thematic stakes

DeReel's picture

Seeing the Dogs of war board game made me think twice about a pattern (as in "RPG design patterns" work) I had in mind. Experimenting with it I came up with a playable version :
In order to navigate a story by overarching thematic conflicts.
Pick 3 pairs of opposed themes (order vs chaos, youth vs old age, interest vs greater good, etc.)
Pick one or more characters to explore these themes.
Randomly pit one theme against another (you can maximise this like for instance : order vs youth, chaos vs interest, old age vs greater good)
Instead of resolving tasks, you can now struggle to champion your view on a theme. A bit like what Shock : SF does.
You may need player (non-character) resources.

Paul T.'s picture

What I’m getting from this post is the idea to randomize thematic poles from a set of poles in opposition. I’m not sure what the ultimate goal is, but it’s a pretty interesting brainstorming tool. (I say “brainstorming” because it seems to me that it might create really interesting outputs on a regular basis, but not output good material consistently.)

DeReel's picture

I am glad you find some interest in it. I often start with a few assumptions, such as : short games, easy to pick up, "competent" players (not necessary skilled). Playing the game is its own learning process, which means you always run a risk of failure. That said, Themes are too often seen as something too abstract and cloudy when in fact everybody can get their hands on them, which this mechanic intends to support. If you are ready to get into a more polemical exchange, I'd ask you : "Honestly, consider the rather common process of starting a game with each player making their own character concept, without keeping an expert eye on the dynamics between them, and/or positing GMs as more competent than a table full of fellow human. Do you think that gets you good material consistently ?"
The mechanical "theme lottery" effect you see in the first post is not how I think you will implement it for playing, but an area of design exploration. For a specific game world, not all themes are possible, and you want to make a small list before fleshing out characters. you can then change themes arrangement for each session or arc, depending on the game format. Everybody knows the various ways serials do this.

Paul T.'s picture

That clarifies things a fair bit. I think it’s an interesting idea. I’ve done similar things when designing games, or my random generator for Dogs in the Vineyard.

I’m not sure I understand your question. Perhaps you are asking whether the typical play group could use a formal structure or procedure to improve their play. If so, I agree entirely, and I’m very fond of finding such tools for rpg play.


Everybody knows the various ways serials do this.

I don’t, actually! And this is a major area of interest for me, so please do describe what they do, how they do it, or link to an article or video or something. I’d love to learn more about this.

DeReel's picture

In some series, you've got thematic baselines established in the first episodes, that are tied to the characters, and a "theme of the week" that's more situational.
Superhero stories, where a super champions one to three values, but also little poney-like one-theme-one-character, are very upfront about it. They are very much like colour coded myths and legends. Those are the baseline.
Now take a problem that concerns your audience everyday life and is a real philosophical question (When the problem is shallow, the series is simply stupid) and turn it into a monster of the week, or simply, an external obstacle. There too, many works make the allegory clear, the transformation explicit. It's blunt, but I like the clarity.
You have works where whole kingdoms or races are the embodiment of one theme (eg the fire clan means war). In many young adults fiction, few characters get "the special treatment", when the clear cut colour code is blurred by psychological considerations (... When these appear to exist mainly for plot purposes, I feel the audience is cheated and it's too frequent in young adults fiction).

I think you know some series that look like what I describe as allegories (Spoke is reason, Kirk is audacity), and can see from there how some fictions add only a layer or two to their main characters (your favourite young adult fiction character often follows their emotions, right ?). That is not necessarily bad : nuance can come from the sheer size of the cast, or some random pattern breaking.
Maybe I should provide concrete examples ? What part needs more of them ?

Here, a theme means a single notion (loyalty, family bonds, sense of one's worth, etc.), not a thematic statement (old age entails foolishness, love trumps loyalty).

Paul T.'s picture

That's pretty helpful, actually. Thanks!

I would, of course, be curious to hear how you might use is this in a game setting.

DeReel's picture

This surprises me from you, because you are the one who taught me :b : of course the thematic structure is the setting. More so than the "background images". These worlds are story worlds. Take this example : would it change much if a My little poney episode took place in a forest, in a village in the clouds, or in a magical horse riding school ? Some small things would change, but you well know that Friendship and its ordeals IS the setting, the underlying structure of this world. Not to appeal only to evidence, take the case of episodes when the fabric of such a world begins to fall apart (an eclipse, a dying crystal, whatever) the answer is never to go fetch a piece of uranium or send a team on a dangerous smoldering mission. Even when unobtainium is needed, it appears that only an act of faith in a key value or some words spoken in a moment of need and sincerity will restore the setting to its normal state.
The main use I find for thematic stakes is this : at the beginning of a game when we already have a generic worldview, players have thrown some character concepts but everybody's not strictly committed to any. Finding values give the game world its 3 dimensions, characters can take position according to these axis, this will increase readability and inter-compatibility, producing new narrative elements will also be easier with this compass. It's somewhat the same use as Alignment or Factions, only a bit more abstract, so it's more broadly and finely adaptable.
My Poney examples are for simplicity's sake. With 3 pairs of values, you can have 2x2x2 = 8 "clear cut" factions and plenty more if you add dramatic considerations for blurring the lines (the gal fighting for dark good tradition may well be wearing a dark good progress cap, or have gotten her hands on a light magic artefact. Dramatic conflict ensues !).
I want situations to be dynamic, interesting, surprising and complex as Mononoke Hime factions game. This means multiple values for complexity (dark is not evil) with a slight shift between them for dynamism, coming up with these values collectively for investment (=interest), adding randomness on top for surprise.

Paul T.'s picture

Getting more in depth with the idea is where it gets interesting, in my opinion.

I’d love to see an example of how to use this kind of technique, for illustration.

DeReel's picture

Sadly, the technique in the first post I've not tested yet. Without randomization we used paired themes to orient ourselves in a freefrom storytelling story.
A player wanting to play a royal heir, "Royal Blood" became a theme, and seing what other players had in mind, we opposed it to "Vulgar Sweat". The pairing informed that it was going to be about innate / acquired. Other pairs followed (deception / uncovering, power / feelings).
This gave me the idea for a character generation game (where you pick one hero, one antagonist, etc. zigzagging through a folktale cast).
Then we applied themes-pairing in FitD games where you have factions and big themes built in, but where we wanted something more abstract than factions and more precise and dramatically appliable than "magic vs technology" or "registered vs outlaw".
I find it very useful, as it bridges a gap between not knowing anything about a setting and establishing too much material upfront.
The pairing and human capacity for language do all the work, so it's quite easy too. It's very important that the table "tune" on the themes. If a player is not there at that time, the table should retune the themes to accommodate them.
What happens in a game is that we first follow the obvious divides, and refine and combine as we go forward (getting tired of the obvious chords except for big drama moments). I am sure many of you already do this. I just formalised it :b
What Dogs of War showed me is that "randomize and pit one side against another" is valid (and fun) provided the rest of the mechanic (resolution, resources, etc.) works.
I intend to make a storytelling card game out of it, with a cast of characters and themes inspired by a local folkloric character, so iconic that it has been used to champion all sorts of (conflicting) values.

Paul T.'s picture

I appreciate you going into some depth and detail on this. I think it’s a very fruitful technique!

I hope you’ll bear with me and answer just a few more questions. This is taking shape nicely, and will become a great thread to reference later.

I understand that, when setting up a game, you will brainstorm and establish some of these theme pairs, which help define the setting and give the players a framework around which to generate material and conflicts.

Once the game is started, how do you actually use them? Is it as simple as creating a character to represent each side of a thematic pairing, and setting them in opposition to each other? Or does the brainstorming fade into the background now that it has served to get the players on the same page?

I usually find that an illustration is more helpful than a theoretical explanation, so I’d love to hear how you used the pairings in one of those games you referred to. What characters were created, and how were the pairs used during the session?


DeReel's picture

With the Cyberpunk game and BitD, there was no real mechanical way of bringing back the themes into the circuitry, except for BitD where some factions are quite immaterial (ghosts, the people, the press). I have found one way to bypass the obstacle in freeform play : appreciating player use of themes in the aftergame. I only recently found one way to connect it to the resolution engine : you can spend a monologue of victory (Cf The pool) to score for one of the 6 themes. Thematic victory is appreciated at the end of the session. I am considering a The resistance variant, where you would have an incentive to score against your theme because of a secret mission.

Tod's picture

I'm wondering how conscious the characters themselves are of these themes, or whether they're strictly an "author stance" meta thing.

Because I think the best way to foster their appearance in play (aside from GM force) would be to not only have the characters be aware of them, but consciously driven by them. If I'm reading you right, you did begin applying your themes in the chargen process, making each one part of the concept of a PC - but were the PCs conscious of their themes?

We might posit that each PC's individual theme is a totally conscious primary value or belief of that PC. Perhaps even something engraved upon their family crest, tattooed on their arm, or written in their diary (it's not strictly necessary to represent it with an actual object, but I think it's kinda cool). We could state it as a personal credo simply by suffixing an affirming predicate to it ("family bonds are more important than anything to me" or in colloquial terms "blood is thicker than water"). Or we actually could use a themetic statement ("old age entails foolishness", "love trumps loyalty") if a player wanted to, and it sounded playable.

The important thing would be that this core value plays directly into the very concept of what this character is about. This is something the character believes to be absolutely true. Something the character has probably said out loud to other people.

Did you ever read my essay about The Difference between Narrative and Story? Because this seems like a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how "a Local Narrative brings a tactical level to a Master Narrative" (regional, cultural, ethical, etc), and the character's theme is a Personal Narrative drawing upon (or refuting) that Local one. To quote myself further: a Story is what happens "when a Personal Narrative comes up against a Local Narrative, and the veracity of both are tested."

DeReel's picture

You sure can go full allegory (and yes I read the essay), and use values or thematic statements.
I can only state my preferences :
- simple objects for ease of access and greater game depth ;
- players and characters very loosely coupled, for an elegant narration I liked in Annalise.

How did we use themes ? First to inform character and setting creation, it allows to have a relationship map that is not strictly "social or emotional bonds", like the royal heir made blood something important, which we turned into : some magic is about blood (which, as you can imagine became a big part of the setting) ; transmission is a thing (prompting the artisan girl to add a trait about her relations with her father).
In game, the theme compass was like : this story being about wanting to prove one's worth, the pattern of a character wanting to gain consideration from a fellow or a superior was part of 2 characters relation, but was also reproduced as a motivation for a salaryman, which was structural to the story because his superior was the target, hinted at in 1 scene for a minor NPC and drawn upon in a tense scene with PC and NPCs mixed.
But I find the excitement of using this kind of tools is also in foreshadowing : when you introduce a NPC or a complication, you're left guessing "will that one be starving for consideration, or will it be a case of inconsiderate violence ?" because of the themes we set before. And at one point, player will decide, but the hints before that point are really my kick. I guess what I am finding about my taste is that I was not drawn by themes for themselves, but for what they bring to storytelling (a grid, a compass, navigation tools). (And this is very specific, so much that only half my table is following and the others would like more virtual physicality and dialogues)

I'll try to exploit the bubbling of emotions this topic arises in me to make a strange hypothesis. I find characters are better rounded when they are written various themes all over, some with question marks. They are much more interesting to me, and in a word : realistic. This requires multiple players (or player and rules, but rules are clumsier than players) to act upon the same characters. I find the same thing with scene framing : I find we make better scenes when "scene" is not an object of the game. If conflicting values are the goal, then scenes come and resolve spontaneously around these conflicts. Likewise, if values or emotions or whatnot are the goal, then characters will come and go as needed, without difficulty. It seems that for me the practice of the game and the product are totally disconnected. Going the LARP route only enhances - for me - the limitations of the medium, the bad acting, the synthetic fabric, the artifact, pixel and glitch. So I work with my strong negativity bias instead of against it.

Hopeless_Wanderer's picture

I find this idea interesting because orthogonal stakes generate more interesting stories than dichotomous stakes--good vs. evil is kind of boring. There are lot's of ways that this could be used, but for me, personally, I can see it working best at the design stage. I'm thinking about Archepelago playsets right now. How do you make interesting pre-gens, NPCs, and fronts? All goblins are evil is boring. Even, evil is evil is kind of boring. But paring up one pole of a binary with the pole of an unrelated binary would seem to lead to something interesting. Isn't that what generates tension in games like Monster-hearts?

I feel like I'm stating the obvious, because everyone contributing here is an experienced designer. Sorry for not contributing more.

DeReel's picture

I am not an experienced designer at all. Only one who feels no shame talking about things they don't know. Beware of the selection bias on forums in general : there are lots of them.
You're right this is useful at the border of setting situation and character, to kneet them together.

DeReel's picture

I am coming back to this topic in circles.
Various "opposition pools" and "trouble tracks" (à la Fate) are not satisfactory, because they suppose a binary perspective on narrative agents : a very thin varnish on the good old struggle between the good and the bad.
Of course, you can make characters opposed like with Shock:SF grid and praxis (praxis is Lasers and feelings, really). And yes @AsIf, values upheld by the characters can be simulated with a faction system where characters have multiple allegiances. So The dark +1 and The light +1 could meet on neutral ground if they were found to be both The just +2 or something less crude but of the same flour.

Thanks to Paul_T's interventions along this thread, it's clear the problem is : "how does this *live* during play ?" Either through player intent or rules or both.

A "Story pool" or "Character sheet for the World (alt./Themes)" can be a vessel for players to make Themes live. That's Belonging outside Belonging (Archipelago's dominions refined)
I'm still not happy with the "taking turns" aspect because... "it breaks immersion" ;) a player can't be various parties in a conflict, even if one is neutral. I prefer assigning each World element to a character type, the one who interacts the least with this element, so that the player can get inside this "abstract character" but (first I don't want to fix character types at this stage, and second) it's still very "character against the world" : "scarcities", "norms", "gangs" in BoB are sometimes fought against, always negotiated with. You can't really make them "support characters" without setting the game on easy mode. You need their interest to at least distantly align with the character's, like the blockading gang that makes the Maestro's stuff valuable.

This whole polarization thing implies something on the "leading" characters being on the same or different sides. I need to get rid of that at least for Themes.
I want themes to be more like Annalise claims, more like *sensibilities* : stepping up bravely, looking up to someone, etc. It doesn't matter who with respect to whom, only that the gesture comes to life in play. There could be a musical motif for each theme.

Themes in Shock:SF are nice but they need too much benevolence. I need that players not only "dedicate" their moves to these Themes, that they paint, gesture, enact the themes. That they embrace the motives and root their actions in them.

So I am preempting all these ideas from Shock and Dream Askew, and altering Annalise claims. In a token economy where tokens jump one by one between many pools (players', shared, neutral and even "graveyard" pools), Themes are represented by coloured tokens. To use them, you just (forfeit your turn and) invoke the Theme/motif. And anyone can throw this stone from one garden into another. It's not reliable on the long term. It's not going anywhere either. It's just activating a Theme from time to time, according to seemingly alien considerations (tactical and aesthetic, as the players wish and manage).

This one is a bit like some fantasy characters being insoluble in Good and Evil. And I am very proud of my idea. Probably until playtest.

Tod's picture

Have a look at CORE (although chances are good you're already familiar with its descendant, DayTrippers). The system uses "LifeShapers" which are defined by the players either in CharGen or in play (since the system also uses "Progressive Character Generation" (PCG) which permits things like flashbacks introducing skills we weren't aware of before, family histories introducing thematic or psychological elements from the past, etc etc). Each LifeShaper has a Focus, a Type, and a Behavior that it causes. There are eight LifeShaper Types, as shown below:

B = Belief (what the PC believes)
C = Concept (what ideas the PC has)
D = Duty (what the PC is obliged to do)
G = Goal (what the PC wants to do)
H = History (what the PC has learned in life)
M = Mission (what the PC’s orders are)
P = Problem (stuff the PC has issues with)
R = Relationship (people the PC interacts with)
T = Thing (the PC’s most personal possessions)


Focus Type Behavior
TOUGH LOVE H Always hide my feelings
BECOME KING G Vow to seize the throne or die
RED BARCHETTA T Must take good care of it

LifeShaping events can be introduced at any time: before play, during play, or in downtime. Sometimes a LifeShaper can be used to help solve a problem. Whenever this applies, the GM will grant an extra die on the roll. Players decide on their own when to bring these motivators into play, but the incentive is there, and the GM (of course) is encouraged to play into LifeShapers in an organic way. This helps in the production/emergence of storylines which are driven by characters' internal motivators (but without being overly methodical or gamist about it), and from those arise your Themes.

DeReel's picture

I had Core in hand when I saw your post ! Themes are helpers yes, this makes player want to bring them in. So a simple tweak like transposing LifeShapers to "ThemeMotifs" and making them "float", not tied to a specific character, can do the trick.

DeReel's picture

I think I'll try something radical : make the game a meeple placement game. Right now I imagine it with tracks following a story structure, but that's not set. And the rules on placing meeples would go along with the narrative moves you tell.
(I had this form in mind for months, but always saw the character sheet as "base" and the "themes in the sky" as an extra. But that's stupid : the character is the obstacle, I should get it out, and use it later, if/when I need it. Back to the lab !)

btw : I found today that Durance uses themes brutally. Morningstar is a master and the game is overlooked.

DeReel's picture

I am into tweaking Other kind. I fold Life Shapers into 2 categories : character Goal, content Relationship.

*edit january 18th :
Or this : back to my first love, Annalise claims.
Everything the players say can be pre-empted as a "aesthetical motif" or "signifying signifyer". What does it look like ? The player doing the pre-empting makes a sticky note of it ("this is signifying", the trigger is giving a damn, the cost is handling) and places one of their tokens (or potato stamp) on the note ("this is under my influence").
That's the mechanic, not the game, yet : I've got to make specific mechanics for characters, protagonists and scene framing. But they're built on that base mechanic. Players don't play only characters, but Influences. that's a key factor in DitV among other games. In my mind, pervasiveness of player control is key to thematic play.

Geez, Tod, thank you for keeping these forums up : I've been looking for ages for a place to say "pervasiveness of player control". ;P

DeReel's picture

My latest idea taken from Mesopotamian is to simply promote certain goals to "long term goals" as in BitD clocks, from 4 (twists and turns) to 8 (collective effort) with fallout from minor to major.