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Low-Magic, High-Rollers: Ep 3

Grim but not Gross: How to balance dark themes with a party.



In this series I’ll be covering aspects and themes that continue to vex Dungeon Masters and Players with styles and tastes that often run on the darker and/or visceral end of how they enjoy their D & D. 

These days it can be easy to rally together a group of people to play D&D Putting a party together is as simple as asking some interested friends, putting a blast out to an LFG (That’s Looking For Group for those unfamiliar) channel on a discord or forum, or BEING ASKED by people to run a game. With our hobby now in the limelight, we’re really in a golden age of Tabletop Roleplaying Games. That being said, finding cohesion can be hard, but that’s okay! Middle grounds for figuring out what your party likes will happen in one thematic gradient or another as we discussed in Episode 1. 

In this article, I’ll step away from the afore written conversation about thematic tone and workshop more about depictions and descriptions of more aggressive elements that are inherent in D&D, like violence and monster descriptions. 

A fair warning to readers, I will be creating examples of different descriptions and they may not be for the faint of heart. As aspiring DMs it’s good to know what you’re alright with before asking your group so you know your own limits as well as theirs. The examples below deal with Vermiphobic themes and descriptives in the Monster Manual that could be difficult for those with body dysmorphia.

Encountering otherworldly and macabre beasts inherently has gruesome intonations and their descriptions alone can potentially invoke and trigger people of fairer dispositions due to their traumas. On the other hand, many could be desensitized via traumas, employment necessities (ie Nurses, EMTs, Military), or just general lovers of darker parts of pop culture like horror and slasher flick lovers. It’s always important to ask what a group’s limits are for detail and depictions of violence in a game, even if you have a comfortable bunch of friends at a table. Some people love enough description to make them shudder and be grossed out but add eight legs and an arachnid-like abdomen to that flesh golem and the player with arachnophobia may not like the word “spider-like” or “eight-legged” added in that description. As a DM, how you describe things paints a picture way worse and more terrifying than any concept art or miniature, so be sure to know what flies with a group. 

As an example of different gruesome depictions of monsters let’s play with an excerpt from Volo’s that describes the worm-infested zombie, the Spawn of Kyuss.

“…as it comes into clearer view, one can see scores of little green worms crawling in and out of it. These worms jump onto nearby humanoids and burrow into their flesh. A worm that penetrates a humanoid body makes its way to the creature’s brain.”

  • Spawn of Kyuss, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Pg 192
Spawn of KYuss

Even as a DM who is comfortable with these details I know describing a monster like this to a party when it comes into the light or grabs their shoulder from a dark alcove could mean a bit of tonal workarounds for the lighter-of-hearted that don’t mind being grossed out, but perhaps cannot stand the internal process. 

First, I’d give them a chance by using a touch of realism. I tell them the worms on the hand seem to rapidly bore into the leather strap of their helmet or an earflap on their hat. This could be a clue that they’re headed that way. Then I give them a chance to remove that item to escape it for a while, allowing party members to assist. Then let the worms that reached into the thrown headpiece eat through the padding hungrily as if expecting a head within it. This shadows the grim details and the actual act whilst still keeping the fun gross-out reaction rather than fearful/uncomfortable one. 

This is easy enough to do whilst maintaining the danger of the situation and possibly imparting those effects on other party members who revel in the details a bit more. Another example of working around graphic descriptions is to pad any sort of contextual insinuations that monsters may project on players. This especially pertains to things like body dysmorphia or shaming which could be a very sensitive subject. Here’s an example of how to lighten the context of the Nupperibo fiend.

“…those whose evil acts in life arose from carelessness and sloth more than anything else are suitable only to become Nupperibos. These pitiful creatures shuffle mindlessly across the landscape: blind, bloated from unquenchable hunger, and groping for whatever scraps of fetid matter or swarming vermin they can scoop into their groaning mouths.”

  • Nupperibo, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, Pg 168

Although the description clearly states these were evil people, their physique and description of sloth and gluttony along with being seen as “pitiful creatures shuffling mindlessly” may inadvertently project on someone at the table that deals with some body image issues. Replace the vocabulary of their physique as something husky and be more generalized. Describe them as being physically weighed down by their own selfishness and greed when they lived, personified in a swollen body and stumpy legs. Furthermore, add some extra limbs and make it more like a grotesque tardigrade. In other words, describe them as less humanoid so that their image is more akin to an animal than a human. That can help remove projection.

Of course, the easy solution is to not use creatures that could be an issue for party members, but like many people in social situations, many don’t want to have concessions made for things they believe only affect them, so they try to stomach it. If you ever get a sense that this is the case, employ these little workarounds so your changes aren’t obvious. 

I certainly hope these small suggestions and changes help you in your journey to make a table many can happily play at! Until next time you Dangerously Delightful Dungeon Masters!

Written By 

Christian Petrozza
IG: L2S_Entertainment
Twitter: @Late2theShowEnt

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