The Tone Disconnect and the Groucho Solution

It happens a lot in tabletop roleplaying games: you have a certain mood and tone planned for a campaign, and the players have other ideas. I’m running a Promethean campaign, and I planned for it to be dark, desperate, and gritty. The players are approaching it much more comically. It’s dark humor, which works with the setting, but it’s not how I planned it.

There are two classic responses to this issue. The first is the author-is-king approach: refuse to go along, chastise or punish the characters, and mold them to Your Story. This, of course, ends with an adversarial player-game master relationship and probably some grumpy folks in your house where they can break your stuff if they want. The second response is the players-are-god approach: let the players have the sort of fun that they want to, and adapt accordingly. This can end in a muddled mess, where adversaries planned to be scary and bad end up being too hard to kill and trying too hard to be funny.

I’m trying to reach a middle ground. I’ll present the players with the world more-or-less as it was originally intended. Vampire princes will be grumpy, monsters will be scary. The players, however, can be as cheery and carefree about it as they want. I’ll feed them straight-men for their jokes all day long, including burly bikers named Jim and long-suffering, maybe over-indulgent vamp princes. But when it comes to conflict, I’ll expect them to match their humor with actions.

In a sense, I’m turning my game into a Marx Brothers film. The players aren’t nearly as silly or disruptive as Groucho, but I’m going to aim for the same feel: NPCs will play it straight, but indulge the PCs their jokes and play around a bit. As in Duck Soup, it may all end with the walls shot to pieces and the characters wisecracking about it, but I’m going to try and enable silly, humorous play within a darker, more serious framework.

13 thoughts on “The Tone Disconnect and the Groucho Solution

  1. I like this approach. (Of course, I’m in the game.) Trying to reign in Steve would end much less humo(u)rously (haha, humour), and it would crimp my attempt at a new type of character.

    I think we’ll settle down quite a bit once we figure out our characters. A lot of the hilarity is just inconsistency and internal jostling… That jostling actually makes sense in-character, too. Once we’re a well-oiled prome-team, we’ll probably be a bit more gritty.

      1. …No. Promy-team. I keep trying to come up with ways to shorten Promethean in my head, and I had to just toss one out there to test the waters.

  2. With my players, we usually have a mutual understanding of contextual theme going on. Players can be as silly as they want provided it at least makes contextual sense in the situation and game world. I think it is strange that the only two possibilities you are seeing are so dichotomous, you and your players should be able to consolidate to each other pretty evenly.

    I ran a Delta Green game that was pretty darn gritty and dark and what have you, but one of the players was a very conceptually comedic guy. However, when stuff was toned seriously, he was serious, unless being not serious would be more appropriate for his character at that situation.

    Maybe it’s a difference between GM styles, you are a gamist/narrativist hybrid where as I go more for narrativist/simulationist, and my players and me are way more interested in a cool story with cool characters then game elements per say.

    Good luck though, your method definitely works too, also my method is hard if you have someone inexperienced with tabletop because they have a harder time I’ve found knowing when to consolidate to a GM and when the GM is throwing them a bone for a story’s sake, and so on.

    1. Those aren’t the only two possibilities I’m seeing; those are the “classic responses” that usually don’t quite work out. The approach I’m using is an attempt to match with the players.

  3. I think that is best. Intelligent or at least “good” players will notice where the GM is going with something and adapt to that direction as much as is reasonable for the character. The trademark of a good GM is making that contextual tone without railroading the players at every turn. Let them do what they want but keep it in your style, and good players will understand that and match it I believe. I dunno, I use that method and my games always are a blast for me and my players because we both pick up on where the story should go.

  4. I know the situation. In the first campaign I ran with my group, I found it difficult to deal with their constant joking, since I wanted to maintain a serious “fantasy” atmosphere (for certain structural reasons). Sometimes I got quite angry or disappointed. Thankfully, I managed to integrate some in-game humour that helped balance things out a little.

    For the second campaign, having learned from my earlier mistakes, I actually encouraged humour a lot more. The character creation system was tailored to the creation of wildly eccentric, funny characters. Many of the NPCs were funny, intentionally or not (on their part). And yet the story itself was more serious, more complex, and had many grim and powerful moments. This worked perfectly because I managed to take the humour from being an out-of-game element and integrated it into the game world itself.

    This also allowed for some really fascinating moments of pulling the rug out from under the players’ feet. At one point, they came up with a plan to use their flying ship to drop firebombs on the enemy army; all this while most of the characters were high/drunk from something the alchemist had brewed. And they executed their plan perfectly, while laughing their asses off – until they saw thousands of people dying a brutal and horrible death in the fire. It was an incredible moment, like a punch in the stomach. Even in really desperate situations, they never used that weapon again.

  5. Though, being only 2 games in, if you want to go for a dark tone — TOTALLY doable — I think we’re all pretty flexible about the whole thing.

    Though — I am still totally amused at taking the old Mel Brooks film, and using “Jim” in the concept…though that could be an outgrowth of an odd sense of humor. Overall, fun stuff so far!

    1. Well, I see a game as a conversation between the players and the GM. You guys are coming at it from one side, and me from the other, and I think we can meet halfway. If I have trouble sustaining that, I’ll totally talk to you folks about it. But I think we’ll get into a comfortable groove after another session or two.

      1. That’s what I’m talking about!

        Sounds like you don’t have too much of a problem after all Gregory haha!

      2. So we worked in to a mini-grove — light hearted — and honestly the interaction coming at it from the “other side” — (the very serious Vampire Prince, the Very Serious ….um … feather-face fellow) — is played out quite well. With multiple concepts and directions in play — I agree — I could totally see that being draining.

        We should hash out next session what works for you, and we’ll adapt :) — there’s a symbiosis there for sure, and I think everyone would have a good time regardless.

        (Side note a — music drop failed miserably — I’ll just get you a CD next I see ya’ll. Side note b — I hope the move went nice & easy for you all!)

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