Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Themes in Your Game Part 2: Using Elements

The first part of this series is HERE.

Today I want to talk about using elements to generate themes. Two major encounter types move RPG sessions: combat and role-playing. These encounters are used to great effect to push forward themes in several modules. Today, I will spotlight two: X1, Isle of Dread; and I6, Ravenloft.

Combat: X1: Isle of Dread is an easy module to use an example of. It constantly reinforces the theme odyssey (a journey to a fantastic place, far different from home).
The encounter tables for X1 are full of creatures that one would not expect in a medieval setting. Table 3, specifically, shows the odyssey theme. Let's take a look: allosaurus, ankylosaurus, brontosaurus, dimetrodon, pleisosaurus, pteranodon, stegosaurus, trachodon, triceratops, tyrannosaurus rex are all listed on this table. 10 of 22 encounters are dinosaurs, or at least prehistoric. Further dissemination of the chart shows 3 dragons (black, green and red). There are a few "mundane" encounters that one would expect in a typical medieval setting as well: giants (hill and stone), wyverns and zombies. To round out the chart there are treants, hydras, and rocs. Two of these, treants and hydras, may be considered "normal" monsters depending on your campaign. Rocs are a huge bird, which would make no ecological sense near a human settlement. As you can see from this wandering monster table, X1 does an excellent job of reinforcing the odyssey theme.
Keyed encounters also reinforce the theme. Area 12, Neanderthal Lair; Area 17, Dimetrodon Peril; and Area 24, The Sea Dragon all show the journey from normalicy to elsewhere.
As X1 is a sandbox, there is no true end point of the module. But, as noted here, it is easy to see how the theme of odyssey is reinforced time and again through the combat encounters.

Role-Playing: I6: Ravenloft is a great example of themes through role-playing. Unlike combat, the role-playing encounter type is very DM influenced. The theme of isolation is deep within the DM's mind well before actual play starts. With the "Fortunes of Ravenloft" card reading, isolation is cemented in the DM's mind.
For those of you unfamiliar with the "Fortunes" in I6, I will give a brief explanation. Using a deck of cards, particular details of the adventure are laid out. The first card gives a location of the item that players seek. The second gives modifiers to the PCs inside of Ravenloft, and the third details Strahd's goals. The possible goals are: Strahd seeks a new identity, Strahd wants to make a magical sphere of darkness, Strahd wants to win the love of Ireena Kolyana, and Strahd wants the Sunsword. Each of these reinforces isolation well before play begins.
As the game plays out, several role-playing encounters reinforce isolation. The very first encounter reads partly: "Suddenly, a hush falls over the tavern. Even the flagons of ale seem to silence themselves. The tavern door swings open. Framed by a lamp-lit fog, a form strides into the room. His heavy, booted footfalls and the jingle of his coins shatter the silence." Tracy and Laura Hickman do a great job making even the tavern scene have an air of isolation.
Another description in "Blood of the Vine" Tavern reinforces the theme. "Mindlessly, Arik cleans glasses, one after the other. Then they are all clean, he starts over." This passage gives the image of someone daydreaming, alone, even in a room full of people. The direction given by Hickman reinforces the Role Playing of isolation: "If spoken to, he takes orders for drinks in a dull, hollow voice. After serving drinks he returns to cleaning glasses. Arik ignores all questions."
Mad Mary's daughter's disappearance is another reinforcement. The burgomeister (dead, and not buried because people refuse to come near) and Ireena (The townspeople are afraid of her and avoid her) are more examples. The Church, Madam Eva, and The Carriage, all follow the theme. These types of descriptions appear again and again in Barovia. The module oozes isolation in every role-playing encounter.

Both of the modules above use their themes very well to immerse the players in a world far different from their own. In the next part of the series, Ian and I will be discussing how to use traps and puzzles within a theme.


Dinosaur image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mapusaurus_Rosae.jpg (see license on that page)
Bat image from public domain

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Themes in your game Part 1: Overview

Hi, everyone. Rocky here. I mention themes often when talking about running RPGs. Today, I will take some time to explain what I mean and why they are important to the game.

First, I should define "themes." The second definition from Dictionary.com states it well: "a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art." A unifying idea is powerful when playing role-playing games. It makes the story more immersive and action stronger.

Sometimes themes find themselves without direction from the GM. I mention isolation and loneliness a lot as common themes. These themes often come to the forefront when playing in a megadungeon or far from civilization. The GM doesn't have to do much other than separate the group from civilization.

Other times, the GM will want to interweave a theme into the game. Most themes need a push to find their way into a game. For example, Lost Love is a common theme in literature. Without having love interests and threads written out, the theme cannot be touched in the game.

Here is a list of themes that I use in games, with a well known module as an example:

Isolation/Loneliness: As I have mentioned, this theme lives on its own within most games.
     Module: Ravenloft
Odyssey: A journey to a fantastic place, searching for wealth/power/fame.
     Module: Isle of Dread
Weirdness/Gonzo: The world is different away from home.
     Module: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
Seasons/Time: Time moves forward, and things can never be the same.
     Module: Ravager of Time
Discord: Enemies want to destroy what the goodly people have, usually through subversion.
     Module: The Village of Hommlet
Good vs Evil: This theme is self-explanatory and can be seen time and again.
     Module: Keep on the Borderlands

Often, themes become entangled. Some modules mash two or more themes together. EX1 Dungeonland, and EX2 the Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, in particular use several themes to great effect. Odyssey, Gonzo, and Isolation can all be seen as themes running through those modules.

Most megadungeons, including Mord Mar, use themes. For example, hatred is a theme that runs through the "To the Citadel" series. Specifically, hatred for the goblins from Var Nae drives the module forward. Other levels have different themes. The Gravid Mother's level uses the themes of disgust and helplessness.

As I continue through this series, we will look at examples of how traps and puzzles highlight themes. We will discuss how monster choice can reinforce themes. We will talk about the environment pushing themes. Look for the next blog sometime after GaryCon!

Rat vs Knight: (C)2006 Bradley K McDevitt
Treant Aritst: Jae Young

Friday, March 2, 2018

Types of Word Puzzles

by Ian McGarty

In my games I use several different types of language based puzzles. They are all the classics you have probably seen before and enjoyed:
1. Ciphers: like the classic Roman Cipher. One letter represents another. These are often simple letter shifts along a wheel (all letters shift three; A=D, etc).

2. Codes: these are a method of encrypting and decrypting messages which requires you to somehow give the key to the players. These can be quite fun and I have used letters and journal pages I've written and given the players as handouts. They've later found evidence and a codebook which allows them to discover messages. I loved the Chained Coffin code that was done. The physical code wheel was an awesome piece to be created for a module. Michael Curtis and Harley Stroh made an amazingly cool and interactive puzzle for that Goodman Games release. They also touch on the tangible element; all players love to physically interact with the game.

3. Riddles: a favorite for all of us who first became enamored with fantasy through Tolkien's work. The problem with many of these is that we've mostly seen them. I create new ones at times. I do this by thinking of a target that matches a theme that I am targeting for the adventure or room (yes, Rocky's beloved themes come into play here!)

4. Unknown language: I often will create a language based on the pieces and manner in which a suitably non-IndoEuropean language. For example, I have used Nepali, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Yaqui, Hausa, and Algonquin language morphology (those little movable pieces of words) to create 'new' languages and words. The trick to creating these is to 'label' an item or piece of the phrase for the players. I will demonstrate one of these in a future post if people are interested.

These are the different types of language based puzzles I regularly use in my games. When using these puzzles, it is important to create a method of assisting the players when they get stuck. I often say that a puzzle is easy if you already know the answer. It is important to make sure that players aren't stuck for too long. Add hints, look at character sheets for excuses to give clues. If the system you're using has a skill mechanic, then utilize to give a bit more info. If a puzzle is taking more than 10 minutes, your players need help! Make it easier! Give them a hint. In future posts, I will cover a few of these types of puzzles and provide a workable example you could drop into your game.

Art copyright Patrick E. Pullen