Dark & Gritty Gaming – Part 2

From Hannah L.

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0422

A Brief Word From Hannah

Candle Campaign Going Great

Thank you once again for all of the great tips! Candle, my dark and gritty post-apocalyptic 4e campaign, is going great. It’s turned out to be a lot more dark than it is gritty, but I’m okay with that.

The game began with village of Candle’s heroes going missing. The son of one hero ran off to look for the missing group, and the party, each for their own reason, headed out to rescue him. They found him close to death and with more questions than answers.

Several sessions on, the party has learned that Candle’s light doesn’t shine as brightly as they’d all believed, and the heroes themselves were anything but heroic. They want to confront the village elders about it, but first they’ll need to deal with the ever-present undead, victimized dragonborn, frighteningly organized goblins, and plague-infected dire rats.

With a devoted Cleric of the Raven Queen and a deeply conflicted Paladin of Torog, it’s like having a party of six instead of four. The ranger’s already shot the warlord in the back once metaphorically and once physically, and she doesn’t even dislike him.

I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next.

Spore Monster Creator

I’ve been playing a fair amount of Spore lately. While most of the critters in the game are adorable, the creature creator could be put to a more dire purpose: whipping up home-made monsters for your campaign.

If you have incredibly specific visions of your monsters, Spore Creature Creator probably won’t have enough options to make you happy. But if all you want is a shiny, accurate- enough visual aid, it could be just what you need.

For those who don’t own the game, there’s a free demo version that is still powerful enough to make a host of baddies: Spore Creature Creator

Dark & Gritty Gaming – Part 2

Last week, we saw some great tips for running dark and gritty games. This week’s tips are darker yet, with advice on everything from personalizing items to terrorizing the party.

Creating And Keeping A Gritty Atmosphere

From Jenette Downing

I’m assuming the game is taking place many years after the apocalyptic event has come to pass. If not, some of this may not apply.

Make the basic supplies an absolute necessity and partial luxury.

Part of what makes such campaigns dark and gritty is the lack of traveling supplies and high tech items that most groups take for granted. Simple things, such as a decent backpack or new set of footwear, should be challenging to come by, especially in the beginning.

Instead of letting players start off with the “standard fare” of most adventurers, give them well-worn or nearly worn out equipment and make them work for better gear. If they want to have a sleeping bag and tent, give them one that leaks, or is missing some of its stuffing. If they desire to have a halogen flashlight or scope for their rifle, ask them for a background story on how they came by this rare piece of “before time tech.”

Taking a little time to personalize their equipment with a sentence or two of detail makes everything feel more “aged” and helps to better set the tone for the campaign. It also opens the door for player ingenuity on repairing/maintaining some of these worn down items.

Also be sure to carefully track the amount of food/water/ammo/medical supplies the characters have in their possession. Foraging for the necessities of life can make for a fun, recurring sub-plot in dark, gritty games. Most of the time, towns and trading posts are few and far between, so scavenging ruins and unexplored wilderness is the only alternative to dehydration and starvation.

Reward better equipment sparingly.

Part of what makes a setting “gritty” is the overall lack of high-end equipment the chars have at their disposal throughout the campaign. If within the first half dozen adventures they acquire full auto assault rifles, grenade launchers, or tactical body armor, then the game becomes far less dark grit and far more “run and gun.”

Depending on how far after the apocalypse you plan on setting your campaign, auto and even semi auto firearms could be something of a rarity, with the easier to maintain bolt action rifles and revolvers being the more common “weapon of the era.”

The key is to slowly reward players with better equipment, and most of all make them earn it. Whether it’s by a hard fought battle, challenging trade negotiation, or difficult salvage from crumbling radiation infused ruins, if they haven’t struggled for it, they probably haven’t worked hard enough for it.

Make the after-effects of combat memorable.

In most games, after combat characters patch up their wounds with med kits or potions/spells and then carry on unhindered. In a gritty campaign, you should stress the difficulties imposed by the injury until it heals and encourage players to roleplay the temporary effects such injuries have on the characters.

Depending on the nature of the injury and how well it’s cared for, it can also be appropriate to roll for infection/disease difficulties until it’s fully healed. If the character in question does wind up suffering such a complication it can make for an exciting roleplaying opportunity as the rest of the group struggles to find a cure before it’s too late.

It can also make for a good reason why an absent player’s character is out of action for that session, and provide an easy plug-in adventure that will have wrapped up by the time the absent player returns.

Play up the contrast of familiar locations ravaged by war or the decay of time.

As the character’s travel through the world, have them run across familiar locations to the players, and describe them as if the players have never seen them before.

Instead of describing it as the Statue of Liberty decayed and broken, portray it as “a once towering metal construct of a formerly beautiful woman whose face is now pitted and scarred by the ravages of war and the passage of time.” By forcing the players to visualize what you are describing, the realization they are actually viewing something familiar to them will add a sense of loss of the world they know.

It also helps them remain in character as you are describing the scene as their characters would view it rather than narrating it as the players would see it.

One of the best resources a GM can use is free travel guides to tourist attractions as well as a map to help them plan the rough location of towns and cities surrounding the players’ starting area.

Increase the severity of environmental dangers.

Part of what makes a dark and gritty setting so gritty is the dangers players can’t simply shoot at. In a post apocalypse setting these dangers can go far beyond the normal thunderstorms, cold weather, and nasty swamps. One can include more insidious dangers, from radiation poisoning to rains of pure acid, that can vary in strength from mildly corrosive to able to dissolve a person to a pile of bones in less than minute.

Entire adventures can revolve around the characters seeking shelter from or traveling through such environmental hazards. If they are seeking shelter from an impending chemical storm, and the only sturdy looking structure is already occupied by another group of people (or mutants), it can make for an exciting encounter.

Ideally, such naturally occurring hazards should be worked into the game as a standard backdrop, and used to make every encounter all the more harrowing.

Encourage players to create realistic characters.

This is easier said than done, but can make a huge difference in the grittiness and realism of the game. If players are min/maxing their characters or making “larger than life heroes,” the dark gritty feeling is greatly diminished.

Depending on the rule setting, the game master should perhaps put a limit on the maximum attribute level/skill level allowed for starting characters, or reduce the number of available points.

With the characters being weaker overall, it will make them cautious and desperate, and this better represents the feel of the game world. Depending on the player group, they might not be too eager to write up weaker than average characters, so the GM might need to “sweeten the deal” by giving each character a couple extra advantages, or award a bit more experience during adventures.

Cultural darkness and grit.

In a dark and gritty setting one should also change the average NPC and community from the “happy go lucky villagers” seen in most “normal” campaigns to townsfolk who are more suspicious and less helpful to strangers in general.

In a post apocalypse scenario, many communities will be rightfully suspicious of newcomers. (Are they spies for a rival community? Recon for a raider or slaver group? Carrying some kind of communicable sickness?) This makes the characters need to put forth genuine effort to earn the trust of the communities they encounter.

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Going Beyond Win/Lose

From Jolle Lont

Give stories more than two possible outcomes.

In an action-adventure game, the characters normally have a goal they’re trying to achieve, and in the end they either have succeeded or they have not. There may be more than one way to achieve victory, but the goal is always victory.

If victory is achieved, it’s difficult to maintain a dark mood. To solve this problem, design plots with more than two possible outcomes. Make sure each has drawbacks so the dark mood can come into play one way or another.

This advice applies on other scales as well. For example, a combat can be made more interesting by giving it more outcomes than just win or lose. Say the characters are in a gunfight on the highway. If they win and immobilize the other car, their own car might be immobile, or at least damaged. If they lose and the other car escapes, they might use the other car’s license plate number to track them down later.

For example, James will be GMing a story in which the players are police agents try to capture a drugs boss in a city. To prevent the story from simply ending in victory or defeat, James throws in a few twists.

First, he decides that somewhere in the story the drugs boss will capture the wife of one of the characters. This gives all sorts of options for added drama, as she might get killed or wounded. Maybe the characters need to gather a huge amount of ransom.

Second, James decides the crime boss blackmails the local newspaper. The more the character’s work against him, the more their reputation will suffer because of unflattering articles in the newspaper. Note that because of these changes, the question corresponding to this plot has changed from “will the characters capture the drugs boss or not?” to “how will the characters handle the drugs boss’ actions?”

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Darkness and Horror

From R. Jason Kerney

There are four main things to understand in running a dark and gritty game. First, you need to understand horror and what it means to be scary. Then you need to know what it is to be dark and how to best use light to cast deeper shadows. After that, you need to understand the true essence of a dark game and what drives it. Lastly, you have to understand the inherent differences in combat between a normal game and a dark game.

Horror is an interesting genre with a lot of debate about what makes a story horror. But in the end, what makes a good horror is whether or not it is scary. So, we need to examine what is and is not actually scary.

A monster that we can contemplate, name and categorize is not scary. Fear comes from the uncomfortable emotions we get when we are unable to place a piece of information into a known data set. This causes anxiety and inability to know the correct or even most correct choice in a given situation. Then, when forced to make a decision, someone never feels comfortable with the decision they have made. The root of the tension in a dark game is the inability to ever feel comfortable with what you have chosen.

So the darkness in a dark game is a feeling of oppression by an insurmountable force. This oppressive force is similar to a shadow; when you shine a light to examine it, it moves. The root of the force should never be an NPC, an organization, or even heaven or hell.

It should at some time be all of any one of them, and at another time be a different one. But even that is not good enough. Whenever the source of the oppression moves, the feel should not. Somehow it should seem as if the oppressive force has something greater guiding it.

The easiest way to have this force move is by “filling the void.” This occurs when the PCs have defeated the source and whoever steps up to take over the job is oppressive in a very similar way.

This provides an interesting opportunity to shift the cause of the oppression onto the PCs themselves. Let them see that their very actions led to this situation. That they made the wrong choice, or did not protect the void well enough, or in some other way it is their fault.

To adequately heighten the tension of a dark game, you have to measure and weigh the true successes you allow the players to have. Every good deed accomplished by the PCs should, as a general rule, cause greater harm to the world.

But this grows frustrating and old quick.

You need to give the PCs just enough light to allow them to cast the deepest shadows. Allow them true and hard fought victories that do not immediately rot away into a cause of entropy. These successes should be minor as far as the world is concerned, but major emotionally.

A good example would be the rescue of a badly abused girl from being sacrificed to a nonexistent god. This has a lot of emotion, but does not change the politics or uncover the evil that is causing the horror.

The last thing about these sparks of light is space them out. I like to give them out about every 14th game or so.

A dark game has a heart – something that keeps the story moving and feeling interconnected. The heart of every truly dark story is politics. Politics is a web that is woven of emotion, good intentions, and power. These could be the simple politics of a town or the unfathomable politics of a heavenly court.

They need to be twisted and hidden. The players should never gain actual insight into what is really going on. The closer they seem to get to truth, the more questions they should have. If you give the players a position of power in the political world, then the meat of the politics must seem to actually be driven by a higher group. There is always a higher group.

The last note is combat. In a dark game combat has a very different feel than the average dungeon crawl. Every combat should hinge on a moral directive. There has to be a moral reason driving the combat, and as such there should be less combat in a dark and gritty game than a standard one.

When combat does occur it should feel as if the players’ souls hang in the balance, and they risk losing them if they do not fight. This even becomes more enhanced if the morals behind the combat are not clear cut. If the players are unsure of the ethics of the combat, then they will not feel comfortable with the outcome either way. This plays into the horror of a game.

With combat coming with less frequency, this allows other skills to shine, but you have to be careful with these skill challenges now. Since they are replacing combat, they need to serve the same purpose as combat, otherwise players will feel cheated.

So, make the characters’ wellbeing depend more and more on non-combat skill challenges. Make some of these skill challenges have the same moral weight as combat, and have real consequences for success and failure.

With these four things in mind you should be able to run a fun dark and gritty game.

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What Not To Do

From “Dragon” Dave McKee

I can tell you a bit about how to lose dark and gritty.

We’ve got a Ravenloft campaign. So far, so good. We were playing a modern Medicines Sans Frontiers crew who got sucked into the mists.

First problem was getting us to Ravenloft.

GM’s idea: weather gets bad, we hear crying girl, we get out and enter bog, come out into the mists of Ravenloft.

Our idea: weather gets bad, we hear crying girl, two go out and get her whilst another preps the ambulance jeep for an incoming patient.

We got her out of the bog with the winch on the jeep and huddle her into the ambulance. The GM then took the whole vehicle into Ravenloft.

Now, this was pretty cool. But it’s a bit of a leap and a change of setting, to have the jeep too.

Second problem: our characters are from the present day. We all know the best ways of killing zombies: removing the head or destroying the brain. We know exactly how to deal with zombies – just don’t let them bite you or bleed on you.

We did, however, manage to scare the crap out of an NPC bartender by casually remarking that, “zombies are infectious, don’t you know?” That was a horror even a resident of Ravenloft wasn’t ready for.

Reader Tips Request: Sharing Secret Information

Letting one player know something another does not increases dramatic tension and leads to great roleplaying. It also gets around the problem of players inadvertently meta-gaming with knowledge their characters don’t have. But just how do you share the secret message?

Whispering works sometimes, but it’s tricky. Passing notes means the GM spends a lot of time scribbling. And both methods can still cause meta-game problems when the players see you doing them.

So how do you get secrets to your players? Perfected a way of whispering that requires a DC 30 perception check to overhear? Mastered the art of penning mysterious missives without interrupting the flow of the game? Or do you have some other, even more effective way of getting hidden information across?

Let us know:

Via e-mail: [email protected]
Via web: Contact Johnn Four

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Gaming Fees

From Paul

I once belonged to a group of around 20 players who regularly rented a hall to play in. We had three GMs running three games simultaneously. Since we had to pay a nominal charge for hall use (£10 / session) we all paid £1 each, GMs included.

This left around £10 per session extra. We saved that money until we had around £150, and then split it between the 3 GMs for new game-related stuff of the GM’s choice. If they didn’t spend the full £50 each, we’d buy supplies for the group – pencils, paper, graph paper, dice, etc.

This worked very well for the few years the group lasted. We ended the club because so many people went away to colleges, etc., that we couldn’t even raise the £10 fee. But it was good while it lasted.

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Star Frontiers Revival

From Robert Blezard

Star Frontiers fans be sure to check this site out. It offers with free adventures, downloads, and resources.

Star Frontiersma

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XP for Character Backgrounds

From Palmer of the Turks

One thing that’s worked well for me in the past is to award XP at beginning levels for creating a character background. This at least gets those borderline roleplayers thinking about what works well.

There are a couple of possibilities for this.

You could give a flat percentage XP bonus. Those players who got them – and you can make the amount variable, so Bob might get 4% while Sally is zipping along with a 9% – will progress that much faster than those who didn’t. The munchkins might have missed their chance for it this campaign, but they’ll be sure to remember it, and try to get it when the next campaign rolls around.

Alternatively, offer a lump of XP for a background at level 1. Then, each level they gain, they have the option to add to that background however they wish. This does not mean writing what happened in game between level 1 and level 2, but something from their character’s background. Maybe they take one noteworthy episode from their past and flesh it out, or something similar.

They have an opportunity to do this once per level, and if they do a passable job, they get bonus XP. I’d rate each story on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale, and then give them that % of the XP needed to reach their next level.

I’d award double or even triple normal for starting stories because (hopefully) they’re longer and more encompassing. If the idea of giving up to 30% of the XP needed to reach level 2 before the game starts bothers you, stagger it. Give them the base percentage increase at each level for several levels, possibly in addition to the per-level new background bonus.

You can judge each story on its own, work out a rough guideline to go by, or even have a precise breakdown of “having X is worth Y%, and they get 1% for 1 page, or 2% for longer.” Whether or not you let the players know your scoring scheme is optional, and if you do let them know, you can choose what level of detail you share.

Maybe you have a precise breakdown, but all they know is, “The following things in or about your story may earn you points: length, NPC interactions, explaining where you got an ability.” Then they’ll know what you’re looking for, but not which things are worth more and how much.

This allows those with weak opening stories to “catch up” later on through further additions to their story. This can massively boost character development as well, and fill out personalities.

The best part? The more they write about their character, the more attached they’ll get to them, and the easier they’ll find it to get in character.

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Free D&D 3.5 Solo Adventures

From Michael Wengland

I’d like to invite you and your readers to my group, The Solo Adventurer. I write solo adventures for DnD v3.5 and post them there.


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GMing Tools for Handhelds?

From Barry Strain

I was curious if you or your readers had any suggestions for good GMing tools for Handhelds? I found one by Cartoforge but it is not as customizable on NPCs as I would like. Other than that it looks good and not too expensive.