Grimdark Fatigue

Runaways” is our darkest campaign. The players start off naked, starved, and tortured in a slave market. From there, players’ trials force them to make tough moral choices involving sacrifice, self-harm, and killing children. It’s my favorite story to run at conventions. Without fail, our Catalyst groups are laughing harder than any other RPG group at the con. Of course, an oppressive atmosphere can drain players. We had one fan ask us how we avoid that setting fatigue. Both Catalyst’s design and our game mastering style contribute to the right blend of darkness and comedy.

The moments of humor or silliness make your story’s seriousness all the more prominent and important. Comic relief is a fundamental (though often misused) part of drama for this reason. The easiest way to add this to your campaign is through the players. This trend starts with character creation. Catalyst’s character backgrounds are written to make the pre-demon world seem ridiculous. Any player with “LARPer” is going to make you laugh. Combine that with “Victim” and “Conspiracy Theorist” to tell a story about an abused kid who turned to fringe communities for help coping. Paranoia about fluoride and in-character whining of hitpoints provides amusement while deepening the impact of confronting childhood trauma. Everyone will care when the “joke” character’s past comes back to haunt them.

Try to encourage moments of levity throughout play. Your non-player characters can be funny, for sure, but it is better when the players’ outrageous actions bump against the “straightman” storylines. The humor stems from the dark, stern world having to cope with unusual player choices. Do not put the pressure on your players to be serious. When they act in a way outside the world’s conventions, embrace it. As an example, in our “Civil Unrest” playtest, the players were dealing with an injured demon being treated by Amish non-combatants. One of the players ended up stealing the demon’s riding beast. Because the player insisted on taking the horse everywhere, it led to fantastic moments. The demon horse, Apples, had to ride on boats, hide in broom closets, and be covered in a tarp when wandering through DC. The world and story got to stay focused and serious, but was immensely more enjoyable because of a horse crowbarred into every scene.

Lots of contemporary role playing games focus on player absurdity.  Games like Exalted and Feng Shui (and to a lesser-extent D&D) encourage elaborate descriptions of character actions. On the surface, this seems like it provides opportunities for comedy. In practice, players’ actions quickly become over-the-top and the constant one-upmanship is tiring instead of exciting. The truth is people are less clever than they think. Forcing people to be funny does not work. We discussed this before, but wacky, dumb humor is obnoxious, especially during a four-hour session. Instead, let players act genuinely. Encourage them to do what their characters would really do as opposed to what their characters would do for a laugh. Make players act quickly. Short, concise, impromptu actions are better than wacky, drawn-out descriptions. Moments like the demon horse theft manifest as comedy without being conceptualized as such.

Humor brings light to the darkness. Unconventional tactics, strong characters, and a game master willing to roll with everything make an oppressive atmosphere bearable. Variety prevents stagnation and fatigue. In addition to letting the players add levity, be sure to actually break from your grimdark theme when necessary. Reward players when they succeed, even if it is fleeting. Refrain from describing everything in the bleakest terms; save the verbosity for critical scenes. The experience is the sum of the game master’s base and the contributions of the players. If you want a dark, dreary story, let in a few happy or silly moments. The players will cling to those during the worst.

Problematic Players

Shut Up and Sit Down posted a lovely video detailing unpleasant archetypes in the board game community. They discussed ways to improve the situation and, in classic SUSD positivity, they opened the comments to good experiences people have had with friends at the table. Cherry Picked Games also wants to help nurture the tabletop community. We figured we would springboard off of this idea, talking about some role-playing specific troublemakers and how to handle them better for more enjoyable play. To keep up the positive note SUSD left, we'll give some alternative examples from Catalyst sessions that made us smile.

The Lone Wolf

We’ve all played in a campaign with this character. They are the natural loner with distrust of authority, teams, and other people in general. At best, they are contrary to the game master’s characters and slow down story progression. At worst, they split off from the party to have their own exciting adventures, leaving the rest of the crew out of focus and bored. Unfortunately, this loner persona is an easy one to develop for players of all skill levels. The genre often promotes ideas of tragic backstories or segregation from normal society. These characters are interesting, but playing them is more challenging than it appears.

The problem is a lack of cooperation. Help this player build bonds with others. There’s a natural story arc of the loner character learning to care about and love their party. They become the family that never accepted them or they never had. It may seem clichéd, but it’s a sturdy plot development to continue character growth. This acceptance plays out differently each time. Whether the loner is saved by a fellow adventurer or the whole party is pitted against the world and not cooperating is suicide, the group can come to a nice harmony.

One of our regular Catalyst players, Jared, averts the Lone Wolf behavior well. The character of his that comes to mind is Dan, a gruff ex-soldier brimming with hate and frustration. Dan was stuck with two high school misfits (we made our characters independently…) and forced into the role of a competent leader. Rather than dismissing the obnoxious children around him, Jared decided to endow his character with parental instinct. No one else could whip Aiden and Bryawn into shape, so Dan reluctantly took them under his wing. Despite the repeated insults and death threats, he cared about them.

The Diva

We always promote characters with strengths and weaknesses. Someone who perpetually succeeds is the dullest character imaginable. Occasionally, a player designs a character attempting to excel in everything. Most RPG rule systems prevent this, leaving a character mediocre at several skills and likely to constantly fail (something equally as boring as always winning). Since this aspect is part of character creation, the game master needs to explicitly prevent this. They must instill in the player that their character have flaws, and not in the “my greatest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist” sort of way. Try to get the player’s ego out of the game and remind them they're telling a story, not trying to win.

More obnoxious than a person trying to be the Superman of RPG characters is the balanced character whose player refuses to let fail. This player argues over dice rolls and enemy actions; whining about a failed stealth check because “there’s still no way I could be seen in this light.” Questioning the game master over missed details is one thing, but persistent contention is a cardinal sin at the table. It slows down the game, draws attention away from other players, and breaks the session’s flow. Again, help them remove their ego. RPGs are not typical games: there is no win explicit win condition, so the drive should come from a desire to experience a story.

If you’re GMing a session with such a player, you need to settle this quickly. Your other players will not enjoy a night of listening to a spoiled brat trying to justify why rolling a one should still count as success. If that behavior spreads to everyone else, the campaign might as well end; it will either become a boring slog through unchallenging situations or a campaign ruled by a bitter, iron-fisted GM. Just like any relationship, the GM needs to set boundaries. When you rule on a check or react to dialog, be consistent and steadfast. You don’t need to justify everything; playing coy gives the illusion of depth and reason, even if you arbitrarily decided the player needed to roll a 10. Clear failures or things blatantly out of a character’s skill level should be written off as such. If a roll is close, give something to the player: if they barely miss a hacking check say they have limited access instead of only failing. That avoids the argument because the player still feels like they contributed. Essentially, if the GM is playing fair, the players should follow suit after a while.

Cherry Picked Friend Kesan is wonderful at avoiding diva behavior. His characters are realistic, so they naturally shy away from the good-at-everything attempts. What particularly please me as a GM are his embellishments of failure. He gives an in-universe explanation of what happened, instead of demanding the GM justify things. A failed stealth check becomes a creaky floor. A missed sword swing might have been the sun in his eyes. Stuff like that is simply more fun that arguing.

The Staller

Role playing games capture amazing, stream-of-consciousness stories. Once you get into a rhythm, everyone loses themselves and the game really happens. Unless you have a staller in the party. Maybe it’s my personal disposition, but I don’t like waiting in traffic or standing around while a friend tries on clothes. I certainly don’t want my play impeded by humming and hawing over how to enter a cult’s church or shopping for made up clothes. Of course, decisions and outfitting a party are important, but there’s a clear point when someone has passed the party’s tolerance.

Speeding up play is something we’ve discussed before, but it’s different when it’s a chronic symptom of a single player. It is likely they are oblivious to the frustrations of the other players. As the game master, you don’t want to shut down this behavior. You want players asking questions and exploring the world, but not over-analyzing details or trying to flesh out the world in meaningless ways (like asking about different merchants in a town after getting a price quote on a new sword). The most effective solution is to focus on impulse players. If during a barrage of questions about guard patrol patterns, another player says they hop the fence and run in, let them. The staller will likely protest, but let the action stand. If things go poorly, there’s interesting conflict in the group. If things go great, the staller learns a lesson about the setting and may try to be faster next scenario.

My singular favorite moment of decisiveness came from Catalyst’s Rehabilitation campaign. The campaign starts with a plague victim banging on the door of the players’ stronghold. Dinah, a player new to the game and genre, immediately shot her. Everyone was taken aback. Whatever plans had been formulating had to be changed as the gunshot echoed through the quiet town. I loved this scene for its raw honesty. Too often, characters act unnaturally with their players’ meta-knowledge. This was pure role playing. That character shot a woman before Dinah could separate herself out and worry about consequences.

Those are the big three problem players we’ve seen crop up in games of Catalyst. Honestly, they are not that big of a deal. The hobby is fun as long as everyone wants to be there. All this advice is to optimize something we already love. If you want to get into role playing or get others into it, just be friendly and open. Everything else flows from there.



Being a game master is often a competitive experience. While role-playing games are a cooperative storytelling exercise, the GM has to create opposition and challenges for the players. Everyone is playing to have fun, but a surface level protagonist/antagonist relationship persists. This is great. It drives scenes forward. However, it can isolate the GM. Despite pulling punches or rewarding the group, they will always be the bad guy on some level. That one game master will be the target of scorn for several players. But they do not have to be the only bad guy. With a second director, the game master team can orchestrate an amazing experience that is less stressful on the world-building side and more fun for everyone.

Traditional role-playing revolves around a game master and several players. Most frameworks explicitly define this game master role as a prodigious individual with full knowledge of the mechanics, and the world being fleshed out through narrative. They know the motivations of non-player characters; they understand the consequences of shooting a gun in this quiet town; they know the monster is invincible and are slyly ignoring the players’ dice rolls. But none of this actually requires one-and-only-one game master. Catalyst, Dungeons and Dragons, and Monsterhearts all function perfectly with a cohesive group combining to form the game master hivemind. The reason these systems use singular pronouns for the game master is because that role needs to act as a Hobbesian sovereign. They must be consistent.

Intuitively, you may think having another brain plan the campaign would lead to discrepancies. If two people were working in isolation, of course it would. If the GM team plans the campaign together, they can align their goals and stories. Moreover, working with someone else forces a game master to actually design encounters and plot lines instead of making everything up on the fly at the table. Improvisation is still necessary; players are generally unpredictable and no amount of preparation can cover every possibility in this genre. As the story covers new ground, be sure to “yes, and” each other so the story progresses smoothly. You could also use your partner to record decisions, character names, times, or other small details that often get lost during narration. This makes consistency easier than a solo venture while maintaining the game’s pace and flow.

In combat-focused scenes, having a pair of GMs speeds up what is often the genre’s slowest part. Battles are methodical, often with the players paying greater attention to details than the GM. They can do this while maintaining a brisk pace because they only need to manage one character, while the GM usually handles several (to make the fight interesting). An assistant GM can do the small tasks that slow down play: looking up rules, updating the battle map, or even providing flavorful narrative context to dice rolls. That other GM can also take control of some enemies, letting the battle play out organically. Characters acting independently are more fun than perfectly orchestrated teamwork.

The benefits of the game master pair become strikingly obvious during dialog scenes. Consider a vignette between the players and a handful of non-player characters. One GM playing these several roles leads to confusion from players about which character they are addressing. It forces the GM to either adopt distinct, often silly, accents or make out-of-character statements defining exactly what is happening. All of this masks subtle character traits, making the payers less empathetic towards those people. Having two game masters acting out separate characters cleans up these problems. Moreover, it removes the awkwardness of having non-player characters speak with each other (one person having a conversation is silly, which likely ruins the tone you’re actually going for). Without the necessity of providing most of the dialog, players can focus on the scene and become more immersed in your world.

Get a partner next time you’re leading a role-playing game. Form your conspiratorial team and embrace the antagonistic game master role. Feed off of each other’s ideas and create an amazing world for the players to travel through. You and your players will be glad you teamed up with another omnipotent ally.