When I first started running games my gut instinct was to try and make my sessions all be well rounded, providing drama, comedy, excitement and so on and so forth, all at once. The idea was that one person would have a funny quest for players while another would have a more dour objective for them. That’s how it kind of works in video games, so why wouldn’t it work here? Well it wasn’t that it couldn’t work here, it was more that it sometimes led to a sense of emotional whiplash. The party would go from joking with a bartender while breaking the fourth wall, to talking to a grieving widow who is desperate to uncover the culprit for her partner’s murder. It was tonally inconsistent in a way that was very noticeable. More to the point, it made keeping my players engaged and role-playing, incredibly difficult…
When I first started running games my gut instinct was to try and make my sessions all be well rounded, providing drama, comedy, excitement and so on and so forth, all at once. The idea was that one person would have a funny quest for players while another would have a more dour objective for them. That’s how it kind of works in video games, so why wouldn’t it work here? Well it wasn’t that it couldn’t work here, it was more that it sometimes led to a sense of emotional whiplash. The party would go from joking with a bartender while breaking the fourth wall, to talking to a grieving widow who is desperate to uncover the culprit for her partner’s murder. It was tonally inconsistent in a way that was very noticeable. More to the point, it made keeping my players engaged and role-playing, incredibly difficult.
Going from joking about a funny looking cow or whatever, to talking about the vast political corruption in the city might work in the real world because we’re all emotionally broken, but in game I’ve found that tonal consistency is valued more than it is in our world. Now, that isn’t to say that I’m forbidding jokes when we’re having a serious conversation, but the way you address that kind of thing is important.
Everyone in every adventuring party wants to crack a joke that’s going to make everyone at the table erupt into laughter, which is fine, but if they’re talking to that poor widow from the example earlier, that widow is gonna call them out. It isn’t about whether I, the DM am calling them out or not, it’s about if the NPC they’re practicing their standup routine on is willing to put up with their shit. There’s no use in me as the DM breaking the flow of the game to tell my players to get serious about our game where dragons and goblins are kicking it with raptors and dwarves or whatever, cause that would be a fun new take on ludo-narrative dissonance.
I guess my point ultimately is that while you as the DM have the power to do whatever you want, wielding that power and using it is a bit trickier. Aside from lambasting my players as the NPCs they interact with, I’ve found that splitting my sessions into arcs has been really helpful for establishing tones. For instance, we’ve had sessions that were very mission focused and others that were just nebulous, allowing the players to go off and do what they want and suffer the consequences in classic D&D fashion. I treat the tone in our games like a pendulum, where some of them are gonna be goof-fests, while others are going to have the characters make tough choices. Trying to keep the pendulum stuck in one direction for too long will almost certainly lead to a harsh swing in the other direction, so it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re not sticking with one theme or tone for too long.
Ironically, that very reason was why we all ultimately decided to stop playing through the Rime of the Frostmaiden module that came out late last year. It was so overly drab and depressing, with an insistence on being dour and bleak throughout the vast majority of the adventure. It sucked and was a colossal downer, so we pivoted. Consider that a lesson learned on my end though, because from here on out, I’m making sure that any game I run has both highs and lows without lingering too much on either.
I recognize that this entire concept of a malleable and shifting tone might be something I value more than a lot of other game masters and players, but I’ve found a lot of success in using this mentality. I allow my players to joke and goof till their heart’s content, but I also know that in a few sessions I’m going to hit one of them with a tough choice that’s going to make their character grow. In a long term campaign, I think these situations and encounters are absolutely necessary to keep both the story interesting and your players engaged. While this post is about adjusting the tone to match the content of the session, all of this stuff is, in my opinion, extremely important to another very instrumental part of campaigns, which is allowing the characters to grow.
Every campaign I’ve run starts with at least one person trying to make a joke character, which is fine. But I always tell them that making a joke character and giving them a goofy name is really going to bite them in the ass further down the line. When the king of the land comes to you, hat in hand, and begs your party for help in finding his missing wife, it’s really going to undercut the whole mood of the campaign when he has to say, “I come to seek the aid of the noble knight, Fart Garfunkel. I shall pay a king’s bounty for the retrieval of my missing beloved wife.” Like, that whole scene is going to suck on so many levels. Maybe the first time it happens, it’ll be hilarious. The second, third, hell, maybe even the tenth time it happens it’ll still be a gut-buster. But doing that puts this artificial ceiling on how much your character can grow because they’ll never be taken seriously by anyone in your party, let alone the actual human beings at the table.
Every party, campaign, player, and character are so different, so maybe my advice doesn’t apply to your current situation. But I truly believe through extensive trial and error, that being able to set a tone from session to session is extremely important to allowing the players to experience a great story. While they might not remember the name of the big bad guy or whatever, they’ll remember the ebbs and flow of a campaign that tonally mimics the real life experience. Some days are good, some days are sad, and it’s okay to have your player-characters experience that too. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than a series of stats on a page with a name like Fart Garfunkel.