Whether you have chosen a Thesis or not for your Science Fiction Setting, by now you have a sense of your Tone. Not only will it shape the in-game elements of NPCs, technology, etc., it will also dictate the way you plan and think of your game, and how you will present it to potential players.
One of the ways you will do this is by choosing themes for your campaign that are congruent with your tone.
Themes in a TTRPG campaign are not really that different from themes in film or literature: they are ideas that appear over and over again in different forms throughout the story. They are ideas that will likely be expressible in one to five words. Often they will be tensions you can express as "A v. B."
Pulling Out Themes: Babylon 5
|Cast of Babylon 5, Season 3
- Duty v. Conscience
- Letting others solve your problems is dangerous
- Religion can imprison or uplifts
- Foresight is a terrible burden
- Alcohol solves nothing
- Safety v. Privacy
All of these come from the central thesis of the series, which is "Can we really know Peace?"
Each of these themes appear over and over again in different forms in some combination in most episodes. There is rarely an episode that doesn't explore at least two of these.
I will try to cover these, one in detail, the others briefly in a way that doesn't assume you know the series. There will be spoilers, but the show ran over 25 years ago, so I consider that fair game.
Duty v. Conscience
|The Battle of the Line, humanity's last
stand against the Minbari
In the backstory to the series, the Minbari had destroyed Earth's star fleet and surrounded the planet, then at the last moment called off their orbital bombardment, which would have exterminated the human species.
The war started when a human ship fired on a Minbari one during First Contact, as the Minbari scanners were damaging the human ship, and were mistaken for an attack. The human counterattack killed the Minbari theocratic leader, and the Minbari saw it as a duty to avenge what they saw as an unprovoked murder. The war stopped when the Minbari's new leader had a fit of conscience, and decided to st least communicate with humankind and discovered that they shared a spiritual and psychic bond that made the genocide a tragedy beyond measure.
Throughout the series, Earth's tentative situation in the galaxy pushes them farther and farther into totalitarianism. Eventually an assassination of the united Earth government's leader allows a genuinely fascist organization to take over control of Earth. The command crew of the diplomatic space station Babylon 5 finds themselves torn between duty to their government and following their conscience by upholding the Liberal ideals of due process and individual rights. This leads Babylon 5 to secede from Earth Alliance, and eventually wage war to free Earth from their illegitimate government.
|Command crew of Babylon 5 seasons 2-4
Another major tension in the story is between two other alien races, the decadent and imperialistic Centari, and the war-like Narn, who had been enslaved by the Centari for generations. Babylon 5, being neutral ground became the site if the diplomatic clash between the species, with humans stuck playing mediator.
|Londo as Emperor
By contrast the Narn ambassador, G'kar starts off obsessed only with his sense of duty to his people, including holding a genocidal hatred of the Centari. As he suffers through humiliation, torment, and slavery, his people increasingly look to him to lead a crusade against the Centari. In the end he sees that the Centari are puppets of alien manipulation and an insane emperor, and that the cycle of violence will likely only end with one race full of innocent bystanders exterminated and the other with blood on their hands so deep it will never wash away. He follows his conscience and submits to even more misery in order to end the cycle once and for all
|G'kar in chains in the Royal Centari court escorted by Londo
Most of the various conflicts in the series are manipulatrd by two ancient alien races, the Vorlon and the Shadows, who have an eons-old ideological conflict. Unable to win a shooting war with each other, they shape other races in their image to fight proxy wars in hopes that eventually one race or the other will have no place in the galaxy.
|Vorlon (left) and Shadow (right)
The Shadows are extreme social darwinists who treat all interactions as transactional. They start a of their communications by asking "What do you want?" They offer power, weapons, and technology to people they see as having potential to expand their influence, but their bargains are deeply Faustian. They also seed younger species with genes to give them psychic powers that the Shadows can then use to their advantage later. Despite their tactics, they believe that they are fighting a war to free all species to act on conscience and rise to their potential, free from religion and tradition.
Both species are soaked in arrogance and hypocrisy, and it is when the younger races finally call them out and refuse to fight each other any longer that the worst and bloodiest conflicts end.
Letting Others Solve your Problems is Dangerous
Throughout Babylon 5, the two elder alien species are forever offering to solve people's problems for them. However, it always comes with a terrible price. As long as the two civilizations pick sides, they find themselves either turning slowly into a theocracy or a brutal dictatorship.
|Morden is a devil-like figure in Babylon 5, brokering secret
Deals for the Shadows that often lead to death and misery.
Religion can Imprison or Uplift
Religion is a complicated topic throughout Babylon 5. The Minbari, as a species, are shackled by there caste system and theocratic leanings. But, at the same time, when they have religious leaders with conscience in charge, there civilization is one of the most peaceful and advanced.
One of the protagonists, Commander Susan ivanova, struggles with anxiety, a sense of meaning, and the pain of being estranged from her famous and highly respected father. It's only when she returns to practicing religious Judaism and having a funeral for her father that she finds the courage to make the right decisions.
On the other hand, Londo uses his religion as an excuse to flee from responsibility. Embracing the goddess of lust and passion and the god of drunkenness as excuses for running from his duties.
We also see at least one species allow themselves to become extinct rather than accept external help for a disease that they consider a shameful taboo to discuss. And an outbreak of senseless violence on the station over a minor religious conflict.
Foresight can be a Terrible Burden
Thanks to themes of time travel, psychic powers, and supercomputers that can see into the future appearing at various points, certain characters have an idea of what is coming. The Centari all have the psychic ability to see the moment of their death in their dreams.
Trying to avoid the future they have seen - or make visions come true - both cause terrible consequences for characters. Just having a glimpse of the future often wears on the characters who have it.
In other cases, particularly savvy characters can see things like the are going based on history. The captain of Babylon 5, John Sheridan, knows full well that Earth is repeating the worst chapters of the 20th century, but his helpless to do anything about it.
Alcohol Solves Nothing
The chief of security in Babylon 5, Michael Garibaldi, struggles as a recovering alcoholic. When he's framed for a crime after undergoing multiple traumatic events, he falls off the wagon bit by bit. Watching his struggle over several of the darkest episodes of the series is absolutely heartrending.. Eventually, he loses his position, the respect and trust of the other protagonists, and his home. It's only when he's sobers up and becomes a private detective that he starts becoming an asset to the resistance again.
|Michael Garibaldi's darkest moments.
He is not the only one, Londo, the century ambassador uses religion as an excuse to remain constantly drunken And surrounded by courtesans. It prevents him from doing his job effectively, which he is well aware was considered a joke of a position to begin with. It's only after he is forced to kill his own friend in a duel to create a legal shelter for the friend's family, that he realizes how far his civilization is fallen, and starts trying to make a difference. Even then his occasional retreat into alcohol and prostitutes causes him to turn a blind eye to how his actions are leading to genocide and the subversion of his own people by the Shadows. It's only when he decides to sober up and make decisions purely for himself that he starts making a positive difference for the security of the centauri Empire.
Throughout the series Commander Ivanova occasionally attempts to drink to forget problems, but finds that it never works. She almost always solves the problem the moment she resolves to not let it make her feel miserable.
Safety v. Privacy
|Psi Core propaganda seen in
The eventual paranoia, mistrust, and rage over not being able to keep even your own thoughts private leads to a second civil war towards the end of the series.
Babylon 5 has a very passionate fandom, and it's a show that you either like or you hate. To do another example quickly for people who don't care for the show, that's considered Earth2.
|Earth2 promo poster
The thesis of Earth2 is the question "Are we doomed to mess up other worlds as badly as we have messed up Earth?"
From that question comes a number of themes that repeat over and over again.
- Greed's impact on community & environment
- Pollution v. Human needs
- Providing a safe future for our children.
- Human nature v. choosing to do the right thing
- Being worthy of love
- Second Chances
- Honest, fair trade v. corporatism
- The horrors of colonialism
Using Themes in Your Campaign
In a role-playing campaign, the themes of your setting are not going to be able to be worked in as directly as they can be in a television series like Babylon 5.
|Gaal, played by Tim Curry,
was a convict colonist in
Earth2, he was not only
treacherous, but often tricked
the protagonist characters into
betraying the group, especially
the children of the group.
One way to ensure a theme does appear is to embody the theme in a character or faction. If you want treachery to be a theme, having s powerful noblewoman who conspires against the court use the PCs as patsies, later sends them on a suicide mission, and then sponsors a coup, would keep Treachery front and center. Likewise, if redemption is a theme you want to explore having an NPC guide who is trying to live down a past atrocity is a good start. Possibly redeeming a villain by having them switch sides and aid the PCs might also help.
Another is to set up hooks that repeatedly use the theme. If you want treachery to be a theme, helping a patron steal a treasure out from under the noses of former allies, or get revenge on an unfaithful spouse would be excellent ideas.
Nor can you manage the sheer bulk of themes that a science fiction television show or novel series can manage. At best a campaign ought to have two or three themes that ought to emerge in a slightly different way every adventure or two.
Themes are a powerful tool for planning adventures, designing NPCs and brainstorming hooks.
How I Use Themes in Eternal Ocean
In the Eternal Ocean setting, I am starting from the question "Can Humanity really understand the implications of its own creations? Can we make something so alien we cannot understand it?"
This is a heavy thesis for a game that I am playing with little kids, and so I play it very lightly. In the books and test campaigns I am designing for Adults it is a little more integrated into the game's structure.
Because I am interested in the question of the limits of the human imagination, most of my questions evolve from the idea of a world we create and what it would be like to visit one that human beings have shaped:
- Intelligent design v. Natural Chaos
- Unintended Consequences
- The relationship between genius & madness
- Mirrors held up to the soul
- Humans making monsters of themselves
- The blurry line between organism & machine
When I design an environment, monster, or setting, I make one of these my central idea. Whatever the big reveal, terrible monster, or climax is, it is designed to evoke this idea
In one recent adventure, I had my son (& co.'s) character discover a wreck of his own starship from another reality with slight differences in the timeline evident. It was full of the skeletons of crewmates he knew, but it was clear that they had come from a much darker timeline where humanity let another race go extinct... And had profited from it. Here we have a dark mirror of his own team to consider, and one where he learns the unintended costs of humanity's greatest deed in the setting.
Then I gave him a chance to profit from the advancements of a darker timeline where Humanity had profited by doing something terrible. He declined.
Likewise, when I create monsters or other content for the Eternal Ocean one or more of those things helps me decide how I want the monster to feel.