Dark and Gritty tips

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Dark and Gritty tips

Postby Style » Sat Nov 29, 2008 3:45 am

I recently read the following role-playing tips on dark and gritty gaming:

http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissu ... r=421#tips
http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissu ... r=422#tips

The focus was mostly on post-apocalyptic games. There were a few good nuggets in there for running that style of game, but very little of it seemed to resonate with me as advice that would be good for a dark and gritty Conan game. At least not how I envision a Conan game.

So my question is this: What advice can you offer for running a dark and gritty Conan game?
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Postby Scorpion13 » Sat Nov 29, 2008 3:59 am

Be true to the setting and itll be gritty and dark enough for just about anyone. Rampant racism, slavery is smiled upon in most of the world, and your gods range from all out evil to just plain vengeful and angry.

Start your players off in Shadizar. Show them a city thats more debased, slimy and corrupt than Sin City will ever hope to be.
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Postby Ichabod » Sat Nov 29, 2008 6:05 am

Bad things happen ... constantly. Nature can suck - drought, flooding, earthquakes. Religion can suck - time for a holy war or an inquisition. Accidents (that matter) are common - "woops, accidentally broke that seal on the demon's prison, my bad".

No black and white situations, i.e. moral ambiguity. Anything good is bad for somebody (and you ignore that anything bad is good for somebody). Easy to be inspired by economics with things like "our currency is worth more, hurrah, off to the Isle of the Black Ones for a two week vacation, oh wait, I work in the lotus export business and sales are down, so I've just been let go". There is no right, there's what maximizes my utility/profits.

Failure is an option. Not in a "I'm going to kill a PC every session" way but in a "you wasted too much time and now the villagers have been sacrificed, the demon has come, and you can stay as food if you want or you can run very far away". Kill off NPCs left and right, especially innocent ones or ones that helped the party unless the party goes out of its way to save them, then kill them anyway. Oddly enough, I can't help but think of Doctor Who where the body counts among the noncompanions is routinely ludicrous for what was originally a quasi-kids show.

Have vices, illegal behavior, and reprehensible behavior get rewarded from a PC perspective. What's lotus but drugs? Find lotus, sell lotus, hook people onto life-destroying addictions, but who cares when you are rich (or even the dealer)? Sell the local cutie into sex slavery after using her for a while - how is that not a win-win for the PCs? Steal from the rich and while partying in the next town hear about how the rulers cracked down on the populace or how they tried and the farmers fought back only for everyone to get massacred. "Hey, I'm a sorcerer dude who will totally make you powerful/better endowed, popular/rich, all you gots to do is hook me up with some youthful sacrifices." - and have the dude go through with it without betrayal.

There are plenty of things I wouldn't do. I wouldn't make every injury potentially life threatening or debilitating. I wouldn't have the PCs constantly diseased. I wouldn't have the PCs constantly betrayed, without good reason. You don't need any of this stuff.

Sure, I have on my character sheet "Not currently schizotypal; not currently affected by ring (corrupting magic item); nor healing dislocated finger.", but if you have players who are so character absorbed that they couldn't care less to what happens to the world around their characters, then what is even the point of going for dark and gritty? For the players who will notice, just having the world be a suck place should be enough.

Of course, you need to make sure that it's actually enjoyable to play. Personally, I find RL depressing enough that I want to play games where good deeds can be done. You can have the PCs be the exception to the world, be actual dogooders in a cesspool, making a difference bustin' that lotus operation and breaking up that Brythunian slavery ring. For people who don't mind playing bad guys, have the world be not so bad but have the PC actions make it worse - our main group is notable pretty much just for unleashing demons and other horrors on the world as we blunder our way through adventures running from the consequences of our stupidity, hopefully there are some real heroes cleaning up our messes.
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Postby Style » Sat Nov 29, 2008 5:59 pm

Great stuff! You have already out done the advice in those role-playing tips articles. Keep em coming!
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Postby rabindranath72 » Sun Nov 30, 2008 5:18 pm

Lots of good tips can be found in the d20 Call of Cthulhu book, and are easily adaptable to Conan games, especially the part regarding magic and monsters.
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Postby kintire » Mon Dec 01, 2008 3:06 pm

Some interesting points here, not all of which I agree with. In particular:
No black and white situations, i.e. moral ambiguity. Anything good is bad for somebody (and you ignore that anything bad is good for somebody). Easy to be inspired by economics with things like "our currency is worth more, hurrah, off to the Isle of the Black Ones for a two week vacation, oh wait, I work in the lotus export business and sales are down, so I've just been let go". There is no right, there's what maximizes my utility/profits.
I find games like this boring, and not very dark. Darkness is in many ways about bad things happening to good people: if there aren't any good people that's quite hard to do. If there isn't any good at all, its hard to get people very motivated about evil. In fact, in the end, what is the game about? You can run a game which is about nothing more than the PCs trying to make a living and get ahead, and that can certainly be gritty, but not dark. Dark games involve caring about things that happen, and are effective when things going badly actually matter. If everyone's a lotus smuggler, it doesn't matter who comes out on top, and there's no particular reason why anyone should care who does. And they won't.

Dark games are NOT amoral games with no good and evil, they are games where the good guys don't necessarily, or even usually, win.
Failure is an option. Not in a "I'm going to kill a PC every session" way but in a "you wasted too much time and now the villagers have been sacrificed, the demon has come, and you can stay as food if you want or you can run very far away". Kill off NPCs left and right, especially innocent ones or ones that helped the party unless the party goes out of its way to save them, then kill them anyway.
I'm right with this, right up to "then kill them anyway". Do NOT do this, or not too often. Make it hard to save the innocents, and have failure not only a possibility but a recurring fact, but if you give the PCs the idea that nothing they do will ever work, they will lose interest very fast.

And remember, this is Conan. Who remembers a bunch of corrupt scum who blend into the rest of the corrupt scum, and are totally interchangeable with any other venal, spineless villain? Dark Conan is about facing the fact that the world is a dark and deadly place, and spitting that fact in the face
"What are you but an adventurer, seizing a crown to which you had no more claim than any other wandering barbarian?" parried Amalrus. "We are prepared to offer you suitable compensation—"

"Compensation!" It was a gust of deep laughter from Conan's mighty chest. "The price of infamy and treachery! I am a barbarian, so I shall sell my kingdom and its people for life and your filthy gold? Ha! How did you come to your crown, you and that black-faced pig beside you? Your fathers did the fighting and the suffering, and handed their crowns to you on golden platters. What you inherited without lifting a finger — except to poison a few brothers — I fought for.

"You sit on satin and guzzle wine the people sweat for, and talk of divine rights of sovereignty — bah! I climbed out of the abyss of naked barbarism to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely as I spilt that of others. If either of us has the right to rule men, by Crom, it is I! How have you proved yourselves my superiors?

"I found Aquilonia in the grip of a pig like you — one who traced his genealogy for a thousand years. The land was torn with the wars of the barons, and the people cried out under oppression and taxation. Today no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects, and the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world.

"What of you? Your brother, Amalrus, holds the eastern half of your kingdom, and defies you. And you, Strabonus, your soldiers are even now besieging castles of a dozen or more rebellious barons. The people of both your kingdoms are crushed into the earth by tyrannous taxes and levies. And you would loot mine — ha! Free my hands and I'll varnish this floor with your brains!"
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Postby warzen » Mon Dec 01, 2008 4:52 pm

kintire wrote: I'm right with this, right up to "then kill them anyway". Do NOT do this, or not too often. Make it hard to save the innocents, and have failure not only a possibility but a recurring fact, but if you give the PCs the idea that nothing they do will ever work, they will lose interest very fast.
I completly agree. The hyborian age is not a place without hope but a place where you build your future with your own hands.

W.
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Postby Style » Mon Dec 01, 2008 9:55 pm

warzen wrote:
kintire wrote: I'm right with this, right up to "then kill them anyway". Do NOT do this, or not too often. Make it hard to save the innocents, and have failure not only a possibility but a recurring fact, but if you give the PCs the idea that nothing they do will ever work, they will lose interest very fast.
I completly agree. The hyborian age is not a place without hope but a place where you build your future with your own hands.

W.
I see what you're saying. I think I probably view Howard's Hyborian Age as more grim than dark. It's a subtle difference, but not insignificant.
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Postby kintire » Tue Dec 02, 2008 10:21 am

Even in the darkest games, there must be an opportunity to achieve something. Tension comes from doubt. Inevitable defeat is as dull as inevitable victory. In the lightest games there must be the possibility of defeat, and in the darkest the possibility of victory, of at least some sort. Otherwise, why bother trying?
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Postby Spectator » Fri Dec 05, 2008 4:02 am

"...Have vices, illegal behavior, and reprehensible behavior get rewarded from a PC perspective. What's lotus but drugs? Find lotus, sell lotus, hook people onto life-destroying addictions, but who cares when you are rich (or even the dealer)? Sell the local cutie into sex slavery after using her for a while - how is that not a win-win for the PCs? Steal from the rich and while partying in the next town hear about how the rulers cracked down on the populace or how they tried and the farmers fought back only for everyone to get massacred. "Hey, I'm a sorcerer dude who will totally make you powerful/better endowed, popular/rich, all you gots to do is hook me up with some youthful sacrifices." - and have the dude go through with it without betrayal..."


Who wants to party w/ Ichabod?
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Postby Ichabod » Sat Dec 06, 2008 2:10 am

I got to talking to someone about this thread and I've also been looking at my old Hero* books to where I see a clearer framework for various terms.

Dark - I would use as a descriptor for the world, a general descriptor that ranges from positive, positive-neutral, neutral, neutral-negative, negative.

Grim - In contrast, for me, I think of grim as how things are on a personal level, on a PC level. While dark and grim correlate much of the time, they don't need to.

Gritty - How realistic the world is or the situations are, though with a negative connotation. Again, correlates in general with dark but can easily be disconnected.

Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness are (normally) dark. The former is normally grim but the latter doesn't need to be. In my V:TM campaigns, I never felt that things were grim. I've never played either as gritty.

A standard comicbook superhero game is neither dark nor gritty but it can be grim if the player develops cancer, goes berserk and blows up a city/planet, etc. A crime show/game could very well be neither dark nor grim but easily be gritty.

As for the Conan stories I've read, I'd put the world as neutral-negative, things occasionally grim, and not much in the way of grit. Our campaign is neutral-negative that could easily go one way or the other depending upon the resolution of the metaplot, is occasionally very grim, and somewhat/sometimes gritty.

* I had forgotten how much Hero had formed my views on how to define different genres. I love the sections with 1-5 scales for things like morality, realism, outlook, continuity, seriousness, and explicitly writing down how important the characters are to the world. It gives a definition to one's campaign that can keep things on track and a way to compare to various works of fiction or whatever. Also, Fantasy Hero, circa 4e and likely more recent editions, has a section on fantasy genres which helped me define them in my own mind, though I don't agree that most Moorcock is S&S.
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Postby Style » Sat Dec 06, 2008 3:19 am

What version of Hero are your old books you're referring to, Ichabod?
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Postby Ichabod » Sat Dec 06, 2008 4:08 pm

Fourth. I never picked up the Fusion version or 5th, though I just started a 5th revised FHero campaign where only the GM has the book.
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Postby Violetsaber » Tue Dec 09, 2008 6:26 pm

Speaking as a Star Trek RPG game master who ran his players through a seven-year story arc, being "dark and gritty" becomes many times easier for the same group of players simply because the change is so massive. Not all of these suggestions are explicitly “Dark” or “Gritty”, but they do all reflect the special feel that the Conan books have.

DO:
•Remember that authority is fluid and harsh. It's much easier to advance by killing those in front of you in line, but the consequences to failure can be equally as vicious.
•Success and failure should be based upon personal effort. While working together as a team is all fine and dandy, triumph should not be based on a person’s willingness to play nice, or hampered by the idiocy of others…and if it is, the idiots shouldn’t be surprised when they get stabbed in the back.
•Loyal characters are like latinum… I mean gold. Treasure them! Most people met in the wilds of Hyboria are completely selfish, looking out only for themselves and how to get whatever it may be they want. Of course, the level of aptitude they display in their deceit and selfishness is not always constant…some may be quite devious like Lex Luther from Smallville, whereas others may be evil but incompetent, like Lex Luther from the movies.
•There is a significant class disparity it Hyboria, which extreme wealth and riches, and extreme poverty. Also, remember that this doesn’t mean that the ones with the power are always terrible rulers (Conan), or that the ones in poverty are sniveling, downtrodden whiners in search of handouts and kindness (Conan).
•Weapon damage in Conan is grisly. Try not to offend your players, but keep them aware that a slice across the stomach will cause them to bleed, that their dying enemies are real people, and if they mess up in their battles, they’re just an ugly bag of mostly blood and guts waiting to be popped.
•Keep the combat moving. The rules-heavy combat of Conan can be kept exciting by not getting too bogged down in them, giving players easy reference to the combat maneuvers they can use, and using critical hit and fumble decks. Perhaps best of all, penalize players who want to sit and flip through books on their turn. *Evil cackle*

DON’T:
•Your characters should never have more than they absolutely need to survive. Conan rarely starts his story with much more than his armor and a sword…any many times less. Your players should always feel as if they’re just one day away from starvation and nakedness.
•Clothing is a privilege, not a right, especially when it comes to women. Huge sections of Hyboria do NOT follow North American standards of modesty. From hulking naked black guards to the innocent, bare frolics of a princess in the surf, few people in Hyboria have any concept of shame. Before you cover a female character in head-to-toe armor, ask yourself: “What the heck am I thinking? Can I really see Eowyn in Conan?”
•Women in Hyboria DO NOT come in “average”. Women in Hyboria come in either “jaw-droppingly lust-inducing sensual love goddess”, or “boil-ridden hunchbacked drooling belching old hag”. Yeah, it’s the most sexist, inaccurate thing you could possibly GM, but have you read the books?
•Never let players fully trust in unknown powers. Magic and demons are not your friends, they are terrifying, mysterious forces from other worlds and dimensions. Once in awhile they may come across a venerable, kind sage like Yag, but for every one of him there are ten out to sacrifice your favorite body parts to an extradimensional abomination.
•Do not let your players be goody-two-shoes. They don’t necessarily need to be raving psychopaths or completely self-centered jerks, but if they seem to be too blindly selfless, shake them up a little. Be creative.
•Attitudes and personalities in Hyboria should rarely include “shame”. Unless your NPC is the most innocent, uninformed princess locked in a tower (of which there are a few), they should not have any embarrassment when it comes to their values, wishes, desires, opinions, or sexuality.
•Slavery is extremely common and acceptable in Hyboria, and if you back out of that, you’re probably not ready to run this kind of RPG (I’m looking at you Age of Conan). If your characters ever show support for some wild-eyed, insane idea like “emancipation”, it should only be because they have been personally enslaved by a particularly cruel and vile owner.
•Language does not a dark and gritty game make (I’m looking at you Age of Conan). There is none in the books, there’s no real reason to put it in the game.
•Language is an excellent thing to put in the game, so NEVER forget to check who speaks what language. Miscommunication and cultural clashes are both realistic and can be a source of both humor and conflict. Most characters in Conan will assume the worst from someone they can’t understand, which makes life oh-so-exciting. It also raises the value of players from other countries, who know other languages.

And the all-time best suggestion:
-Read the books. They are your Bible for Conan look and feel.
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Postby DimitriX » Tue Dec 09, 2008 7:00 pm

Violetsaber wrote:Speaking as a Star Trek RPG game master who ran his players through a seven-year story arc, being "dark and gritty" becomes many times easier for the same group of players simply because the change is so massive. Not all of these suggestions are explicitly “Dark” or “Gritty”, but they do all reflect the special feel that the Conan books have.

DO:
•Remember that authority is fluid and harsh. It's much easier to advance by killing those in front of you in line, but the consequences to failure can be equally as vicious.
•Success and failure should be based upon personal effort. While working together as a team is all fine and dandy, triumph should not be based on a person’s willingness to play nice, or hampered by the idiocy of others…and if it is, the idiots shouldn’t be surprised when they get stabbed in the back.
•Loyal characters are like latinum… I mean gold. Treasure them! Most people met in the wilds of Hyboria are completely selfish, looking out only for themselves and how to get whatever it may be they want. Of course, the level of aptitude they display in their deceit and selfishness is not always constant…some may be quite devious like Lex Luther from Smallville, whereas others may be evil but incompetent, like Lex Luther from the movies.
•There is a significant class disparity it Hyboria, which extreme wealth and riches, and extreme poverty. Also, remember that this doesn’t mean that the ones with the power are always terrible rulers (Conan), or that the ones in poverty are sniveling, downtrodden whiners in search of handouts and kindness (Conan).
•Weapon damage in Conan is grisly. Try not to offend your players, but keep them aware that a slice across the stomach will cause them to bleed, that their dying enemies are real people, and if they mess up in their battles, they’re just an ugly bag of mostly blood and guts waiting to be popped.
•Keep the combat moving. The rules-heavy combat of Conan can be kept exciting by not getting too bogged down in them, giving players easy reference to the combat maneuvers they can use, and using critical hit and fumble decks. Perhaps best of all, penalize players who want to sit and flip through books on their turn. *Evil cackle*

DON’T:
•Your characters should never have more than they absolutely need to survive. Conan rarely starts his story with much more than his armor and a sword…any many times less. Your players should always feel as if they’re just one day away from starvation and nakedness.
•Clothing is a privilege, not a right, especially when it comes to women. Huge sections of Hyboria do NOT follow North American standards of modesty. From hulking naked black guards to the innocent, bare frolics of a princess in the surf, few people in Hyboria have any concept of shame. Before you cover a female character in head-to-toe armor, ask yourself: “What the heck am I thinking? Can I really see Eowyn in Conan?”
•Women in Hyboria DO NOT come in “average”. Women in Hyboria come in either “jaw-droppingly lust-inducing sensual love goddess”, or “boil-ridden hunchbacked drooling belching old hag”. Yeah, it’s the most sexist, inaccurate thing you could possibly GM, but have you read the books?
•Never let players fully trust in unknown powers. Magic and demons are not your friends, they are terrifying, mysterious forces from other worlds and dimensions. Once in awhile they may come across a venerable, kind sage like Yag, but for every one of him there are ten out to sacrifice your favorite body parts to an extradimensional abomination.
•Do not let your players be goody-two-shoes. They don’t necessarily need to be raving psychopaths or completely self-centered jerks, but if they seem to be too blindly selfless, shake them up a little. Be creative.
•Attitudes and personalities in Hyboria should rarely include “shame”. Unless your NPC is the most innocent, uninformed princess locked in a tower (of which there are a few), they should not have any embarrassment when it comes to their values, wishes, desires, opinions, or sexuality.
•Slavery is extremely common and acceptable in Hyboria, and if you back out of that, you’re probably not ready to run this kind of RPG (I’m looking at you Age of Conan). If your characters ever show support for some wild-eyed, insane idea like “emancipation”, it should only be because they have been personally enslaved by a particularly cruel and vile owner.
•Language does not a dark and gritty game make (I’m looking at you Age of Conan). There is none in the books, there’s no real reason to put it in the game.
•Language is an excellent thing to put in the game, so NEVER forget to check who speaks what language. Miscommunication and cultural clashes are both realistic and can be a source of both humor and conflict. Most characters in Conan will assume the worst from someone they can’t understand, which makes life oh-so-exciting. It also raises the value of players from other countries, who know other languages.

And the all-time best suggestion:
-Read the books. They are your Bible for Conan look and feel.
Great list. Now, I just need to find a group of players that will go along with it...
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Postby Clovenhoof » Tue Dec 09, 2008 8:15 pm

Be it as Dark and Gritty as it may, it is vital to give the players a chance of success and failure alike. If the characters _always_ win, that gets boring after a while, and your players will come up with the most ridiculous actions if they understand that they will get away with anything.
But just as well, if the characters always lose, that gets boring even faster because it creates a sense of futility, and the players will lose interest in the game if they feel that they'll get shafted no matter what they do.

Oh, I just realized kintire already said that.
Even in the darkest games, there must be an opportunity to achieve something. Tension comes from doubt. Inevitable defeat is as dull as inevitable victory. In the lightest games there must be the possibility of defeat, and in the darkest the possibility of victory, of at least some sort. Otherwise, why bother trying?
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Postby Aholibamah » Tue Dec 16, 2008 3:20 pm

I think that what was said above is quite right. For example if you have a chronology that says 'the village gets attacked on the 3rd day' but the pcs have decided to do something other than go to the village at that time then they're not there to defend it. Let them find a scene of slaughter or whatever. Let them realize that the choices they make have outcomes. It isn't necessarily punishment but it is going to make them think about their decisions a little more.
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Postby Old Bear » Tue Dec 16, 2008 5:23 pm

The truest thing is don't reward people being 'good'. And don't punish the 'bad'. Whoever said allow a bad NPC to honour a deal is so right. This alone will make players totally change their approach, because all through they'll be waiting for their 'bad' employer to shaft them. Even after it ends they'll probably expect a punchline. But when the bad guy empowers them and maybe shos them a bit of the dark side, trhen they'll start warming to it.

Winning in Hyboria is about survival and personal aggrandisemnt, not saving the village from orcs. If you are saving a tauran village from the Picts it's because you are white, they are white and you hate Picts. On the other hand, if you are Picts... :twisted:
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Postby thelevitator » Tue Dec 16, 2008 7:28 pm

Aholibamah wrote:I think that what was said above is quite right. For example if you have a chronology that says 'the village gets attacked on the 3rd day' but the pcs have decided to do something other than go to the village at that time then they're not there to defend it. Let them find a scene of slaughter or whatever. Let them realize that the choices they make have outcomes. It isn't necessarily punishment but it is going to make them think about their decisions a little more.
This is my approach as well. I tend to like to keep lots of options in play for the players, so I tend to use a timeline-based approach, combined with an If-Then sort of tree system. This keeps the world moving around the characters, and does give a sense of consequence to inaction as well as action. When I'm preparing my adventures, I imagine cut scenes, like you see in movies, that help the audience "catch up" on what's going on while the characters are doing their thing.

I tend to have a storytelling approach to GM'ing, so this works really well for me to keep things straight in my game and help it feel more immersive. :)
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Postby kintire » Wed Dec 17, 2008 10:34 am

Winning in Hyboria is about survival and personal aggrandisemnt, not saving the village from orcs. If you are saving a tauran village from the Picts it's because you are white, they are white and you hate Picts. On the other hand, if you are Picts...
While possibly true in a dark game, its phrased as a generalisation, and as a generalisation it is absolutely false. Conan is a long way from a saint, but the thing that lifts him above the other formidable people he meets is exactly that he saves the village from Orcs. Read Scarlet Citadel for the best example.

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