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.
“D&D is a game with the best graphics you could ever want because your imagination has no limits.”
It’s session zero, half of your group struts in, they’re high on Game of Thrones because it’s “REEEEAL and GRITTY” and brought some fun foam weapons that resemble Conan’s sword caked in red cornstarch blood. The other half floats in with their dice sets engraved in Tolkien’s Elvish and their notebook covers have Narnia’s deific Lion Aslan staring back at them with benevolent resolve. You, the Dungeon Master, regardless of having seen none, some, or all of these types of fantasy can clearly see your new party has some different wants from the kind of adventures and worlds they subscribe to. You may wonder, will this be a problem? Will they get along? Can I please everyone’s fantasy scenarios in a single narrative?
The answer is yes, and the explanation is simple, straight from one of my own players in my first party, which consisted of my cousins. “D&D is a game with the best graphics you could ever want because your imagination has no limits.”
I will still give you specifics on how to appease varying fantasy genres, but let me expand on this first. The imagination is always the agency of individuals. Whatever details you leave out to get filled in by their imaginations. When you add details, their minds and memories will pass it through the filters of their own understanding and fantasies to fit their enjoyment, but right there lies the point of my cousin’s statement.
To talk about tone and the idea of a barrier between levity and grit I am immediately reminded of my experience playing Dracula on stage. The story is classic, the lines romanticized and steeped in the origins of gothic literature, but our delivery was the thing that defined the line between horror and downright comedy. In some rehearsals, we would be in stitches saying lines in sarcastic tones or overly suggestive ones just to crack up our co-stars, and we never had to change a single word to do it.
So where’s the middle ground? A whole campaign of warmongering, hopelessness, and horror will wear down even the most eyeliner-heavy of parties. Even in the grimmest of all darks, you need moments of cheek, sarcasm, a slight echo of self-awareness, and of course macabre humour. Before anything, make sure you go over the “hard and soft limits” or “lines and veils” of your party, this will help weed out how dark you can go theme-wise and is honestly most of the battle. Once you know what not to feature, then you can work on the gradient between Gritty to Fantastical, and Bleak to Optimistic.
Whether you’re playing a pre-written module or writing a homebrew tale of your own, tuning the campaign is like going over every individual slider in Instagram’s photo editor. You are a DM after all, and with a mixed group you’ll need to micromanage this a little more, but you’ll be okay, I promise. Here’s an example of those filters that could be helpful in defining where that happy medium is through this study of a town description
The Town of Ressionne
You are looking down at the town of Ressionne from a nearby hilltop, but through the rain, you only see the silhouettes of the buildings. You make your way to the entrance of the town and you notice…
- Light but dirty: The town is shabby, each building’s roof is peppered with the neglect of missing shingles, dangling shutters, and mud-caked roads. An elderly gentleman stumbles out of an inn and splashes into a puddle as an old woman pushes a rickety cart with a sparse variety of soil-gritted carrots, potatoes, and parsnips. A town guard grumbles at the fallen gentleman who helps himself up against a horse trough, then pauses, and buries their head in it with a splash.
- Grim and Suggestive: The town is shabby, the buildings are decrepit and repaired with patchwork and a prayer. The creek of dangling store signs lingers in-tune with the scraping sound of a whetstone on steel. A drunk is booted out of an inn and splashes into the mud, right at the feet of a war-worn Town Guard who immediately grabs him by the scruff and drags him on his feet and across the road. An old crone pushes a wheelbarrow with futile strength, containing rotting vegetables. The guard and drunkard pass by a wooden platform where the local butcher is sharpening a large axe next to a bloody wooden stump. The drunkard throws up on the guard’s boot.
(TW for C: Disgusting descriptions and less archaic execution methods, and arbitrary use of force by authority)
- Flagrantly Dark: This place is miserable, the buildings built on a half-uttered prayer. The creek of dangling store signs is interrupted by the abrupt K’THUNK of a wooden trapdoor being tested at the gallows in the town’s centre, someone in a black apron holds the lever and nods, staring at the noose above the trapdoor with a grin. A drunk crawls away from an Inn and through the mud before a passing Town Guard lands a stiff kick in his ribs, sending him reeling and scrambling to his feet, falling back to his knees as he vomits. A crone with a wort-bubbled face pushes a squeaking cart full of rotting produce followed by a swarm of flies. She cackles at the drunkard and waves a mouldy cabbage in his face, saying “boil this when you get home, it’ll kill the hangover!” the drunkard cowers and she cackles, dropping the cabbage in front of him and continuing on her way.
So A. is pretty standard fare, we could be in any setting of any filter and our brains could adjust to the broader strokes. This town sucks; it’s in disrepair and people have little regard for each other. Anyone can latch darker textures to this on their own to fit their enjoyment, it may not have the flavour needed to set a dark tone across the board. The implications of drunkenness and vomiting are tuned out in caricature and implied rather than brought up.
On the other hand, B. is definitely a great middle-ground between the lighter and darker tones of fantasy. We feel the defeatism of the place and weather-worn townsfolk, the old woman is given the title of crone to build a texture around her presence, the soil-gritted vegetables are now rotten, but we’ve left how they look to the imagination. The Town Guard is a little more aggressive with the drunkard, but it seems like he’s just tossing him in the drunk tank for the 50th time and is sick of it. There’s the introduction of an execution platform and a butcher sharpening an ax. B. is where the grimness creeps in.
The last description is really where you can let your dark and dreary flag limply float as a raven perches on it. C. uses misery as the opening description. Building descriptions are summed into a hopeless ideal and the sounds of eerie inactivity are interrupted by the foreboding of a pending execution, and if limits have been respected, the implication of this type of execution hits harder because modern applicability of this act makes it feel less like a medieval timepiece and a current possibility. The Town Guard is irreverent and abuses his power, this time his kick triggering the drunkard getting sick. The crone is grotesque, sadistic, and macabre in humour and her produce is eliciting the sights and smells of maggots and flies. Through all this the poor drunkard acts like the lens through which we can follow the town’s terrible tone, making his suffering our own.
For a mixed group, you’d want to hit the tone of b. most likely, the description is surreal enough in its depression that it can be played off as comically miserable, yet could also be described with a dreary monotone to hit home the bleakness and let the grimdark-lovers really feel the cold misty air hit their cheeks.
Written By: Christian A.V. Petrozza
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