Theme is one of the trickier elements of Vampire. It’s not something every Chronicle needs, but it certainly is a neat way to tie everything together. A Chronicle without a theme feels meandering and chaotic—a collection of characters and stories bouncing off each other for no greater purpose. This can certainly be fun, but it can also end up with the game feeling rather hollow and pointless.
In short, a theme is the question that the Chronicle seeks to answer. It’s not necessarily something that the characters are aware of, but it is the underlying tension that drives the narrative. Some of the example questions that they give in the base book are solid—“What create the emotions of hate?” “Is perfect morality impossible?” “What is required for a leader?” Of course, any thorny issue you wish to explore will be superior to what they list in the book, but I find that spending some time thinking about Theme and how to apply it is well worth the time. If anything, it’s a convenient way to differentiate this Chronicle about neonate vampires waging war against their elders from any other anarch/elder game. Also, it can help to focus the stories and help inspire new ideas and new situations.
Many of the games I've been involved in haven’t bothered with Theme. I think it’s because on the surface it seems like one of those high-falutin’ things that make Vampire a “narrative” game instead of a “real” role-playing game. Also, it’s weird, and not something that most people are used to thinking about when it comes to game prep. Then again, they might have had a Theme, or something like it, but as a player I was never able to see it.
And I think that is one of the great mistakes many GM’s make. By blocking the players out of the discussion of the Theme, you also prevent them being actively engaged with what the Chronicle is about. As such, they are incapable of making characters that are truly part of the Chronicle, instead of creating characters driven by rage and hatred, they’re left playing “straight men” who are wondering why the hell all the NPC’s seem to be psychotic idiots.
Also, players can be an excellent resource in checking or correcting certain ideas. Say you want to explore “what is the origin of hatred?” That’s obviously as sound an idea for a Chronicle as any, but it may not work for THIS Chronicle, with this group of players. They may find the idea trite or simply boring, or at least something they’re not terribly interested in exploring. But, in discussing it, a superior theme might come up—maybe something involving “what is the difference between vengeance and justice in a society without laws?” or the like.
Now, everyone in the group is on something like the same page, both players and Storyteller. The players, inspired by the theme, can then make characters that actually fit the theme—one may be obsessed with tracking down the Kindred who killed his sire and bring his crimes to light, while another may seek bloody retribution. You don’t need every PC to be built based on the theme, but if enough are they entire coterie becomes much more part of the Chronicle than if the Theme is merely something that happens to the NPC’s.
Of course, you don’t want to go into the game with an answer already in mind. If you see a question like “Is perfect morality impossible” and think “well, duh, obviously” then this is not a theme for you. Despite its Humanity systems and its exploration of the nature of good and evil, Vampire is not a black and white game, and the presence of a Theme is not an excuse for a Storyteller to lecture players on ethics or philosophy. It is intended to be a question that the entire group explores throughout the game, even if they never truly come to an answer. Hell, it’s almost better if the question lurking at the heart of the game remains unanswered, if only because answers are boring. It’s the questions that drives drama.
If I had to pick a “favorite” Theme, I would say that I prefer those that deal with Leadership. It’s a side-effect on my interests in Lords of the City concepts, but it also speaks to one the most appealing elements of Vampire--if you were turned into a vampire, with all the power and abilities they possess, what would you do with it? What responsibility would you have to those around you? To your family? To others of your kind? Is it even possible to use these abilities morally, or ethically? If you do end up “taking over” something or someplace, what responsibility do you have to it?
Naturally, though, I don’t have one Theme that I've explored in various Chronicles, but instead try to pick one that is interesting for both myself, the players, and the game concept itself.
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