Campaign Tone

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We’re still working on various features and other fixes, but have nothing to report this week, so I wanted to instead focus on an aspect of roleplaying that often goes unmentioned, but which can have a huge impact on discussions: Campaign Tone. This somewhat abstract concept is closely related to campaign theme and setting but is not often discussed separately so I wanted to take a chance and put my thoughts to paper — or pixels rather.

So what exactly is campaign tone? Related to tone of voice, the tone of a campaign colours the imagery created by the story, providing an emotional background to the events taking place. A campaign tone might be humorous and lighthearted or deep and serious, but it can also be positive and empowering or negative and depressive — or many other things.

An important distinction between the campaign tone and the campaign theme and setting is that the latter are pretty much controlled by the Storyteller. The tone, however, is as much in the hands of the players as it is the storyteller.

For example, the storyteller may create a new game set in the Warhammer 40k universe, with a storyline about the corruption of Chaos and the horrific things the soldiers of the Imperium have to endure to survive. But if the party consists of a wise cracking teenage rogue with a Valley accent, an oafish space marine armed with a squeeky mallet and a mad imperial bureaucrat with a pet snotling, any semblance of grimdark is going to go down the drain faster than you can get an Inquisitor to yell “Heresy!”.

Even the best storyteller is going to have a hard time getting the grimdark feel they were aiming for, as the most obvious and realistic outcome considering the setting will have the party dying in their first encounter, bringing a swift end to the game to the satisfaction of nobody.

If you find yourself confronted with a complete mix of misfits for your story as in the example above, either a miscommunication happened or the players are messing with you. But it is not uncommon for one player to have a different idea of the tone of the game than others, and this may lead to dissonance at the table. It highlights that both as a storyteller and as a player, you need to communicate — and negotiate — about the campaign’s tone.

Clearly communicating can also make some of the most fun and memorable campaigns you can imagine though. It allows for deep and philosophical cyberpunk campaigns on par with Ghost in the Shell, truly terrifying horror games with Eldritch Evils that haunt players dreams and brilliantly heroic ‘Book of Exalted Deeds’ goodness. And if you deliberately mismatch tone and theme, hilarious Vampire antics and a grimdark exploration of My Little Pony.

So next time you start a campaign, give a few moments thought to tone and talk about it with your players. It may awaken something!

Have you ever ran into issues with campaign tones, or had games where everything just worked together brilliantly? Let us know in the Community Forum. Unfortunately, this week’s Changelog is empty, but you can find it there as well.