First, you're saying something about the subject matter or genre of your game: something you think about adventure fiction, or swords & sorcery, or transhumanist sf, or whatever. Second, you're saying something about roleplaying as a practice, taking a position on how real people should collaborate under these circumstances. Third, you're sying something about real live human nature.Here's the insights of my game "On Mighty Thews", which will be published this year.
1) Pulp fantasy like Conan, Tarzan, and all the derivative stuff like Jongor and Throngor and so on is basically about "Man's" position between civilisation and nature. Leiber, and then later Moorcock, were more about the tension between predestination and free will. What these things have in common is that the philosophical contradictions exist within the protagonist (Tarzan is a white man raised in the jungle, Conan is a savage mastering the ways of civilisation) but are never resolved within the protagonist. Tarzan never chooses the jungle or civilisation. Conan remains unchanged by his adventures in the civilised world. Elric never meets his fate. Instead, the protagonists inflict their contradictions on the world around them. The adventures are a lens for examining the contradiction at the core of the protagonist.
2) Creativity is kind of a product of the friction between freedom and constraint. Everyone contributing a small, obvious step can create a big, unexpected whole. The tension between protagonists trying to get what they want, and the world standing in their way creates a canvas for players to create a story.
3) I think people are the sum of their actions. We don't have an "inherant nature", and there isn't a "true" self. We exist as competing narratives and the expressions of such. We are what other people think of us.
Until recently, I think I struggled to realise these three insights well in the context of the game. Especially the first. The game was functioning well at producing interesting characters, and good plot. It flows well, with the creative burden passing around the table. But the story of most games never really exceeded pastiche. It was an imitation of a sword-and-sorcery story, rather than an original composition.
But a small change in the rules has, I think, changed all that.
In "On Mighty Thews" you start play by making a map of the world in which the game will take place. Everyone draws a couple of things on the map, and you end up with an exciting world of adventure and mystery. But it always felt a little flat. Sometimes there'd be original and compelling additions, but often they were kind of uninteresting. What was missing was the symbolic import of the locations on the map - their meaning in the world.
I've always been fascinated by old maps of the world - the way the geography was organised into a culturally-specific structure. Roads radiating from Rome. The Vatican as the center of the know world. Christian nations surrounded by the infidel. I wanted some of that symbolic meaning for my maps in "On Mighty Thews".
Characters in On Mighty Thews have a "d20 trait" which is the theme their character exposits. A character with the trait "Violent" will get a small advantage for every scene in which they are violent, and a large bonus for individual actions in which they are non-violent. Through play we see a picture of a person halfway between violence and non-violence. They are neither one nor the other.
My new rule for On Mighty Thews is that before you start drawing your map of the world, you mark "poles" on the map, and write your characters' d20 traits next to those poles. Things on the map near the poles take on the nature of that trait. People who live near the pole of Violence have a culture steeped in violence, while people grow more peaceful as you travel away from it. In this way, the themes of the characters are writ large in the world around them. Their tension becomes not just an internal tension , but a literal struggle between forces in the world. The characters are outsiders, not fitting into any part of the world with ease. They live on borders, they travel, they are wanderers and adventurers, bearing with them the inevitable contradictions of the world around them.