Cracked-Glass-psd17675Every so often I get the urge to run a game around very tight themes – a game where all the characters are thieves in a thieves guild, a game where all the players are members of a military organization with specific ranks and duties, a modern game where intrigue and politics rule the day, not pure combat, etc. Something with a definite, described theme with information provided to the players about what type of game I’m intending to run. Sometimes I’ve even done weeks and weeks of planning, writing it all out and setting up a wiki, providing a new player packet, or some level of over-preparedness to make sure that I can keep the game’s concept strong and consistent.

Yeah, that sometimes works out. More often than not something throws a monkey wrench into the game, and a fair amount of the time that wrench is one player or another breaking the theme with their character concept. Someone absolutely wants to play a fighter, not a thief. One player has been dying to play this game system, and no one else has run it or is likely to and they’ve always wanted to play this one concept, so c’mon…. please?

I’ve seen this occur in many games I’ve run with different groups and different players, and I’ve seen it in games where someone else has run and I’ve just been one of the players. When I’ve been the GM, I’ve usually caved and let that player break the theme  just a bit and allowed something that didn’t quite work, and I modified my game. Then, that one little crack broke the game into a hundred little pieces. That is what usually happened when someone else wanted to run a theme game as well. Whatever the game was, it was still fun, but it wasn’t the game intended.  It always seemed like the Game Master just didn’t want to limit the players in creating their concepts. I know I didn’t. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I prepare to run a themed game in a month or so. Should I be more strict in limiting the party in order to make it fit the theme? Usually, I prefer to let the players’ fun trump my grand ideas, but in the current game I’m playing in the theme got trampled on in the same way I’ve seen it happen in mine. It’s still fun, just a very different beast from what was originally proposed. I don’t want to see that happen to my  next game, but I have such a hard time quashing an excited player.

So, if you set out to run a themed game, how much do you limit the party to keep to the theme? Would you tell a player that they couldn’t play a concept? Would you do it even if it became a big argument? Does your mind change whether or not the player is a friend who you game with all the time or just a casual acquaintance? How important is it to you to keep the theme of the game?

Img: Attribution 3.0 Unported by  graphixwizard

21 replies
  1. Redcrow
    Redcrow says:

    I have certainly made the mistake of letting players use a character that doesn’t quite fit the theme of the game I want to run in order to be accommodating. It has never turned out well for me personally and it is not something I will do in the future. If not everyone is interested in the theme, thats fine. I would rather try something else that we can all get behind 100% rather than watch another themed game ruined because of one character that just doesn’t fit or one player who just doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the theme.

    The last themed game I attempted to run was Shadowrun with less ‘run ‘n gun’ and more of a ‘heist’ vibe ala Sneakers, Leverage, etc. I made the mistake of letting one player in with a Rigger character that had an arsenal of drones built for war. The character was also skilled in Hacking and I attempted (and failed) to try and coax the player into focusing more on that and less on the drones. Needless to say the game ended rather quickly and I know I have no one to blame but myself. I should have just told the player No.

  2. captaincutlass
    captaincutlass says:

    Saying no to players is certainly difficult. the way I do it is to create the PC’s myself. Either by creating a complete adventuring crew that works well with the themed game or by having the players tell me what they want to do and start from there. In the above example by Redcrow I would then create that rigger with emphasis on hacking and investigation skills.
    Apart from the obvious advantage a GM can focus a lot on inter-crew development and dynamics, tie-ins with the adventure etc…
    Few players are eager to play with pregens but once they get over it they seem to enjoy their guys as much (or even better?) than if they created their own. On top of that, it gives players the chance/challenge to play something they wouldn’t usually do, broadening their horizons in the process.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I enjoy playing pregens, but I know that a lot of groups I’ve been in or run for get a lot of enjoyment out of character creation. For that reason, I’ve rarely lingered long on the idea of doing a longer game with pre-gens. I might have to consider it in the future though – especially if I’m doing a game in a brand new system. It might be just what is needed to get that theme game I yearn for.

      • Orikes
        Orikes says:

        Creating characters ahead of time can be a great way to introduce a system to a group. While some players really enjoy character creation, others get terribly bored with it. I know personally I get frustrated if I put a great deal of effort into making a character I only ever get to play once. Making some pre-gens for a one-shot or to test out a system is a really good way to go, IMO.

  3. lomythica
    lomythica says:

    One way to alleviate your problems is to pitch te game as a mini series, or a limited engagement. Your player that always plays a fighter may not hold well to an all intrigue campaign, but to play a game for a few weeks, that can be a different story. The end in sight can help keep the player inline. If you’re lucky, maybe the player will even expand her interests.

    It’s better to have a short one shot or miniseries with your theme, than to destroy the theme in a long campaign.

    If it were not players I know, then I would be particular about expectations, and offer my help to develop characters.

    Lastly, if you are running a theme campaign, and the theme is the GM’s vision, the GM should be prepared for spending extra time explaining and bringing players into the fold of that vision. If someone won’t play to the theme, then they are effectively saying, “I don’t want to play your game”.

    • 77IM
      77IM says:


      My group runs “theme campaigns” like this all the time, but they are one-shots (which invariably become 2-shots or 3-shots or even 4-shots) or mini-campaigns (6-8 sessions, maybe up to 12ish).

      For a longer campaign, my guideline is, “let the players play the characters they really want to play.” It’s much easier to get emotional buy-in that way, and it’s more fun for the players to have full control over the one thing they can control.

  4. Rickard Elimää
    Rickard Elimää says:

    I haven’t really had this problem and I usually play with group concepts. You can limit the class to just rouges, but it’s always important to ask the player what the character’s part in the group is. Let them discuss this between themselves, while you can have a list of suggestions on roles.

    The thing is that the concepts are never really that important, but the hooks that I can tie to them. It doesn’t matter if I want to play a rouge campaign and one player wants to a warrior (it’s just another role in the group). I just ask how the warrior fits the concept, and I give the warrior pre-made hooks.

    The group concept can be adoptable to allow a warrior, but the player’s concept must be that as well. It’s a give and take in roleplaying games and that includes the character as well.

    Normally, the characters are made by the players on beforehand but that’s not a problem. It’s not my duty to make it work, it’s the players. So I give them a situation or a goal based on the adventure and then ask the players how everybody fit together in that situation. I could also give out a list of hooks so the players can pick one and incorporate it with the character as well as explaining how the character is a part of the group.

    Remember, you just need to make things credible for the players. If they come up with the answers, it’s obviously credible enough for them.

    • Svafa
      Svafa says:

      Similarly, I think “off” characters can work fine, so long as they fit into the group. A fighter in a thieves guild isn’t that odd, but he needs to have a reason for being there just like any rogue. He could be their brute they pull out to push around a shop owner or a tactician who plans and coordinates the operations, maybe he’s even just a mediocre thief with a history in the military or something. In some ways I think a fighter will be a better character than a thief in a heist game, simply because it takes more investment to fit the character to the concept.

      In my case, I try to tie all the PCs together during character creation. Asking how they know each other, where they met, and what they’ve done together in the past is typically enough to get players building their characters around the same theme. If you have a few players invested in the theme, then you’ll see them influencing the others to stick to the theme just by how they build relationships. When the fighter has a history with multiple thieves, at best he’s going to be a dirty cop.

      Edit: I should clarify that these questions of character relationships should be asked at the table with the whole group present. It requires the group dynamic to work well, otherwise they just write up their own unique backstories, which is not the aim of the questions.

  5. Tomaxx
    Tomaxx says:

    I usually play with the same group of people so I know more or less what kind of games they prefer to play.

    I wanted to run a serious military/intelligence themed sf game, with ranks, missions, etc, while my group is most comfortable with easy-going fantasy games.

    Knowing that they wouldn’t like my theme I decided to leave it on a shelf, waiting for better times, and ran something that would be fun for everyone: a low fantasy game based on courtly and international intrigue.

    Basically they call me a fascist military freak and I call them a bunch of hippie commie wussies and we get along just fine, in any game setting 🙂

    Bottom line: you can’t force a setting on players and hope that everything will go swimmingly. Either they will derail your concept during character creation, or at any opportunity further on. In one shots or short adventures it might work, but not if you wish to build something more long running.

  6. Lychess
    Lychess says:

    I think we’ve all had this experience, but is the problem really the players?

    Tightly themed campaigns can feel like a prison. They are very similar to railroad adventures, historical settings, and pop culture campaigns. As a player you always feel there is some sacred cow that you are tip-toeing around in order to avoid breaking the campaign. Some players are okay with this and others rebel. Even those who think they are okay with this often rebel.

    My advice for tightly themed concepts is to remember that this is a group activity. The tighter the campaign, the less involved the players will feel. Commit your tight idea to paper as a story, and then create the Braveheart campaign. The one where you can kill their characters, but you can never take their FREEDOM!

  7. Tsenn
    Tsenn says:

    In my opinion, it’s part of the buy-in. If you’ve taken the time to make a pitch and discuss the upcoming game with your players, then everyone should be clear on what is and isn’t cool for a character concept. Left-field pitchers should then be clear that they can be vetoed if they come up with something that you’ve previously discussed as being out of bounds.

    This is one of the times where the GM can and should feel right to say no. The key, as always, is communication. If you and your party aren’t clear in communicating your expectations upfront, before character generation, you risk souring the mix. In that case who do you have to blame but yourselves? Be open, be honest, work with your players but if this particular game needs a particular set of characters don’t be afraid to put your foot down.

    At the same time, try to embrace the creativity of your group. Their initial concept may simply be incompatible with what you have in mind, but what elements can you draw from it that might work? What made them come up with that idea, and why do they want to play it? Chances are there’ll be something in there you can use, and the player will be less likely to feel railroaded for the sake of your game.

    • Crimson Newb
      Crimson Newb says:

      What Tsenn said. Also, Iomythica’s idea of giving the campaign a life expectany is a good one. I would also suggest “rewarding” players with an open-concept campaign following a themed campaign.

  8. amazingrando
    amazingrando says:

    The trick is to make the concept broad enough to allow diversity. Forcing everyone to play a rogue isn’t as good as a concept that “everyone in the party is a member of the thieves guild”. The latter still promotes the theme while providing for diversity.

    The more limiting a concept is to player choice, the shorter the game should be.

  9. Knight of Roses
    Knight of Roses says:

    I have done this fairly recently (campaign framework here:, while I did not limit people excessively, I also rewarded them in character creation if they play to the campaign theme. SO, more carrot than stick.

    But echoing what people have said above, know your players and try a build a framework that will work for both you and them.

  10. griffon8
    griffon8 says:

    A friend of mine used an interesting way to get around this. Every summer (he worked for a school district) for a couple years, he would send out a list of campaign ideas he was interested in running. Everyone interested would say how interested they were in each idea, from ‘not in this lifetime’ to ‘can we do this every day?’

    Of course, it helped that he was pulling from a pool of about 15–20 people for up to 6 players. I only played in one of them, but I had a LOT of fun.

  11. MuadMouse
    MuadMouse says:

    Here’s what I do when I want to run a tightly themed campaign, and I’ve found that it works.

    First, I pitch the game to potential players, with emphasis on theme and style of play; basically, what I expect to get out of the campaign.

    Once I have my players, we get to gather to discuss character concepts and relationships. Who are these people? How do they know each other (if at all)? What would make their interaction interesting? I always insist on this being a discussion to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

    Once we have character concepts and preliminary party dynamics figured out, the characters are actually given the crunchy bits and committed to paper.

    Now, and only now, do I start planning the campaign! I have, of course, had a fairly good idea of the general direction of the thing, but I never commit to a plot without first seeing what inspiration I can get from my players.

    This gets gives me PCs that are very unlikely to stray from the theme simply because their players had a hand in its creation.

    And as a bonus, I get to mine the players for ideas I’d probably never come up with on my own!

  12. Orikes
    Orikes says:

    I honestly don’t have an issue with GMs setting up guidelines before character creation. Rather than trying to find a hammer to fit my square peg of a character into the round hole, I’d rather make a character that’s going to fit in the story that the GM is hoping to tell.

    As a GM, I always tend to set guidelines, but do so in a way that leaves room for the players to create something they’re going to want to play. In my on-going Pathfinder/Eberron game, I had all the PCs start as veterans of a mercenary company that served Breland during the Last War. This way they had some common history I could build the story on, but they had room to create pretty much anything they wanted as long as that particular piece was in their history.

    For games where I’d want a tighter flow on story and characters, I’d probably throw my effort into a one-shot or limited game where I pre-gen the characters for the players. I know with my regular group, I know them well enough to have an idea of what they’d enjoy playing. Of course, I also enjoy creating characters for one-shots and seeing what different people do with the same character. 🙂

  13. shortymonster
    shortymonster says:

    I’ve been in a game that tried to do this, making it a military type game. Five out of seven of us were fine with this, but two people just couldn’t think of a concept that fitted in, so went for civilian liaison, which meant the GM having to find ways to shoe horn them in. This was far from successful. My next campaign will be something similar, and I’m going to try something a bit different with character creation.

    The players won’t have character sheets to begin with, just a blank sheet and a pencil, and will begin the game under fire. The actions they choose to take will help define the type of character they will be playing, and this will hopefully curtail too many of them from thinking too far out side of the box. In a trench with shells raining down and gas creeping over the lip, being a soldier who knows how to cope should be option one.

  14. Nojo
    Nojo says:

    It’s also important to be up front about the theme. As a player in one campaign I kept running into an unspoken theme of heroic self sacrifice when I thought I was the Grey Mouser with family issues.

    All of us players were just playing in our own style, and the GM was constantly frustrated. That campaign got Ret-Conned so many times to stay on theme no one knew what was going on.

    It was only near the end of the campaign we found out what the theme of the campaign was.

  15. randite
    randite says:

    Heavily-themed, narrowly focused games take a lot more effort from everyone involved. They can also reap fantastic rewards. Like all games, you’ve got to have everyone’s expectations pointed in more-or-less the same direction. As Tsenn pointed out if you want your game (I’m assuming the players want it too), you’re going to have to be ready to say “no.” Well really you’d be better off saying “no, but…”.

    Try and figure out what the essence of a troublesome player’s character is (i.e “Big/Strong/Tough Thug”, “Wicked-Fast, Wild, Amoral Mercenary”, “Cutesy-but-Dangerous Child Prodigy”) and determine how to mesh that essence -or part of it- with the essence of your theme. It may take you a while to come up with something or you may draw a total blank. Players come up with the craziest shit. It’s completely ok to say, “I don’t think that’s gonna work, but lets see if we can meet in the middle.” Talk it out with your players.

    Some things obviously wont fly. If you want to do a gritty, real-world, hard-boiled, detective game and PlayerA wants to be a magical gypsy, there are some problems. You can try to convince PlayerA to be a gypsy who thinks she has magical powers but actually just has some herblore sorta knowledge. You can tell her no, go for something else. If she won’t budge well you can either sink your game or tell PlayerA she can play in the next one. There has to be some give an take both ways, but in a narrowly focused game there’s less room for it.

    In general, I find that narrow games tend to work best with skill-based rather than class-based systems. It makes it easier to diverge the characters without breaking the theme.

    As an example of me practicing as I preach (more accurately, I determined my views on the subject, in part, from this situation) see the following:

    Many moons ago, I managed to obtain a copy of the Complete Bard’s Handbook {Great 2nd Ed. Book – It essentially gives you half a dozen new Classes}. I excitedly wrote up a campaign for nothing but Bards using the Kits. Of course one player only wanted to play a fighter. I initially said “No, Damnit!” However, after a bit of thought I realized that all I needed for my theme was the idea of a troupe of performers. After a bit of discussion, she created a horse-archer who performed trick shots and helped with back stage stuff (and crowd control). The game was a very thorough success for all involved.

  16. Ron Blessing
    Ron Blessing says:

    I’ve been on both sides of this issue–with successes and failures on said sides–and I’d have to say it really comes down to social contract and adjudication of said social contract. I also have a hard time saying “no” to the players, and the way I empower myself to do so is to tell them I’ll be doing it.

    Example: I’m running a themed game. In the pitch document, I will say something along the lines of: “Character concepts will be limited to _______, and that’s because _______. Please don’t ask to make your character outside these parameters because, though I’d rather not have to, I will say ‘no.'”

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