December 30, 2019

Distinguishing Your Tabletop RPG with Theme and Flavor

Today’s #worldbuildingMonday post is all about Theme & Flavor: the high-level characteristics which distinguish your world and story from another in the same genre.

Take Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, two of the most popular high fantasy books & stories of the past century. But the theme and flavor of each story are drastically different; no one confuses one for the other despite technically living in the same genre.

GoT’s theme is meant to mimic real life while living in a fantasy setting: that an intrinsic part of humanity is to perpetuate the cycle of lust for power and control, and the terrible consequences that arise along that journey. Its flavor is its diaspora of peoples, cultures, and histories, all of which elegantly intertwine to be the bedrock and backdrop for how its theme extrapolates throughout the books.

Lord of the Rings by contrast also takes place in a high fantasy setting, albeit one with elves, dwarves, and orcs. LOTR’s theme is that when good bands together under a common goal, it can overcome any evil. But when it falters, and they fail to find common ground, that’s when evil wins.

Its flavor is its sheer depth of history, its spirituality, and its sound management of profoundly important themes like sacrifice, bonding, perseverance, and keeping perspective during trying times.

A critical step for the TTRPG worldbuilder, both during planning and afterward, is to write out what they feel their theme(s) and flavor(s) are as one would with a mission statement. Not necessarily to say “my story and world is different than that story and world” but to put a stake in the ground on what makes your story and world unique, what makes them special.

Sit with that challenge and make sure you take the time to be thoughtful in your answers to those questions. Oftentimes, you’ll find yourself confronting your assumptions about your own story and that can be an incredibly healthy process.

By looking your story world in the mirror for what it is and asking the right questions about its theme and flavor, you reveal both the areas you need to improve while strengthening your connection to what make it tic.

Every now and then during your worldbuilding, revisit these questions about theme and flavor and continue to refine your answer. You’ll be surprised at how much value you’ll get from the activity over time. Your answers will change, grow, and evolve as your story and world progress.

Never leave free insight on the table!