Focusing In, Finding the Theme
This past week saw the final wrap-up of my last campaign, which means my DnD-related focus has turned full throttle to the new campaign’s planning. I was waiting on some elements to be decided by the player characters in the last campaign before moving ahead on a few details, so I’m also freed up now to decide exactly how the last 100 years of the world has progressed.
I wrote up a list of notable events over the past 100 years, including dates that different nations discovered the new continent and major conflicts that have arisen from the colonial spirit (see: conquest, but far away so people at home don’t get too upset).
I’ve also been in talks with the players now about their characters. Two of the three are more or less done with the creation process, which means I have a good idea of what sort of party I’m working with now from both a practical perspective (encounter design) and a narrative perspective (story design).
One player is bringing a Minotaur Artificer named Kaltog, originally from a tribe in the Great Expanse. He always believed himself better than his peers; they valued strength, but he valued wits. When he saw the newcomers with their magical-technological marvels, he left his tribe to study their workings and learn all he could. Whether or not he regrets (or will regret) abandoning his people in a time of need remains to be seen, but that jumps out to me as the most likely thread to pull on. Oh, and he has a little top hat on his head, between his horns.
Another player is bringing a character from the old continent, but not from one of the colonial races. They will be bringing a Goliath Barbarian (as yet unnamed) – like most of his kind, he lived in one of the nomadic tribes in the mountains and wilds of the northlands of that continent. Recently, a new Frost Giant King named Thurrem has risen in the north and united giants and giant-kin with the promise of restoring their old glory. His tribe was among the last to join with the New Thurrem Dominion, and he cast the singular dissenting vote – refusing to sacrifice the freedom of his way of life for life under an empire, which he saw as exactly what they hated in the civilizations of the south. He was exiled, a terrible punishment for one of his kind that assures certain death for all but the strongest or most cunning. He worked his way to the new world as a hired muscle, just living day to day.
Putting it Together: Finding the Theme
This character work, combined with the other work I’ve been doing to prepare, is helping me push through to what I believe the theme will be. I don’t believe in just deciding on a theme; I’m very specific when I say “find” a theme.
The first step to finding a theme is all the work I’ve already been doing, both by myself and with the players. I’m not putting many limitations on my creative process yet at this stage, just letting the ideas flow about what I want to do and sorting it out later.
Now I have a chance to pause, look back, and evaluate what has been done so far. What questions have been brought up repeatedly? What primary concerns are weighing on this campaign through the setting and characters? Questions like this help you see what you and your players are interested in exploring better than just about any other metric.
We have two characters so far that are leaving their tribes behind. They are doing it for wildly different reasons, but that’s a parallel that shouldn’t be ignored. Meanwhile, in a grander sense in the world, many ways of life are dying – rather quickly and violently in some cases. There is an undercurrent of loss already – that’s definitely going to be important.
I wrote down a few key words, phrases, or conflicts that came to mind when I was reflecting on the story that had gathered so far, and came up with:
- Civilization vs. The Wilds: This is an easy one given the backdrop, especially with the setting on the frontier. The frontier is the place that civilization meets the wilds, where they naturally come into conflict. The old gods have reigned supreme on this continent for millennia, which means much of it is wilder and more difficult to tame than the people of the “civilized” east could have predicted. Meanwhile, as a contrast to the absolute-domination approach of larger societies, the largely nomadic native tribes that inhabit these lands have learned to live alongside these powerful forces – whether through strength, tenacity, cunning, or even harmonious co-existence in some cases varies from group to group.
- Death, Loss: As mentioned above, the player characters so far and the bigger picture setting both tell stories of loss. I’ll find ways to weave this into the story elsewhere to further complement that trend. There is the obvious choice of showing actual death and loss, but the more interesting choices are the subtler ones. For instance: The Tabaxi chief who has struck a deal with the local settlement to secure his people’s safety, but knows he is choosing to leave behind a way of life his people will likely never regain also supports this theme in a more abstract way. There are no shortage of tragedies in a world that is changing so quickly and violently.
- Oppression, Subjugation: The world that is unfolding here is one where the bastions of “freedom” are shrinking. Large empires are stretching their influence across the world and bringing more and more areas under their heels. Only on the fringes of the world are people still able to live outside these authoritarian entities, and that frontier shrinks every day.
I don’t have a certain central theme yet, but these are all good jumping off points as I move forward – and are all likely to be major components of the campaign as a whole. I really want to focus on the characters in this campaign, I’ve mentioned that before. That means diving into the individual cost of these things, the way it affects the people caught up in it. I’m happy that so far both players have chosen races not from the “civilized” populations; I’m much more interested in the stories of the marginalized than their oppressors.