This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety Eight on 27th November 2019.
Mikey: Okay what about this one …
Lennon: No, that’s still not quite right
Mikey: This one?
Lennon: Close… but it doesn’t quite capture the essence of “Asmodeus is trying to destroy the world”, you know?
Ryu: Mikey? Is that you? What are you two cooking up this time?
Lennon: I’m trying to work with Mikey to find the exact sound that describes my campaign, like you said.
Ryu: And once again your grasp of the English language amazes me. We’re talking about the *emotional* tone of the game, not sound.
Ostron: Although music can help with that a bit.
Mikey: Right, I’m done here.
Lennon: But…fine, so what did you two want to talk about?
Every time you run a campaign, or even a one-shot, discussing with the table what the tone for the game is, is a very important topic. Players may have a number of different expectations – some could expect a very serious, no meta-gaming, roleplay game experience, while others are expecting something more jovial, metagaming like crazy and cracking wise at every situation. Others may want to emulate the atmosphere they saw on Acquisitions Incorporated or Critical Role. Keeping players engaged and coming back to your games means understanding and accommodating those expectations, and realizing where they’re appropriate.
In general, D&D games can have tones that fall along a spectrum from serious to casual.
Serious tones generally involve a heavy amount of roleplay, high-stakes goals and quests, and very little discussion of the game as a game, usually only in terms of combat tactics and rules clarifications. Any humor or joking is usually going to be infrequent and coming from one or two designated “comic relief” sources. In terms of popular media, this would be a campaign in the vein of the Lord of the Rings films or even Game of Thrones.
Serious styles are generally going to be appropriate for most official published adventures. The party’s goal, after all, is usually to vanquish the Great Evil threatening the land, so clearly a party of jokesters and pranksters seems grossly out of place. By encouraging the party to keep everything serious, it can allow for some very intense, yet satisfying, roleplaying experiences.
This tone is especially appropriate if you’re wanting to have your campaign or adventure in a more mature setting or more dangerous environment, such as Descent into Avernus, Curse of Strahd, or Out of the Abyss. The darker content and grim settings often leave little time for levity, though the occasional moment will naturally appear. Regardless of whether it’s an official module or something you’ve created yourself, if you’re intending to maintain a fully dark theme, well, it should go without saying but talk to your players first. Seriously, campaigns that are very heavy, mature, and/or dark can cause some players to personally struggle with some themes and events. And even if everyone around the table has been friends for years, nobody really knows exactly what everyone around the table has gone through. With that in mind, even if everyone’s on-board and the boundaries of what’s appropriate and what’s not have been clearly drawn, always give the people around the table the option of an “out” if an action or scene wanders too close to the line. As a DM there are various ways to accomplish this if a player is uncomfortable. “Fading to black” or simply cutting away to another part of the action are completely valid options, even if it wouldn’t necessarily make narrative sense at the time. Remember, you’re all there, first and foremost, to have fun. And as any DM will tell you, players don’t need an excuse to derail any story, so should things start straying into uncomfortable territory, just do what you all do best and take the story in a completely different direction.
The comic relief element we mentioned earlier can help with that. If one of the player characters seems to take on that role, that’s fine, though it helps if the player in charge of them has a good sense of when the humor is appreciated and appropriate. Aside from being provided by the players, the campaign should have moments of light and respite built in. Wizards did this with Descent into Avernus, where despite the campaign trudging through Hell most of the time, there are some absurd and amusing asides. Even though it may seem out of place, a source of humor is good to have; even players who are comfortable with or enjoy the more serious tone can get worn down by unrelenting dark content.
On the other end of the spectrum, jovial, joke-filled campaigns can seem almost silly, with a large number of role playing encounters almost coming straight out of cartoons. Filled to the brim with ridiculous dialog, party shenanigans, outlandish character stories, and other goofyness, these light-hearted campaigns can almost become satires of the genre. Take for example the fan movie “The Gamers”, or to a lesser extent Acquisitions Incorporated — both are examples of lighter toned games.
These kinds of games are often good for introducing new players who may be apprehensive about D&D … after all, it does still have a bit of a negative stereotype in some circles, and others may be concerned about sitting around a table with people who never acknowledge D&D is a game and will snap at anyone who’s speaking out of character. Laughter and joking quickly defuse the situation, and a more casual atmosphere is often more welcoming for the newer player.
Seasoned players can also enjoy a lighter campaign as a break or an interlude if they just got done with a more serious or darker campaign and need or want a way to keep playing but not have to deal with the same level of intensity.
Published adventures like Acquisitions, Inc. and Rick and Morty are excellent for starting out on a lighter note, while many homebrewed campaigns can also adapt to a rather silly party very easily.
Now, some people assume casual, lighter games abandon roleplaying all together and metagaming is the norm, but that doesn’t have to be true. The Acquisitions Incorporated groups stay in character for the vast majority of their campaigns, and have full roleplaying experiences. The characters in question are just more off the wall than a party based on something from Tolkien, for example. So the idea that a lighter tone means it’s a beginner’s game or nobody is taking it seriously is just incorrect, and you may be depriving yourself of a great RPG opportunity.
Another thing to remember is the tone doesn’t have to be a static, unchanging constant. If you look at any long running TV show with a particular tone, you’re usually able to find an episode or two where the tone dramatically shifted. Sci-Fi’s Battlestar Galactica, for example, was a rather grim, intense show but they had one episode that was practically a romantic comedy.
And going back to how dark campaigns need moments of light, don’t be afraid to take a light-hearted campaign and give it moments of seriousness. Whilst the TV show Firefly and its accompanying movie Serenity were generally light hearted, they definitely took on a more serious tone when a real issue was presented. I am a leaf on the wind.
For your campaign it’s important to read the room and see what the players are thinking and feeling about the game. If people seem to be dreading or avoiding progressing through a dark, intense environment, injecting some humor or lighthearted moments might be warranted. If joking and casual play is starting to annoy people, it might be time to up the stakes and increase people’s focus.
And obviously, if the players tell you when something’s not to their liking, pay attention and fix it. Setting the correct tone can help you and your players more fully enjoy the game.
Lennon: I still don’t think trying to find an exact sound to represent a campaign is that crazy of an idea.
Ostron: Judging by the “Not accepting requests from Lennon” sign on the hatch to the cave, I don’t think Mikey agrees with you.
Lennon: He’s not responding on the sending stone either…
Ryu: Well he might not be responding but I know the listeners responded in the scrying pool, so why don’t we go handle that?