Accidental Themes in RPGs

The Great Red Dragon, by William BlakeI have a habit of starting Pathfinder games as nothing more than beer and pretzel affairs, only to see them develop into something bigger. One of the prime examples of that would be my ongoing Night Below campaign, which has moved beyond the boxed adventure that serves as its namesake and is now borrowing heavily from the Wrath of the Righteous adventure path.

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve been able to run this game, and when I can’t run a game I tend to mull things over a lot and let certain ideas stew. This has led me to realize that what began as an excuse to string a bunch of dungeon crawls together has actually developed some Nietzschean themes over the past few years.

For the first half of the campaign, the PCs were definitely making the world a better place. They rescued kidnapping victims, stopped an evil cult, and built a local church. They took in two apprentices and turned them into powerful and confident adventurers in their own right. They were hailed as local heroes, and rightfully so.

As the campaign reached the midpoint, the corruption started to seep in a little bit. The guy the PCs hired to lead their church turned out to be a cleric of an evil goddess. The paladin gained an intelligent sword that forced her into fights that she should have run away from. The rescued kidnapping victim began having flashbacks of her derro captors experimenting on her, repeatedly cutting out her eyes and then regenerating them to figure out how she saw so well in daylight.

The part of the campaign that was based on the Night Below boxed set culminated with the party’s old foe stealing the power harvested by a city of aboleths and ascending to demigod status. Since then, the heroism in the game has slowly but surely begun to unravel.

Hidden cultists started coming out of the woodwork in various towns and villages. A group of ogre magi slaughtered the leadership of an entire town and took their place. The leader of the world’s foremost magic academy tried to lure the PCs into a trip to the Nine Hells, then was revealed to be secretly torturing a prisoner in hopes of learning how he, too could become a demigod.

In the last session, the party’s paladin died and her body was taken over by the personality of her intelligent sword. This led to an immediate ending to a pretty touching romantic subplot that had lasted for about a year of game time. It also meant that the paladin’s horn of goodness is of no use to the now chaotic neutral character. There’s only one character left among the PCs with a good alignment who can use the magic item.

More significantly than all that, the last session culminated in each PC gaining mythic power – but from a source tied to the campaign’s demigod villain. That means there a little bit of corruption in all of them now, and that corruption will show up from time to time in the game.

Now, Wrath of the Righteous has a strong redemption theme to it, so maybe the trend will reverse itself and the PCs will wind up firmly on the side of the angels again. Or maybe to confront the ultimate evil they’ll need to become evil themselves.

I think the lesson I’ve learned so far is that if something goes on long enough, it will eventually develop some sort of theme. In the last few long-running RPG games I’ve put together, I’ve almost never planned any sort of major story arc from the beginning, but one always seems to develop. The great part is that once it’s all over, I can look back on it and act like I’m some sort of master storyteller who had it planned all along.

Or at least I would be able to do that, if I hadn’t just written my thoughts down in a blog entry and published it on the Internet. Damn!


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