Lately there’s been discussion about the character generation process. You can find earlier posts here, here, and over at Cirsova and Fuzzy’s Dicecapades. This post is a continuation of that discussion.
First: What’s the difference between concept and theme?
I’ll pulling this straight from the Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne and various posts and writings by Steven Pressfield–especially Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh^t. Why? Because their definitions make the most sense, better than what I learned as an English major, and I’m certain that this these definitions can be applied to gaming.
Concept: A summary of a story in a sentence or a paragraph at most. It tells us how the story begins, the middle build, and the possible ending.
Here’s a couple of examples applied to D&D:
“The characters are explorers of a lost and ancient tome filled with death traps and a nearly impossible villain to kill at the end, but if they succeed, they’ll be very wealthy and have bragging rights.” —The Tomb of Horrors.
“The characters have become transported to a strange demiplane where the powers of darkness rule, if they perform certain acts of good, and don’t succumb to the evil themselves, they may find their freedom.” —Ravenloft (The original module, the campaign setting, etc.)
Theme: The universal message of a story, a “Jungian Archetype,” which can be summarized as something like: “Love conquers all,” or “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
The Tomb of Horrors: “The pursue of riches and knowledge without the temperament of experience and wisdom will lead to death and damnation.” Or “Pride goes before the fall.” (Since Gygax designed the Tomb to humble boastful players).
Ravenloft: “The cycle of evil can be broken when heroes make their stand against the darkness.”
Just about every Ravenloft adventure has something to do with stopping a chain of evil events.
Character Creation, Theme, and Concept
Players and game masters may not quite understand theme and concept when it works, but they know when something is counter to them.
Creating an evil character might work in the Tomb of Horrors, but not so much in Ravenloft–they might as well just play the villain.
A character with a goofy names like Beek Gwenders of Croodle might not work in either the Tomb of Horrors or Ravenloft, depending on the GM’s vision. Is the Tomb of Horrors being run as a one-shot, a “beer and pretzels” style of play? Or is it part of a longer campaign?
It’s important, however, to note the Tomb of Horrors and Ravenloft are set in the horror genre. If the GM is trying to instill horror at the tabletop, playing a magic pixie named “Bubbles” would probably run counter to the theme.
If game master explains at least the concept of the game before play, a lot of miscommunication, confusion, and time wasted creating the wrong character can be avoided.
Some players, of course, will insist on playing a certain character though it may run counter to the concept. “Sorry, Paladins won’t work in this Ravenloft campaign, they stick out like a sore thumb to the powers of darkness.” This can me innocent enough, and the player should roll up another character.
What’s particularly annoying is when the player persists–especially if they want to run a goofy character in horror campaign.