Thematic Assumptions

I’ve been thinking about this post for some time now – not so much the words, but the message I want to convey. I have, in my head, an outline of what this post will be about, the points I want to touch on, and the ideas that I hope readers take away from it. In other words, I have the ‘meta-plot’ of the post and some thematic assumptions about the delivery.

Which is what this post is really all about: the meta-plot of the Legend of the Three Pillars, and the thematic assumptions I have made about campaign delivery. I wanted to post these because, at this point in my GM career, I want to get player buy-in before I devote time and effort to a project. Since I am fairly sure that most of the readers will be the Monday Nighters – this post is aimed squarely at you guys.

Themes & Assumptions:

It has been said that every GM tries to create the game that they wish they were playing. That is almost certainly the case here. The thematic elements, the mechanical systems used, the overarching story (such as it is) are all parts of a game world I would love to be a player in. Anyone who has been paying attention for the last (nearly) twenty years will probably notice a few things that tend to make it into any game I create – mostly because I think they are cool or fun. However, I am keeping two caveats in mind as I work at this project: Player buy-in is Important (notice the capital), and that I want to try New Things as I run a campaign.

Player buy-in is the main reason I maintain this blog – it is a chance for interested parties to see what I am working on and provide feedback about what they like and what they don’t like. Player buy-in is what I am keeping in mind as I write this post.

So what are the thematic assumptions that I am working with?

Number One: The world is a scary, dark place. Anywhere more than a day’s walk from the town walls is likely to be infested with bandits, monsters or Evil Wizards. Towns, cities and fortified trading posts form a bulwark against an encroaching darkness that threatens to engulf the world. This, hopefully, ties into the setting’s meta-plot which I will discuss further down.

Number Two: Magic is dark and scary. The ordinary folk that make up the majority of the world’s population are incapable of wielding magic and are thus fearful of it. A sorcerer, Order mage or Elven Wilder is a force in the world – both feared and revered for their power. Magic is powered by otherworldly entities and the price of failure or of overreaching one’s limits is high. This is reflected both in the meta-plot and the setting’s background. It should be noted that magic is prevalent – it imbues all things to one degree or another – and this may invoke themes of helplessness in ordinary people, as their entire world – everything they know, everyone they love, every dream they strive towards – is ultimately at the mercy of mysterious and powerful forces that they can neither comprehend or control.

Number Three: The Player-Characters are of a heroic caliber. They are capable of venturing into dark, scary places and prevailing. They can oppose , or wield, dark and scary magics. They are in control of their destiny in a way that ordinary people are not. Obviously this is reflected in the mechanics I am using for the setting, whereby a PC has access to Heroic Feats and so forth, but should also be reflected in the types of stories that get told. I am aiming for heroic fantasy – not  gritty “fantasy-realism”. While the characters need not be a group of do-gooders who strive to rid the world of evil they should be larger than life.

Number Four: Adventurers are rare. The PCs are a rare breed not just for their abilities but because they are willing and able to venture forth and sieze fate by the throat. They are certainly not the most powerful individuals in the world but they do not suffer the limitations of others. The Swordmasters of the southern Satrapys, for example, are legendary for their skill at arms and many would be more than a match for a starting character, but they are bound by honour and tradition to defend their homes and families. The Eternal Guard of the Congregation is comprised of the deadliest fighters and Order mages in the Empire, but they are bound by oaths to defend the Order temples of the Empire. Stunningly powerful dwarven shamen tend to the needs of their Steads rather than travel the countryside looking for monsters to slay and ruins to explore. This has three effects. Firstly it ties in with the ‘points of light’ style first assumption in that powerful individuals exist who can and do defend civilisation from Bad Things. Secondly it frees one from having to rationalise why an Elven ruin two days journey from a town has not already been plundered by hordes of ravening ‘1st Level’ adventurers – simply put – it is because they don’t exist. Lastly, the players are free to play their characters in a heroic manner without being constantly overshadowed by some NPC. They are not little fish in a pond of sharks (*cough cough* Vampire *cough cough*), they are the sharks.

Number Five: Epic is a state of mind. If my players want to embark on a world spanning quest to unravel an ancient prophecy that holds the key to halting the spread of Darkness and Evil then the setting should be big enough to allow that. If they want to be small-time pirates and raid the Carathan coast, spending all of their loot on Ale & Whores, then that should be exciting too. If they want to plunder ancient ruins for a chance at fame and glory then that, too, can be turned into an epic undertaking. The key here is in the communal storytelling – this is a world of high adventure and savagery where any story is a saga worthy of the title “epic”.


What is a meta-plot? When I use the term I define it as the plot elements that are affecting the world at large. It is the over-reaching story (and I use the term loosely) that has some influence over all the other stories that will be told in the campaign.  In my last Vampire: the Dark Ages chronicle the meta-plot revolved around a complicated and ancient heresy and all of my story elements were placed to work towards involving the characters  in that heresy.

There is a tendency in my campaigns for the plot itself to become the meta-plot but I am trying New Things, remember? Because I am trying to craft a setting for my players to explore and develop, rather than a campaign centered around a particular story, I need a meta-plot that helps define the world but does not limit the stories we can tell.

The Legend of the Three Pillars is about balance – or lack thereof. It is about a world on the verge of self-destruction but unaware why. The nature of the Three Pillars is key to this. The symbolism is borrowed from White Wolf’s World of Darkness setting and shares thematic similarities with Mage: the Ascension but with some important (I think) differences. The Pillars are both natural forces and thematic elements – they have no “will”, no active forces campaigning on their behalf. The meta-plot is not about a war between Order and Chaos, for example, it is about what happens when Order, Chaos, and Creation ( Weaver, Wyrm and Wyld for the WoD people) are so badly out of balance that the world suffers.

This should be reflected most obviously in the background & setting material for the world, but should also colour everything that the characters encounter as they journey through the world.

Phew – long post.

~ by occam99 on July 12, 2011.

4 Responses to “Thematic Assumptions”

  1. Phew – long read.

    As a former Monday Nighter, I can’t remember the last time we did not buy in to your campaigns.
    We all know how much effort you put into your worlds, and much of it does not come to light during gameplay.
    Hope you get the gratification from this that you are after. I know the boys appreciate what you do.
    I’ll be looking for a cameo apperance next time I’m in town.

    Take care

  2. Thanks for the comments. Warm fuzzies and all that.

    “Buy-In” by players is, I think, more than just, “Oh hey, this is a cool campaign we’re playing”. I’d like to give everyone a chance to get in on the ground floor and ask if an idea they have will fit, or tell me about something they don’t like before we start.

    A shared experience, I guess. Something more than the usual, “This is the GM’s world and if you don’t like it I can teach you to suck eggs”.

  3. Great post. I agree with everything you say. This is what I look for in my (roleplaying) stories. I have always loved the epic hero ever since reading the LOR more years ago than I care to remember…

    My problem (as a GM) has always been my ability to communicate my story to the “players”. Invariable with any group of people you get a broad cross section of personalities and abilities. You have your leaders and followers, the jokers and dreamers, the rule lawyers and the slow learners. Then you have the problem of keeping the stories momentum going when you only visit it once a week. I have often thought that, if I had the time and talent, I would convert what was happening in the roleplaying session into a story. I could post it so that the players could all read about their own exploits, but also it would be a useful tool to keep all the players up to date with what was actually happening just in case they were away that session or missed some important event during the actual session. It would also be a useful tool to highlight the subtleties in the story line or links back to pervious events or world history that tend to get overlooked during the actual session. Finally I think that this would also help add to the excitement of the game, the whole experience would become bigger than some fun we have on a Monday night…
    Cheers D

  4. The first GM of what would become the Monday Nighters, Barry, kept a storybook/diary of one of our campaigns. I remember it being one of the highlights of game night for me.

    Keep an eye open for a blog post on this subject, I think.

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