Help Me Lighten Up

It has recently come to my attention that my GMing runs…dark. I recognize that this is true of myself. I like Abercrombie. I like grim, gritty, and even grimdark (see Abercrombie).

But that’s not necessarily what my players like and I don’t want to ring the same bells over and over again either.

I would like my players to describe my games as dramatic, or exciting, or even just fun. Any of those would be better than dark.

I know this kind of change is possible - but does anyone have any suggestions for how to go about it? Especially about how to fight existing tendencies and actively practice and learn new ones? I already tore down my entire trad GMing game and rebuilt it around fail-forward and player empowerment about 15 years ago and it was…tough. Exhausting. There were too many sessions that weren’t enough fun while I was learning.

Anyone have any tips on making this easier? Faster? Or do I just say:

Everyone, I’m trying to reform my grimdark ways, based on your feedback. I’m going to do my best but my instincts are all to find the worst thing that can happen and then crank that up and shove it in your faces and shout, “Oh yeah? What are you going to do about THIS?” Please understand that I may take longer than normal to decide on the results of actions as I seek to moderate outcomes, and please let me know if something has gone too deep into tragedy and we can retcon it ASAP.

Thanks in advance for your advice. From me and my beleaguered MASKS players!

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Maybe start with some NPCs that are actually nice. Not terribly effective, maybe, but really kind-hearted and well-meaning. And then don’t make them the victims of some gruesome murder or the perpetrators of a heinous betrayal, but just let them be there and be hopeful.

Or make some clue cards for yourself with hints like “catching a break”, “not everything is ugly” and other stuff like that, and try to bring these into your game.

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If you’re playing Masks, the best advice I can give is watch some cartoons.

Seriously, go check out a run of Teen Titans Go or Young Justice, classic 90s X-Men, even Steven Universe. They get across the angst and anxiety of being a teenager, contending with learning how to be in love, how to take responsibility, and all that growing-up stuff (that could get pretty grim pretty quick) while still staying upbeat and fun. Allow the PCs some time to do stuff that isn’t saving the world. Make extra time for that at the beginning. Be very self-conscious about stepping away from the action and letting them develop relationships with people they actually like doing not-superhero things that are fun. Teenager fun.

If you need help with that, ask every player to name one MCC who is ‘immune to dark’. That doesn’t mean they can’t ever be put in danger, or that they’re not important to the story, just that you’ll pledge not to take that person out of their lives without their permission, and strive to play THAT MCC as hopeful, helpful, optimistic, friendly, etc. like @SabineV5 suggested. A sense that there’s some stability to at least one of their MCC relationships will go a long way to letting them relax and enjoy the game, which will have the paradoxical but predictable effect of making the rarer moments of darkness way more potent.

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Absolutely communicate with the players! They can help you manage tone very powerfully. Also, I highly recommend using content management tools to help with this (https://www.gauntlet-rpg.com/tools-of-the-table.html); Lines & Veils is a good way to pre-emptively manage your content, for example, by setting your own Lines on dark elements you want to keep away from.

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I think you can say that and try to incorporate some tips.

I used to have a darker style. For me, that grimness was driven in part because I thought it was my job to challenge the players as well as the characters. Then I sat down with one and asked them why they weren’t enjoying themselves. They answered “I think hard all day at work. When I play, I just want to kill some stuff and have a laugh.” That was illuminating for me. Talking to your players - what a concept.

I’ve also found some grimmer games are grim because the GM focuses on trying to realistically portray the setting as opposed to, say, trying to make the setting cinematic. So maybe look to what your inspiring fiction is - are you aiming for a real space game where a pin-prick to the oxygen tank spells doom or Legolas winning his way with ease through everything?

“Be a fan of the PCs” is, I think, the best advice. If you don’t want to see them come out the other side, maybe go back to char gen and work with the players so that they are more sympathetic?

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I’ll echo @Curubethion here: talk to your players. A great way to start that conversation is CATS:

http://proleary.com/2016/04/25/the-cats-method-a-story-telling-game-opening-ritual/

From then on use safety tools like Script Change to let everyone (players and MC) pause things to point out when things are going darker than the agreed upon tone.

As someone who runs a periodic series called Tragic Tuesdays I can empathize. But I do so on The Gauntlet, so people decide to play or not. I don’t have a group where I am the GM. I tend to be someone who likes the extremes so on the other hand I’ll run Gonzo stuff to even things out.

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Ahhh there it is! I wanted to recommend CATS but couldn’t find a good blog post/website that talked about it. Maybe a good resource to link on The Gauntlet’s pages?

It can also be helpful to get analytical. You’ve cracked the formula on how to get your players in worse and worse situations, so how would you tackle the problem of how to celebrate the awesomeness of the characters? Honestly, just singling out moments where characters are doing awesome stuff and celebrating that both in the moment and after the fact (see: Stars and Wishes, https://www.gauntlet-rpg.com/blog/stars-and-wishes ) will start to build a feedback loop in your brain. If you’re excited to see players doing really fun, awesome stuff, that’ll actually help rewire your instincts along the way.

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If something bad just happened, don’t follow it up with another. Put in a mundane or lighter moment to mix up the tone.

Mundane stuff : visit from an old friend, asking them to share a childhood memory, seeing a theatre/movie with a sibling, a cat/dog/raccoon adopts them, friend of a friend heard about something they did and just wanted to say thanks (they’re also pretty cute).

Don’t mention paying bills or serious disease. If there is an injury, the temple/hospital can fix it-don’t mention payment.

Hobbies help, give them a few successes with it, and build up to them fixing that old car/forging that awesome blade/designing the royal dress. It will change how they see their character and how npcs see them.

Police/City Guard will cut them some slack if they are saving lives/fighting bad guys, you know like how heroes get treated by the cops in every 90 min action film.

Don’t forget things like nights at the club, birthdays, street parties, religious festivals (with non lethal contests like juggling, archery, singing, pottery)

  • the heroes avoid the lycans by ducking down an alley and going through an unlocked door, the staff of the karaoke bar say Your in the door, you gotta sing!’:slight_smile:
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My advice would be to stop being the boss. Play some GMless, GMful, heavily collaborative games. Ask your friends to step up and run some games that you get to play. Cede your authority and embrace the group vibe while adding your own special darkness now and again.

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So the darkness arises from the complications, not the game’s genre? That seems like it would be hard to change. I like dark fiction; I get bored with novels where “everything is beautiful and nothing hurt.” It’s not that I don’t get satisfaction from other texts or that darkness is the only good mode, it’s just less emotionally impactful. I empathize here.

Maybe use that old DW complication roll table (or make your own) that has more moderate responses to the game. This way it’s not taking you extra time in-game and has some moderation built in. Or make a simple table with increasing intensity of consequences:

  • broken finger > mutated hand > dismembered forearm.
  • hear a voice in your head > sickening feeling like there’s something inside you > your actions are no longer your own.

I think “Trophy” does with “Conditions” growing in intensity as you encounter new rings, you might take a look at that.

The advice here has been spot on. My advice is pretty similar to what others said (@BlakeRyan and @JimLikesGames in particular) but maybe this formulation will also be useful.

My suggestion is to make a list of ideas of scenes, twists, or story lines which you would consider dramatic, exciting, or fun (and in any case not dark). Don’t railroad people towards these, but just figure out for yourself what they look like and how you might get there from your story using the MC moves.

These can be large story arcs, complications from their alter ego, twists to their relationships (marriage, break up, problems at work, moving, etc.), teaming up with villains to do something non-villainous, visiting a new city, etc. They can also just be small scenes you think would be fun to try, e.g. superheroes at a party or a bar, what it’s like having to testify in court, being interviewed by the Super Society, etc. The important thing is that they seem interesting to you and that you can get used to seeing their shape and feel.

Going dark in a story is a little bit like eating sugar or a dessert in a meal. Characters often have tragic pasts, or experience loss, but these events are more significant and satisfying when they occur after other character and plot development (the nutritious meal). But once you get used to eating a lot of sweets all the time it’s hard to appreciate the other flavors and break the habit.

Since you’ve trained yourself to see ways to take stories in a dark direction this will likely be your impulse while running the game. To break the habit, you not only need to reign in this impulse (which it sounds like you’re doing) but also build a sense of where you do want to go, and practice seeing opportunities to get there.

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It sounds like you’ve become a pro at making your stakes matter by making them dark. (Not a bad thing - I think a lot of people struggle with that!)

Since your goal is to make things feel lighter, rather than going for the grimmest stakes available, instead look for stakes that matter to the PCs personally but aren’t going to cause death, dismemberment, or insanity. That way you have investment and tension (which often is what amounts to “fun”) without the consequences having to be “And also your beloved companion is brutally removed from existence in front of you.”

Good news is, in Masks, this is especially easy since you’re playing teenagers who care about ALL SORTS OF THINGS that might not lead to grim ends. Prom night? Likes on Instagram? Attaining your dreams of getting accepted into your ideal college RIGHT NOW? That new pair of shoes or iPhone upgrade? All things that can cause the character to care, to chase things, and don’t have to go dark if they lose them or if you want to ramp things up a bit.

Look for character-invested stakes that feel like they life-or-death matter without actually life-or-death mattering.

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Another thing: Be a fan of your players, so let some NPCs be the fans of their characters. They’ve done something good? They accomplished something? Have an adult compliment them, or show them respect. Let someone write a nice blog article about them.

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Been playing indie games since the early 2ks, been asking leading questions for a looong time now. I love to incorporate my players’ input.

Recently been playing the living hell out of Dialect because it is so reliably amazing. Last time, I deliberately portrayed The Innocent to force myself to go against type. My friends will never GM. It’s not going to happen. But I am loving Dialect and plan to pick up Dream Askew next.

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OK, I’ve got that. A team of adult heroes who are friendly (mostly) and supportive (mostly) but also somehow are never around or effective when the kids are facing villains. I like the idea of clue cards!

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I really like this idea. Vary the dynamic. I think I’m gonna make myself a card that’s black on one side and flip that side up when something has gone dark. It’ll remind me to produce a different kind of tension.

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Have you ever heard of Swords Without Master or Monkeydome?

Those games introduce “tone” as a variable, and some technique for switching it over.

You could make a “tone” tool for yourself, and engage it at certain times. For example, a card which says “Grim” on one side, and “Full of Hope” on the other. The rule is that you can’t flip over the card until you create or narrate something that fills that quality, and you can’t go against the quality while it’s face up, either. See if that kind of thing makes a change to your GMing; everything is worth a try!

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I just replied to @BlakeRyan above with:

I’ve got Swords Without Master haven’t gotten a chance to really read it yet. But it sounds like the kind of concrete tool I can apply at the table that will remind me and allow my players to help correct course if I go against the card, because they’ll know the state of the tone card.

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Very nice! I don’t think reading that game will give you much more in terms of tone; the only difference is that in the game, the tone switches based on a die roll.

It’s definitely worth finding some cues for yourself like these, whether it’s for prep or for play. You could also have a checklist of more specific things, like, “A kind and well-meaning soul”, which you check off when you include them in your prep or in a scene. “Someone develops a crush without ulterior motives,” stuff like that. It depends a fair deal on the specifics of your game and the particulars of how you tend to “get dark”.

Can you think of any instances of your game where you tried to make things less grim, but you feel the attempt didn’t work (either because you couldn’t follow through, or because you didn’t do it the way you had wished)?

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Re SwM: I adore Epi and his writing but I would highly recommend finding an AP to watch or listen to to learn the game. (IIRC he did a series running it on Twitch…)

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