How I Incorporated Theme Into My Sandbox Game

In my favorite RPG’s, the game master determines only the context of the game (setting) and the conflicts/obstacles the characters will face. The players determine who the characters are and what they do. The Game Master and the mechanisms of the game determine in different measures depending on the game, determine outcomes.

These are my definitions. You may disagree with them. I include them so you know where I’m camped.

Theme: The central idea, topic of a story. Often described as the thesis or “moral of the story.”

Motif: A symbolic image or idea that appears frequently

Story: A narrative describing a series of events and the people involved in those events. Characters in a situation making choices. The storyteller determines who the characters are, what conflicts they face and the decisions, the outcome of those decisions.

Role-playing game: A game in which characters whose actions and decisions are dictated by players and determined to succeed or fail by means of game mechanisms or the adjudication of a game master.

Sand Box: An open world game setting where in player characters can go where they want and do what the want as long as this conforms to the constraints of the game rules and the game master’s setting.

Many texts on the craft of creating stories will state that “theme” is what determines everything about any good story. The protagonist is the vessel that carries the theme. The antagonist creates the conflict that the protagonist has to overcome. The antagonist will generally be the flip side of the theme. If the characters were to have debate about the theme, the protagonist would be for it and the antagonist against it.

In Star Wars, Luke is the embodiment of one of the main themes; Humanity, intuition, empathy, heroic sacrifice and collaboration can overcome technology and tyranny. The villain, Darth Vader, is the embodiment of the counter side of the theme. Technology and tyranny will dominate and control humanity.

The motifs expressed throughout the story enhance the emotional impact of the theme. In Star Wars, the motifs tied to the villain are mechanical, imposing and intimidating. They dominate the frame. Darth Vader is “more machine than man”. He speaks with a synthesized voice. He sounds like an iron lung when he breathes. He has flashing read outs and buttons on his costume. To most effectively communicate the theme, the villain had to be a domineering mechanical man.

At the heart of theme is a question. The theme is the story teller’s answer to the question.

Does true love always win? Princess Bride

Can someone who has made a lot of bad choices be redeemed? Rocky

What is more important money or people? Wall Street

A story teller gets to determine the characters and their actions. By carefully crafting the characters and having the characters make specific decisions, the story teller expresses the theme of the story. The story teller is, through the medium of the story, telling you the audience that in this situation, “And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva.”

In the games I like to play…

The game master can influence the theme but the players have the final say.

I do not control or attempt to control the actions of the player characters in the game. If the player characters are the protagonists of their own story and I have no control over what the characters attempt, only the adjutication of the outcome, then how do they become the embodiment of the theme?

The game master has complete control over motif. The recurring images, objects, and symbols in the game influence the emotional content of the game without dictating to the players what their characters do. If you are running Call of Cthulu the Keeper exposes the player characters to creepy books bound with human flesh in secret libraries, eldritch horrors and forbidden knowledge. Each of these is a motif attached to the theme of “the cosmos does not give a fuck about humanity and wants to eat us.” CoC is a good example of how a game designer or game master can influence the theme of the game. It is by creating a setting and adversaries for the player characters which give them the opportunity to embody the theme.

One of the intentions I had with my current Swords and Wizardry campaign, was for there to be a theme. It was never a thing I had done intentionally. The theme I chose was a quote from the poet Joseph Brodsky, “Life—the way it really is—is a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.” In matters of power, politics and wealth; I’m a cynic. What can I say?

For those who haven’t been reading my game reports, I feel our game has achieved that theme. The PC’s are not entirely heroes. They’ve killed monsters. They’ve protected the weak and helpless. They’ve robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. They’ve also caused a whole lot of murder and mayhem. They’ve started wars. Burned cities. Assassinated important rulers and leaders. Reassembled an artifact made by the Chaos Demon/God of Untimely Death. Sacrificed kings and aristocrats to the dark gods of Chaos.

How did I entice the players to be the “bad” in my theme? I made nearly all of the high level NPC’s real assholes. As bad as the PC’s have been, the NPCs have been worse. Examples: A misanthropic great druid depopulating the borderlands with war and famine. A wizard who enjoyed torturing disrespectful peasants with fire magic and alchemical creations. A vivimancer who was trying to “perfect” humanity; Dr. Mengele style.

Their current adversary, and the last one of this campaign, is a demi-god who conquered half a continent. He has decided that he wants to conquer the other half and eventually the world. He is a despotic tyrant with the power to back it up. He is a true manifestation of the most negative side of the theme. The worst of the worst.

Throughout the campaign, the Kompanions of Kalador have allied with “the worse” in order to defeat “the worser” and then circled back to kill their erstwhile allies. Tactically and strategically, these were good moves. It would have been near impossible for their characters to destroy some of those foes without assistance. Not all the NPC’s were aligned with Chaos or “evil” some were just ego driven or ideologically driven and sometimes had goals that were at odds with the PC’s in the given moment. I felt it was important to offer the players choices that went the other way but were less beneficial or even detrimental to their short term goals.

Motif was a powerful tool in this campaign. Chaos kept showing up in the form of magic items, demons/gods offering their assistance (for a price), images on temple walls, odd events and portents were some of the ideas that repeated throughout the campaign. I made Chaos aligned artifacts and magic items more obvious and easier to acquire. The decision to hang on to certain magic items also nudged them in the direction of “the bad.”

The players could have decided to be totally heroic throughout the campaign. Which would have shifted the theme to, “good eventually overcomes evil” or more likely “the long defeat” theme found in The Lord of the Rings. As PC’s they would have had a far more difficult time doing the right thing, the uncompromisingly heroic choice comes with hardship. There probably would have been far more character fatalities if they made those choices.

I was willing to accept the heroic theme if the players chose it. The players have the final say in that. It so happens that they didn’t. They could have if the players were in the mood to play purely heroic characters instead of the cynical mercenaries that the Kompanions of Kalador became. I had no idea what they would decide going into it. That’s one of the great pleasures of this game, for me. I just set a situation in front of the players and let them do with it what they will. The outcome was a mystery until it actually happened in play.

In the sandbox style of game, creating NPC’s who are the negative embodiment of the theme you want to achieve can encourage players to intuitively become the positive embodiment of the theme. By including items, locations, and events as recurring motifs will help to drive the game toward that theme.

As game master, you can’t always hit the thematic note you are hoping for. There are other players at the table who have a say in that. What they decide ultimately determines what the theme will be. Their characters are the manifestation of that theme.

4 thoughts on “How I Incorporated Theme Into My Sandbox Game

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