The travelling RPG Blog Carnival continues to jump from one blog to another. While I devoted a lot of time to the February topic, the monthly host continues to change. I try to contribute to the ongoing carnival as best I can.The travelling RPG Blog Carnival continues to jump from one blog to another. While I devoted a lot of time to the February topic, the monthly host continues to change. I try to contribute to the ongoing carnival as best I can.
In July, the latest host is Doctor Necrotic at the Daemons and Deathrays blog. Doctor Necrotic’s chosen topic for the month is Doomsdays & Dystopias. The Daemons and Deathrays site outlined the topic like this:
While I enjoy tons of heroic settings with noble characters ensuring good in the world, I’ve always loved truly grim and dour settings. I speak of worlds that fit the “GRIMDARK” moniker that’s been affectionately used. For those who don’t get the reference, it refers to Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K tagline, which states that “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war!” I’m speaking of places blighted by impossible evils, dystopias where any sort of righteousness and passion is repressed, a sinister universe that is out to destroy you, nuked out wastelands where the remains of society struggle to continue or scrap the last bits of the old ones… but you get the point.
So, why is my theme essentially “dark settings and dark themes”? Sounds depressing, I know. After all, spending too much time in an overly dark and oppressive world can wear one down, right? Not exactly! There are many reasons why dark settings are truly fascinating.
Amazingly, Doctor Necrotic chose a topic very similar to the theme for the latest round of the Storm & Shield contest: Doomsday Devices. However, the Carnival is more about settings as a whole, rather than the small plot hooks covered in the contest.
My overall take on gaming is in line with Doctor Necrotic’s statement. I prefer heroic settings, which is where the majority of the Tales of the Hero Wars campaign plays out. Yet, there have been popular interludes where we adopted a Grimdark approach. Essentially, an interlude is a short break in the campaign, where we play a different set of rules. The Heroes may be the same, and the interlude plot is intended to reflect or inform the main story. An interlude is the RPG equivalent of a flashback sequence.
Several of our interludes took the Players to Grimdark settings. We have visited a range of locations, but two settings are closest to Doctor Necrotic’s description:
- Rebukur: After Ragnarok
- Sebukur: Gothic Masters
Rebukur: After Ragnarok
The most Grimdark setting we visit for an interlude is the war-torn world of Rebukur, based around the superb book The Day After Ragnarok by Ken Hite. This alternate history setting is the aftermath of the atomic bomb killing the Midgard Serpent summoned by the Nazis. The mix of occult horror and pulp tropes creates a powerful setting.
So far, we have played three times in Rebukur. Nazis were common foes, but a more light-hearted visit involved Soviet genetically enhanced apes. The pulp tone of the setting helped mitigate much of the darkness, but the sense of eternal war is present in the game.
Sebukur: Gothic Masters
Our second Grimdark setting is more gothic in tone. Despite the less apocalyptic nature of the setting, Sebukur feels a lot darker. We brainstormed this setting as a venue for an interlude playing My Life With Master. The result was a village in remote Terovia, where the populace were stalked by a dream-stealing dhampyr.
A HeroQuest game also visited Terovia, during the Sigil PD cycle of tales. Even here the dhampyr proved too strong, and the darkness of the setting endured. The darkness of this gothic setting is more evident during play, and the horror is much more personal. Overall, Sebukur is more successful at portraying a Grimdark game.
Hints of Grimdark
While the two settings above are clearly Grimdark ones, albeit in different ways, other interludes have toyed with the darkness.
- Winter Palace – a DramaSystem game set in a fey snow palace. The characters here were mainly cruel and selfish, as a vicious game of politics played out. The conflicts were very personal, and there was a clear sense of isolation.
- Puppet Dream – a Puppetland game, where the characters were distortions of themselves. This was not as Grimdark as the original Puppetland setting, but carried a sense of dislocation from reality and moments of bleak horror.
- League of Heroes – a Savage Worlds game set in Dickensian London, the epitome of a grim setting. The pulp tone of the rules overcame of lot of the darkness.
- Fiasco – Any game run with Fiasco carries a sense of inevitable doom for the characters. A few Heroes will escape the personal darkness, but overall the story ends badly.
Of Light and Dark
As I write this essay, I realise just how many of the interludes feature elements of the Grimdark. I am fascinated by the concept, and enjoy exploring elements of the Grimdark in short bursts. These interludes create memorable stories, and are popular with the Players.
Yet, these interludes also serve the wider campaign. After several months of heroic play, it is enlightening to experience the darkness with an interlude. These games throw the main campaign into relief, and underline the actions of the Heroes as they fight endlessly for the greater good.
These shifts in tone keep the campaign varied, allowing changes in setting, character and mechanics. An interlude breaks up the monotony of playing the same game for months on end. I always return to HeroQuest with a fresh sense of purpose as the game shifts back into the “light” of my beloved narrative rules.
The Grimdark is most commonly found in my campaign as part of an interlude, those one-shot games I weave into the wider narrative. These moments of darkness keep the campaign fresh, and allow for variations in tone and narrative focus. I enjoy exploring a fresh setting for a week or two, and then head back to the main game with greater enthusiasm. I expect many more visits to the Grimdark through the course of the campaign.
How do you embrace the Grimdark in your game? Have you tried weaving interludes into your campaign? Do you share my fascination with such settings? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- The RPG Blog Carnival is under the stewardship of Johnn Four, at his Roleplaying Tips website.
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If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Voting for the July Warlock’s Journal Contest
- Something for the Weekend next week: Improv Encounters 12, Closing
- The August Blog Carnival contribution began with a look at Common Magic bundles