GM Tips: Choosing the Right Tone & Atmosphere
"Marching 11" Eric Pommer
One thing that some GMs don't discuss before running their games for their players is the tone of the game they're about to run. Most of the time, at least in my experience, the GMs are trusted by the players to provide them with a campaign full of entertaining encounters, harrowing combat, and unbridled escapism. But what happens if you're a GM who has spent countless hours setting up a gritty, survival horror campaign setting, and a player wants to play a jokey bard with a punny name? Or, what happens if you're a player expecting a traditional sword and sorcery adventure and your GM springs on you a setting based on a metaphor for the state of our country or the world? My default fantasy TTRPG tone/atmosphere is semi-serious, quasi-jokey medieval fantasy. That's personally my favorite type of tone, but I do indulge in others depending on things I personally want to try as a GM or depending on the whims of my players. Here are a couple areas you can make sure to touch on before you start your next campaign or adventure.
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The easiest way to ensure you get the most out of your gaming group and gaming sessions is to have what they call a "Session 0" - a non-gaming session where you discuss with the players what the game is going to entail; what game it will be, the themes present in the campaign, and of course the tone of the campaign. If you're going to be running Strahd, for example, you'd have to sort of prepare the players for it by saying it's a very serious campaign world with lots of death and horror elements and monsters like vampires and werewolves. Let the players ask questions about the game as needed, and they may discover that your campaign isn't the right fit for how they want to play. In that case, you can suggest another campaign for a different time, or decide as a group to play something else. The key takeaway here is to inform your players and engage with them in conversation about their wants and needs in a TTRPG. (Thanks to Dave over on our Discord GM chat for reminding me of "Session 0")
Some players may not realize that TTRPGs can have many different types of tones permeating campaigns and adventures. A superhero TTRPG may be pretty lighthearted with not a lot of real-life, real-world stakes. Strahd is a gothic horror adventure and is filled with undead and otherworldly magic and curses. Lost Mines of Phandelver is a pretty standard fantasy romp with exploration, some humorous elements, and lots of conventional adventure. No matter what you choose for the tone of your campaign or adventure, just make sure to stick with it. Nothing is more jarring than expecting one thing in your game and then being subjected to another. Think of your campaign as having a director if it were a film. Would you keep watching halfway if the comedy suddenly switched over to being a horror movie or vice versa? Probably not, and at the very least it would be confusing. The last thing you want to do is to confuse your players and give them a bad experience.
READ THE ROOM
One of the jobs a GM has is to "read the room" - and by that, it just means paying close attention to the attitudes and interest levels of all your players, making sure they're having a great time. If your tone isn't gelling well with some of your players even after you've had a "Session 0" - don't be afraid to chat with them one on one after the game and find out what they need from you as a GM. And players, if you find that the tone is a little "off" for what you had in mind for your character, don't be afraid to bring it up to your GM. The idea is to have a fun experience, and no single tone will be everyone's cup of tea most of the time. However, leave room to experiment because sometimes, trying something new will surprise even the most jaded GM or player.
Anyway, most people reading this are probably experienced GMs or players anyway, but sometimes it helps to refresh your perspective after being on the road for so long, so to speak. I know it helped me. How do you handle tone conversations or even tone in general in your games? Let us know in the comments below! - Joe