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RPG» Forums » General Discussion » RPG Design

Subject: Underutilized Themes rss

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Desi Mims
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When designing or playing RPGs, what themes do you feel aren't being given enough attention? This can be genre, emotional content, or whatever.

Personally, I feel that it's a real challenge to move away from adventure party tropes, both as a writer and a GM. It makes it easier for passive players to tag along and makes it easier to deal with players entering or leaving the game between sessions, but it leaves a lot of themes harder to get into. I'll also say that it's difficult to get players interested in a game that strays from those approaches. There are of course some amazing exceptions to that general tendency, especially in the really small-scale indie game world, but even there I keep looking for possible blind spots.

Some things I'd like to see more, both in game writing and in game play:

Mourning
Futility
Trauma
Weather, esp. snow and winter survival
Surrealism
Geology
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D351 wrote:
When designing or playing RPGs, what themes do you feel aren't being given enough attention? This can be genre, emotional content, or whatever.


What do you consider "enough" attention?

D351 wrote:
Personally, I feel that it's a real challenge to move away from adventure party tropes, both as a writer and a GM.


You say that like it's a bad thing? Why would an adventuring role playing game want to move away from adventuring tropes?

D351 wrote:

Mourning
Futility
Trauma


Who the heck would want to play these? Mourning will come if you make the loss mean something. See John Wick's articles on 'playing dirty'.

Isn't the entire "Call of Cthulhu" RPG based on futility?

Physical trauma happens all the time in RPG's, but are you talking about psychological trauma? Again, see "Call of Cthulhu" and again see WHY?

I don't see many action-adventure movies that have these things in them. Why would I want to play it?

D351 wrote:
Weather, esp. snow and winter survival
That's just bad GMin.

D351 wrote:
Surrealism
Not only 'Why?' but HOW?! And who would want to?

D351 wrote:
Geology
Yeah, you go ahead with that. Again, easily fixed by competent GMing but without more details it seems like a pretty boring game.

I think you may be trying to get something out of RPG's that they weren't really designed to do.

You might want to look into Storytelling games that explore these types of things all the time.
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The first three are touched somewhat by the excellent Night Witches by Jason Morningstar (I see you have a The Warren icon!). It's a game about a regiment of Russian female pilots who fought against the Nazis in World War II.

Dialect by Thorny Games (Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu) explores futility, in the sense that from the start of the story (only one-shots, though) all characters will die. It's a game about language and small communities, and how the communities and the language die.

Another fantastic game (and I can say I have played this one!) that touches on unpopular themes is Ribbon Drive by Avery Alder, a game about road trips and letting go of the past and future, to live in the present. Again only for one-shots.

Yet another cool game with unusual themes is KidWorld by Vajra Enterprises, which is a kind of "Lord of the Flies, the RPG". It explores morality, especially in kids, and the idea of whether people are evil and become good through socialisation, or if they are inherently good, and become evil through experiences and such.

Maybe less unusual, Sorcerer by Ron Edwards is a game about ambition and pride. The stories told with it are meant to answer the question "What would you sacrifice to get what you want?", which I think it's pretty interesting.

Finally, I have made a game about civil rights activists (see the other thread in this forum, it's called "Deeds, not Words"). I guess you could say that the game is about cooperation and balance, which aren't such unusual themes, but the setting and the backdrop make it pretty unique, I think.
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Desi Mims
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cauldronofevil wrote:
I think you may be trying to get something out of RPG's that they weren't really designed to do.


That's rather the point, to design RPGs in new and interesting ways. I'm specifically looking for things that they *aren't* designed to do. The intention is to explore new approaches to this style of gaming, not to say that games as they currently exist are in some way bad for not having these concepts in them. As for your specific questions about my suggestions... The ones in which you cite Call of Cthulhu, it's a game that includes much of this as little more than background noise, not to be looked at closely but to set atmosphere. It's also one of my favorite games. Ran well and with the right group, it can certainly do trauma (and I did mean psychological), but few games really seem to explore trauma with any depth.

I don't know that I really understand your problem with weather, which can be used well (though often with very little mechanics for it) in some horror settings but which could be a bigger influence in games of isolation and survival. I once ran a very tense game of End of the World in which attempting to survive a supernaturally powerful winter storm was a major plot point.

As for geology and surrealism, I'm not sure how these would be incorporated into RPG. That's part of why I like them as ideas. They would be challenging to use.

As for "who would want to play it", I would. Trying new things is interesting, and I'm personally fond of RPGs that approach emotional and conceptual territory other than standard power fantasy tropes. Experimental concepts carry novelty at a minimum and a potential for whole new venues of exploration when done well.
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cauldronofevil wrote:

D351 wrote:
Surrealism
Not only 'Why?' but HOW?! And who would want to?


There's a pretty good RPG about playing as a group of people who wake up as bugs a la The Metamorphosis that I can't recall the name of. (Nearly two weeks later: It was Noumenon)

Many people seem to also derive some enjoyment from Itras By.
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D351 wrote:
That's rather the point, to design RPGs in new and interesting ways.


New I can understand. But none of those ideas seem "interesting" to me. Or at least, they'd have to have MUCH more to them to become interesting.

D351 wrote:
I'm specifically looking for things that they *aren't* designed to do.


If you design an RPG to do something that it isn't designed to do, then it will very likely (I'd personally say definitely!) be a lousy RPG.

D351 wrote:
Ran well and with the right group, it can certainly do trauma (and I did mean psychological), but few games really seem to explore trauma with any depth.


RPG's can (but seldom do) do depth - but it's not their strong suit. And ulimately when it does occur, it's got nothing to do with the RPG. That type of thing comes from the players and the GM who can use the RPG as a tool.

Baking it into the RPG is usually a recipe for disaster. I'm thinking of GURPS and HEROS who added "disadvantages" in as a way to encourage roleplaying. But all it really did was encourage the creation of insane characters. Or Pendragon which has 'personality' built into the rules, but again, doesn't really mean the players are going to act that way. Same with Star Wars and Dark Side Points, Call of Cthulhu and Insanity and there are many, many others.

In other words, trying to mechanize a theme isn't "new and interesting". It's 'storytelling' and 'railroading'.

Stortelling games were MEANT for this. But RPGs are generally 'team-action-adventure' stories. Because it works.


D351 wrote:
I once ran a very tense game of End of the World in which attempting to survive a supernaturally powerful winter storm was a major plot point.


That's exactly my point! The RPG didn't add this - the GM did!

D351 wrote:
As for "who would want to play it", I would. Trying new things is interesting, and I'm personally fond of RPGs that approach emotional and conceptual territory other than standard power fantasy tropes.


But you can do that with ANY RPG. And you should if it interests you.

But it's got NOTHING to do with the 'design' of the RPG.
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emanchado wrote:
The first three are touched somewhat by the excellent Night Witches by Jason Morningstar (I see you have a The Warren icon!). It's a game about a regiment of Russian female pilots who fought against the Nazis in World War II.


All of these games sound great, but you may have just sold me on Night Witches. It's been one of a long list of games lingering in my like-to-get-eventually list, but it definitely just moved up. That, 1000 year old Vampire, and You're a F-ing Butterfly might be Gen Con pick-ups this year.
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Whether themes of mourning, etc., seem fun to one person or another is beside the point. If they don't seem fun to you, then don't play them. Roleplaying games, however, extends well beyond the traditional concept of "fun" and can be used for a variety of personal, introspective, and recovery processes. No, a game focused on mourning won't ever crack into the top ten commercial titles. That's not what they're for.

I know that the Scandinavian LARP method focuses heavily on psychodrama, mourning, recovery, stress, etc. Their LARP is quite distinct. However, many of the games are free for download (and lots of them are in English). I'm sure there are others, but I'm familiar with the Fastaval games.

If you consider LARP to be roleplaying (I know some don't), then start our with any of the annual Fastaval series -

Fastaval
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cauldronofevil wrote:
But none of those ideas seem "interesting" to me...it will very likely (I'd personally say definitely!) be a lousy RPG. ..Baking it into the RPG is usually a recipe for disaster

It seems like you're approaching RPGs from the most-traditional angle of all, the pseudo-medieval, party-oriented, fantasy game. FRPGs are great and mostly what I play. But they're only a tiny fraction of the hobby (unless you're only considering commercial success - then they're the whole hobby).

There are literally thousands of roleplaying games available. Obviously, they deal with all aspects of human existence (as well as fantasy). The process of gamifying roleplay is hardly limited by anything except the players' imagination.
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D351 wrote:
SurrealismGeology


Nonsense Games
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For futility and trauma maybe Montsegur 1244 will fit your needs.
Some of the games from Seven Wonders would also touch on some of your themes.
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ctimmins wrote:
It seems like you're approaching RPGs from the most-traditional angle of all, the pseudo-medieval, party-oriented, fantasy game.


Not at all. I include science fiction and superheroes too!

ctimmins wrote:
FRPGs are great and mostly what I play. But they're only a tiny fraction of the hobby (unless you're only considering commercial success - then they're the whole hobby).


I think they're 99% the whole hobby even outside of commercial success.

ctimmins wrote:
There are literally thousands of roleplaying games available. Obviously, they deal with all aspects of human existence (as well as fantasy).


Yes, there are a LOT of RPG's out there that never get played.

But the RPG's that get played (even by a small percentage) are mostly played because of what RPG's do best - group oriented adventures.

Just because a lot of wacky non-traditional RPG's exist doesn't mean they are valid or worthwhile.

As George Carlin said "You can take and nail two sticks together like they've never been nailed together before and some fool will buy it."

"New and Different" doesn't always mean good.

Now this is not meant to discourage any kind of homebrew you want to make or play.

It's just meant to point out that the things you want to explore have other tools better suited to them.

ctimmins wrote:
The process of gamifying roleplay is hardly limited by anything except the players' imagination.


That's like saying the process of writing isn't limited by mere words.

Maybe not - but it should be!

Because of the nature of this board, we're not talking about forms of psychological roleplaying.

We're talking about games. Implying (pretty strongly) that they should be fun!
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cauldronofevil wrote:
We're talking about games. Implying (pretty strongly) that they should be fun!


You and I have very different taste in games in general then.

Have you played Soma (video game) or This War of Mine (video and board game)? There are a lot of options other than your strict ideas of "fun".
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ctimmins wrote:
D351 wrote:
SurrealismGeology


Nonsense Games

Clark, your lists are amazing. Also, I know of a few games I need to add to that list.
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cauldronofevil wrote:
Because of the nature of this board, we're not talking about forms of psychological roleplaying.

I'd actually argue the exact opposite. You can talk about D&D/Pathfinder/CoC anywhere. It hardly takes effort (and hardly is rewarding). If you want to talk about the psychological aspects of roleplaying then this site is the place to be. Half the QotD are about exactly that.

Your approach isn't wrong. But, it's not the only approach.

You say all these games that "aren't being played". That doesn't mean people aren't playing them. It just means people you know aren't playing them.
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So, there could be a new site competition idea here.
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My issue is that anything I'd say, there probably DOES exist an RPG for it. I just don't have a terribly comprehensive knowledge of them.

I'll say Shakespeare. I do actually have an RPG for the Bard. But micro-RPGs covering various aspects of the plays, perhaps.

And are there railroad/train RPGs? This is one of the more oversaturated themes in board games. Would be funny if the opposite were true in RPGs.

D351 wrote:
Mourning
Futility
Trauma
Weather, esp. snow and winter survival
Surrealism
Geology


Cool idea for a thread!

On the former three, I'll acho some earlier comments that Call of Cthulhu does Futility quite well, and the other two seem odd to me as themes. Individual scenes, sure. It makes for good drama. But as a holistic theme, "Trauma" seems...off? RPGs don't need to be escapist, but you'd probably have zero audience for one that actively revolves around dealing with traumatic hardship. It would also be hard to make it fun, imo, or coherent in this medium. You'd probably have better luck in, say, an improv class than at an RPG table.

Weather/Survival is handled interestingly in Mouse Guard. But I agree, I wish it could be a bigger part of some other games.

D351 wrote:
cauldronofevil wrote:
I think you may be trying to get something out of RPG's that they weren't really designed to do.


That's rather the point, to design RPGs in new and interesting ways. I'm specifically looking for things that they *aren't* designed to do. The intention is to explore new approaches to this style of gaming, not to say that games as they currently exist are in some way bad for not having these concepts in them. As for your specific questions about my suggestions... The ones in which you cite Call of Cthulhu, it's a game that includes much of this as little more than background noise, not to be looked at closely but to set atmosphere. It's also one of my favorite games. Ran well and with the right group, it can certainly do trauma (and I did mean psychological), but few games really seem to explore trauma with any depth.

I don't know that I really understand your problem with weather, which can be used well (though often with very little mechanics for it) in some horror settings but which could be a bigger influence in games of isolation and survival. I once ran a very tense game of End of the World in which attempting to survive a supernaturally powerful winter storm was a major plot point.

As for geology and surrealism, I'm not sure how these would be incorporated into RPG. That's part of why I like them as ideas. They would be challenging to use.

As for "who would want to play it", I would. Trying new things is interesting, and I'm personally fond of RPGs that approach emotional and conceptual territory other than standard power fantasy tropes. Experimental concepts carry novelty at a minimum and a potential for whole new venues of exploration when done well.


A nice follow-up rationale, and your aim here is admirable, though I do think some themes would work better as thought experiments than they would as actual games. Novelty only takes a game so far, even for the naturally curious.
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Mourning
I want to say there are a number of Fiasco scenarios that deal with this.

Futility
Does Paranoia work for this? Otherwise, yes, the more you learn in Call of Cthulhu (2nd - 6th Edition) the more you realize how little you change. Unless there is a specific type of futility you are looking for? Like the futility of working in a dead-end job? Or the futility of finding affordable housing in large cities in America?

Trauma
I don't know if you are looking for a game where players have to deal with horrible trauma's inflicted upon them (which sounds like Trauma Control does?) or a game where you are a team of psychologists/doctors/healers and have to help NPCs deal with terrible traumas.

Weather, esp. snow and winter survival
The Quiet Year has quite a bit of this. There were some very good games about this from the Game Chef contest last year too. I'd hope that some continue to work on their games and release them to a wider audience.

Surrealism
This is perhaps one of my most-run genres... SKEW, The Gentle Ladies' Tea and Monstrosity Destroying & Quilting Circle Auxiliary... but given the number of Surreal games I've played, I do think games in this genre need to work on having better rules, or some modicum of editing of their rules, but they are fun to play!

Geology
I've actually run into a fair bit of geology when running Lexicon, but that game is about a bit of everything, since the point is to create encyclopedia entries.

But I like the idea of having a game that focuses on geology. I'll add this to my list of games to make, right after one about wastebasket taxa I'm dying to write this year.

Scheming
Blades in the Dark and In a Den of Vipers have quite a bit of scheming! Or if you want something on a more epic scale, Kingdom has large scale scheming between powers instead of people.

Artistic creation
I can think of several that allow it within the greater scheme of things Eclipse Phase (First Edition) allows for art skills, and our group actually uses them a fair bit. Call of Cthulhu (2nd - 6th Edition) also has various types of art and craft skills that players can use. I can think of a number of RPGs that focus on creating TV shows or movies: Primetime Adventures (1st, 2nd and 3rd Editions), It Came from the Late, Late, Late Show (1st, 2nd & 3rd edition), or Cartoon Action Hour: Season 3... but none that focus on say, classical painting. I think there was one about creating music... but I can't remember the name.

Speaking of not remembering names, I think tdphillips was thinking of The Shab Al-Hiri Roach for surrealism like Metamorphosis...
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Dread is another good one for futility. You can "win," yes, but a lot of times you're just getting sucked slowly into the GM's vortex of failure.
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Judging by these last couple of responses, I'm going to have to dig a lot deeper and weirder if I want to come up with things that haven't been done at all. Here's a few new ones (the idea was less to get game recommendations, though there are some really intriguing ones here, and more to expand the list of unusual ideas to put into RPG form).

Tax Fraud - I could actually see writing simplified tax documents as a form of character background that could be quite comical

Old age

Tutorials

Having pride in one's child

Pet Rocks

The willful attempt to shift the Overton Window

Also, trains was definitely a good addition. I could definitely imagine a Thomas the Tank Engine game. (Edited in: or an entire game done Shab-al-Hiri Roach style set in a model train club)

And one more thing, I really don't mind one-offs and purely experimental games. Some things are just better explored in that form. I actually own a copy of Vigilante.
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Romance. Considering how much human experience, heroic stories, and mythology are tied up in issues of love, it factors surprisingly little in games.
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cosine wrote:
Romance. Considering how much human experience, heroic stories, and mythology are tied up in issues of love, it factors surprisingly little in games.


As a player, my most memorable experience in a fantasy game (5e Middle Earth) was when I decided to have my character fall in love with an NPC who eventually betrayed the party then was killed. It was one heck of a roller coaster.
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Oh, I know it was about game ideas, and some of the previous ideas I would be interested in playing or making games about. But I also like tracking down games for lists like this, and I do play or have read a fair number of Indie RPGs, which have covered all sorts of fun topics.

Tax Fraud
Tell Us About the Bear actually is played with tax forms... though it isn't really about fraud since... it's about a bear.

Old age
There are several RPGs that have rules for old age. Call of Cthulhu (2nd - 6th Edition) has rules for playing older characters, where their stats and abilities change. And there is The Old Man and the Sea Monster. I'm sure there are others.

Tutorials
There aren't any that I can think of. Though a number of more complex RPGs do offer quick start rules for fast play which are kind of like a tutorial mode.

Having pride in one's child
Pendragon (1st - 5th Editions) is more about creating a lineage that proudly continues on the family tradition, not sure if that is the same...

Pet Rocks
I can't think of any that focus on this, but The Elsewhere Society comes to mind. I bet you could have a pet rock in that game. But a game about pet rocks? Not that I know of.

The willful attempt to shift the Overton Window
Not sure what this is, but a quick Google search makes me think it probably doesn't have a game around it yet... I feel like there might be a parlor LARP about it, but I'm less familiar with LARPs.
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cosine wrote:
Romance. Considering how much human experience, heroic stories, and mythology are tied up in issues of love, it factors surprisingly little in games.

Which reminds me, Ruritanian Romance as a genre would be fun for RPGs, even the parody versions of the genre.
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