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Vrock_Summoner
2015-10-27, 12:55 AM
What are some of the general themes and concepts you consider most important in the running of a game or creation of a setting for such, aside from the obvious "everybody having fun"?

For me, whether it's world-building or running the game itself, I generally take the concept of agency to its extreme, and one of the major focuses of my settings are thus people's choices and their consequences. The theme, then, would be "the world is shaped by the choices and actions of people." I don't generally believe in worlds with such things as fate or powerful active gods, because I think a world should be shaped by the people in it rather than them just being shaped by outside circumstance and never being able to do anything about it, and my worlds thus reflect that. I mean, of course this applies wholeheartedly to PCs, as it should in any game, but it extends to the whole world for me.

What about you guys? I'm interested to see what concepts and themes you consider most important (again, aside from the all-powerful reign of fun) when it comes to the worlds you build and the stories you run.

Knaight
2015-10-27, 01:12 AM
It varies a lot by setting. For instance, I ran a game where the PCs were all early AIs, which was thematically largely about personhood, and what made someone or something a person or not a person, and what being a person meant and should mean. Sure, a lot of this was more on the end of background stuff to keep me interested as a GM (the group was a bit hack and slashy), but it popped up in noticeable ways and the players interacted with it. Meanwhile, in other campaigns that's been completely unexplored, let alone a set of central themes.

Another campaign setting has a number of themes, some of which key to various geographical areas to some extent, one of which is centered around living on the periphery of an industrial revolution and the social upheaval attached to it, along with a lot of other things having to do with life amidst shifting societal structures. A third is more static, where shifting societal structures isn't a particular concern at all, but there are plenty of themes regarding trying to make one's best way when in a shady business with shady people. Yet another was basically a historical game about the influence of fruit companies on Central America, through the paper thin disguise of instead being set on a minimally influential jungle planet, upon which Galactic Fruit had taken an interest.

Just about all of these are oversimplified to some extent, and there were other more minor themes and setting elements and such that were also pretty critical. Still, the point is that the settings were built around different questions, different conflicts. I find it helps keep things fresh.

NichG
2015-10-27, 12:43 PM
For me, each campaign starts from its own theme. Ideally I want them to be different enough that the players really feel like it's a totally different thing than the previous campaign. Otherwise, if it feels too much like a continuation of the previous one, its hard to have build-up and discovery.

Generally I try to frame it as a question or a problem - something which the campaign will be asking the players to either discover or provide an answer for (which of those two it will be is not decided in advance, but is based on whether the players are more inquisitive or assertive during play). I've done:

- In a universe made of belief, what would be the nature of truth? Are there things which, by their very nature, cannot be un-true? Is it possible to imagine a universe in which even logic and mathematics are subjective? What happens if you disbelieve in the power of belief to shape reality strongly enough, in a universe where belief shapes reality?

- Imagine a powerful being with a extremely crisp view of good and bad. Imagine that they could create, amongst a sea of possibilities, a precisely defined 'best possible universe' in their eyes. Now, given that paradise, what extents would they go to in order to merge the souls of everyone, everywhere with the versions of themselves living in that utopian realm? What is more important - the memories and history that happen to be yours by accident of birth, or attaining happiness/perfection/the ideal? Must even 'the best possible universe' have some bad things in it?

- How can you deal with the inevitable dwindling or consumption of immediately available resources? What if exponential population growth continued in the afterlife, and the afterlife ran out of space? What if the universe operates by branching timelines at each decision point, but there is a hard limit in how many branches the universe can support at once? If even there is even a limited resource which allows causality to remain self-consistent, and that resource is running out?

- Normally, the story of heroes pins the hopes of the many on the power of the few. But in turn, the many become individually irrelevant. The more powerful the 'heroes' become, the harder it is to remain connected. What happens when that goes so far, in a universe where the upper limit of power is so high, that the heroes are totally out of control and themselves need to be stopped? How do you amass enough power to deal with that mess without becoming the sort of thing you're fighting against? Furthermore, what if that 'things becoming irrelevant' has cosmic consequences, that things which become irrelevant become susceptible to becoming less real, to being re-written by more real neighbors?

- What if cause followed effect, and the past wrote itself to be consistent with the future, rather than vice versa? What would it be like, to experience your present, feel the weight of your inevitable future, but be totally free to choose your past? Could you find a past that would make you best able to handle that future?

Quertus
2015-10-27, 01:45 PM
For me, each campaign starts from its own theme. Ideally I want them to be different enough that the players really feel like it's a totally different thing than the previous campaign. Otherwise, if it feels too much like a continuation of the previous one, its hard to have build-up and discovery.

Generally I try to frame it as a question or a problem - something which the campaign will be asking the players to either discover or provide an answer for (which of those two it will be is not decided in advance, but is based on whether the players are more inquisitive or assertive during play). I've done:
--snip--


Wow. You were actually able to pull these off as the central theme of your games? I'll be thinking about this for quite some time.

At best, I've only pulled off ideas like this as an aside - like the D&D world where Dragons Don't Exist. Even the "good" dragons will tell you so. Because dragons in that world are powered by belief. Once they are forgotten, they sleep. The one party that actually came to know the basics of this never really tried to investigate or exploit the underlying mechanics.

... can you explain what it would be like for players to be... assertive about the fundamental underpinnings of your universe? I feel I must be misunderstanding you, because I don't see how the players could provide an answer to any but the last two ideas.


there is even a limited resource which allows causality to remain self-consistent, and that resource is running out

That sounds like the part of Exalted that I like. Where reality is chaos, the world is a little piece of stability / causality / self-consistency, and the "limited resources" is, ironically paradoxically in a historic plot twist, the very gods the heroes were fighting against.

NichG
2015-10-27, 09:08 PM
Wow. You were actually able to pull these off as the central theme of your games? I'll be thinking about this for quite some time.

At best, I've only pulled off ideas like this as an aside - like the D&D world where Dragons Don't Exist. Even the "good" dragons will tell you so. Because dragons in that world are powered by belief. Once they are forgotten, they sleep. The one party that actually came to know the basics of this never really tried to investigate or exploit the underlying mechanics.

... can you explain what it would be like for players to be... assertive about the fundamental underpinnings of your universe? I feel I must be misunderstanding you, because I don't see how the players could provide an answer to any but the last two ideas.

That sounds like the part of Exalted that I like. Where reality is chaos, the world is a little piece of stability / causality / self-consistency, and the "limited resources" is, ironically paradoxically in a historic plot twist, the very gods the heroes were fighting against.

'Assertive' basically means that there's something about the situation they don't like, and they start plotting/planning/enacting ways to change things.

In the Belief game, the thing they didn't like was how all of the gods were bound by belief into embodying all sorts of crap - so they were basically prisoners of that belief, and worse yet, forced by it to go and do awful things in the case of evil gods and such. So they found a magical location which let one send a message to any person who could be named distinctly, connected it to another magical location that accessed the subconscious for the purposes of spying, and then did some hackery to target 'the collective subconscious' with the message 'everyone, believe that gods and people are the same, that they all have the freedom to choose their own truth' or something essentially like that.

The result was not just 'freeing' all the gods, but hard-coding equivalency between gods and mortals into that moment - basically ascending the population of the multiverse.

That's an example of the PCs being assertive about cosmology, I think :smallsmile:

AceOfFools
2015-10-28, 07:21 AM
My favorite theme I've ever had in a campaign was "everyone is unique."

It was an urban fantasy game, and the first major antagonist was a faerie who could lie. They also clashed with a werewolf alpha who had control issues and problems with women who was eventually replaced with a scheming werewolf couple, a fae lich, an ancient witch who had transformed herself into a ghost, a lich who had found a way to take over 3 differnt corpses simultaneously, the hipster faerie king of the internet, genocidal angels that had somehow not fallen and become demons (with the help of loyalst angels), Chinese psycopomps (xen gui) that were running a human meat buisness, a group of ghost hunters that were consistently refered to as "the ghost murderers" (an accurate description), a new age hippie berserker, the CIA, and the friendliest eldrich abomination ever.

They were helped or gave help to a necromancer ME, a kindly faerie grandmother, a 60 foot tall faerie spider, a unicorn werewolf, the pentagon, a redneck christian cult, a plague demon working on her economics masters, the witch queen of the library of congress, native American conmen who found out to late that they actually were real shamans, an extremely goth medium, and NASA-employed space exploring faeries.

OttoVonBigby
2015-10-28, 07:38 AM
The theme, then, would be "the world is shaped by the choices and actions of people."

I like -- and have attempted with a debatable degree of success to integrate into my setting -- a somewhat misanthropic variant of this: "The world is shaped by the stupid mistakes and ambitious failures of people" ...which I feel is consistent with real-world history, thereby creating verisimilitude. Heroes can obviously transcend this...if they're lucky :smallwink:

Vrock_Summoner
2015-10-28, 10:22 AM
I like -- and have attempted with a debatable degree of success to integrate into my setting -- a somewhat misanthropic variant of this: "The world is shaped by the stupid mistakes and ambitious failures of people" ...which I feel is consistent with real-world history, thereby creating verisimilitude. Heroes can obviously transcend this...if they're lucky :smallwink:
Eh, I was just rolling that into the whole idea. Stupid mistakes and ambitious failures are just as much choices and actions that shape the world as accurate judgments and ambitious successes (though never complete, no-drawback success, because that doesn't happen). Though the former are of course the most fun, and often the most publicized. :smalltongue:

CoffeeIncluded
2015-10-28, 02:07 PM
One of the central themes in a game in running is that the world is changing, and you need to find some way to change with it or you'll be left behind. The campaign is based in a port city called Runite where there's is a very large immigrant population. And many of those immigrants are members of "evil races" like orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, and drow. In my game there aren't any racial alignments, but people in-game think there are.

The response to this immigration has been...mixed. There has been violence, and acceptance. An angry half-drow murdered several clerics of a goddess who does not particularly like the "evil races" and worsened tensions on both sides. The wealthiest people in the city are those who realize that Orc gold is as shiny as elf gold. Goblin noodle bars are popping up all over the city. The votes to grant citizenship to the "evil races" are getting closer to passing every cycle, but they're not there yet. Dwarves and drow work together to build a sewer system and both get filthy stinking rich and massively improve the city as a result. But many are still living in the slums, and there's a riot...

The world is changing. Are you going to fight it, or adapt, or be left behind?

Honest Tiefling
2015-10-28, 02:12 PM
Eh, not sure how good this is, but I like to toy with the idea of an Achille's heel for villains, especially a point of pride, or emotional attachment. How far is the party willing to use the weakness of the villain against them, even if that weakness happens to be innocent people? Would they work with such people for the betterment of said innocent people?

Another theme I often use is strife. Many campaigns are set in areas with people with different values, cultures or religions. The party either gets to use this against them, or tries to unite them.

VoxRationis
2015-10-28, 03:19 PM
The themes in my main settings tend to be the themes of history: the cycles of settlement and conquest and fall, the oppressors becoming the oppressed, the amorality of the struggle between civilizations. One campaign focuses around the players' assistance (or lack thereof) in the awakening of a queen to unite and lead her people to independence, while at the same time reinforcing that her people were just as much the conquerors and slave-takers as those they fight.

Sredni Vashtar
2015-10-28, 08:54 PM
Ultimately, I feel like it'll depend on the PC's, since they're the protagonist. Each would obviously have their own theme/moral that would apply to their personal story. Being behind the screen, I tend towards character themes for the antagonists. Rarely will I ever have a theme for a entire setting.


Stuff I like in my PC's are things like the nature of heroism, the limits of friendship/love/faith/ambition, and other Very Special Episode stuff.

HolyCouncilMagi
2015-10-28, 09:29 PM
"How much needs to be put on the line before you'll sacrifice everything else to succeed?"

This has expressed itself from the small-scale (going bankrupt from bribes to prevent an ally from losing political power) to the excessively large-scale (sacrificing the lives of literally everyone else in the entire world and forcing the demon race to remain eternally tormented and forced to do evil to save a group of friends from a fate worse than death).

Milo v3
2015-10-29, 07:41 PM
Depends on the setting. In one setting in our main setting the primary theme is consequences, but in my manahipster setting transhumanism is it's primary theme, and in my eden setting I try to have psychology be a theme.

EccentricCircle
2015-10-30, 12:13 PM
I always try to include multiple axes of conflict, all of which are hard baked into the setting so that regardless of what character choices the players make they will find some way to engage with the key issues of the setting.

What these conflicts are will depend on the ideas behind the game and setting. In my main campaign there are three main axes; Magic is illegal, The country used to be the orcish homeland until it was conquered by the elves, and polytheistic faiths and much of the oral history of the lower classes is suppressed. This means that many of the common class and race choices will tie the players straight into the setting and it's themes of oppression, revolution, underground movements and organised crime.

Another setting is all about renaissance and enlightenment themes. For this one each race has their own conflict or plot which ties into the overall themes of the campaign. The dwarves are fighting a civil war between the king and parliament, the goblins have been led to freedom by a savoir, but now question the legitimacy of his son as the next king. The humans and elves have fought countless crusades over the Holy Land, the humans believe that it is where their God cast out the pagan deities, the elves believe it is where their ancestors ascended to become Gods. Now the reincarnation of the pontiff has arisen in the elvish lands, and the cardinals who have ruled the church for the last twelve years have decided that he can't be allowed to take command. The power of the human kingdoms is waning as industrial innovations powered by magic are turning some great houses into multinational powerhouses. However the arcane science on which they were based is stolen from the Fae, who once ruled the world, and scheme to do so again.
Each of these disparate plots adds a very different thread to the story, but they all reinforce the conflict between progress and tradition, question the legitimacy of the divine right of kings and involve the rise of new movements, be they the protestant reformation which the PCs helped to trigger, or the ascendancy of an magically literate middle class over the traditional nobility.

The later example isn't as elegant as the former, but both use the same method to create a strong link between two or three key themes and the factions and conflicts that the PCs will be involved in. I've found these campaigns to be much more popular than ones where I didn't forge a strong link to a few coherent themes at the outset.

Joe the Rat
2015-11-02, 10:17 AM
I like numbers. Important ideas or elements of a setting will recur in cycles or sequences based on numbers, which then spins into story themes. Rule of Three in play? Then be on the look out for a third party in every conflict (either behind the scenes, or under the heels). Seven: Days of the week, gods of light and law, pieces of the world-key artifact, etc.

My current game has a big theme of dualities. Comedy and Tragedy, Light and Dark, Order and Chaos, Physical and Spiritual, Alpha and Omega, Conflict and Cooperation, Fate and Free Will. Everything has a counterpart - and often multiple "counterparts" based on different elements: The Clever Ruler is thematically opposed by the Foolish Ruler, and the Clever Conqueror.
One race has its themes based on sets of four, which is a hint that they aren't from this world.

steinulfr
2015-11-02, 11:59 PM
For me it really depends upon the campaign. I would get bored with telling the same story over and over again. Even if it would be fine with the players, as a GM I like to get into the story a little more, get into the background and the setting even if the players will never see it, and that means that each campaign will usually have its own distinct set of themes. Of the games I'm running now, the concepts would line out as:


What does it mean to be a person? If you can become something better than you are, but the process will change you on a fundamental level, do you prioritize improvement or staying the person you are? And having made that choice, how should you treat people who chose differently than you did?
What influence does the past have on the present? Are you responsible for the things other people did in the distant past, even if you're connected to them somehow? And if not, who is? If something is broken, but it's established a new life, should you try to return it to a better state, even though that would destroy what it's become?
How should you treat people who are evil, but who behave that way due to a system they have no control over? To what extent does culture influence personality? How can you establish peace between groups when both sides want to continue fighting, and is there a point at which peace is no longer worth the price?


In general, I would say the biggest theme in my games is that both sides have a point. In any given argument or conflict, both sides will typically have some valid points. This is also how I keep players engaged and give them agency; I'll present the question for them (usually not as obviously as this, of course), and it's up to them to decide how their characters answer it. Typically, I'm perfectly willing to run the campaign for either side, so it's completely their choice which side they pick. Or they can try and stay neutral, though that tends to be more difficult.

goto124
2015-11-03, 03:33 AM
Are you responsible for the things other people did in the distant past, even if you're connected to them somehow? And if not, who is?

Aren't the other people responsible for what they did? Since it's the distant past, you presumbly did not do anything that encouraged or helped them to do whatever you did? What does being responsible mean here? Does it matter who is 'responsible'? If there's a sufficiently big problem in your country, isn't it up to you to solve it, whether it was caused by your ancestors or a natural disaster?


If something is broken, but it's established a new life, should you try to return it to a better state, even though that would destroy what it's become?

Are the 'something's actively causing issues? What does it mean to 'return it to a better state'?

How has this particular question cropped up in your games?

steinulfr
2015-11-03, 03:59 AM
Aren't the other people responsible for what they did? Since it's the distant past, you presumbly did not do anything that encouraged or helped them to do whatever you did? What does being responsible mean here? Does it matter who is 'responsible'? If there's a sufficiently big problem in your country, isn't it up to you to solve it, whether it was caused by your ancestors or a natural disaster?

Are the 'something's actively causing issues? What does it mean to 'return it to a better state'?

How has this particular question cropped up in your games?

The basic concept of the game is that it takes place in an area that was the site of a major war several thousand years earlier. Both kingdoms involved were ruled by epic wizards, so they used magic powerful enough that it twisted the region in ways that it still hasn't recovered from. Effectively, it's the magical equivalent of radioactive fallout. Things that live in the area are mutated or otherwise unnatural, and there are all kinds of hazards left over from the war.

Shortly into the campaign, the PCs discover that the changes are actually getting worse, and if nothing is done about it it's got the potential to become apocalyptically bad. So in this case I'm using "responsible" less in the sense of "who's to blame," and more in the sense of "the mess exists, now somebody needs to take responsibility and clean it up." But a sizable proportion of the PCs are directly connected to the events that caused the problem, either by ancestry or reincarnation. So while they would probably try to fix things regardless, there is some consideration of how far removed you can be from something and still consider yourself personally responsible for it.

Later on, the PCs will have the chance to return the area to its original state, essentially undoing the damage that was done in the war. But doing so will also destroy the ecology that's built itself up in the area since then, because everything living there is to some degree dependent on the magical residue. So doing so would make the region safer, more stable, and more "normal," but would entail wiping away all the progress it's made since the war.

This campaign is still in the early stages, so the players haven't really gotten to engage with this storyline yet. I'm looking forward to seeing how they approach it.

Florian
2015-11-03, 04:38 AM
That varies a lot between the different campaigns I run.

For next year I'm already preparing a science-fantasy game (Think He-Man) based on the following themes: Seasons, the Unknown, Inevitable Doom.
Key points: The world rapidly grows colder, winter gets longer, the ice storms more furious. During summer, hordes of insectile ghouls start to swarm, growing stronger bei consumtion (think tyranids/genestealers).
The turn of the seasons dictates what's going on in the game world and influence mood and themes. Spring - Plant, build, explore, seek and secure ressources. Summer - Defend your home, pitched mass battles. Fall - Salavage whats left, gather intel on what changed. Winter - Hole up, internal politics, socialize.
The Unknown: One of those sub-FTL colony ships arrived on an actual fantasy world woth monsters, magic and all that. The ship touched down, automatic routines dismantled it and used the ship itself to build the first settlement, then the colonists were released from stasis...

Last years L5R campaign was all about honor, intrigue and being blinded by ambition.
The central goal was to rise to power without going the easy route and sacrifize it all out of convenience.
The campaign was losely based on the pre Clan War era but incorporating elements from later eras, like the shogunate, bakufu, Spider Clan and a rise by the Bloodspeaker Cult.
Here, the powers that be were all locked in internal conflict and rivalries and were unwilling or unable to react to the real danger, forcing the characters hand and pushing them into the power struggle to gain enoigh political/military cloud to stop the Cult.