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GMs' themes


Another recent thread raised the issue of what the GM contributes to the game. This prompted me to think about some of the themes and associated tropes I've consistently drawn on in my FRPGing, especially as a GM.

In this OP I'll set out two.

The relationship of mortals to cosmic/divine law
My starting point for thinking about this is Wagner's Ring Cycle. Wotan is trapped in a web of contracts and agreements, and wishes to be free of them. So he prepares Sigmund to be his vehicle, using the magical sword Notung. But Fricka points out that Sigmund is just Wotan's vehicle, and hence not a source of freedom at all. Sigmund is killed, and Wotan shatters Notung. But from Sigmund and Sieglind's incestuous love - against the will of Fricka - is born Siegfried, who is able to reforge Notung (though even Mime the Dwarf cannot). With Notung Siegfried kills the Giant/Dragon Fafnir, takes the ring without being corrupted by it, shatters Wotan's spear, and sets in train the events that lead to the Gotterdammerung.

The key ideas, that have influenced my approach in two RPG campaigns, are the notion of divine or cosmic law and pacts, and how these bind (or don't bind) mortals, and what happens when mortals clash with or depart from them.

One of those campaigns was a very long (11 year, I would guess 300+ session) Role Master campaign, using a setting and story elements adopted from OA, from my academic teaching of Buddhism in an analytic philosophy department, and from 1990s Hong Kong wuxia cinema. There were nine PCs over the course of the campaign, including most prominently two samurai from a minor house, a warrior monk, a warrior mage, and a fox spirit ranger-y/ninja-y type. The earliest sign of what would turn out to be a key campaign theme was when the warrior mage began courting a dragon (in self-imposed exile, and in human form). It later turned out that the fox spirit was actually a heavenly animal king, who had been stripped of memory and power and banished to earth. His gradual recovery of memories and abilities was contrary to the conditions of his banishment, and the PCs fought off constables of heaven coming to take him back into custody. I ended up using an adaptation of the module OA7 to interweave the dragon story and the animal king story into a bigger whole, which involved the PCs stopping a NPC who was both a dragon and a banished animal lord, but had various bits of leverage over the relevant divine actors, from poisoning the world in a quest for his own immortality.

As the PCs became higher level, they learned more about the secret pacts the heavens had entered into, involving the Lords of Karma and other beings. They also encountered the spirit/echo of a dead god (inspired by the d20 book Requiem for a God), and as the warrior monk learned this god's backstory - he had been trapped in the timeless void beyond the material world of mortals and heavens, in order to prevent an ancient evil entering the world - he became a fervent devotee. The PCs allied with another exiled god (this part of the campaign drew heavily on the first half of the 3E module Bastion of Broken Souls) in order to learn how to use a great artefact that would permit setting aside the ordinary law of karma: they freed the trapped, dead god so that he was returned to life, placing a karmic duplicate of the warrior mage in his place (the warrior mage almost went there himself, but the idea of creating a karmic duplicate was hit upon at the last moment); and of the two samurai, the lesser and more humble one, who was also the one who had patiently pursued non-combat and non-esoteric arts and as a result had successfully courted a companion, was able to found a dynasty who would be the keepers, in the mortal realm, of the portal to the void.

The other campaign is 4e D&D, using the core cosmology; this has also long running, being played regularly from 2009 to 2016 (more than 100 sessions), and much more intermittently since then. The PCs include three devotees of the Raven Queen, but one of whom also serves Erathis, Ioun, Vecna and other gods too (mechanically, an invoker/wizard); a Drow chaos sorcerer who worships Corellon, and is part of a secret drow cult dedicated to undoing the sundering of the elves; and a Dwarven warrior-priest of Moradin. The Heroic tier and the early part of Paragon tier was mostly focused on events in the mortal world, as the PCs freed prisoners, redeemed slaves, and stopped the Goblin and Hobgoblin armies that were terrorising the region. They also stopped Orcus death cultists, and Vecna-ites trying to learn the Raven Queen's lost name. In the latter part of Paragon tier, and in Epic tier, the focus was more cosmological: the PCs destroyed Torog's soul abattoir and gave the Raven Queen control over the dead souls of the Underdark; defeated the Prince of Frost in the Feywild and gave the Raven Queen control over that aspect of winter; significantly reduced Vecna's power by stealing his Eye, and also stealing some of his secrets from him; killed Lolth and sealed the Abyss off from the rest of the world; and killed Orcus. The Raven Queen is therefore very much ascendant, with their help.

The PCs have turned the Duergar from worship of Asmodeus (who wished to use them as part of his army for assaulting the Abyss) to the worship of Levistus and Bane (who have a more cautious policy when it comes to divine warfare). And with Lolth dead, the Drow are free and have begun to return to the surface world.

With Torog dead, the warrior-priest of Moradin also took on the mantle of god of pain, punishment and imprisonment, and in this capacity cowed Yan-C-Bin and the Djinn so that they would not take part in the Dusk War (on pain of being once again imprisoned). The invoker has rebuilt the Rod of Seven Parts (at the current stage of the campaign, he is very close to taking the seventh part from the body of Miska the Wolf-Spider), which is prophesied to restore the Lattice of Heaven. How that might relate to the Raven Queen's ascendancy is not yet clear. What those PCs who do not wish the Raven Queen to become the ruler of the cosmos will do about this is also not clear.

Dark Elves and Petty Dwarves
In the Silmarillion, JRRT presents these twisted, despicable but also somewhat tragic characters: Eol the Dark Elf, his son Maeglin who betrays Gondolin, and Mim the Petty Dwarf who rules over the sacked Nargathrond before being killed by Hurin.

For nearly a decade now, triggered by a re-read of the Silmarillion (which itself may have been triggered by reflecting on the hyper-Tolkienesque treatment of Elves and Dwarves in Burning Wheel) I've been incorporating different variations on the Dark Elf and Petty Dwarf motif into my RPGing.

In my first Burning Wheel game, one of the PCs was returning to the ruined tower where (as per PC backstory) he had served his apprenticeship under his (now corrupted) brother, and where he was hoping to find the Falcon's Claw, a nickel-silver mace he had been enchanting during his apprenticeship. Another PC was an Elven "ronin", who had the Belief I will always keep the Elven ways. I introduced a Dark Elf NPC, who was the virtual opposite of the Elven ways - one of his character traits was Filthy. This NPC first appeared only as the unseen cause of an effect - the player of the Elf failed an Orienteering roll to lead the PCs across the Bright Desert to the tower, and I narrated this as, when they arrived at the foothills where they were expecting to find water, the waterhole had been soiled. The effects of the Dark Elf continue to manifest - it turned out the Falcon's Claw had been taken from the ruined tower, and the Dark Elf was the one who had taken it. After a session or two I established that the Dark Elf was serving a Dark Naga, who ended up bringing one of the PCs under its sway. From memory, the Dark Elf was killed in combat by one of the PCs, in the naga's caverns, though I haven't gone back to my campaign notes to get the details.

In a current Burning Wheel game, my PC is a Dark Elf, who turned to bitter grief after his spouse died. He blames his father-in-law, the ambassador at the human port of Hardby, which is why he is there.

In my Torchbearer game, the first dungeon that I designed was the abandoned dell of a Petty Dwarf (also called Mim). One artefact in the dungeon was an Elfstone, in which the dream spirit of the Petty Dwarf was trapped. The Elven Dreamwalker PC Fea-bella tried to drive out the spirit, and failed, instead becoming obsessed by the stone. In a subsequent session the stone was stolen, it turns out by Gerda, a NPC Dwarven friend of Golin the Dwarf PC. In the second-last session, what had seemed like it might be the culmination in a change of relationship between Fea-bella and her enemy Megloss - a somewhat sinister Elf - turned in completely the other direction, as a failed attempt to bind an evil spirit meant that it possessed Megloss. And then in our most recent session the PCs brought Megloss with them to confront Gerda the Elf-stone stealing Dwarf, Megloss killed her (after she nearly killed Fea-bella), and Golin and two other PCs (but not the Dreamwalker) killed Megloss. The Elfstone itself was left behind in Gerda's now-empty apartment, where for so many evenings she had sat brooding over the Elfstone.

Your thoughts
Are there particular themes or tropes that you draw on, or are inspired by, in your FRPGing?

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Your thoughts
Are there particular themes or tropes that you draw on, or are inspired by, in your FRPGing?
I started a thread on this topic not terribly long ago. I tend to lean on tropes like "the Old God's are forgotten, but about to return" and "real Dragons are the size of castles" a lot. Mostly due to formative media. But beyond those the truly persistent "theme" for me is science fantasy. Whether it is "magic is really just ancient tech" or "Doom Troopers are descending on Avernus" I almost always mix super science with weird fantasy. I blame Thundarr and The Tower of the Elephant.


Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
I'm sure it will not surprise you that A) my campaigns tend to run at least intermittently on the darkish side, with elements of body horror and loss-of-self lurking as set-dressing and/or possibilities (primarily failure states) and B) I tend to let the themes emerge from play. If the PCs in one campaign decide they're interested in at least exploring whether the setting is better without gods--as it is now--or with them--as it has been in the past, I'm happy to poke around those places alongside them. If the PCs in another campaign want to set themselves squarely against something becoming a god in that same setting, and explore other things, I'm fine with that, too. I think my position is mostly that theme works best looking at what you've ... made, I guess, or had a hand in making; trying to establish thematics before you have content seems like a mistake. I will note that I was interested to notice that both campaigns I've run so far in this setting have mostly skittered through the conflicts between the Noble Fey and the Ancient Dragons, with one party setting itself against a Fey Noble and the other setting itself against an Ancient Dragon; this does not seem as though it can be entirely a coincidence, but I had no aspirations to such symmetry.

Oddly many of the themes which WotC took up in 4e's WA cosmology were already present in my own original home setting, Erithnoi going WAY back into the early days of D&Ding. The main one being the idea of 'order' vs 'chaos'. I framed it slightly differently, as the 'Younger Gods' being the CHILDREN of the 'Old Ones', so a bit more like the Greek conception. Dragons and Giants are the servants of the Old Ones, and a few of them actually are still revered and perhaps didn't take sides.

The 4e Shadowfell's place is taken by a first world, the original creation of the Old Ones which was turned into a land of the dead and abandoned by the Gods. The Land of Fairy is exactly what it says on the tin, I don't recall any explanation as to why or how it exists, except that the lords of the fey kind of holed up there during all the fighting.

There is also an Abyss, it's basically a cosmic trash dump, everything material eventually ends up there, including entire planes of existence. Its an open question as to the history of the Universe, maybe it was created in a 'cosmic egg', and maybe not.

I was pretty amused by the whole WA, as their ideas pretty much recapitulate the ones I had 40 years ago, and for much the same reasons. Naturally I was happy to steal some of WotC's lore to use, and honestly I'm not that hung up about the details.

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