- How I develop Theme and setting for my campaigns
- The process of generating ideas
The emphasis of different game systems may vary here a lot (from not important at all to a core concept with an own chapter in the core rules), but having a unifying theme really helps bring all your world elements together. This also sets the general mood the game will be played in, and gives your players some kind of status quo from which to diverge.
Imagine, for example, a gloomy and foggy harbor city in a medieval fantasy world, where vampires hunt the streets, a corrupt city council forbids magic and alchemy, pirates and thieves control the inflow of goods and a dangerous, sea-demon worshipping cult jeopardizes what’s left of everyone’s health and sanity. This is the location where my longest-running game, an ongoing campaign of DSA („Das Schwarze Auge“ – The Dark Eye in the English version), is set. It draws a picture of a dark, menacing city on the edge of destruction. Most interactions are colored by this despair and mistrust, making the PCs – although not a beacon of heroism themselves – shining examples of morality, contrasted to the dark setting.
You can easily select one (or even two contrasting) theme(s) to juxtapose elements of the setting and your players‘ characters. This will make most of the setting much more interesting, because it actually adds a genre to the game. Your players will feel so much more like in a collaborative emerging movie inside their heads when they can interpret their surroundings.
Of course, you are in no way bound to the direction a theme implies. But having a strong base theme will help you have things stand out or surprise your players. After all, the theme you chose can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Take, for example, the theme of Decay (sorry for choosing another dark one). Have your players encounter destroyed houses and farms, a golden and decorated castle of decadent and high-handed aristocrats and a slow disease spread by a pestilence dragon – but let them also discover the stubborn and cruel religion that starts to crumble as people seek more practical ways to save their bodies and souls. Have them talk to the evil sorceress whose power declines due to more and more of her minions‘ plague-deaths, and who starts to turn away from her dark goddess for not protecting her. And of course, contrast all this with the altruistic doctor spending all her time developing a cure for the disease, with the elderly couple that runs an orphanage in a run-down church – and with the terrible fate of the good-natured dragon that fled to his remote mountain recluse to save everyone from the terrible pestilence curse he was once maledicted with.
Examples for Themes
(Please keep in mind that games might come across as a pinch too harmonic if everything is colored with a positive flavor. Although I have never tried a conflict-low game of exploring and familiarizing (that sounds actually pretty nice, now that I think about it), I would suggest to contrast the themes or make them the ultimate goal and drive rather then the essence of everything.)
- Love and Family
- Bonding and Friendship
- Finding one’s Place
- Coping with a Difficult Situation
- Routine and Mechanity (yes, I just made that word up)
- Terror and Angst
- Mistrust and Suspicion
I know, I tend to mix up theme and mood a lot, but that is because I don’t feel I need a real distinction between them in my games. If you want to handle this differently, please feel free to do so. To me, theme is simply the applied translation to the mood intended.
This is a rather small part of the actual work. You have probably picked a game world already (if you haven’t, do it now). Probably you also have decided to make your own game world.
Now you have to pick a setting inside that game world. Decide for a town or city, a patch of land, a dungeon complex, a stronghold, a country or whatever is to your liking. This is the location where the campaign will be set. Make the scope of it depending on what your game demands – a game about interstellar travel would probably require you to design a small galaxy (with a much lower story density or modular Entities that you can fit wherever needed of course), while a game where the PCs are children living with their parents would probably allow for no more travel than a city and its outskirts (or even just their neighborhood).
Once you picked the setting and theme, you can start bringing things together.
Now comes the fun part. Start jotting down all ideas you have about your setting, all plot elements you would like to see, every cool or remarkable idea you came across while reading the rules book, and so on. Go ahead and Pinterest a bit in the periphery of your genre and setting or skim books of the chosen game line. Whenever you find something interesting, write it down. You can do this as long as you want, but once your list contains around 20-30 entries you have definitely enough material to work from.
As I am rather the digital type of person (not literally, though), my brainstormings are Google Doc lists with different headlines like „locations“, „people“, „events“ etc. where I enter all my ideas (plus additional space for ideas that won’t fit any of the categories). From there, I can easily strike out entries that have found their way into my game, so that I both know how much raw material is left, and to easily distinguish between used ideas and those I can use later on to add-in to my game.