I have mixed feelings about the ideas of 'themes' in RPG settings. You don't see me talking about them too often; and more often than not when people do talk about it, it's to sound pretentious.
But 'themes' do happen, and they don't necessarily have to be snooty. The Venture Brothers has a theme (failure). The Big Bang Theory has a theme (nerds are laughable), for what it's worth. Good and bad movies, shows, literature, comics and game settings will have themes, most of them not put there by someone trying to feel full of himself.
Most of the time, the "themes" in my RPG campaigns are pretty much background stuff; Traveller, for example, has little more than "maniacs flying around the galaxy". Albion's is obviously something about adventure, battle, and intrigue during the Rose War.
But ironically perhaps, my most gonzo and easygoing campaign of all, my DCC "Last Sun" campaign, has the most sophisticated themes.
The first and foremost one is "Decay". Things falling apart, inexorably; by the time of the campaign's start things have been sliding into chaos for a long time already, and as the campaign proceeds they just get worse. Wherever the PCs go, there's cultures, some that could be called civilizations, many of which are just ruins but others that appear to be thriving. Yet the underlying clarity of things is that none of these look like they're going to get any better, the best they can is a holding pattern against the great collapse that has afflicted the world of the last sun. It is, in other words, a post-apocalyptic sci-fantasy setting, and one that is particularly cynical in its undertone, given its overall goofy/gonzo feel.
Another theme is the idea of there being no higher powers to help you. The Ancients created the world of the Last Sun, but then they vanished. The 'Dark Ones' allegedly ruined it, but no one has seen them either. G.O.D. is only a machine, that has been driven insane by the emergency, and is largely irrational about when he gives divine aid and when he shows disapproval. The Daemons are all rebellious AIs that escaped G.O.D.'s control and are themselves either insane, evil, totally selfish, or utterly uncaring. No one mightier than the PCs (and a few well-intentioned NPCs) are actually out there that would either care or be capable of setting the world right again.
With the "God" of the setting being essentially a demiurge to totally distant architects, the setting itself has the quality of a gnostic dream, pushed on by the wacky surrealism of the setting. The Last Sun is a world built around the very last start of the dying universe as an attempt to escape the end of all reality. The world is a bit like a bardo, a dream-state from Tibetan Buddhism; you could meet almost anything there. Anything that ever existed might still be around in the world of the Last Sun. There's lots of old weapons (including guns, and laser guns, and atom bombs and space-ships), and old knowledge (including old magic items and spells), but no one seems really able to make anything truly new. It's like a dream before dying.
Even the core races have their own thematic ways of dealing with this decay: for humans, it's fear. Of the four core races, they're the closest to extinction, being over-run by more powerful creatures and the environment itself mutating them into something not-human. What humans have shown up in the campaign are usually acting out of fear.
Elves are in denial. They were the high-tech super-civilization before the Emergency. Most of the surviving elf cultures weathered what they imagined to be the worst of it in the snug safety of their Domes, but disconnected from the rest of the world and cut off from the need to do anything useful, their society has decayed most of all. There's the hipster elves, and the smug elves, and the emo elves, but it seems like any breed of elf that actually did anything has died out. They keep living their petty lives but have become useless, even to save themselves.
Dwarves are all about anger. Driven away from their homes in the Deep Underground where they maintained the great world-machines for the Ancients, they seemed doomed to hopeless crusades to 'retake' everything they've lost, even though it's impossible. Their entire society is based on complaints and resentment. They are good at playing defense but whenever they go on the offensive they get slaughtered.
For halflings, it's a kind of collaboration. Whatever they once were, now they've become vicious bloodthirsty barbarian cannibals who have given up the semblance of being anything other than animals. They are thriving in numbers (the only one of the four traditional core races that are) but only because they've completely given up on trying to fight decay and have become active agents in accelerating it. They live, but their culture is extinct, replaced with a feral savagery.
The real question of the campaign is whether the PCs, from their individual heroism, will ultimately find a way to triumph over this decay, to set the world right somehow, and what form that will take.
So I wrote all this here because sooner or later, I'm going to write a setting book about the world of the Last Sun, that's almost inevitable. But when I do, it probably won't say any of this stuff explicitly. Instead it will be full of stuff about laser-penguins and Sloth-druglords and talking ape civilizations and laser guns and all the other weird gonzo places and things of the world. But I figure that this look at the underpinnings of the campaign should be said somewhere, for the sake of those who might be interested in looking at the underpinnings of things.
Because just like themes don't necessarily have to be pretentious, gonzo rpg campaigns don't necessarily have to be dumb.
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