Adjusting the Contrast: 4 Tips for Grittier Gameplay

A lot of games deal with black and light, good and bad, and even holy and evil in clear, crisp contrasts. The white hats are there. The black hats are over there. The orcs are evil. The dwarves are good. The elves are, well, elves. Heroic gaming is entertaining. It’s fun. When it comes to my works, however, there typically are one or more shades of grey in them. I like to have worlds with a bit of moral ambiguity, where the choices are difficult, where the lines between good and bad sometimes blur, where good people do bad things for the right reasons, and so on. I’ll give you one reason why, and then I’ll give you a few tips for how to interject some nebulosity into your own sessions.

The penultimate reason for crafting a game in shades of grey is to create a deeper roleplaying experience. Period. Some of you may say you love to swing from chandeliers, sweep through a dozen men with your Claymore of Doom, or make a thousand women weep from your sad, sad songs. Not a thing wrong with that. A person can enjoy both The 39 Steps or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and still enjoy The Matrix or Raiders of the Lost Arc. The point is there are times when you want to step up your game, challenge your players, and get them to really think, not as they might think, but as their role dictates they should think.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Give them the Kobyashi Maru. Present them with a challenge where there is no possible chance of success, only degrees of failure. This is harsh, devious, and not something to do to your group often, but you should do it. There are times when they have to regroup, retreat, and figure out their next plan of action. If you know a 1000 zombies are about to chomp your friend’s face off in the street, do you go out there and try to save him with a flaming spork, or do you lament his passing at your leisure? Failure builds character.

2. Present them with the lesser of two evils. I call this the Gwen Stacy scenario. Your hero, your Spider-Man, has the choice of saving the people or saving the girl. Unlike the movies, he won’t be able to do both. Does it suck to be him? Sure. With great power, and all that…

3. Let them learn just because they are good, doesn’t mean the enemy is bad. Everyone is the hero of his story. This is what I call the Matryoshka Effect. Like the Russian nesting doll, the world has many layers and a hidden depth. Round your NPCs out, and give them motivations to make them more than stock characters. Maybe the villain is a pawn in someone else’s game? Maybe he’s not? Sin City presents a complex cast resonating with this vibe as does The Usual Suspects.

4. The inverse of the above, good can be bad. A hero may have to do some very bad things. I call this the Rusty Badge or Dirty Halo scenario. This sets the characters squarely in The Shield or The Wire territory. Will the characters slaughter ten innocents to save a city? Would you?

With proper care and practice, you can execute a nuanced game of shadow play and breathe fresh life into a campaign which may have its contrasts set a tad too high.  I now return to the shadowy, fog-drenched corridors of my mind and bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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