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Thematic Voyage: The Unseen Art of Gamemastering

Of Dread and Wonder (part 1)

Jocelyn Robitaille
February 12, 2002  

The most outlandish and most memorable games out there are quite often those that elicit within the players a certain amount of evocative exoticism. In the case of games with a dark mood, one can describe it as a certain sense of dread; inversely, in the case of a light game, it can be called a sense of wonder.

Both of them are somewhat similar, if you look closely: dread and wonder each involve a je ne sais quoi which makes a scene especially striking. Even though Lovecraft's R'lyeh and Tolkien's Middle Earth are two very different places, both hold that same evocative power that can be attributed to... who knows?

Considering how I have described themes as this je ne sais quoi, it would be wrong for me not to touch up on either one of them. So there I was, reflecting upon which one I would address first and what technique would evoke one or the other well, when it struck me like a bolt of lightning from a 15th level mage: at their core, both are evoked in the exact same fashion.

Of course, nothing could be more different from each other than dread and wonder. How, then, can the exact same scene evoke either dread or wonder? There answer is, of course, context. This is the reason why this installment of Thematic Voyage will be split in two parts. This month, I'll address and examine the conditions which determine the interpretation of the technique at the core of dread/wonder. You'll have to wait ... until next month to know what the technique is.

What differentiates between dread and wonder? The answer is pretty simple, actually. The mood of the game is what strikes me as being the great distinction. We all know what's the difference between a game with a light mood and a dark mood is, but I'll address the question nonetheless, since the mood strikes me as some kind of ber-theme. Indeed, a dark or light mood is a low-key emotion, albeit one a bit more vague than for regular themes.

Most of the time, the difference between a dark mood and a light mood is described in terms of the level of success the PCs usually achieve in their ventures. If the characters triumph most of the time, it's a light mood game; inversely, if they fail or only marginally triumph most of the time, the mood of the game is dark. Yet, this definition strikes me as somewhat faulty, by virtue of my own experiences. I have played in games where the characters won every battle but which had a very dark mood to them. I suppose the opposite can be true as well, even though I haven't come across such a game myself.

What determines the mood, then, is not the level of success per se but something that can be reflected by the level of success as well as by other things: the degree of what I'll call "cosmic hostility", because it's fun to be lyrical. This factor is mostly reflected through the NPCs and the institutions of the campaign world, including the deities (when applicable).

A game with a dark mood is a game where you feel like the campaign world doesn't want you to succeed or doesn't give a damn about whether you do or not. This can be reflected by the fact that you keep being impeded and failing, but it can also be mirrored by the fact that you can't really change things: you stop a war, but another one pops up somewhere else in the campaign world. To a lesser degree, a dark mood can also involve not getting any gratitude.

Take the case of a group of escaped felons, for instance. They kill the villain, bring peace to the region, save a few orphans and widows along the way, but they remain vile criminals to the eyes of most people, and get thrown back in prison. Finally, the sheer amount of malevolence of what you're fighting may be enough to set the mood: even if you finally kill the villain, put an end to his reign of terror, the harm he caused before you could stop him is more than enough to keeping you from getting too happy about your victory.

A light mood game works in the same way. You can fail all you want, but as long as you survive to fight another day, there's still hope that good will triumph, and everyone wants that. And when you do succeed, then you ended evil, and you can pat yourself on the back. On the side of how the NPCs perceive you, let's take the felons example again.

The group fails to defeat the villain, but their effort is recognized; indeed, they become the very archetype of redemption across the land, and get free beers (the true reward of adventuring) wherever they go. Again, a villain with a very small degree of malevolence can be enough to set a light mood: mischievous faeries are hardly a very hostile threat, even if they are as dangerous as a cult of death deity worshippers.

So there we have it: depending on how hostile you make your campaign world, you'll end up with a dark or a light game. And with the technique that will be presented next month, you can work a strong dread theme or wonder theme depending on whether you're running the former or the later mood.

Happy gaming,

Jocelyn Robitaille TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Thematic Voyage columns

  • Of Dread and Wonder (part 2) March 21, 2002
  • Of Dread and Wonder (part 1) February 12, 2002
  • The world is out to get you November 21, 2001
  • When fantasy and RL mix October 11, 2001
  • Leap of Faith, Part 2 September 6, 2001
  • Leap of Faith July 6, 2001
  • Lean on Me June 8, 2001
  • Courage May 11, 2001
  • Emotional Landscapes March 14, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg