The Language of Roleplaying: Establishing Tone

A while back I wrote a post for my private journal about the sort of “language” that other mediums will use and how there isn’t an equivalent in roleplaying games. If a game is the sort of game to have a section on GMing in it, there might be some suggestions on film tricks or narrative tricks you can use when running games. I recall such bits in the back of assorted World of Darkness games. So notions such as flashbacks and cutaways creep into roleplaying with varying degrees of effectiveness. Or you might hear someone tossing around improv terms like “blocking.” In the end roleplaying (and GMing) are almost their own medium. They bear many similarities to improv, but it’s still a bit different of a beast.

So in a movie if you want to convey a great height, you might have a point of view looking down over the edge of where someone might fall off, perhaps having the camera sway a bit to make things a bit more dizzying and adding in a sound effect of wind blowing by. My original question revolved around, “How do you convey that in an improvised fashion in a roleplaying game without just having someone make some dice rolls to maintain their balance?” But there are a lot of other scenarios that you could imagine where you’d really want to really make something more vivid and believable to the other players.

There are a lot of tricks that we invariably just stumble over, some working and some not so much. So I tried to think about things that I’ve tried out in games that I thought worked out pretty well. The first one that came to mind is what I’ll call “establishing tone.” I don’t know that this will be very deep or insightful, but it’s something that I’ve been mulling around. I’m hoping that if others find this interesting they can expand on it and write their own pieces on the subject of how to define the process of storytelling in roleplaying games.

The old saying is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. When you’re starting a scene or introducing a new character, you have an opportunity to convey something that will stick with the players. This can be comparable to a lot of other film/theater tricks, like the notion of an establishing shot. I also recall from my high school drama class the idea of establishing foreign accents really strong early on, so that later on you don’t have to lay it on as thick but the audience will still remember that you have that funny accent.

So there’s lots of chances when you first introduce something to really define how players will continue to think of it for the rest of the game. So here are a few examples of things I’ve done in certain circumstances that might generate some ideas for you.

Establishing Tone for the Setting
When I started my current Shadowrun game, I was running mostly for people that I’d run the same game for several years prior. But at that time we’d played it as though it was just Seattle with a few little tweaks to the setting. We all live in Seattle, so it should be easy to go from there. But if you’ve really read the setting material, Seattle is a very different place. Redmond in our world is the home of Microsoft and upper middle class programmers. But Redmond in Shadowrun is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, a lawless place where you can just meet and ugly end. So my first session I had their mission involve a trip into the Redmond Barrens. This is supposed to be a light and casual “beer and pretzels” game, but I thought I’d at least start things off as right as I could.

To be honest, I failed to introduce other elements I wanted to emphasize: the pollution, the ethnic diversity, commonplace magic, the AR systems. I didn’t do so hot on those. But I did have one scripted event that really seemed to get to the players and helped set the tone for the location a bit better. They are driving through the Barrens when they discover the remains of a gang war. Gunshot bodies stewn across the street, all wearing gang colors. Barghests and hellhounds gnawing at their corpses to lend that notion of supernatural scavengers dwelling in these slums in addition to the people. And there were so many bodies across the street that they could not drive through without running over the bodies. They could have gotten out of their car and dealt with the scavengers. (The fire breathing and paralytic howling scavengers.) Or they could just try and find a different route to their destination. The rest of the session involved dealing with street gangs, disease carrying devilrats, and other horrible things of the night in Redmond.

It squicked them out. They ended up just finding a different route rather than deal with it. It set a strong tone for the first session. I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to repeat the notion that it’s an awful place as the game has continued. I don’t think such later touches would have really had as much oomph if I hadn’t just gone for something pretty ugly right off the bat.

Establishing Tone for the Session
I’ve been with a GM that really liked to have a ritual that marks the beginning of a game: He’d play the “theme song” for the game, bring us into the setting with a bit of narrative. Every session he’d do that. I’ve never really had that much success with such things: I’m not that great of an improv narrator and really it’s a miracle when everyone shows up on time. But whenever I’ve run Star Wars I’ve tried to toss in some similar things to make the players think, “This is Star Wars.” (Because invariably my Star Wars universe is much like ours with lightsabers and starships, so I need all the mood setting I can get.) So for each session I’d work up a handout that was styled like the scrolling text in the movies, I’d cue up the intro music for the movies, and I’d hand it out. I’d even aim to have the same font as the scrolling text in the movies. When I could I’d try to even open the session in orbit over some planet.

Establishing Tone for the Player Characters
I’ve found that whenever running a game that has some sort of flaws background, it’s always really sets the tone when you whip as many flaws out the first session. If they are hunted? Try and have a pointed reminder the first session. If they are prone to spouting off prophecies, have that be the first thing they do in the game. When they have their flaws poked at first session, it reminds them that this is something that their character will need to watch out for. Even if you drop the ball on the occasional session and don’t poke at the flaws as reliably later, the tone of the game has been set with that first session. It’s also good to insert the positive aspects of their characters: their mentors, their followers, what have you. Give them a nice bit of sugar to offset the brutal torture you’re going to inflict on them. Sometimes it’s not always easy to do so without leaving things feeling forced or contrived. If you can’t think of ways to do that for the first session, the world won’t end. But it does make a nice opening to the game for that.

Establishing Tone for the NPCs
I’ve never been able to make reliably likeable NPCs, but I can do the bastards and the freaks really well. One of my favorite examples was a recent incarnation of Julian in an Amber game. He hadn’t really had a whole lot of prominent camera time in the game up until this point, but this was the first chance a PC, who was the son of Julian, had a chance to really have a father-son chat with the man. And so he asks quite innocently about who his mother was. And Julian tells him quite bluntly that his mother was a prostitute that he found somewhere in Shadow. He even offers to take the PC to the brothel to see if she’s still alive. (It wasn’t true, by the way, but Julian was not of a mind to tell the PC who his mother really was. Julian felt he was protecting his son by hiding the truth.) But since that point the players have hated Julian since then. Doesn’t matter what he does to help them or how friendly he tries to be later. They don’t even remember the lie, having since met the PCs mother and found out who she was. All they remember is that Julian is a total dick.


So, four circumstances that I recall trying (consciously or otherwise) to establish some tone early on whenever possible. The real challenge is that once you establish the tone, you need to maintain it. Even if you just pepper stuff in there throughout the game, it’s better than just veering off course and never coming back to that tone. In the Star Wars games I mentioned above, I’ve often failed to continue adding in smaller touches to make it feel like Star Wars. Sure there are lightsabers and starships, but Star Wars is really so much more than that.

Okay, running out of time here so I’m just going to get this posted. Comments and further thoughts on the topic (either things that fit under establishing tone or other thoughts about ways to communicate things during a roleplaying game) would be appreciated.

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