At some point I started hearing about this idea that role playing games should be about something. “What is your game about, and how does it do that?“ when I was younger I really didn’t think the game was about anything. Or did I? I don’t believe I thought about it in these terms but certainly I found the games were more satisfying when they had some kind of coherent theme.
Most games claim to be about something. Very often they let you know in the description or in the first few pages. Usually they talk about genre or idiom or something like that. Maybe they don’t use those words, but they give you an idea what the game is supposed to be like and what kind of things will be happening in it. Some games go even deeper and talk about what the theme is supposed to be or talk about choosing a theme for your group.
From here it gets interesting. Some games certainly have mechanics and procedures which reinforce a particular theme. Maybe they simply reinforce the genre or idiom, but these help inform theme to a certain degree. Other games have mechanics & procedures which don’t seem to help, and sometimes games have mechanics and procedures which seem to fight the supposed theme at every turn.
One of the things I discovered, or at least crystallized in my thoughts, when I was making an OSR tutorial for Lee your humble game master, was the fact that in some games such as those very often the theme or genre is what you bring to the table as players. But I would go even further. In the past my friends and I have talked about genre and it’s been my experience that there is the genre that you go for and then there’s a genre that shows up for dinner. I believe this goes double for theme.
Thinking about this topic I have to say it’s been my experience that most RPG sessions or campaigns have a theme of some kind. Sometimes we purposely drive towards it , but sometimes something shows up that is unexpected. I believe there are a lot of forces at play. The game, the intended genre, the interaction of the players, and what we bring to the table. That is, how we react to the events and genre of the RPG itself, and how we bring a certain part of our self to the table most of the time.
My friends and I good-naturedly laugh at ourselves, and sometimes each other, not only about the idea that sometimes we tend to bring the same characters over and over again, but also that unless we make a conscious effort to do otherwise, we all tend to drift into our own preferred themes or styles. Even if we are well-behaved I believe that we all still tend to bring facets of our self to the table more often than not. This tends to push a certain theme or at least a set of themes. I find this quite interesting.
Very often the theme of a game session or campaign isn’t really entirely apparent until we look back on it. Sometimes we notice it during play, and sometimes we notice it during reflection afterwards. The very best experiences for me have been when we notice it mid campaign. And then we can intentionally explore the theme that seems to be emerging.
Maybe we need a theme song.