Written by Jeremy Morgan, tabletop games editor, gamer, and software developer.
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The DM and Literary Theme

5 October 2011

I’ve branched out a bit lately with my blog reading, and I discovered Chuck Wendig, @ChuckWendig on Twitter, over at his blog Terrible Minds. He’s pretty saucy, so if strong language is not your cup of tea you might want to switch to coffee before reading. In particular, I want to talk about this post, 25 Things Writers Should Know About Theme.

I see two main approaches that DMs use when planning a campaign for D&D. One is that they have a story to tell. The other is that they want the story to evolve from collaboration at the table. What I don’t see a lot of is the use of a literary theme. The DM wouldn’t bother with the exact flow of the story, but only the type of story he wants to tell. I can think of a few easy examples to illustrate this point.

  • “With great power comes great responsibility.”
  • “No one will save you but yourself.”
  • “The gods love us and protect us.”

Maybe I’m missing the boat here”, but I don’t hear a lot of DMs talking in this way about their campaigns. Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but this seems like it might be a better way. Instead of worrying about the exact details, I can focus on what it is I’m trying to say.

That’s great, I already have a campaign running. What I am supposed to do with this? Easy. Think about what it is you’re been saying with the plot. If the campaign hasn’t been running long, what plot did you have in mind? Can’t figure it out? That’s okay. Start at the next tier. Or wait until your next campaign starts.

For you world-building DMs out there, you’re probably already messing around with theme, whether you realize it or not. You’ve created a world in which certain things are true or believed to be true. There’s probably theme in there somewhere. Take Dark Sun. The world is bleak, and most people are just trying to survive. Guess what, that’s a theme.

Some will read this and think, why does this matter? Why should I think about this? You’re missing a wonderful opportunity to say something meaningful through a medium you (hopefully) enjoy. What could be better than that?


Simon T. Vesper said:

Completely agree. Completely. I usually start my games with an adventure or two, and with a grand finale in mind, and then I fill in the gaps as we go along. Most of them don’t make it to the finale, and the few that have were ended with a different finale. But I think if I can get this Planescape game off the ground, I’ll have to consider using a theme as the main thread.

TriskalJM said:

Sounds good. Let me know how it goes, and thanks for the comment!

R. Y. Zeal said:

I actually got to you from the very blog post you reference in the introduction to your entry, and I have to say that I agree with you in the biggest way. I game with a group who I can only describe as ‘lapsed’ gamers: we all love to game, but unless someone else is writing the story, it usually doesn’t happen. The group’s four usual DMs all complain about the same problem: there’s just too much work in writing a story.

Considering that one of the regulars in our group is an English major, I am going to throw both of these ideas at him and see if it could re-energize things. I’m feeling like it’s about time that the dice got some play again.

Using theme to build a campaign sounds like a fun idea. I think I might have to test this out myself.

TriskalJM said:

Had another idea that might help. It’s a collaborative world-building system based on D&D 4e. Also, you might want to check out the Dresden Files RPG, and Fiasco. Both of these are designed with a much more collaborative story-telling.


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