DMs Corner: Thematic Story Telling
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
So, you want to write a DnD campaign.
There’s modules you could try and other prepared material that you could approach, but you would like to take a spin at crafting your own tale for your players to campaign in. First of all, congrats on pursuing an interest with vigor, I wish you the best. Second, get ready for a lot of hard work.
Story-building, world-building, and character-building takes time and effort and can quickly feel overwhelming. This can be compounded by the strain of having to craft new and interesting encounters to engage your players on a regular basis. One such approach to this may be to just forge encounters that you find interesting that have no real connection between each other: Here’s a cool dungeon to explore. Now here’s an assassins’ guild to thwart. Now there’s a mighty dragon to slay. Something akin to the Fall Out games in which the dozens upon dozens of encounters are loosely connected at best and have very little impact on the main story.
These encounters and campaigns can be a lot of fun to do (as evident by the success of Fall Out and Skyrim), and they should not be discredited or scoffed at for their approach to story and encounters. There is a great value to be had within these types of games and campaigns, and are certainly worth investigating for your own DMing purposes. Moreover, you may find that you wish your encounters to be more connected to the main story, and for that thread of the main story to be spun throughout everything your players encounter in some capacity or another. Something akin to the Lord of the Rings, in which everything to some degree or another revolves around the central plot of destroying the One Ring. In contrast, there are many encounters in Fall Out 3 that have little or nothing to do with finding your run away dad, even indirectly.
In either case, you may find it to be a great boon to choose a central theme in which to build your story and campaign around. This theme would then be prevalent throughout everything you write and help provide guidance and inspiration when it comes time to writing story, characters, and encounters. It would be the foundational core upon which you model your world and your story.
I use the following example for the overt nature of its thematic storytelling, which helps provide clarity to the point of this article (and because my boss loves the show and desires it to be shamelessly plugged everywhere): In the television series My Little Pony, the central theme of the show is blatantly proclaimed as the “power of friendship.” Despite the show’s affinity for bashing its viewers over the head with that theme, it nonetheless is an excellent example of thematic story telling. Friendship is saturated throughout the entirety of the show, and is the core of every episode’s story. Further still, it’s the core of every character’s story arc and every season’s plot. Most problems arise when this friendship is damaged, broken, or even absent. And while the show hosts an assortment of magical creatures, evil beings, and even time travel, beneath all of those is central theme of friendship.
Similarly, the central theme of Spider-Man is the infamous line “with great power comes great responsibility.” It is a theme that drives not only the stories of Spider-Man, but even the characters within, including the villains. Eddie Brock fails to take responsibility for his failing marriage and job, and instead makes Spider-Man his scapegoat, thus becoming the villain Venom. Norman Osborn fails to be a responsible father, which fosters a plentitude of problems and struggles for Harry. Curt Connors places aside his responsibility to his family and self in a feverish pursuit to regrow his arm, which eventually leads to the birth of the Lizard. Even in more mundane things, Peter has to weigh his responsibilities to his job, his aunt, his friends, and his self-appointed role as hero, and much of the stories revolve around him trying to properly juggle these various responsibilities. Every character and every story in some manner refers back to that central theme of responsibility.
The examples a thematic story telling within written literature are numerous, and I’m sure you can readily recall several stories that speak to you personally. The point is that a great aid to the construction of your story and campaign is to have that theme decided upon before begin writing.
Maybe you want to have a theme of power being a corrupting agent. If that’s so, then you can consider how that’s reflected in not only your liches and dragons who use their power for evil, but even your kings and generals, who start making more and more morally grey choices. Maybe your theme is the importance of hope in the face of great adversity. If that’s so, then you can seek to build encounters that test your players resolve. Do they succumb to despair or become those beacons of hope despite the odds? What does hopeless look like among the commoners? Amongst those in power? Amongst those who are responsible for others? An evil vampire is a cool boss to fight. But an evil vampire that thematically explores the ills and pit falls of seeking immortality at the expense of all else is cooler. An evil general leading an army can be a fun fight. But a general who embodies the pit falls of doing evil in pursuit of a great ideal is even better. Themes can help add structure and depth to your writing and campaign, and can help the players to feel more invested in the story.
To be sure, you don’t have to stick with only one theme. Lord of the Rings hosts a plethora of themes within its story, from broad ones like good versus evil and the corruption of power to more specific ones such as the dangers of unadulterated technological growth and the prevalence of Christ-like figures and Catholic theology throughout. So, by no means should you feel obligated to restrict yourself to only one theme. What’s important, and what will help give your writing both inspiration and focus, is having a clear idea on the themes you wish to explore and wish to have at the core of your story.
Even if it’s something as straightforward and direct as ‘friendship is magic.’