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.
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.