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Reinforcement: A Simple Tool for Conveying Theme, Tone, and Flavor

Posted By Martin Ralya On November 4, 2009 @ 2:18 am In GMing Advice | 4 Comments

One of the best ways to convey the theme of your campaign, the tone of your game, and the flavor of the game world is to use reinforcement — specifically, reinforcement of small things. This technique is based on two principles:

  • Choose elements that represent what you want to convey, and repeat them. As part of your game prep, consciously choose a few things you can reinforce. They don’t all need to get crammed into one session, and they should come up organically — but you have to actively make them come up for them to be valuable.
  • One or two simple details, reinforced, can be powerful. A while back, I wrote about corners in Battlestar Galactica, a small detail (the corners of every piece of paper, form, and photo in BSG are cut off, making rectangles into octagons with four very short sides) that reminds you you’re watching a sci-fi show set in a different place and time. What makes it clever is a) how simple it is, and b) how easy it is to reinforce. This is the basic guideline for choosing elements to repeat and reinforce: keep them simple and easy to implement.

Here are three specific examples that put these two principles into practice:

“Well met”

When the PCs travel somewhere new, pick a cultural detail — a style of architecture (every building has a round door, like a hobbit hole), a form of greeting (“Well met” in the Forgotten Realms), a broad trait (in a desert culture, everyone cares about water) — and use it repeatedly throughout each session.

Don’t repeat it to the point of irritation, but don’t stint on it, either; a couple of times an hour is a good rule of thumb.

If orcs are all evil, let them all be evil

One of the best ways to convey broad traits and stereotypes about organizations, monstrous species, and other groups is to show those traits in action across the whole group. If the PCs get attacked by orcs, that doesn’t show your players anything — in a fantasy game like D&D, they probably get attacked by all sorts of things.

But if the PCs happen upon an orc camp where cute little human babies are being served up for dinner, and then the orcs attack, you’ve made it very clear that orcs are Not Nice People — and something similar can be added to every encounter with orcs to reinforce this.

Fine folk known for their hospitality

If the people of a particular region are known for welcoming strangers, go out of your way to show this to your players. Innkeeps give them a discount, shopkeeps cut them a break, and everyone’s just that little bit nicer when the PCs interact with them.

They’ll have fond memories of the place after even a single session, and done right you could turn this into a great motivator for the party to do good in the region.

For some reason, I generally think about this topic in the context of fantasy RPGs, but as a technique this type of small, subtle (but not too subtle) reinforcement can be applied to just about any game, system, genre, or campaign type.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.

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4 Comments To "Reinforcement: A Simple Tool for Conveying Theme, Tone, and Flavor"

#1 Comment By callin On November 4, 2009 @ 9:40 am

This can be extended to the plot level as well. Even when the characters are not resolving an adventure that directly relates to the overall plot, I still try and throw one or two reminders in about the overarching plotline. A parallel between what is happening at the time and a past encounter, “This reminds you of the time you fought the demon insects” or “While they don’t look as fierce as the demon hounds you fought last week, they still look formidible”.

My rpg blog- http://bigballofnofun.blogspot.com/

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On November 4, 2009 @ 11:44 am

This is a great tool and really does add to the illusion of depth. Also note that players will often note your unconscious repetitions (like phrasings or descriptive touches)– when they point them out you can embrace them and reinforce them throughout, or correct your presentation if you don’t mean to imply what they’re reading from you.

#3 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 4, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

@callin – Yep — definitely. I picked one aspect of using reinforcement in your game; keeping a finger on an overarching storyline is another great usage.

@Scott Martin – That’s a good point. I’ve had players pick up stuff I wasn’t aware I was doing, and it’s generally a good thing.

#4 Comment By Sewicked On September 28, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

I don’t remember who, but someone gave me the idea of having an index card. When I spouted something off the cuff that I thought would make a could recurring element, I wrote it down. Glancing at the card would remind me of that element for me to use it again.

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