Vacations are wonderful things. Holidays are wonderful things. And there are no wonderful things in life you won’t be punished for. That’s how life is. Ultimately, it’s a zero-sum game. If you’re happy about something, expect something bad right around the corner. And that’s why, as wonderful as holiday vacations are, they are bookended by complete suckage. Obviously, the day you return to work after your vacation sucks. Partly because you just spent several days being reminded of how wonderful it was to not work. And partly because the actual pile of work on your desk doesn’t take a vacation. While you’re away, it actually grows. It breeds. Its spawns little work babies. But I don’t hate returning to work after a vacation so much. After so many years of returning to work, I’ve gotten sort of used to it. The thing I have never gotten over is the day before vacation. Once you get past those simple retail and fast-food jobs that basically just require you to be a barely-functioning warm body for a certain number of hours and then set you free to not think about them, once you hit those jobs in which you have actual responsibilities and deadlines and clients and customers, the day before vacation sucks. And that’s because your brain has already shifted in vacation mode. It has checked out. And it has left you alone with a pile of s$&% that absolutely has to be done before you can leave on vacation. That, by the way, is how you know you have a real adult job. If the idea of leaving early the day before vacation is ridiculous and even the chances of getting on time the day before a vacation are slim to nonexistent, you have a real job. Bonus points if you’re an exempt employee and therefore aren’t getting paid to stay late.
That is the mindset I’m in right now. This article is pretty much the LAST thing I have to do before I can shift into Christmas vacation mode. Which – by the way – doesn’t mean I get to actually relax. Shifting into vacation mode for an adult means there’s a list of seventy things that have to be done in two days to be ready for the vacation and you aren’t being paid for any of them. In fact, they are probably going to cost you a crap-ton of money. If you’re wondering what the Grinch was really sick of Christmas, that’s basically it.
I figured I would do this pre-vacation article thing the easy way. I’d just do my Fanservice BS article for the month. All those require me to do is go into the Discord chat I maintain for my Patreon supporters, ask them what they want me to write about, pick an article, and then just keep typing whatever thoughts cross my brain until I hit about 3,500 words. I don’t even edit that s$&%. Hell, I usually don’t even know what I’m going to say. I mean, that’s how we ended up with that mimic bulls$&% last month.
So, I asked my supporters in Discord what they wanted me to write about. And I made it very clear that they had to give me something better than “write about mimics or whatever.” And do you know what easy topics they wanted a stream of conscious rant about? Let’s see here… one suggested I build a system for mass combat in Dungeons & Dragons. Another said I should figure out how to build a combat system for fighting giant monsters like Shadow of the Colossus. I think someone suggested I rebuild the entire Pathfinder XP system from the ground up or some s$&% like that. And I think someone wanted me to fix all of shapeshifting. And also familiar and pets.
And then Patreon Victim Showgun666 said “Please stop yelling at us. We don’t even know what we did wrong. What about symbolism? Can you write about that? And mistakes people make with it? Is that topic okay? Please stop.”
And that’s how Showgun666 saved a few dozen people from being individually hunted down and slapped unconscious.
While everyone else was ignoring their literature teachers in high school and college and doing things like having friends and going to parties and drinking alcohol and doing sex, I was inadvertently absorbing half the information I needed to end up writing pretty much the greatest blog on the entire Internet about niche games in which nerds pretend to be elves. So I really showed them! The thing is, most GMs fall into one of two categories. There are the GMs who know they are running a game that is supposed to be fun and are perfectly happy to just fill a world with monsters and treasures so that the players can take on the role of a bunch of plundering serial killers who murder the former and horde the latter. And there are the GMs who know they are running a collaborative storytelling experience in which every participant is there to vomit whatever bats$&% insane crap passes for their sense of creative expression out onto a table where it can all mix together into something they can call art.
And then there’s me. I’m a f$&%ing mess. I spend half my time analyzing the mechanical nuts and bolts of the game just to make sure that the game experience falls into the optimum balance band in accordance with the theory of flow. And I spend the other half of my time explaining things like theme, pacing, motivation, resolution, tone, and all the other crap that you learn while obtaining a degree that qualifies you to put the proper amount of foam on my goddamned latte. How hard is that?!
A smart GM recognizes that the game is both story and game. It has to work both ways. And that means the GM has to be both a game designer – and that’s true even if they aren’t writing their own adventures because they still have to make decisions that game designers would make when running the game – the GM has to be both a game designer and also has to understand narrative structure. And they have to do both of things very well because they have to do them on the fly. You make game design calls every time your idiot players pull some bizarre action out of their a$&. That’s running a good game. And you squeeze every random, stupid, unpredictable thing that happens into the mold of narrative structure so it feels like a good story.
That second part means you have to understand narrative structure so well you can reshape an unfolding story on the fly to fit it. Fortunately, most human beings are hard-wired to recognize good narrative structure. That’s because good narrative structure is actually a product of how our brains are wired. It’s so hard-wired into us that we can recognize things that don’t fit. Usually. Unfortunately, that understanding is pretty unconscious. So when we recognize something as a good story or a bad story or whatever, we can’t really explain why. It just tickles our brain bits the right way. Or makes them itch. Whatever.
Good storytellers – especially good improvisational storytellers – they understand narrative structure consciously. They know how a good story is put together. And they recognize the various bits and pieces of a good story. More importantly, they don’t think in terms of story. Rather, they think in terms of all the ingredients that make up a good story. They don’t think about cake. They think about how sugar and flour and salt and icing and whatever other crap you put in a cake add up to a good cake. And how adjusting those ingredients and adding different ingredients can create different types of cake.
How does all of this tie into symbolism? And yes, I realize I didn’t even talk about what symbolism is yet. I’m getting there. Here’s the problem. When it comes to storytelling – and I have no f$&%ing clue if this is true of baking cakes – when it comes to storytelling, you can break absolutely everything by trying too hard. And that’s because all the little bits and pieces of good storytelling all work on your audience on a level of which they are barely conscious. If you do everything absolutely right, they will be satisfied with the story and it will resonate with them and stick in their brain and make them think all sorts of other things. If you do everything wrong, they will hate your stupid story. And probably you. And if you do everything too well, they will actually see what you’re doing and think you’re a giant hack.
And that’s the problem with symbolism.
The Use and Misuse of Symbols
Every story has themes. Even stupid, mindless stories have themes. They are usually pretty simple themes. But they are there. And better stories have more complicated themes. The theme is what the story is REALLY about. You may think you’re watching a story about a kid who gets swept up in an adventure, learns space magic, loses everything he cares about, and then becomes a hero and saves the galaxy. But what you’re really watching is a story about how accepting fate will serve you better than controlling your universe. A story about how faith is superior to science and technology. A story about how all empires that tread on the rights of the people they serve sow the seeds of their own destruction. A story about how traditional and cultural values must be treasured. And about the importance of family. And a lot of other things.
The thing is, none of that s$&% is actually very exciting to talk about. Think about it: would you rather listen to me blather on for two hours about how we have to accept that we have no control over the universe and instead accept our place in it? Or would you rather watch a bunch of attractive action heroes have laser sword battles in space? Easy choice, right? On the surface level, we enjoy the excitement and emotions and adventure. But what gets lodged in our brains are the themes and ideas underneath the story. They resonate with us. They make your brain vibrate.
Symbolism is one of many narrative tools that connects the surface level crap of the story – the explosions and emotions and laser swords – with the story’s underlying themes. The lightsaber, for example. The “elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” The weapon that’s “not as clumsy or random as a blaster.” The weapon of a Jedi “knight.” Tradition. Piety. Faith. See? Symbolism.
It really is as simple as that. A symbol is a thing in the story that somehow connects to one of the themes in the story. And most symbols work by exploiting connections that already exist in the brains of the audience members. Knights and swords are old-timey things. They are out of place in science fiction. Out of time. They represent the past. But they also represent chivalry and honor and duty and piety. Now, I don’t want to get wrapped up in discussing how symbols come to be symbols and how there’s a sort of feedback loop where every symbol strengthens its own symbolism. Let’s not get too philosophical here. Remember, that s$&% is boring.
As noted above, all this crap has to be pretty subtle. If it isn’t, your audience will recognize that you are trying to manipulate them into thinking about boring s$&% instead of telling them a good story. And that will ruin the story. There are all sorts of phrases that describe stories that aren’t subtle about trying to convey their themes. A story can be “heavy-handed,” it can be “trying too hard,” it can be “preachy,” or it can be “anvilicious” – that one is my favorite. It means the story’s themes and messages are hitting you with all of the subtlety of an anvil dropped on your head.
Symbolism is a pretty simple narrative tool. That is, it’s easy to understand and it’s pretty easy to use. You just have to figure out the theme you want to convey, find a thing that conveys that theme, and shove it into your story. And that’s where GMs – especially fart-sniffing GMs who are obsessed with their own art – that’s where GMs get into trouble. See, symbolism is easy to use. But it can be hard to use well. Because remember, the audience shouldn’t notice it, but their brains should. That is, it should be subtle enough that the audience isn’t consciously aware of it while the story is happening, but it should trigger the connections in their brain as they are reflecting on the story. So the symbol – whatever it is – has to be prominent enough to be noticeable, but subtle enough not to be noticed consciously. Try walking THAT f$&%ing tightrope.
It’s the subtlety thing that people have the hardest time with. Why? Well, because if you’re hitting the subtlety sweet-spot, you’ll never know if your audience is actually even noticing the symbols at all. And if the audience does notice the symbols – outside of a post-movie analysis by the sort of a$&holes who didn’t get invited to skip Literature and Composition to drink alcohol and do sex – if the audience does notice the symbols, they are not going to be happy. And, as an artiste GM who has brilliant themes woven into their narrative and wants everyone to see how smart he is, that creates a nasty paradox. Artistes NEED to know people are impressed with them. But if an artiste GM does a good job, they will never know if their brilliance was even noticed.
So the subtlety thing causes artiste GMs a lot of problems. But it isn’t the root cause of every problem. There’s something else that symbolism difficult.
Running from the Soap Box
There’s a difference between a theme and a message. A theme is an idea that underlies a work of fiction. And while the story might make a point about that theme – for example, faith and tradition are more powerful than science and technology – the point its making is sort of incidental. Strange as it sounds, as much as themes are – when you really dig deep – opinions that the author is expressing, they usually aren’t strong opinions. They are subtle. And the audience doesn’t have to agree to enjoy the work. You can enjoy the first Star Wars movie without accepting its themes. To you, it’s just a nice, idealistic fantasy.
But there are authors – and GMs – who know they have something specific to say. And they’re going to say it. And you’re going to f$&%ing know it. Those are works that scream “message! Get your message here! Did you see the message?! Everyone get ready for the message!” The work of fiction – the game – becomes a soapbox. Now, if you happen to agree with the message already, you’re can enjoy the work. If you don’t agree with the message, though, you’re probably going to hate it. And if you’re anyone else in between, you’re going to resent being preached to in something that is supposed to just be a fun game.
In general, the people who spend their whole lives screaming that GAMES ARE ART and then defending utter schlock because it has a message have forgotten that art is something that emotionally engages FIRST, and communicates SECOND, and – as such – that communication needs to be subtle. No one is emotionally engaged with the weird, smelly man in the dirty robes standing on the street corner screaming at you to repent for the end is nigh.
So GMs who are really into their themes and symbolism can really f$%& with their games because they need applause or they need to know their message is getting across. And that pretty much ruins the game for everyone except their fellow activists.
Too Little Symbolism
But what about the opposite? If you can get into trouble by overusing symbol to over communicate a message instead of letting subtle symbolism support the themes of your work, can you get into trouble by not having strong themes? Can a lack of symbolism wreck your game?
Trust the Tale, Not the Teller
The Angry Mom is a brilliant and imminently practical woman. She is wise and willful. But she is also grounded. Very grounded. And she and her Angry son – that’s me – end up at odds a lot. I’m cerebral and sometimes idealistic. Yes, really. She’s practical and grounded. And so, whenever we would watch movies together, I would rip into the literary analysis – that’s my jam – and she would just enjoy the movie. So, I would come out of a movie and say something like: “it’s interesting how the main character was dressed in green at the very end because, through the whole movie, green was used to communicate alienness. It’s as if his experiences have changed him so he no longer fits in with the people he was trying to get back to throughout the film.” And every so often, frustrated by my – let’s call it enthusiastic analysis – she would sometimes say “how do you know that? How do you know that’s what the filmmaker really wanted to do? How do you know it wasn’t just an accident.”
The Angry Mom taught me a lot and I love her dearly. But she would not have done well in my Film Theory class. But she was right about something: “I don’t know. I can’t know.” She just didn’t understand it doesn’t matter.
One of my literature professors often said: “trust the tale, not the teller.” Another told me a famous anecdote about an author who sat in on a literature class at which one of his own books was being discussed. At the end of the analysis of his book, the author stands up and says “actually, I don’t think that’s what the author meant at all.” The professor asks him what makes him think that. The author says, “because I’m the author. I wrote that.” And the professor responds “and you think that makes you some kind of expert on this book?”
Here’s the thing: most themes are accidental. Or mostly accidental. That is, most popular authors don’t sit and down and I say “I want to write a book that explores the various ways in which human beings create situations that render them powerless and bind themselves to those systems as a way of diffusing personal responsibility, but in so doing, also lose the thing that makes them human; also I could talk about how mortality is also a defining trait of humanity.” No, they decide to write a darkly hilarious book about a bunch of soldiers who are all trapped in a terrible situation by an overbearing bureaucracy during a war. At least, usually.
As I mentioned, themes and symbolism are subtle things. They work best BELOW the level of conscious awareness. You don’t notice them, but your brain does. And, to some extent, that’s true of authors too. Authors write the stories they feel, but their feelings tend to run along thematic lines because that’s just how brains f$&%ing work. George Lucas wasn’t trying to write a piece of holding on to one’s faith and values in the face of the rampant advancement of technology, he was trying to write B-grade science-fiction movie because he was pissed off at Hollywood for not recognizing his genius. Seriously. It just ended up being about that. And I can prove it. Because the man who wrote that would not go on to destroy the franchise he created by creating the entire universe using modern science and technology and forgetting about the human element completely.
See, you will never know if an author purposely built themes into their work or if they did it accidentally. The only thing you have is the work itself. And if it seems to add up to something, well, it really doesn’t matter what the author did. Trust the tale, not the teller.
And THAT is the secret of how to use themes and symbolism well in your game. Don’t. Seriously. Don’t worry about them. Just know about them. And then ignore them. Build the game you want to run – the one about an island chain with a hidden secret under it and an ancient Empire returning to the world and an old noble house with a dark history that is coming back to haunt it and about heroes digging through ancient ruins trying to piece together an ancient puzzle. Eventually, you’ll notice that there’s a theme about things hidden beneath the SURFACE and about the past RISING UP to affect the present. You’ll notice that a lot of things seem to fit the idea of plumbing the DARK DEPTHS of the past. Of a churning, roiling sea hidden beneath CALM WATERS. And then, when you look at all of that, you’ll say THAT’S why it felt so right to set this on an island chain and not some windswept plain. And THAT’S why I did all those other things I can’t talk about because my players might be reading this.
If you know about themes and symbolism and then you just write the game that FEELS right – if you trust your gut – the themes will build themselves and the symbolism will inject itself. When your gut tells you that the innkeeper is secretly in love with her contact in the resistance or that the ruler of this city really needs to be a devout member of the monotheistic faith from the desert kingdom or that the game really needs to be set in the frozen north or that the city’s banner should be crimson and black or whatever, go with it. That’s your brain – the one you’ve trained to think about stories on this way – trying to nudge your story in the right direction.
Good themes, good symbolism, they should catch you by surprise. If you’re doing it on purpose, you’re doing it wrong. And if you’ve got something to say and you have to say it, go write a book for no one to read. Don’t force five people to sit through that crap when all they want is a fun game.