A Penny for Your Thoughts

Creating Theme

Ron Edwards calls it "answering Premise." Lajos Egri calls it "proving your premise." Fang Langford used to call it "making a thematic statement." You could reasonably call it "making your point," "showing your position," or "making your case." Usually I call it "creating theme" or "taking on the issue." Doesn't matter - it's the same thing.

I read Ron's work hard for a year without getting it, before I read Egri. I could have read Egri hard for a year too. It was making the leap between what Ron said and what Egri said, all the while paying close attention to what was happening in the games I was playing, that let me get it. I don't know what will "get it" for you. Maybe this, maybe not, but nothing will in the absence of self-reflective actual play. It's not enough to read my words and understand them, you'll have to examine your own roleplaying and figure out what I'm talking about.

To do that, you're going to have to grant, at least provisionally, that I have something to say to you about your play. That we have similar experiences of roleplaying, you and I and everybody. There's something to what we're doing that's deeply in common.

Part 1: Winding it up
Here's how to create theme. This is like a recipe or a guidebook: here's what you need.

A) You don't have to have a theme up front. You have to have an issue up front. The issue has to have at least a couple of credible sides to it. "Friendship vs. family" is an issue with a couple of credible sides. "Personal inconvenience to me vs. the destruction of all life including mine" isn't. Neither is "doing nothing in particular vs. saving many lives plus winning true love plus treating my enemies with dignity." Neither is "sacrificing my friend's life to defeat my enemy vs. saving my friend's life and defeating my enemy anyway."

If a reasonable person couldn't defend the other side, it's not really an issue. You need an issue.

B) You need a character with a stake in the issue. "I take one side of the issue very strongly" is a stake in the issue, and so is "I have to choose between the sides," but those two are just the most obvious and simplistic. As you add complexity, characters get more and more interesting.

As I write I'll mostly stick to the obvious, to make it easy to talk about. Don't take me to be endorsing simplisticness! See if you can't imagine how what I'm saying multiplies and interlaces, how the possibilities expand, and how up from this very simple baseline things only get cooler.

Anyhow yeah you need a character with a stake in the issue.

A + B) You don't need (A) and (B) in order. You don't need to choose your issue and then create your character accordingly. You can do it in reverse: create your character first, then either examine her carefully and identify the issue she already has a stake in, or else tweak her until she gets a stake in an issue. Both are easy! But there are even more options...

C) You need a situation. In fact you need a dynamic situation. The character needs to be in it, of course, and it has to be dynamic across the issue.

I say "dynamic across the issue;" I might equally say "problematic, and the problem is an instance of the issue," "unstable, and the fault line is based on the issue," or "untenable, and what makes it so is the pressure of the issue."

A + B + C) Instead of choosing an issue and a character up front, you can start with the situation. Or even - it's very common for people to come up with all three together in a single moment of creation.

Here's a very straightforward - again simplistic - example. A + B + C.

From Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. Character: the captain of a warship. Situation: he's pursuing a superior enemy ship, plus his best friend is on board. Issue: friendship vs. duty.

Given a character in a dynamic situation, you can identify the issue: what does the character have stakes in? Given a character with stake in an issue, you can create a dynamic situation: put the stakes at risk! Given a situation and an issue, you can figure out just what character is called for: upon whose decisions does the situation hang? The three, character issue and situation, are intimates. They create one another.

They're easy to see in your own play, once you've seen one once. They're hard to see if you're used to looking for other things. Also, before you know what you're looking at, it's easy to do a close but no cigar: create a stable situation, a character with no stake in the issue, or a non-issue instead.

D) But no, you've done it, you've created a character with a stake at issue in a dynamic situation. You've wound it up. Now turn it loose!

Part 2: Turning it loose
What happens when you take a nice solid A + B + C and develop it according to it's own logic?

Answer: the situation changes, of course.

Here's possibility 1: the situation develops in such a way that the character can ditch out of her stake in the issue. The captain with his friend on the ship? He can just drop his friend off at a friendly port, with no risk or loss. People in real world crisis crave this possibility. A character will always seize the opportunity, if there is one.

What happens then? You've scuppered your A + B + C. There's no creating theme if the character has no stake in the issue.

Here's possibility 2: the situation develops in such a way that it's no longer dynamic - that is, unteneble - across the issue. The captain chooses to save his friend's life instead of pursuing the enemy ship, but gets another chance at the enemy ship anyway. Now instead of friendship vs. duty, you have a situation across friendship vs. duty+friendship. You've scuppered your A + B + C again! There's no creating theme if the issue has only one credible side.

(And thus the movie was a failure. And thus the movie was spectacular, but hollow, and developed no lasting following. And thus nobody remembers it in their top 100.)

Here's possibility 3: the situation develops in such a way that the character is cut out of meaningful participation. What if the captain's friend suffers his life-threatening accident too far from Golapagos, so the captain is helpless to save him? He can't choose between friendship and duty now! You've scuppered your A + B + C yet again. Making him powerless to choose friendship makes him powerless to choose at all, and there's no creating theme if the character's got no input.

Here's possibility 4: the initial situation is pregnant with conflict, but develops in such a way that the conflict never quite materializes. The captain, the friend, the enemy ship - but what if there's no Golapagos and the friend doesn't get hurt? They sail around, engage the enemy, and the issue never quite becomes an issue. There's no creating theme then either.

Here's possibility 5: what if you see one of possibilities 1-4 on the horizon, and to avoid it you violate the logic of the characters or the setting? For instance, if the captain could drop his friend off in a friendly port to get him out of danger, at no risk or cost, but, seeing that then there's no story, you have him choose not to for no good reason.

That's what we'd probably call a "plot hole," and it too makes creating theme impossible. Instead of developing the situation to its logical conclusion, you've contrived inhuman behavior for the character and we, your audience, will never believe what you say. You've killed your theme dead dead dead.

But here's possibility 6: the issue becomes conflict. The character is and remains fit, that is, capable of taking on the rigors of conflict and opposition. The issue is and remains compelling and inescapable - there's no side door out. The character can't ditch out of his stake in the issue and go home - there's no back door out. In short, the character has no choice but to get through it, and getting through it is goind to take everything the character's got.

What happens then?

The logic of conflict and consequence takes over. I've written about this quite a bit: resolving the immediate conflicts that make this situation unstable transforms this situation into a new one. Since neither the character nor the opposition can ditch out and go home, the new situation will be a step up in stakes and intensity. The situation marches up and up, the character stakes more and more, the individual conflicts become more and more intense. Ultimately, and inevitably, the situation becomes a crisis, with the character risking everything, everything to gain and everything to lose. Resolving this final crisis resolves the character's overall stakes in the issue. We land at last in a stable situation - a tenable situation, a situation lacking compelling and immediate conflict.

Does the captain choose to save his friend's life or to fulfil his duty and capture his enemy? Now we know.

A Reminder
Before we go on, let me just remind you that I'm talking about this in the most simplistic possible terms. It sounds like I'm talking about a stupid action flick, right? Well, the truth is that the flick I'm thinking about mostly isn't Master and Commander but The Royal Tenenbaums. Watch that one again. Don't worry about the issue, but notice right up front who's in conflict with whom and what's at stake, and keep noticing. The escalation in that movie is dizzying.

A novel, pick any one, even moreso. Lord of the Rings? Foucault's Pendulum? Frickin' Infinite Jest? All conflict all the time, all urgent, all single-minded, not a wasted word. A novel may seem slower, but that's just because of the depth, breadth and subtlety that the medium allows.

Part 3: The answer is not the theme
The captain, confronted with the terrible choice between saving his friend's life and fulfilling his lifelong duty, chooses. He turns his ship around and returns to Golapagos where his friend can recover, letting his enemy get away.

Friendship vs. duty. Is that the theme, then? Friendship?


A theme has two parts: the answer and the outcome. A theme looks like this: ___ causes ___. ___ creates ___. ___ does ___.

So what we know is the first half of the theme: Choosing friendship over duty causes ___.

The second half calls for judgement. The character made a choice: was it the right choice? Was it worth it? Was it the moral choice? What does the character's choice say about people, about society, about being human, about being good?

Imagine: the captain saves his friend's life, losing his quarry. As a result he's relieved of command, but he and his friend together invest in a trade ship and sail away together, hand in hand.

Choosing friendship over duty preserves the wholeness of your heart, which is better than duty fulfilled.

Imagine: the captain saves his friend's life, losing his quarry. As a result, his nation's place in the world is threatened, thousands of innocent people die, and guilt gnaws his soul. His friend tries to comfort him but that's just worse, and he hangs himself in a navy prison before his court martial.

Choosing friendship over duty costs you all of friendship, purpose, and honor.

Imagine: the captain sacrifices his friend's life, doggedly pursuing his enemy. He smashes his enemy and receives glory, acclaim and promotion. Everywhere he goes he sees his friend's ghost, and his glory is hollow.

Sacrificing friendship for duty is like sacrificing your soul for ashes.

Imagine: the captain sacrifices his friend's life, doggedly pursuing his enemy. It's a hard and bloody fight, leading to further hard and bloody fights. In the midst of battle he comes to trust a new friend. His pain passes as pain will. He honors his friend's memory and continues his career.

Friendship comes and goes; your duty is yours all your life.

The leap from specific - this character did this, and here's what came of it - to general - if you do this, here's what could come of it - requires the logic of character, setting and situation to be absolutely sound. If you're not a Christian, try reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; if you're a feminist, try reading Dune. You'll find that the books' conclusions ring false, because you don't accept the logic that underlies them. Their characters don't seem like real people, their settings don't seem like real worlds. You wind up going, "sure, choosing friendship over duty costs you friendship, purpose and honor - in bizarro world!"

So, to sum up. Creating a theme means: a convincing human character in a situation that's dynamic across the line of a compelling issue, escalating naturally through increasingly high-stakes situations, ultimately to crisis and resolution, establishing outcome and consequences, and then finally generalizing the whole thing to our human experience.

...Hey, this is kind of an aside, but notice how there's no "and articulating it" step? It's true. What matters is whether it's there, not whether anybody says it out loud.

For instance, I can tell you the theme of Master and Commander, it's "it's better to fulfill both friendship and duty than to sacrifice friendship for duty." (To which I respond "I spent 3 hours of my life to learn that? Man.") We can then argue about whether I'm right, we can go to the text and support our various positions, maybe I'm misreading it or dumb, maybe there's some other theme it has even more strongly than the one I noticed - but my point is, not noticing theme isn't the same as there is none. You can create theme without realizing you've done so. You can do the whole bit, fit character locked into moral conflict, escalating to explosive climax, judging the outcome - you can do the whole bit without ever thinking of it at all.

Spotting theme when it's there, spotting theme as you create it, is a learned skill. It's wicked easy to learn but it's not automatic, and it's a skill that our gamer- and consumer- cultures don't cultivate.

Part 4: Theme in the truly wild
So that's been all about fiction.

Roleplaying is a kind of fiction, a medium, same as the short story, the novel, the film, the poem or the play. It has its own set of techniques, limitations and concerns. Some of them are radically different from those of other forms; some are surprisingly similar.

No way I can cover them all. That's the ongoing work of game design; it's a subject bigger than my blog plus the Forge plus all our lives. But I can begin to start to barely touch on a couple; consider this part 4 to be raising questions, not providing answers. Easier ones first, the big one last:

Multiple protagonists. This is a really easy problem to solve, actually. You can look to novels, good TV, and enseble films all for successful strategies. Typically the various protagonists have their own stakes in the same core issue - like Buffy, Willow, Xander, Oz, Cordelia, Giles, Angel, Spike, Riley and Faith, all struggling with love and loyalty. That way, as each character's individual situation escalates and comes to crisis, it casts light on and applies pressure to the others'. Instead of one single decision and outcome to judge, you get lots and lots, all intertwined and sexy.

Other approaches?

Diverse visions. Creating an RPG group is like beginning a collaborative writing project (or dare I say it, a band). Of course you'll spend a lot of time and attention negotiating vision. Good rules will help. Bad rules will help too, even! The minimum standard for rules, good or bad, is that they help a group maintain compatible vision. Rules that don't, the group ditches them at the gate.

But, establishing a strong shared vision. How? How in the world?

Dice. Dice are absolutely destructive to your theme in progress if they violate the logic or causality of your fiction. We human beings are very good at logic and causality; we ditch the dice easily, and successfully, at the first sign of such trouble.

Dice are absolutely constructive to your theme in progress if they help create and sustain high-stakes conflict. We human beings are less good, as it happens, at making intense conflict fun and easy. We tend to take it personally, I think. Anyway, ditching dice often leads to duller, less highly charged play.

The trick to dice, then, is just to find dice mechanisms that give you all of the latter and none of the former. We have some very good such mechanisms available now, and more all the time!

Like what?

Any others? Mention them in the comments thread.

But here's the most important concern, I think: you don't get to decide up front what's going to happen.

It's possible to sit down to write with a theme already in mind. This is what Lajos Egri recommends to playwrights; from it comes names for creating theme like "proving your premise" and "making your point." You say to yourself, "self, don't you think that choosing friendship over duty costs you friendship, fulfillment and purpose all? Let's write a story to demonstrate this." It's probably a functional way to write (not the way I write, but probably functional). But doing it that way in roleplaying is hard and even dare I say it bad. It requires you to arrange participation in the game in some highly constricted and problematic ways. It requires you, essentially, to cut everyone who doesn't already know, love and agree with your theme right out of the process. You can't allow their free input, or you'll lose your precious theme.

Fortunately, thinking up your theme first and then setting out to create it isn't the only way. Not for writing and not for roleplaying. Go back and look again at what it takes to create theme: fit character, dynamic sitch, escalate escalate escalate, outcome, judgement. You can start at the beginning! All you have to do is set up a good initial situation, with good initial characters, and then have good situation-to-situation escalation.

And here's where this intersects everything else on my blog: initial setup and situation-to-situation escalation are the game designer's. As game designer, I reach into your group and I influence how you set up your situations and how you resolve them. That's my whole job!

Anyhow, as far as process goes, Stephen King and Ursula LeGuin probably have more useful things to tell us than Lajos Egri does. They say to choose an interesting character and see what happens. They're exactly right.

Now you know what makes a character interesting and how "see what happens" really works.

I wrote this five days ago, and since then I've already had important conversations on the subject, not reflected. Especially check out my conversation with Charles in this thread: Person vs. Protagonist.

Can I just plead with you again to read my "compelling and immediate conflict," my "escalating stakes and intensity," my "explosive final climax," my "risking everything, everything to gain and everything to lose" as inclusively as you can possibly manage? Sometimes the most intense escalation is a soft word and backing away. Sometimes it's not showing up to something. Sometimes it's a personal decision in the middle of the night. Sometimes it's yelling at someone and not hitting them even though you want to. Sometimes "risking everything" means risking the whole world, sometimes your life, sometimes your marriage, sometimes just a little thing, someone's attention, someone's regard.

Charles is right: walking away from a conflict now often means that there's more at stake later. That's how you build tension. Backing out of a fight can be aggressive escalation. And then furthermore, Charles is right: deciding not to fight about it after all can be just as explosive - thematically explosive - as mayhem and bloody murder.

I wrote:

When I talk about taking on the issue - well, it's not obvious that I include "taking on the issue by refusing to take on the issue." It's not obvious that there's even a difference between "taking on the issue by refusing to take on the issue," which I fully support, and "not taking on the issue," which I think sucks.

But there is. I do.

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