The Many Shades of Tone

I’ve begun a new campaign, because I am very dumb. While Faith is closing out its first season I’ve also put together Under the Stars, a campaign I loosely described to the players as Breath of the Wild meets Ni No Kuni 2, video games I’d been interacting a lot with lately. A new campaign means a new Session Zero, which means another opportunity to break out the old campaign survey, my favorite method for getting everybody on the same page in terms of campaign feel. While there’s some wiggle room in each survey question, for the most part it’s pretty straightforward. Players know the difference between a G-rated campaign and an PG-rated campaign, or the difference between leaning slightly urban and leaning slightly rural. I don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining what the results mean.

“Tone/Mood”, however, isn’t always as clear, and it’s a hard concept to fit into a simple 1-to-7 scale. Even the descriptions in the survey are kind of all over the place; they say a light campaign has clearly-defined good and evil while a dark campaign has moral ambiguity, but they also say a dark campaign has more elements of horror. Those aren’t equivalent. Really they’re two separate concepts that can go hand-in-hand but just as often don’t. The descriptions are more examples of what could be “light” and “dark”, not exhaustive lists. Finding a proper definition for tone is harder than that, and it’s worth doing.

The issue is that tone has several complimentary components. “Dark”, or its superlative cousin “grimdark”, media could include pervasive evil, or gritty realism, or explicit gore, or the failure of the heroes. It could apply to legitimate deconstructions of medieval fantasy, or nihilistic depictions of the actions of a misguided few, or puerile stories reveling in edginess for its own sake. It can also be some combination of these, or none of them at all, instead encompassing something I missed. It’s hard to find one single metric we can use to say whether something is light or dark, so we have to consider the various bits that contribute to it. In particular:

Realism. This might be the most popular measure, for good reason. “Dark and gritty” is basically one word as descriptors go. The connection between darkness and grittiness is explicitly fostered from both sides; we assume something dark won’t gloss over real-world problems for the sake of the narrative and we assume something gritty will have an uncompromising worldview. Even incredibly unrealistic media gets a dark label by treating specific things realistically, be it gore, personal relationships, or a given character’s likelihood of survival.

But they correlate more than one causes the other. Graphic violence, rigid adherence to modern scientific thought, and faithful representations of character’s emotional states don’t make something dark by default, and by extension dark campaigns don’t have to include them. Assuming otherwise falls over pretty quickly; if darkness was grittiness and vice versa, our actual modern society would be the darkest of all worlds by the tautological virtue of being most like real life, and it’s not difficult to think of some darker media, campaign, or concept. While dark stories can be realistic and light stories can be fantastic, it’s not required and realism isn’t the sole determiner of tone.

Comedy. This is also popular, but going the other way. We think of lightness as funny, or at least intentionally non-serious, and we associate darkness with snark or gallows humor. But again, it’s not the only thing that goes into tone. A light campaign is not unrelentingly goofy any more than a dark campaign is unrelentingly dour. Even some of the lightest media, like children’s fairy tales, aren’t necessarily funny. I’d go so far as to say that of the points in this post, comedy is the smallest factor in affecting tone.

Morality. In general, lighter media more clearly define and contrast good and evil than darker media. Consider superheroes. A hero who upholds justice and truth, defends the weak, and never wavers in his duty is light; a hero who consciously and flagrantly breaks the law, gleefully kills villains to stop them, and demands compensation or honors for his efforts is dark. It’s the Saturday morning cartoon argument; light media wants heroes to be heroes and villains to be villains, and dark media wants to show that heroes can have human desires and fallibility while villains think of themselves as the heroes of their own stories.

If this was several decades ago, we could stop here. But media has evolved and matured, and we see far less cartoon heroics and villainy than we did in the days of the Hays Code and the Comics Code Authority. Now we expect (and arguably demand) heroes and villains who work in the grey area. One could argue that this indicates how media as a whole has gotten darker, and I understand that position. But that just shifts our frame of reference; within this landscape we have light and dark media, so it does no good to call it all dark and be done with it. Dark media may make a bigger deal of grey (or grey and black) morality than light media does, but not a sufficient definition on its own.

Idealism/Cynicism. This is the closest thing I’ve seen in common conversation to what I think about tone, but it’s misleading on its face. To quote TV Tropes:

In general, if the story values or is hopeful for a particular ideal, then it is idealistic. If the story criticizes, assaults, and accentuates the negative about that expectation, then it is cynical.

That is, idealism is the support of an ideal and cynicism is the subversion of that ideal. But, and I will die on this hill, that’s not what cynicism is. Cynicism is, by definition, the belief that people act solely in their own self-interest. Contrasting idealism and cynicism sets up a false dichotomy; perfection and principles are not the opposite of selfishness, and by putting them against each other we do a disservice to both. To discuss what this means for tone, we have to consider what the idealism/cynicism scale means while throwing out the words themselves.

To put it as simply as possible, tone describes how a campaign is supposed to make players feel. A light campaign makes players feel like problems can be solved, good will triumph over evil, and virtue lies in the heart of all creatures. A dark campaign makes players feel like their actions are but temporary stopgaps against an unending threat, “good” and “evil” are just words without bearing, and only the people willing to step on others make any progress in life. If I had to boil it down to a single word, I’d say the tone of a campaign is the amount of hope the players have for their characters, their quest, and the world at large.

That’s what the trope is trying to say. An idealist work isn’t actually about the ideal itself, it’s about the hope the work has about achieving it. An cynical work isn’t about violating that ideal, it’s about how human nature will conflict with and invalidate that hope. If the work constantly makes you think everything will be alright, it’s light. If it constantly makes you think everything is going to fall apart, it’s dark. Most media falls in between, shifting back and forth depending on what happens at any given time, but the overall feel it gives you is its tone.

With that in mind, most of my campaigns are very, very light. My players generally assume that I will punish them mercilessly for their failures and inadequacies, but they also assume that in the end everything will be alright and they’ll probably win, if not in the exact way or to the degree they expect when the campaign starts. Personally I like light media with dark elements, where the heroes succeed by learning from and overcoming their darkest moments, and my games reflect that mostly because my players also like things light. I’ve never had a group actually vote for a dark campaign, and I don’t know how I’d run it given the opportunity. I’d probably make it clear from the beginning that the PCs might not win. Watching something where the heroes fail is hard, but it’s harder if you expect them to succeed right up until the very end.

Though the players in Faith did ask for a slightly-dark campaign. Now I guess they know what that means to me.

This entry was posted in DMing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.