Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Theme’.
Working in software as a product manager, it’s easy to get stuck in thinking about features and improvements all day, every day. But I see my role also as strategic — every so often, you have to ask yourself what it is you want to achieve with your software. Having this as a clear mission statement in one or two sentences will also help you decide what to do too. If you’re making software for a managing finances, you probably need an export module to Excel — but you probably don’t need a module that renders objects in a 3D space.
A clarity of purpose gives you clarity of direction.
It’s the same with theme for RPGs. A theme (in the literary sense) acts as a vision of the kinds of narrative you want the game to produce. From there, you can create mechanics and settings that support the kind of gameplay that you’re aiming for — and you can also decide what you don’t need mechanics for. If you want an intensely social game with lots of wheeling and dealing, then you probably don’t need mechanics for fire-fights. But you will need mechanics for social standing and applying your influence.
Every game has a theme. But for some games, the theme is implicit — maybe the makers even never bothered to explicitly state their theme to themselves. Sometimes these rulesets are muddled with all kinds of special rules for situations that might or might not come up. Contrast that with the ‘mission statement’ from Blades in the Dark: “We play to find out if the fledgling crew can thrive amidst the teeming threats of rival gangs, powerful noble families, vengeful ghosts, the Bluecoats of the City Watch, and the siren song of the scoundrels’ own vices.” This gives us a direction, and informs the kinds of mechanics we can expect from the game.
As a player, games with explicit themes are much easier to play, because you know in advance what is expected of you.