An interactive story is comprised of five things: Plot, setting, characters, mechanics, and theme. Campaigns are big things and can (and should) have multiple themes, but it’s important that as many elements of plot, setting, character, and mechanics tie into one or more themes as possible. Themes are the gel that make all of it connect to all the rest. A character detached from the themes is like a character detached from the plot or the setting. If they don’t do anything in the story or don’t have an actual presence in the setting, your players have no reason to care.
We’ll get into details of how to tie plot, setting, character, and mechanics into theme, but first we need to discuss what is probably the single most useful tool you have in this endeavour: Session zero. Session zero is the session where you all get together and make characters, allowing players to make characters based on one another’s ideas and the GM’s. It’s a chance for players to get a feel for what kind of game they’re playing as well as what kind of party they’re going to be in before committing half an hour to character creation. This idea has gained a lot of popularity in roleplaying circles, and for good reason. A campaign with a session zero leads to far more coherent themes than otherwise.
People have been hearing stories their entire lives, we have developed a subconscious knack for things like theme, and while that might not be as well honed a skill as people who are famous for it, it doesn’t have to be. The reason why most RPGs are a confused mess isn’t because people are abysmal storytellers by default. Most people are reasonably okay storytellers by default, and if not, they usually get reasonably okay at it with just a little bit of practice. The reason why so many RPGs turn out as an incoherent mess is because generating each of your main characters and also the setting completely separately from one another will cut you off at the knees. Generate these things together and the single biggest stumbling block to having all the elements of your campaign gel with one another is removed. Session zero is a good idea. Use it.
Fortunately, presence in the setting or plot tends to tie characters into theme without further effort on your part, and the same is true of other elements. If characters are tied to themes, then plots concerning those characters will usually have automatic thematic relevance. Two characters who represent two different potential answers to a thematic question can both be involved in a plot and that plot is usually tied into the thematic question automatically. Digging up the Lord of the Rings example from earlier, two captains with two different ideas of how to motivate the troops (fear or conviction) can be dropped into virtually any plot where motivation by fear or conviction is relevant and that plot will become thematically relevant. It barely matters what the actual goal or opposition is. If you think dragons are cool, slay a dragon. Whatever. Just so long as people are at some point scared of the opposition and the two NPC captains argue about how best to motivate them, prompting players to give an answer to a thematic question.
Now, you’re running a spontaneous and collaborative story, which means you are not going to get a 100% success rate with tying all your other story elements to your themes, but the higher you can get that percentage, the more memorable the story will become. You want to try and avoid having an adventure that just kind of happens and doesn’t advance character arcs at all, but that is going to happen sometimes and it’s not the end of the world when it does. Don’t become so caught up in theme that you start railroading your players into interacting with it.
On a similar note, don’t get so married to your themes that you ignore the themes your players are generating organically. This won’t usually happen. Ordinarily, PCs are a random assortment of barely related character concepts whose thematic relevance is strictly limited to whatever the GM requires of them during session zero, and that’s an inevitable probability of the spontaneous and collaborative nature of RPGs, and thus something you should be prepared to work with. Be ready to impose a theme if none present themselves. However, also be paying enough attention so if a theme does present itself, you don’t smother it with the theme you prepared.
As an example, if, during session zero, you notice your party of four has two Clerics, a Paladin, and a Ranger, you might ask the group if they’d like to play as members of the same religious order. I’m intentionally using an example where it doesn’t quite mesh perfectly. The Ranger doesn’t have any immediately obvious reason to be part of a religious order, but there’s no reason why a religious order couldn’t accept members who don’t draw their power directly from the divine. Park rangers aren’t banned from being Catholic. If the players like the idea of all being part of the same religious order, you can ask them what kind, who their patron is, what their order believes is right, and what they do with those beliefs. Maybe they’re crusaders for justice, or they uphold the laws of good kings, or they try to bring relief to the suffering, or what have you. Let’s say it’s that middle one: The players decide they want to be a religious order who are all dedicated to defending the laws of good kings.
This can spawn all kinds of thematic questions to hang individual adventures on. What qualifies someone as a “good” king? If a king brings justice and prosperity to his subjects but is brutal and unforgiving to inhabitants of rival kingdoms, does he qualify as good, and is the party therefore obligated to defend him from invasion by those rivals or usurpation by someone more sympathetic to them? Is the party obligated to defend the cause of a claimant to kingship who is committed to goodness and justice, but who is not legally any kind of ruler and is in fact trying to seize the throne by force? Are they prepared to deal with the fallout that often follows a violent change in government, or is the new king they’ve installed obligated to deal with it? Do rulers who are not actually kings qualify? In the likely event that they decide that yes, their oath to protect and uphold the laws of “good kings” really just means “good rulers,” is a republic ruled by its currently elected leader or by the system for election itself? In other words, are the characters obligated to uphold the laws of a ruler they dislike, and who passes laws they dislike, so long as that ruler is upholding the laws and traditions of democracy in that republic? There’s space enough here for a campaign’s worth of adventures easily, and it’s grown out of something players came up with themselves.
The way you structure your campaign is going to inform how your players interact with it, especially in what their default response to the question of “now what?” is going to be. Some campaign structures work well with a certain theme, others work against it. For example, the hex crawl is about exploration and discovery. It’s about figuring out what’s in that hex over there and slowly filling in a map, making allies and enemies as you go. It can work quite well with the religious order example given above, as the party discovers new kingdoms with new rulers and have to make decisions about which ones they’re going to defend and which ones they’re not (a decision that doesn’t always have to be difficult – it’s fine to have a few kingdoms out in the unknown who are just clearly good and worthy of defending).
The wilderness campaign, on the other hand, is mostly about claiming territory piece by piece, either from the wilderness or from an enemy army. This kind of campaign does notwork so well with the religious order example given above. Every region of the map is stocked with a certain number of threats, and the goal is to clear those threats, thus making the regions more safe. Rather than exploration and discovery, this sort of campaign is about risk management, problem solving, and map painting. It works better with themes like the Lord of the Rings example, where the opposition is clear but the best means of dealing with it might not be.
It’s important to pick a campaign structure that meshes well with the themes of your campaign. As with all things in an RPG, this might not go according to plan. First of all, if you’re making a hex crawl, either session zero happens two months before the game actually starts or else you’ve got a hex crawl to run and you’re going to run it regardless of whatever theme ends up emerging during session zero. In this case, just try and make that theme work with the hex crawl. It might not be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. Second, sometimes themes begin to emerge organically midway through gameplay, long after you’ve established that the campaign is a hex crawl, or an intrigue, or whatever. In this case, as in the first, the best answer is usually to try and make the emerging theme work with the campaign even if it isn’t optimal. As before, do not try to railroad your party away from themes that aren’t necessarily perfect for what you planned out in advance. If your party ends up with a religious order dedicated to defending good kings and what you’ve got is a wilderness campaign in which the opposition is clearly labeled, come up with a way to make it work anyway. Maybe you end up asking questions about how far they can go to defend a kingdom from evil before that kingdom stops being something worth defending in the first place.
A lot of the thematic questions I’ve presented earlier involve posing very morally grey questions to very idealistic and unironically heroic characters. Partly this is just because moral grey is where I tend to be most comfortable and because players usually are usually extremely willing to play with moral greys as soon as they’re presented with some, even if they show up with unironically heroic characters. Certainly this advice is not any less applicable if you want an idealistic tone to your story. Lord of the Rings is a very idealistic story, and it absolutely has strong themes.
But here’s the problem: Lord of the Rings might be a very idealistic story, but Middle-Earthis a very grey setting. Faramir, presented as an unironically good hero in the books who has no desire whatsoever to mess with the Ring and potentially be corrupted by it, has no idea at all whether the Haradrim he’s killing are bad people or if they’ve just been deceived into thinking Sauron is the good guy. It doesn’t matter, because regardless of which one is true, the Haradrim are still invading Gondor and Faramir needs to stop them. That is not a Saturday morning cartoon setting.
What makes Lord of the Rings idealistic is not its setting. It’s the protagonists. Aragorn and Gandalf and especially Frodo steadfastly refuse to be corrupted by the evil that is constantly spreading throughout the land. Indeed, that is Frodo’s entire character arc (he finally buckles at the very end, but still, his entire superpower is that no one else could have held out for as long as he did). And this gets into the heart of how roleplaying games are collaborative storytelling. If you want a story of good triumphing over all the arsenal of evil, you can’t just give evil a bunch of orcs who do lots of pillaging and expect to get Lord of the Rings out of it. You need to confront your heroes with real, genuine temptation, to actually test their convictions, and have them resist the temptation and pass the test. In the context of a TTRPG, you need to confront your party with the cost of doing good, and they need to make the choice to pay that cost anyway, and you need to be ready to accept that some players (a surprisingly large majority, considering that the costs being paid are purely fictitious) will refuse to pay that cost. Collaborative storytelling means that you have to be ready to roll with it when your players make those kinds of decisions, rather than trying to remove agency from them by making the choice you want them to make the only way forward, or blatantly superior to alternatives. If the bad guys unequivocally want to destroy your heroes, so any kind of backing down from the fight wouldn’t just be unheroic, it would also be blatantly self-destructive, that’s not Lord of the Rings. That’s a filler episode of GI Joe.
There’s more to Superman than punching Lex Luthor with a non-lethal but still cathartic amount of force. Some of the best Superman stories out there are the ones where he talks a jumper out of suicide. Those stories can only happen in a setting where people throw themselves off of buildings.