Days of High Adventure
A Key Tip to Creating a Memorable Tabletop RPG Campaign

CJ Miozzi | 1 Sep 2014 20:00
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Define your tabletop RPG campaign in one word.

Go ahead; I'll wait.

If an answer came to mind immediately, odds are that word encompasses one of the major themes of your story. If nothing came to mind, fret not - you maybe just haven't thought about your campaign this way before. But we'll get you thinking that way, because when you're designing encounters and developing your story with a central theme in the back of your mind, your campaign will gain something that will help solidify it in the memories of players for years to come: cohesion.

Human beings like patterns. Subconsciously, we look for patterns everywhere - it is our mind's way of trying to bring order to chaos. Think of all the superstitions players have about dice rolls, when the reality is that random is just random. A theme is a pattern in a story, and perhaps without even realizing it, players will anchor themselves to themes in a manner similar to how you may find yourself tapping your foot in beat to a rhythm.

Almost every memory trick in the book somehow revolves around patterns. Patterns help us remember. Random stimuli is difficult to follow and recall, and can often also be unpleasant. We've all seen some high-octane action movie that is jam-packed with random fighting sequences that may all be very cool, but when we think back, we have difficulty remembering much about the film as a whole.

Similarly, a campaign can easily become a jumbled mess of encounters in a player's mind. Years later, fond memories of that time Hektor bullrushed the lich into a pit trap may come up at the game table, but once the smiles have faded, furrowed brows may follow, along with the question: "What was that campaign about, again?"

While there's nothing wrong with that - the point of a game is simply to have fun, after all - you can deliver an even greater experience by adding themes to your story.

How to add a theme

How does one add a theme? We'll take, for example, one of my campaigns, in which a central theme was war. A backdrop to the campaign's story was a war happening between two kingdoms - a major event with global consequences. The player characters were assembled as a special task force for an organization, sent on secret missions which they eventually learned were in an effort to put an end to the war.

"What was that campaign about, again?"

Without the characters ever directly participating in the war or even seeing it take place, war was a pervasive theme throughout the campaign. How?

While traveling through the kingdom that had the upper hand, the players would hear grumblings about tax hikes to support the war effort and concerns about the next conscription wave. While traveling through the rival kingdom, they would see the famine and poverty that was bringing the nation to its knees as it poured all its resources into the war. While traveling through a faraway kingdom, they would hear gossip and rumors about the war in taverns, and merchants would lament about closed trade routes and difficulties importing goods.

The war was omnipresent. The clashing of armies never took center stage, but the effects of the war could be seen, lending background flavor to the setting. Show the effects of your theme on the world: if it's greed, focus on the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor; if it's heroism, highlight the bards singing songs of heroes and the hope it brings to those gathered; if it's magic, highlight the way different groups of people react to magic and the ways it helps or hinders society.

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