[RPG] GMing against type: adding levity


When I GM, I tend to make the scenarios/campaigns "serious" — they're grim and gritty, much more about drama (and violence) than anything else. In addition, I tend to focus on some degree of realism (e.g. in D&D I worry about dungeon ecology), which probably ties into this, and thus don't tend to include the more whimsical side of fantasy.

I'm currently (just started) running an Edge of The Empire game, and I think that my players might want a bit less seriousness and a bit more lightheartedness.
I don't want to cross the line into comedy/silliness per se, but am looking to try to move the feel to something lighter, a movie example might be "The Mummy",
which might be a lighter, and more fantastic, derivative of Indiana Jones, which itself isn't that dark.

What are some techniques or approaches for lightening the mood when my natural inclination is to make grim and dark scenarios?

I'm currently running a premade module, so things that I can look for or apply to pre-existing material will be helpful in the short term. But I'm also interested in techniques that might apply in charting out future adventures.

Best Answer

You're trying to set a tone. This is an abstract quality that will inform and emerge from your game. To shape how it goes, you'll need to keep your desired tone in mind during preparation and play, and identify specifics that will help guide you.

Gritty Drama vs. Lighthearted Adventure

You're used to grit. Let's define some of the qualities that comprise it, so you can see more objectively what creates this atmosphere:

  • Dramatic setbacks & character flaws are part of what makes a compelling story
  • The protagonists are "regular" people. They are made exceptional because the narrative is about them. Even if they are exceptional within the setting, their flaws and humanity are important.
  • Getting by in the world is challenging. Simply holding one's ground can sometimes be considered a victory.
  • Risks are serious. Whether you are wounded in a fight or mocked before your peers, there will be consequences that matter.
  • Happy endings aren't a guarantee. Tragedies and downwards spirals are compelling gritty stories.
  • Life isn't fair and good doesn't always prevail.
  • "Good" and "evil" can get murky, and most people and situations are shades of grey.
  • Narration includes realistic details and nuances.

Gritty stories are at least as dark, miserable, and challenging - often more so - than the reality we are used to. We can relate to the adversity, and even take comfort that our own world isn't any worse. Empathizing with the characters' struggles is a central appeal; one which is enhanced by maintaining a sense of realism.

By contrast:

Lighthearted adventure stories are about empowerment and escapism. The best of them also highlight the value of virtue, giving the audience inspiration we can carry into our own lives. Notable qualities:

  • Dramatic victories achieved with flourish are part of what makes a compelling story
  • The protagonists are exceptional. Through some combination of skill, luck and virtue they stand out and get things done.
  • Risks are exciting. The heroes win more than they lose. When setbacks happen, it's possible to recover, and often to turn the setback into an advantage.*
  • Endings are happy. In the rare event that a main character dies, they hailed for their sacrifice by the survivors, and their accomplishments are always large.
  • Life might be full of danger, but virtue will ultimately prevail. Honesty, bravery, kindness and cleverness will defeat selfishness, cruelty, and ignorance.
  • Characters, while still ideally having some depth, are more likely to play directly towards or against tropes.
  • Narration includes larger-than-life action and details that are stylized and exciting.

*Example: A hero is kidnapped by bad guys and locked in a dungeon. After escaping their cell, the hero is now in the bad guys' lair and ready to some serious damage.

How the magic happens

As you can see, this is a style that deliberately uses less realism. This is where the room for comedy comes in. Comedy is how we respond to the absurdity of a situation. In a gritty story, one is often too immersed in the drama to laugh much. In a less realistic story you are just enough removed that it's easier to laugh. Also, the lack of realism fosters more absurd situations, so funny things happen more. Don't worry about forcing comedy. It's a spontaneous quality of the genre.

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