So stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A Dragonblooded paladin who is trying to make a more noble name for his people, a shadowy thief/assassin Eladrin kicked out of his people for his devious ways, a high ranking human cleric of pelor  fresh from the convent, and a tiefling warlock with a dark past walk into a tavern where a man in a corner gives them a simple mission to track down something, setting them on a long quest which leads them to save the world, kill or contain an ancient evil, and gives them insight into their own personal pasts despite having no real connection to each other except that they decided adventuring together might be fun and profitable…

Pretty common story, oddly enough. I always scratch my head a bit when I really think about most adventuring groups I’ve played in or heard about. From a purely logical standpoint*, there is really no reason that most adventuring groups would be together, but because of different play styles, individual player wants, nifty new classes or powers to try out, and a myriad of other completely valid reasons many adventuring groups end up like this – ragtag and hard to fathom. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is a wrong or bad way to play, not by a long shot. Many of the most fun gaming moments I’ve had come from acting out (or watching others act out) the eccentricities of vastly different character types playing against each other. It just always strikes me a bit funny when I see the “standard” ragtag band of adventurers trope happen one more time.  And seeing it so often is one of the reasons that I’ve come to enjoy running Themed Campaigns.

Themed Campaigns
Ahh. There’s the point of this all. Themed Campaigns are campaigns that start out with a central unifying theme in mind for the adventuring group. This theme is set out before the players ever make their characters and the theme limits and unifies the characters created in some way. It’s a different way to play, but it opens up a whole lot of possibilities. Players will have to give up some control when doing this, but limiting the characters in some ways can provide a vastly different play experience. Groups who are getting tired of the ragtag adventurers shtick might welcome this different play style, and the limits that players have to hold to are often not big enough to really confine choice.

My latest game is a themed game. It is set in 4e Eberron and all of the players are professors at Morgrave University. We talked about the theme in depth before making characters, and I made it well known the type of game I was looking to run. I allowed any character concept the players could come up with, so long as they would still work as professors or members of the department. They could be a janitor who used to be a fighter, a professor whose magical knowledge was practical, maybe a grad student with slightly sticky fingers, or any other class or concept they wanted, so long as the academic concept fit into the core.

Player Buy In – It’s Really Important With A Themed Game
Obviously a themed game requires a fair amount of player buy in. If the players don’t want to play in a game with a particular theme, then trying to force it on them will just make for a miserable time for everyone. However, if the players and the Game Master both like the theme and the options it enables, then the game can branch out in some new and interesting ways.

An important aspect of player buy in is proposing the idea of a themed campaign beforehand and making the theme transparent. You can’t have the players make characters and then tell them that all their characters are going to be part of an army. That wouldn’t work for the lone ronin samurai who bows to no man that Jimmy wants to play, and it probably won’t work for the meek pacifist cleric that Tommy wanted to play. They might tweak their concepts so that they can still be in the game, but they won’t be happy about it. If the concept is brought up beforehand though, they might wait to play those characters in another game, or tweak them in the same ways but as their choice, not in reaction to the surprise they just got thrown at them. With a themed campaign, player buy in is REALLY important.

The Theme Enables
One of the best things about a themed game is that it enables so much to occur. That may seem contradictory to the idea of a game that limits things to a theme, but that limitation allows space to do things in a different way. Right off the bat there is a reason for the characters to be together. You don’t have to orchestrate an event that draws the characters together in the first session (although that can be very fun) or try to weave multiple disparate back stories together beforehand. You don’t have to worry about party cohesion as much, as the players have already agreed upon the reason they will all be working together. And one of the biggest benefits –  when you look deeper into the theme you might find areas where it can let you handwave things about the game that annoy you.

In my current game we are using the academic framework to simplify wealth acquisition (stipends from the department means no more looting every corpse for minor loot AND no more bartering with shopkeepers to try to scrape the most out of it). We can also assume that the characters have a moderate level of world knowledge because the players are all professors. The players who specialize in magic don’t need to try to justify knowing about archaic languages and whether or not they would know certain things outside of their class specifications, we just assume the successful roll means they remembered their magic history 205 class. I can also enable different play elements within the theme. The group is currently borrowing the department’s sometimes malfunctioning Handy Haversack, but I can take it back if I want to change the play style and make them think about storage for a session or two. I can also give them magic weapons that they might be looking for without making it seem too cheesy. When a player tells me he wants to track down a sword that works against a particular type of enemy, then I can point him in the direction of the university museum to see if he can beg and borrow it from the curator. I don’t have to just happen to have that show up with a travelling merchant or have him try to have one crafted and delay the in game clock. I also have a few NPCs built into the department who can identify items, help with selling stuff off, or just act as grad students taking care of the mundane things the PCs might otherwise have to spend time doing but don’t want to.

There are many elements like this that a theme can enable. You can have players requisition equipment in a military themed game. You can easily provide transportation when the players are part of a sailing or airship theme. One game I played in had us as part of a DocWagon first response team, giving us transport and equipment but requiring us to do more than just fight and kill things – we also had to save lives or lose experience. Depending on how you want to play it, a theme can enable a lot of new options that work alongside the core concept of the game system.

But What About My Diversity?
Themed campaigns are limiting, but they don’t have to limit the things that players find most fun. Many groups go with the ragtag adventuring squad because every player wants to play something a little different. When you have a game that has a plethora of character options, classes in multiple splat books, and players that spend their free time reading through them, then you get a lot of players wanting to do the most unique things available. That doesn’t have to be turned off in a themed campaign. If we imagine a themed campaign where the characters are all members of the same military squad, we still have a lot of variety. In real life, even the most mundane military units have specialized positions within the squad. Everyone is trained in the same basic stuff, but everyone also gets a little training in a specialty or two so that they can cover roles that are needed in the field.  Ranger units, special ops, and other strategically designed squads make sure to have experts in many roles to account for a plethora of situations. That concept works well for having different classes in the same squad.

If the theme of the game is a group of thieves who are all members of the same guild, that doesn’t mean everyone has to play a rogue. The guild might value the magical abilities granted by a mage, the combat protection a fighter provides, or the unique abilities granted by the anachronistic jungle beastmaster class from splatbook 42b. Diversity can still occur around the core concept of the theme. You can even provide the same 2 or 3 free skills or powers to players to hammer home the theme and provide some consistency in the midst of their wildly varied concepts if you want to. This allows the players to go to the far ends of unique but still retain a deep mechanical connection to the theme.

Themes Are Everywhere
Really, the concept of themed campaigns are everywhere. When you choose a roleplaying game to play you are adhering to a very broad theme. Shadowrun provides futuristic cyberpunk themes while D&D and other fantasy games provide adventure in a fantasy environment. Even very diverse systems like Savage Worlds, Cortex, and Fudge usually have thematic limitations. When you pick up Realms of Cthulu, The Dr. Who RPG, Deadlands, Solomon Kane, Supernatural, or any of the other multitude of campaign settings in multi-genre systems, you are buying into the core concept of that world setting.

The concept of doing a themed campaign within the theme of the overal game and setting isn’t that new either. Reading through sidebars in many of the splat books, you will find suggestions for themes that you might use. I’m even sure that you or your players have had speculative conversations about a fun theme for your next game. Someone suggests that it would be fun to play as members of a particular order or play as all one class.

By no means am I suggesting that the idea of a themed campaign is unique or unknown, but I am asking a question. When it comes down to the next game you run, will you fall back on the ragtag group of adventurers theme just because it is easiest? If so, why? Talk with your players about a themed campaign and see what kinds of things it might enable for your group. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who have wanted to run a campaign around a particular theme, but never quite gotten there for one reason or another. I’m also betting there are lots of people who have done themed campaigns to try out a concept or get something different from the base experience. What themed campaigns have you run? What ones would you like to run? What do you do to make the limitations of a themed game easier on players?



* Yeah, I know. I’m trying to apply some sense of logic to a medium that excels when wildly fantastic things occur. It’s more about the logic inherent to the game world you are playing in though. Even in a world where mercenary squads might be common, many of them would be aimed towards specific purposes or jobs and would stop pursuing the main plot once their contract was up.

19 replies
  1. Arparrabiosa
    Arparrabiosa says:

    I like themed campaigns a lot. They work a lot better that the standard ragtag approach. My last was about a group of rebels fighting the oppressor :).

  2. EgoPoisoning
    EgoPoisoning says:

    The various group feats (both the guild-training ones and the tribal ones) really should have been pushed forward as part of something like this. I wonder if, had they set a precedent for giving characters free things with Dark Sun’s Themes first, they would have tried for something along those lines with those feats.

    Something else that I’ve seen used recently to help bring a thematic element to a campaign is to inform the players of the campaign, or even first adventure, goal…then have the players build their characters and bring them together in the standard hodgepodge style before the adventure. Giving them time to roleplay together, or even (as one of my DMs is doing) breaking the overall group into connected dyads and triads who interact, helps increase the overall cohesion of the group that finally emerges.

    Granted, it’s still a step below what you rightly espouse here, but you do still have characters whose past experiences give them cause to trust one another.

  3. lyle.spade
    lyle.spade says:

    I prefer themed campaigns, with all the requisite buy-in and shared construction of the story told through the theme, as well. I’m currently running an Eberron campaign, too, using Pathfinder. My players wanted to be part of something big from the outset, and wanted to get involved in earth-shaking things down the road. So we decided to make them operatives of The Twelve. It was a great way to make sense of having a party of marked heirs from different houses; it created for me a benefactor/boss that could act as a conduit for direction from me, without relying on the sophistry of the dude in the corner of the tavern; and it provided for us a springboard for the bigger things to come.

    We decided, before starting, that at some point the PCs would become fugitives from the 12, and would have to go on the run, becoming (in their words) some kind of ‘A-Team’ that could get involved in a variety of stories, and have a built-in reason to travel frequently. In this, we found a solid way to incorporate some of the underlying themes of Eberron as a setting, and did so in a manner that built the buy-in needed in a themed campaign.

  4. Toldain
    Toldain says:

    I’m currently running a campaign that is themed, but almost by accident. The game started with two characters, on my wife’s PC, the other my NPC that were half-siblings (half-elf, half-orc, same mother). They were signing on as caravan guards. We brought in two other players with the only requirement that they be willing to sign on as a caravan guard.

    They still think of themselves as that, though the jobs they’ve taken have involved them in bigger “goings on”. And the people that sought them out and hired them specifically had some pretty good reasons for doing so.

    I started it without having a whole arc planned, though I have one now, which I worked out by asking, “What mission would caravan guards get that would also be stuff that interests these players.”

  5. XonImmortal
    XonImmortal says:

    I like themes, personally. For one thing, I don’t have to come up with cockamamy reasons for the players to work together.

    For one game, a playtest of a system I was working on, I gave the players a map of a small neighborhood in the town, and specified that their characters had to live in this neighborhood and work nearby. The neighborhood was large enough that there was a diversity of small shops, which I listed only as the type of shop, and residences were listed by race and/or professions.

    It worked so well, that the players were able to figure out for themselves why they were adventuring together while they introduced their characters to each other. They were able to build up a consensual vision of the neighborhood, past events, and trivia about past interactions.

  6. Volcarthe
    Volcarthe says:

    One of my favorite themed games was where we all played dwarven brothers and sisters in search of our long, lost father.

    Simple and not too heavy-handed, it allowed for everyone to build whatever they wanted as far as class went but the small touch of “you’re all family” really helped everyone bring their characters to life.

    Themed games work best when the players create characters together and are willing to try things for the sake of the game rather than sticking to their standard style of play.

  7. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @EgoPoisoning – Mechanical elements that back up a theme are always nice. In one themed campaign where the players were soldiers, I gave the group a +1 die bonus to combat if at least 3 of them were there at once. It represented their joint combat training and ability to work together. When there are mechanical aspects that back up the theme, then you see a lot more player engagement with the theme.

    @lyle.spade – I like the fact that you have a predetermined plot twist. While it may not feel as organic, knowing about it beforehand helps the players play into the roles. Very nice!

    @Toldain – The caravan guard is a pretty nice, easy to work with theme. It allows a reason but doesn’t limit the players too much, even letting them take on other “bigger” challenges. Do you still have them guarding caravans from time to time?

    @XonImmortal – Basing the theme on past events and an area like this is nifty. The group gets personal backstories and development, but they have a shared connection through where they all grew up. I bet it created lots of moments where the players could play off of each other’s knowledge of their homewtown.

    @Volcarthe – Creating characters together (or having knowledge of what route everyone else is going to take) is essential. I’ve never done a themed game where everyone was of the same race, but I would find that incredibly refreshing. Sometimes the mish mash of disparate races just feels odd. It feels natural from a story perspective, but odd from a looking at the situation perspective.

  8. Knight of Roses
    Knight of Roses says:

    Themed campaigns are great . . . as long as players want to buy into the theme. Like so much of good gaming, it requires good communication and group agreement.

  9. Chris
    Chris says:

    I’ve had some good experiences letting the players work together to give their party a theme, sometimes one completely independent of the campaign’s overarching plotline. Also, sometimes those players will give you some devious ideas you didn’t think of that can add immeasurably to your theme. And they love to see the stuff they came up with early on rear its ugly head in later story arcs.

  10. unwinder
    unwinder says:

    My brother has been sitting on an excellent themed campaign idea for a few years now, and still hasn’t gotten around to it.

    The concept is that all the PCs are orphans living in a hilariously oppressive Dickensian orphanage, and are constantly bullied by the monstrous orphanage administration. The PCs would be sent out to perform extremely undesirable tasks like chimneysweeping, and running around under dangerous machinery in factories. The tasks would always wind up involving monsters and magic.

    At the beginning of every adventure, characters would roll randomly for terrible misfortunes, from disease, to having valuable items confiscated.

    The goal would be to survive to grow powerful enough to finally overthrow the terrible orphanage overlords.

    Probably not the easiest campaign to get buy-in for, but I would personally be thrilled to actually play that campaign.

  11. Big-hack-little-slash
    Big-hack-little-slash says:

    I just started a Darksun campaign that has all pc’s starting from a slave theme background. I think all the players have really enjoyed creating the slave story backgrounds for their characters, diffently created some player buy-in for a themed campaign. First session played- out terrific, with all pc’s from diffrent places/backgrounds brought together and purchased by a Templar in the city Balic, to be sacrificed at the Dragon’s Altar. Of course all pc’s managed to exscape from being sacrificed and are no longer slaves, but a group of free men now. I would like to continue keeping a slave type theme going through-out the campaign but i am running out of ideas to keep it going. Any ideas to keep it going would be appreciated.

  12. Quieo
    Quieo says:

    How feasible is it to get the players to create a joint background for their characters? I am planning on running Earthdawn based around a small airship, obviously each player has a character from the ship but I want there to be more coherency in the group. I would like to start the campaign with the characters having worked together, with a few NPCs for a while. Would it be as obvious as just giving them the setting/situation and let their imaginations run away with them?

  13. Virgil Vansant
    Virgil Vansant says:

    Running a themed campaign is a great idea. I once ran a fantasy campaign where all of the characters were teenagers from the same frontier town, inspired by a group of heroes (their characters from a previous campaign) that adventured in the area and saved the town. And recently I’ve started asking players to make sure their characters have some sort of connection with at least one other character in the party. It turns a group of strangers into a group of acquaintances at least. I encourage my players to talk together about their characters before and during their creation.

    @unwinder – your brother has a fantastic idea for a campaign.

  14. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Big-hack-little-slash – You are the second person to mention themed stuff in Dark Sun. I’m just now running a 4e game, so I’m a bit behind the loop of new publications. Does Dark Sun focus on a mechanical theme element in order to bring out the unique theme of the world?

    As far as ideas to keep it going, just keep throwing in stuff that ties into that. They might have escaped and become free, but that doesn’t mean someone is raiding towns for slaves (BBEG) or that the PCs might encounter a group of runaway slaves who need help and protection. Heck, the PCs might go free a whole group of slaves, then the slaves can look to them for leadership and safety, leading into them setting up a free area where escaped slaves can run to. There are a lot of fun story arcs you can go down with that excellent theme.

    @Quieo – That is pretty much how I did it. I laid out a few parameters and said go from there. I’m actually using Obsidian Portal to manage the game. You can see the campaign wiki here:

    One important aspect of getting the theme going was the Game Charter. I made sure the players knew what they were in for, and we talked about things we wanted to see in the game.

  15. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    I like the article. I don’t really have much to add to it, but I like it. I think themed campaigns are a great way to go, especially if one is tired of the same old same old.

  16. MuadMouse
    MuadMouse says:

    The best thing about themed campaigns is that they encourage player initiative. When the group has a common, more-or-less clearly defined objective, the job of the GM becomes less about coming up with meaningful adventures and more about supplying twists to the tasks the PCs set for themselves. In my Dark Heresy campaign, where the PCs are fugitive acolytes out save their sector of space, I need only ask the players at the end of each session what they intend to do next; then I just figure out how their antagonists respond and the majority of my pre-game prep is done!

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