Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital



  • I was writing a reply to another post and realized that my thoughts on this subject may be better off as a new discussion.

    We encounter a lot of Intellectual Properties that seem like they'd make a great game, but they end up floundering. And why wouldn't we look at our favorite books, movies, and shows and not want to play in them? It's what we do.

    As being discussed in the Carnival Row thread: theme is important.
    Your setting is the IP itself (Carnival Row, Harry Potter, Buffy, Battlestar), but the theme is the question that needs answering.

    How do we defeat these cylons?
    What was life like as a student during the rise of Voldemort?

    The problem with some IPs is that the theme question becomes fuzzy. Take Dresden Files for example. I fucking love this series. A coworker and I chat about it daily (I'm taking my time on the most recent book; he's about 7 books in). But I've had to admit to myself: it doesn't make a good game.

    The reason is that when you take away the set dressing, it's just another urban supernatural game. You might as well be playing 'WoD with limitations.'

    And while I've, for a long time, felt that's because some things lend themselves better to plucking a metaplot out of the air (Star Wars: pick an era, you have an antagonistic force baked right in), I think it's actually a much easier answer:

    Is the entire story contingent on a single hero? Or is it about a group of people?

    Buffy had a cast we all loved, but when it came down to it: it was about Buffy. Take her out and the whole thing falls apart. She was the star the rest of the solar system revolved around.

    But take the Magicians, for example: their world lends to conflict. The last season of the show is a wonderful example. We saw groups outside of the main cast affected by the magicians vs hedge witches and magic shortage. Affected by and working to resolve, both.

    The story exists without the star. This is the case with something like, say, Star Trek. Take away whomsoever you might think is the star and the story continues.

    Now, that doesn't mean the others are bad stories, but it does mean that (IMO) they make the challenge of building a game that much more difficult.

    You need to have that theme question. And when I consider the fact that I can go on Generic WoD City Game #17, a Dresden Files game, or a Buffy game, and make the exact same character on all three ... the theme falls apart.

    It's why I absolutely believe that metaplot has to come with the game. It doesn't have to be a metaplot you roll out as massive, world-altering chapters (like Arx does), but it has to be present because the characters (and players) need something that keeps them within the world and makes them feel relevant.

    But for me, the very first question when approaching an IP: is this setting suitable for an ensemble cast? In a way that enables each and every person to have an impact as opposed to being simply an observer?



  • @Auspice said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    But for me, the very first question when approaching an IP: is this setting suitable for an ensemble cast? In a way that enables each and every person to have an impact as opposed to being simply an observer?

    This is absolutely how I'm trying to craft my fantasy game (again).

    My first set-up was a (mildly original) setting based off the 2E Chronicles of Darkness that permitted players to select their stats to fit particular archetypes. This set-up I am now working on is a (mildly original) setting based off of FS3 where what a player picks as their background (Race, House, Role) provides them with Advantages that makes them ideal for particular archetypes. In particular, magic, where your particular House (and their worship of one of the Gods/Firsts) dictates what kinds of magic you can wield (for example, picking the (for lack of a context and/or a full description of the lexicon of the setting) Earth Goddess gives you access to (for lack of better terms) Forces and Life (because it's just easier to call them that to conceptualize what you get).

    I think that the more a game keeps roles discrete, the less the game should tolerate deviance. If you want an ensemble game, then you definitely want to keep the lines strictly drawn. It is easier to set up these limits if you set them up clearly in the setting. This is also why I'm taking the (somewhat drastic, maybe) step of writing up the mythology, history, and culture wholecloth.


  • Pitcrew

    I don't know, you may be too narrowly focusing on Theme as the actions of the main protagonist.

    In the Dresden Files example especially there is a large, interesting ensemble cast. The Knights, Thomas, Molly, Butters, the Paranet, etc. Heck, even Ghost Story was largely about how things continued on without the Star.

    There have been at least three long lasting, active Dresden File games in the last decade or so that I'm aware of. One thing I can think of in common with them is that none of them had Harry Dresden as a character, NPC or otherwise, he just never made an appearance. The theme was there, the world building was there, everything you needed for a game.



  • @WildBaboons said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    The theme was there, the world building was there, everything you needed for a game.

    But tell me this:
    What makes it a different game from just 'World of Darkness with limitations'?

    I played on a Dresden game once and it very quickly became 'The primary Wizard (aka Harry-analog), his apprentice (aka Molly-analog) and their friends.' The rest of us were literally told 'Staff is not going to be providing stories for anyone outside of this group. If you want plot, you have to make your own.'

    Because they realized they couldn't consistently create world-affecting plot. Anything they generated largely fell apart when faced with multiples of X archetype.

    ETA: Also, we need to stop conflating 'theme' with 'setting.' The setting was there. A theme was not. 'You're a <X> in New Orleans in the Dresdenverse' is not a theme. It's a setting. 'The Red Court is on the rise and Mab is pushing to answer, with humans caught in the middle.' is a theme......but unfortunately, once again, it's one answered by a very small, core cast while everyone else sits on the sidelines and maybe gets to take part in the big final battle.



  • Double-posting because...

    This is something that actually irks me. Theme and setting are two different things.

    I can have two Battlestar games. One is about the beginning of the war, the rise of the Cylons, and humanity's fumble. The other is about the end stages of the war when humanity has to find a place to rebuild. Both are BSG. But both have very different atmospheres (IC). One is about failure the other is about hope. One can become the other, yes, but the driving theme at the start is still different.

    WoD and D&D - these are not settings. They are toolsets that dictate the rules of the world. So 'World of Darkness game set in modern day Brussels' has no theme. It has a setting and a guidebook.

    'World of Darkness game set in Iraq during the start of the Gulf War' has a theme. A really weird theme, but a theme.

    I honestly feel the fact that we let theme and setting be interchangeable words means a lot of people are missing out on the theme question when building their game.

    I have a world I've been developing IRL. It's sci-fi, humanity spread around the galaxy, etc etc... but the theme is 'Fighting against an oppressive government' for my story in particular. I could pluck another one out of there and make it, say, 'Exploring new worlds' and it would wildly change the story being told.



  • @Auspice

    I remember the game you're talking about, aaaand yeah. There was definitely a "Harry Dresden with the serial numbers filed off" character, and (at least while I played) the only joinable org was explicitly his merry gang of ne'er-do-well backup dancers. There was even an actual CG rule IIRC that basically said "you can't ever be a Warden, we only have one and it's his special position that can never never be anyone else's ever" even though that wasn't technically themely even at that point in the series.

    But that's pretty anecdotal, and a little weird to apply to the setting in general when that's...really been a fairly common scenario for the hobby at large -- "small group of friends run an OTT for each other, decide to open to the public but are not willing to retire their characters and broaden the focus" is just your typical Staff Sandbox, not a specifically Dresden Files problem. There's a lot of baked-in themes and fun faction conflicts for a Dresden Files game, you just need to actually run it that way.


  • Pitcrew

    It seems like by "World of Darkness with limitations" you mean any and all urban fantasy that isn't world of darkness. Not sure how to answer that one.

    @Auspice said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    I played on a Dresden game once and it very quickly became 'The primary Wizard (aka Harry-analog), his apprentice (aka Molly-analog) and their friends.' The rest of us were literally told 'Staff is not going to be providing stories for anyone outside of this group. If you want plot, you have to make your own.'

    That reads like an example of bad staffing, not bad theme. If the theme of the game is red court is on the rise and Mab is meddling and the staff only lets a small subset of the game participate.. as Wizz said, that happens everywhere.


  • Pitcrew

    This is why I think scope is important.

    I loathe the buffy TV show and do not really care for the Battlestar reboot. However I adored playing in/exploring those settings on mushes, maybe I enjoyed it more because I wasn't stuck in the loop of "unless this is like the tv show I like then it sucks/is not fulfilling"?

    I personally prefer defined scope in a game. And I also very much prefer limited scope.

    A single or curtailed spheres. Focus on a specific planetary system (or on a station, or on a ship), a specific time period before or after the novel/tv/movie. All special snowflake power people. Or none. Or a mix.

    I think game runners could save themselves some aggravation by booting (after of course, trying to discuss with them the reasons for a decision of scope) people who cannot let go of being horribly disappointed that they can't play <outside of scope whatever> on that game and how they just cant believe it and want to fight/figure out a way around it.

    It really sucks that you have to do both (detail the scope AND remove people who cannot get over it) if you do not want a free for all game (and if that is what you want, awesome!) But I am glad to see more and more gamerunbers being more firm about that.



  • @Auspice said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    I can have two Battlestar games. One is about the beginning of the war, the rise of the Cylons, and humanity's fumble. The other is about the end stages of the war when humanity has to find a place to rebuild. Both are BSG. But both have very different atmospheres (IC). One is about failure the other is about hope. One can become the other, yes, but the driving theme at the start is still different.

    I have to disagree a little bit.

    "BSG in the beginning of the Cylon War" is a setting too. Within that setting you could do all kinds of themes. Inter-colonial politics. Post-apocalyptic trapped-in-a-ruined-city. Space family soap opera (ala Caprica) centered around Cylon research. Or the one I chose for BSGU, aka "WWII in space shoot-em-up".

    I prefer the terms setting and hook.

    Setting is just the time/place/environment that the game is set.

    Hook is more about what you're going to do within that environment.

    Without a hook, it's just a city sandbox.



  • @WildBaboons said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    It seems like by "World of Darkness with limitations" you mean any and all urban fantasy that isn't world of darkness. Not sure how to answer that one.

    I can take just about any Dresden files story and go onto an urban supernatural game (if we must absolutely quibble over this part; I use WoD because most urban supernatural games are WoD and it's a readily available ruleset) and play it out. Magic users? Check. Vampires? Check. Werewolves? Check. ........ etc.

    There is a very big thing we have to admit to ourselves when it comes to this idea (having a theme - even a scope as @mietze put it, which is a great way to look at it): WoD is a different beast for a reason people tiptoe around.

    Sandboxing.

    'Why are these people always in temprooms?!' does not mean they're avoiding the playerbase at large. I can tell you from experience it usually means they're sandboxing in their own stories. I had a ton of fun on Fallcoast for a good number of months and it had nothing to do with the game at large and everything to do with me and the people I met making up our own stories that would've probably gotten 'wtf' looks from other people.

    I, in fact, not so long ago told someone asking for advice on a WoD game to lean into this idea. Provide multiple grids in various locations / time periods. Let people have multiple versions of their character (Jane the Werewolf in 2019, Jane the Werewolf in 1810, Jane the Werewolf in 2300...) and just administrate the overhead while giving people, essentially, a vehicle to fluidly play OTT.

    But this is an issue we have: we wonder why X games fail, but WoD Game #19282 succeeds. The two are different beasts altogether. I think, absolutely, a lot of Arx's success can be attributed to the fact that they have a very rich, well-defined theme that enables all kinds of people to get involved. If they had just the setting, but no theme (what external forces drive the characters), they probably wouldn't be as successful as they are.

    @faraday said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    @Auspice said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    I can have two Battlestar games. One is about the beginning of the war, the rise of the Cylons, and humanity's fumble. The other is about the end stages of the war when humanity has to find a place to rebuild. Both are BSG. But both have very different atmospheres (IC). One is about failure the other is about hope. One can become the other, yes, but the driving theme at the start is still different.

    I have to disagree a little bit.

    "BSG in the beginning of the Cylon War" is a setting too. Within that setting you could do all kinds of themes. Inter-colonial politics. Post-apocalyptic trapped-in-a-ruined-city. Space family soap opera (ala Caprica) centered around Cylon research. Or the one I chose for BSGU, aka "WWII in space shoot-em-up".

    I prefer the terms setting and hook.

    Setting is just the time/place/environment that the game is set.

    Hook is more about what you're going to do within that environment.

    Without a hook, it's just a city sandbox.

    You're right. I was trying to think of a single setting with multiple potential themes while also trying to organize all my other thoughts on the subject and that's what fell out. :)



  • @Auspice said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    I can take just about any Dresden files story and go onto an urban supernatural game (if we must absolutely quibble over this part; I use WoD because most urban supernatural games are WoD and it's a readily available ruleset) and play it out. Magic users? Check. Vampires? Check. Werewolves? Check. ........ etc.

    I...guess? In the broadest strokes possible? But again, you're ascribing what is a staffing problem-- in this case, inattention or even apathy about being faithful to detail in order to appeal to a larger crowd-- to the settings themselves. You can't actually play a White Council story out in the Pentacle, the two organizations have different focuses, structure, reach, conflicts and goals. Magic is fundamentally different in each setting. I guess I am just not seeing your point here.



  • @Wizz said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    . You can't actually play a White Council story out in the Pentacle, the two organizations have different focuses, structure, reach, conflicts and goals. Magic is fundamentally different in each setting. I guess I am just not seeing your point here.

    These are flavor. Aspects of setting.

    You don't get a lasting story with character development out of 'how the magic works.'

    That's part of my point. People are looking for stories. How their character gets to affect the world.

    Whether my magic is blue or red doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. 'I get to save the world from evil monsters' does.



  • I think that you're thinking with your writer's brain, and this is very good. I think, constructively, this hobby consists of role-players and writers, and role-players might not think as deeply about this stuff as a writer would. Theme is essential in many things, as is conflict. Conflict drives good characters, and if your theme doesn't have conflict that drives a character to act, then the setting is stale and milquetoast.

    So, having said that, I'll use my recent comments on Carnival Row as an example:

    One could argue that the characters sell the story, so I think you have to work it from this angle: Figure out WHY the characters are so good in the setting, consider what OTHER characters in the setting might be good, and then apply the show's format to the new characters. These new characters would be the PCs. So let's take a look at the theme.

    From what I see, that show is essentially about struggle against oppressive political forces, and by struggle I mean "succeed or starve". Philo has to struggle against his role as a seeker of justice in a racist, brutal constabulary, Vignette struggles to survive against an underworld organization while struggling to keep her people alive in a ghetto during a war, Imogen struggles against high society and fear of keeping her head above water amidst a social circle of brutal, judgmental mavens, and Agreus struggles to maintain relevance and self worth as a sort of civil rights icon in high society (a society that is racist against him).

    Is it great that Philo and Vignette have a romance? No. It's a thing, but what makes it great is that it's fucked up, dirty, desperate, and hellishly complicated.

    MY POINT: I think when you look at trying to "recreate the thunder" of a genre, the reason why the BSG games did so well is that so many of the players came on board wanting to RP putting up photographs of dead family, living in shitty bunkhouses with little privacy, and GAME RUNNERS were mostly smart to avoid giving people private rooms. They recreated the THEME, and thus the ensemble casts were mostly successful in bottling that lightning. IF YOU ARE NOT GOING TO RECREATE THE THEME then you're just creating an idealized version of the theme, which is at that point not really roleplaying within the setting's universe but an adapted one of your own making. At that point, it doesn't matter who or what you make as a character; you're not going to feel like you're walking around in that setting.


  • Admin

    I am going to be burned for this but here it is anyway; when it comes to adapting works from any medium into a game the theme plays almost no role as to its success or failure. The only time its selection really matters if it's a very poor one, otherwise you are always depending 100% on your players and staff to create and participate in interesting stories.

    @Auspice already hit one of the points there by mentioning The Dresden Files; there's next to nothing you can do with a Dresdenverse MU* that you can't really do with a WoD one. The rules of magic and creatures work differently but that's not what's important; the original work has value, it's fun to read because a good author wrote it and populated the world with interesting characters who survived impossible challenges sometimes due to plot armor.

    Those are not things you can rely on in a MU*. For starters Joe Blow's "Dresden" will be a forgettable Mage who throws fire around and wants to bang hot chicks from different urban fantasy backgrounds. His player is going to be using mechanics which are going to get the guy killed the first time he pulls one of the impossible (as there's a reason they're impossible) stunts he does in the books. Other powerful characters are going to smash him when he cracks some wise-ass joke about them because surprise, in the MU* setting he's not the main character - there isn't any such thing. Yet those are the things Dresden is great at and a large part of the reason his adventures are fun to read.

    Games must focus on gameplay first. Theme has to support that, and if it can't, the whole thing will fall apart the moment you don't have amazing players involved who can lift any material up with their creativity.



  • @Arkandel said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    For starters Joe Blow's "Dresden"

    And this is where, I think, a lot of the 'Oh, <IP> would be a great game!' stems from.

    People see X character in Y story and they want to experience Y story (or continue it if the show left things vague / they're super invested).

    This doesn't work on MUs. We're a collaborative environment with anywhere from 10 to 100 people all in the same story.

    Harry Potter is a fantastic example here. When I read the HP books / watch the movies, the character whose story I'm most invested in isn't going to be the same as @Arkandel or @Ghost or @Ganymede. It might, but I doubt the four of us have the same favorite character and favorite storyline.

    BSG is another good example here. Not everyone wants to be Starbuck, (In fact a lot of people can't stand Starbuck.) But most people who are a fan of the series can identify their own personal character/plotline that appeals.

    When it's just 'I like this aesthetic' or 'I want to walk in the shoes of my favorite PC,' a potential game is going to flounder.


  • Pitcrew

    Shared language is important for these things:

    Setting: Where/when the game takes place. The world.
    Story/Metaplot: The backdrop of the game; the larger happenings that characters interact with and smaller plotlines are built on.
    Theme: Elements that tie all of the stories (see above) together
    Scope: How big is the story; are you focusing as a game runner on the individuals, their neighborhood, the city, the country, the world, the solar system?

    These don't cover everything, nor even the most important (imnsho) question in game building, mind:
    What are the players going to do with their time in game?

    ETA: Luna is the best. fite me.



  • @Sunny said in Star vs Ensemble Cast - Why Theme is Vital:

    ETA: Luna is the best. fite me.

    She's actually my favorite, too. ;)


  • Pitcrew

    I forgot genre.

    Genre: This is like, what TYPE of game. Sci-fi, urban fantasy, etc.. I'd actually say with some of the bigger IPs, the IP itself is at this point the genre (WoD, Pern, Star Wars) at least culturally.

    ETA: Culturally as in within our hobby, to clarify.


  • Pitcrew

    I think before this conversation goes too much further some questions of definition need to be dealt with.

    For instance, @Auspice's definition of "Theme" seems to incorporate some kind of common goal for all characters. On the other hand my definition of "Theme" is simply the general setting. There could be a common goal (such as in Battlestar Galactica) but that isn't necessarily the case.

    The final definition we settle on doesn't actually matter. I'm happy to yield the position as long as the majority of other people prefer @Auspice's definition. The only things I would suggest is that A) someone doesn't just get to dictate what a term means (beyond perhaps writing something like 'in this case what I mean by X is <blah blah blah>' where X is not a term where we have already settled on a definition) and that B) if we settle on a term such as Theme and decide that it must include a common goal we then also settle on a term for when it lacks that common goal (perhaps referring to that as Setting rather than Theme).

    If we can't manage that it makes the conversation super fragmented because when @Ganymede talks about Theme I have to dig through posts to figure out what @Ganymede's definition means. Even worse, when @Ganymede gets into an argument with @Auspice about Theme it will almost always turn into a complete mess because they aren't even talking about the same thing.



  • My definition (and @Ghost sort of pointed this out but not directly) comes from the professional usage in the screenwriting (for TV, movies, video games, etc.) industry.

    While it may be absolutely selfish of me to say I'd prefer it, I do absolutely recommend it. Because it is something that can be found through research of storywriting (thus, new people coming into the hobby have a higher chance of understanding it).

    This makes me wish we had different forum software (something I do often) because other platforms often offer wikis/pages and we could build a glossary of things like this.


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