When discussing any other form of storytelling, the concept of utilizing and building theme will eventually come up. It doesn’t matter if the medium is a novel, a film, a television series, even a comic book or a song. The people having the discussion might be writers, readers, critics, or academics. Opinions will be exchanged about what the deeper meaning of the story is, and what the author of the piece was trying to say.
For some reason, in over 30 years in the tabletop roleplaying hobby, I’ve never had a conversation about theme. Not with players, and curiously not with gamemasters, either. There’s always talk about character development, worldbuilding, and even plot, other elements common to most storytelling. Even when talking to other game designers, theme only even comes up in relation to the game-related fiction they’re writing.
The argument against theme, or at least the explanation as to why no one seems to worry about the lack of theme discussion, is that roleplaying games are “just entertainment”. It’s not art, or isn’t intended to be art, it’s only something meant to be fun. That’s awfully dismissive. People are free to play games any way they want. That’s the joy of the hobby. But that attitude precludes the possibility that some people do see roleplaying as an art form, as just another medium for storytelling. It also ignores the fact that a huge swath of the written word throughout history was created purely for entertainment — and most of those works, even the superficial ones, usually have a theme that is the core of what makes them entertaining.
Yes, roleplaying games are different in structure. The needs of the story, the people telling the story, and the audience are unique. They’re still stories. Embracing theme is a relatively easy way to make those stories better. It’s infinitely more interesting when the character kills the monster, steals the treasure, and levels up for some actual purpose — just look as nearly any fantasy novel or movie. Punching supervillains and overthrowing galactic overlords is a lot more fun when there’s some emotional connection to be made, something that people can relate to beyond the fight scenes and explosions.
That’s why I wrote Building Theme.
My hope is that you’ll enjoy this book for what it is. Like any other roleplaying game supplement, you can cherry-pick the bits that work for you. Incorporate them into your adventures and campaigns, and ignore the bits that aren’t your style. The objective is to help you create better engagement with your players. Tell better stories. Your games will ultimately be more enjoyable on as many levels as possible.