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Tying Characters to a Campaign's Theme

by Mike on 23 May 2022

The value of tying characters to the theme of your campaign during a session zero cannot be overstated. It avoids tons of problems often plaguing long-term campaigns in which the characters' motivations aren't clearly tied to the plots and themes of the campaign. Though it seems heavy handed, wiring the character's motivations to the theme of the campaign pays dividends throughout the entire campaign.

A Valuable Piece of a Session Zero

Session zeros offer tremendous value for our RPGs. They ensure we and our players manage our expectations before our campaign starts. They help ensure players build characters together with a clear cohesion to the rest of the group. They expose the most important elements of the campaign and the world to the players so the players know what they're getting into and can build their characters appropriately. They ensure we're all playing the kind of game we're comfortable with including a good escape button.

Session zeroes also give the DM the opportunity to wire the central theme of the campaign into the character's backstories before the players run wild with their ideas and ended up with characters that don't fit the campaign's theme.

Example 1: Descent into Avernus

The hardcover adventure Descent into Avernus has a problem with themes. I wrote about this in my series of articles on Descent into Avernus previously but to summarize, as written, the characters have little motivation to actually go into Avernus to save a city they have no connection to. The solution to this is simple:

Tie the characters to Elturel, the Hellriders, and Reya Mantlemourn.

During character creation we can reinforce this by writing the following in our one-page campaign handout and discussing it during our session zero:

Your characters work together with Reya Mantlemourn and the Hellriders to protect and serve the city of Elturel.

Right up front we've tied everything together. The players can choose how their characters fit with this theme but they'll understand the theme of the adventure. They may be ambassidors from another city. They may be knights or squires or sages or priests. They can decide the particulars. What they can't do is decide they don't give a fig for Elturel and wander off when the city falls into a hell-pit.

Example 2: Rime of the Frostmaiden

As written, the hardcover adventure Rime of the Frostmaiden could have a similar disjointed theme if we don't handle it right. If the characters' theme is to end the endless night surrounding Icewind Dale, they won't have much reason to complete the quests in and around Ten Towns. Thus, it's important that we wire the theme of the early campaign to the backgrounds of the characters as well as the larger goal. Thus, we end up with:

Your characters work together the help the people of Ten Towns survive the Endless Night.

This theme fits with the quests in the early part of the book as well as the late. If the theme were to stop the endless night, the characters would question why they were doing all of these unrelated odd-jobs for townfolk that seem to have nothing to do with the endlesss night of Icewind Dale. If the characters find themselves later able to do something about it, that still fits the theme of helping Ten Towns survive it.

Knowing how the theme you push fits all of the adventures your going to run is critical when designing this theme.

Push the Theme Hard

On the assumption your players are on board with the overall theme of the campaign in the first place, they shouldn't have much trouble accepting the theme as it relates to their characters. It's important to push this theme before they start working on their characters. It's harder to shoehorn the theme onto a character if they already have one built.

Characters Working Together

Part of our theme should always reinforce that the characters work together. They are a group, not a bunch of infighting hermets. They can have their own individual backgrounds and motivatons of course but they're working together towards the fulfillment of the campaign's goal.

Guided Character Development

Many D&D games ignore connecting characters to the theme of a campaign. It can feel like railroaiding before the campaign even began. However, when the players build characters with a clear focus on the theme of the campaign, everyone's going to be happier with the result. Many questions fall away and everyone enjoys their time going on adventures with their friends.

Tie characters to the theme of the campaign.

Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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