“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.