesn't reward my time in the way I want to be rewarded.  (That's a GNS conflict, btw, not a Theme-conflict)

I think "The Campaign should have a Theme" is already often baked into game design (IIRC, the WWGS Vampire rules used to put that instruction into the GM section in Bold Type).  I think, however, if you bake a specific Theme into a game design, you run the risk of ruining replayability.  It's only a risk: there are a number of games I can think of (3:16, Mountain Witch, MLWM, Call of Cthulhu) where a Theme is strongly (or overtly) suggested by the ruleset, and players will unambigously decide to sit down and play again and again and again. 

I think Thematic Play is a discussion topic, and helping a group choose a theme that they all can play to will improve a play experience, but I don't think Thematic Play is a GNS killer like you do.  I think GNS-related incoherance is the cause of far more destructive problems in games than Theme incoherance (using incoherance in the normal, non-Glossary sense). 

I apologize for sounding harsh, but I've been waiting for a thread that was specifically about Thematic play.  I think you are minimizing the "unquestioned assumptions" that you have found in your gaming group.  I would counterpropose that you play with a very cohesive group of players, and many of those assumptions in your group (like, "placing yourself in opposition to the the party makes you unplayable" or "The GM can give you a magic item that will make you play your character differently") are NOT hobby-wide assumptions, but your good fortune in finding a group of players that play the way you like. You only had to look to find two counterexamples where Theme had nothing to do in successful Play.

I don't want to kill this thread.  Do you have an example where choosing a Theme made a bad game better?  Or where a player who was not having fun was advised about the Theme, and then they had an enjoyable experience?  I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I haven't seen any evidence in support of your "Thematic Play is a Better Tool than GNS" argument stronger than "my group likes Themes, and we always have fun."  You might also all like Pepsi, but that doesn't mean drinking Pepsi causes you to have good games.


Simon C:

Cool, I'm glad that this is making some sense to you.  I should point out that my current style of play is pretty different from this now, and focuses on what I think are more challenging or provocative themes. 


Actually, you're right on the money.  My first Actual Play thread at the Forge was about this same game, and raised the exact issue you're talking about.  I raised it because actual tension between success and failure was what was desired, but, as you describe, as GM it's very easy to tip the result one way or another, unless you're using a robust conflict resolution system.

So you're dead on, but I think this issue is tangential to this thread, which is about the theme of play.  That theme was served by there being a genuine question of whether the characters would succeed, and even though that question was sometimes weighted more in one direction, it doesn't change the fact that a genuine chance of failure was a desired part of play.


I think your conflict with Roger's style of play could be considered a techniques conflict, rather than a theme conflict.  You don't like the heavy use of challenge, to the exclusion of exploration.  That seems like a techniques issue to me.  I don't really see how GNS is useful in understanding that.

Your question about playing the same theme again is interesting.  Actually, I think yes, playing the same theme again is a viable option.  I think a lot of groups play the same or similar themes over and over again, with different colour.


I apologize for sounding harsh, but I've been waiting for a thread that was specifically about Thematic play.  I think you are minimizing the "unquestioned assumptions" that you have found in your gaming group.  I would counterpropose that you play with a very cohesive group of players, and many of those assumptions in your group (like, "placing yourself in opposition to the the party makes you unplayable" or "The GM can give you a magic item that will make you play your character differently") are NOT hobby-wide assumptions, but your good fortune in finding a group of players that play the way you like. You only had to look to find two counterexamples where Theme had nothing to do in successful Play.

I don't really understand what you've written here, I'm afraid.  Can you rephrase it or something?

An example of where choosing a theme made a bad game better?  I think pretty much everyone who successfully plays White Wolf games (especially Vampire and Exalted) is choosing a theme and playing to it.  The games are such a mess of different options and possibilities, that they really require you to do a lot of design work before play starts, shaping the theme of the game.  I should point out that the texts of these games gives almost no assistance in this design work.


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