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Building Theme


When discussing any other form of storytelling, the topic of theme will eventually come up. It doesn’t matter if the medium is a novel, a film, a television series, a comic book, or even a song. The people having the discussion might be writers, readers, critics, or academics. They will exchange opinions about the deeper meaning of the adventure and what the author was trying to say.

For some reason, in over 30 years in the tabletop roleplaying hobby, I’ve never had a conversation about using a theme. Not with players, and curiously not with gamemasters, either. There’s always talk about character development, worldbuilding, and plot, other elements common to most storytelling. Even when talking to other game designers, it only comes up concerning the game-related fiction they’re writing.

The argument against the theme, or at least the explanation why no one seems to worry about the lack of theme discussion, is that roleplaying games are “entertainment.” It’s not intended to be art. They only exist to be fun. I find that offensively dismissive. People are free to play games any way they want, and that’s the joy of the hobby. But that attitude precludes the idea that some people see roleplaying as an art form and a medium for storytelling. It also ignores that serious creators often write books purely for entertainment. Shakespeare, for one example. Dickens, for another. Most of those works usually have a theme that is the core of what makes them entertaining.

Yes, roleplaying games are different in structure, and the needs of the adventure, the people telling the story, and the players is unique. They’re still stories, and embracing themes is a relatively easy way to make those stories better. It’s infinitely more interesting when the character kills the monster, steals the treasure, and levels up for some actual purpose. That looks like nearly any fantasy novel or movie. Punching supervillains and overthrowing galactic overlords are more fun when there’s some emotional connection people can relate to beyond the fight scenes and explosions.

I hope that you’ll enjoy this book for what it is. Like any other roleplaying game supplement, you can cherry-pick the bits that work for you. Incorporate them into your adventures and campaigns, and ignore the bits that aren’t your style. The objective is to help you create better engagement with your players and tell better stories. Your games are ultimately more enjoyable on as many levels as possible.

This book includes:

  • Defining Theme: How we define theme for use in tabletop roleplaying adventures. What it is and is not, and the terminology used throughout this book.
  • Theme and Characters: Applying concepts of theme to characters. How components of a theme contribute to character backgrounds, adventure hooks, and worldbuilding.
  • Theme and Worlds: Using the elements of the theme to flesh out the setting. Make worldbuilding meaningful and connect it to the player characters and adventure concepts.
  • Theme and Adventures: Adding a theme to make adventures richer, more complex, and meaningful. Connecting plots to character backgrounds and worldbuilding elements.
  • Common Themes: 13 themes frequently found in tabletop roleplaying adventures and the media that inspire them. Each gets its own chapter with extensive notes on using it with your original stories.

System-Neutral Toolkits

Building Theme is part of a line of system-neutral creative aids for all tabletop roleplayers. Use these bestselling books with any system, genre, or setting. Adapt and apply them to any game. Each volume focuses on one element, like character development, worldbuilding, or adventure design.

Lightspress Media

Lightspress Media is a tabletop roleplaying company with a lo-fi approach. Utility of content takes precedence over ostentatious production value. Graphic elements should enhance the message of the text, not act as page filler and eye candy. Physical books need to be compact, portable, and sturdy. This minimalist aesthetic results in powerful toolkits that are both useful and affordable. After all, tabletop roleplaying isn’t the book. It’s the creativity and collaboration that takes place around the tabletop. Our mission is to give you as much as you need, then get out of your way.

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George F August 24, 2022 1:16 pm UTC
Any chance of a hardcover version?
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Sarah M October 10, 2022 10:12 am UTC
There is one now! Yay!
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File Last Updated:
May 03, 2023
This title was added to our catalog on March 31, 2017.