Get Serious: 5 Ways to Add Gravitas to Your Game
From Joanna Gaskell
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #574
Five tips for giving your game some weight. There’s often a lot of laughter in gaming, but what do you do when you want to bring in the serious stuff, and give your story some drama and tension?
Sometimes all it takes is a little atmosphere to bring the energy around the table down a bit and focus it.
When people have been gaming for a few hours, and they’re having fun, and they’re drinking a lot of sugary beverages and eating snacks (as you do) they can get a little off-the-wall.
If you’re coming to that point in the story where the consequences are getting more significant, and you want to be able to get that epic bad-guy monologue out before the ranger shoots him, or before buddy playing the wizard cracks a fart joke, pick your favourite movie soundtrack and let it creep in in the background.
Lord of the Rings is a good one – but make sure you have it set to play at some track other than the Hobbit music from the Shire. That can certainly have the wrong effect. 🙂
Your players are looking to you to tell their story, so when you want to bring the tone to a more serious place, it has to start with you. Take a breath. Sit still. Make eye contact.
When your NPC needs to tell them exactly what that terrible lich did to that orphanage, don’t make light of it. That NPC saw terrible, terrible things.
If you brush it off impatiently so you can get going on the assault on Lich Central, your players will too. Really engage with your players, and they’ll take their cues from your tone and your body language.
Add Some Horror Elements
There are some fantastic source books out there that can give you great ideas when it comes to making things creepy and serious, and scary. Try the D&D 3.5 source book Heroes of Horror, or the Cthulhu RPG. There are also some great ideas in the Iron Kingdoms Monsternomicon from Privateer Press. It doesn’t matter if you’re not playing that system, sometimes the scary just comes in the atmosphere or the description.
If you’re in an urban setting, have the streetlamp abruptly switch off when the party passes underneath it – who cares if there’s a legitimate reason for that to happen, it will put your party on edge, and raise the tension.
If you’re in the ruin of a wizard’s tower or a palace, play with the idea that spells that were cast a millennium ago to be “permanent” are still hanging around in some form – eerie music, odd smells.
When you’re searching a creepy basement where the bad guy tortured his victims, have the rogue find a human tooth on the floor. D&D players hear about blood all the time, but teeth? Creepy.
Make It Personal
In my opinion, the best thing you can do if you want to bring gravitas to a game is to know your characters, and to make things personal.
Gather information about their histories, whether that be through the basic two-sentence backstory you get them to tell the party at the beginning of the campaign, or through information the characters let slip over the course of the game.
Then, bring someone from one of the characters’ histories into the story. If you need a call for help from a nearby village, make it a personal appeal from someone your cleric grew up with. Or if the vampire lord has taken hostages, make one of them the fighter’s son. Or, better yet, take the fighter’s son and have the vampire lord turn him into one of his trusted minions.
Nothing makes the story serious like making it personal. If your players have any bones in their bodies that crave epic roleplay, they will probably get caught up in the fact their character is under duress, and they’ll be more likely to dive into the story and get swept away with the drama. However, not every player is like this, which brings me to my last point.
Pick Your Target
Learn the play style of each of your players – there will always be one or two who have more of a tendency towards roleplay and storytelling.
If you decide to have your villain fixate on one of your party members and hurt everyone they hold dear, fantastic! Great idea. Just make sure you fixate on a player who will enjoy the attention, and rise to the challenge of carrying your story.
If that person jumps on board with the high stakes and the drama, there is a much bigger chance the rest of your party will find themselves caught up in it as well.
Joanna Gaskell is the producer, writer and one of the lead actors in gaming-based fantasy-comedy webseries Standard Action, currently preparing for a third season. She is an avid Pathfinder player, and loves the Iron Kingdoms campaign setting, Lovecraft and roleplay-heavy gaming.