Grim Dark in Tabletop Roleplaying
By Jordon Gibson
When depicting fantasy in modern storytelling, especially tabletop roleplaying games, it isn’t long before your mind starts wandering into some classic tropes. Knights ride noble creatures in shining armour, quaint villages house unsuspecting and unlikely heroes and monstrous villains will always come close, but never succeed in penetrating the protagonists plot armour. It’s fun to escape into these worlds but let’s be honest, few of the moral lessons are realistic. We all get it though, it’s what we grew up with. Our media overlord Mickey Mouse taught us as children that this is how we should think, and our fantasy reflects this. However, there is a subgenre in recent years that has reared it’s face. This ugly duckling of a sibling doesn’t just want to show us it’s ways, but also to be our Soviet style reprogrammer, holding our eyes open and making us stare at the errors of humanity until we salute the mud stained flag of gritty realism. So grab your bastard sword and count your coppers, because this month we are taking a deep dive into the black swan of fantasy, Grim Dark.
Whether you are aware of it or not, you have probably witnessed Grim Dark’s influences in fantasy and other genres in recent years. Whether it was the forbidding tale of a one-handed Jamie Lannister, recalling the event that titled him “King Slayer” — or the dark descent into violence that saw schoolteacher Walter White crowned as the undisputed heavy weight of guns, drugs and barrels of liquefied people. You have probably seen it and recoiled at how brutal it is. This is because we are not used to seeing the real-world stare back at us as we try to escape into our books, TV screens and computer monitors. You see, because Grim Dark attempts to model our world regarding one important lesson: people in Grim Dark do not succeed or fail because they are good, but because they are good at what they do. A lesson old mate Disney thought to leave out of his work.
By now you are probably wondering “why would I want to include such themes into my tabletop experience?” and honestly, it’s a good question. The answer to which comes in two distinct advantages of the subgenre: unparalleled immersion and a journey towards self-discovery. These are both areas that tabletop role playing already does well in, so it makes sense that when combined they create something phenomenal to play. At the end of the day isn’t that every player’s dream?
“Grim Dark Fantasy at its core, seeks to engage players by creating a grounded and realistic, medieval setting.”
There are a lot of aspects that either add or detract from the immersion of a game. Suitable music, compelling characters and a world brimming with alternate stories are great additions that will make your sessions great. That one person who keeps interrupting the Game Master with lore corrections like “technically Aragorn is descended from the Númenóreans,“ is not. Grim Dark Fantasy at its core, seeks to engage players by creating a grounded and realistic, medieval setting. By pulling the grittier, unspoken perspective of human existence into your game, players will be positioned to earn every victory, mourn every loss and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment at the end. They were never the heroes foretold in ancient prophesy; whose victory was undoubted from the moment the campaign began. They were just people. People who endured through all the pain and suffering of an unforgiving world and fought for the change they wanted. Just like the heroes of our world.
Once players feel they can see their own world in the game, the possibilities of deepening the experience through story telling tools such as difficult moral decisions and moments of required self-sacrifice become available. This isn’t just a great opportunity to tell a deep story, but also to learn something enlightening about yourself and your close friends. Would you serve a greater evil to resolve a present and growing problem? Would you let the slavers escape, to help save the burning town? These are the sort of self-discoveries that can only truly be found through roleplaying in a setting where victory isn’t assured. If you are worried that other players will judge you for the decisions you have made, then don’t. Difficult encounters await them too just around the corner and before long you’ll all be in it together. By the end you will be able to look back and recognise what you dealt with easily, and what you grappled with, highlighting something you may not have known about yourself before. At the end of the day if we can learn a little more about ourselves whenever we play a game, then perhaps we can all become better equipped to face real world problems as well.
“The beautiful thing about Tabletop Role playing Games is that they can become whatever we want them to be”.
If your typical venture into Fantasy Land is fueled by a relatable desire to get as detached from this world as possible, then you may be thinking that Grim Dark is not the genre for you. While only you can be the true judge of this, I would implore you to reconsider. The beautiful thing about Tabletop Role playing Games is that they can become whatever we want them to be. If a setting is too dark and confronting, for yourself or a friend, then change it. You can dip your feet in wherever you feel comfortable and slowly start discovering your limits. Once you feel you have reached the furthest you are happy to do so, stop. Then you can see how you feel later. This way you are not excluding yourself from a social experience that is both compelling and self-developing.
If Grim Dark sounds like something you would like to try at your table then there is plenty of source material to gather inspiration from. Give Scott Lynch’s series The Gentleman Bastard a read. You’ll thank me later. Otherwise if you’d like a product which has all the hard work done for you, then check out the new Kickstarter Grim Hollow: The Campaign Guide! It’s a new world setting book compatible with 5e, packed to the seams with content including; an entire world setting and guide on how to write Grim Dark Fantasy, as well as new player mechanics such as a redesigned background system and advanced mundane weapons for early to mid-level martial classes. There are even rules for players becoming Vampires and Liches. Ultimately the aim of any Game Master looking for peak immersion should be for the players to forget, for just a moment that they are playing a game and feel like they are apart of the fantasy world, and Grim Dark takes this to a new level. Grim Hollow: The Campaign Guide is here to assist in achieving this. So, if you are a Game Master, give the campaign a look with this LINK. If you are a player, do something nice for your Game Master and consider buying them a book. It’s a great way to say thanks for all their hard work (and get your hands on some sweet new character builds).
That brings us to the end of this installment! If you have made it this far then hopefully, I have inspired you to try something new and daring. Be sure to tune in next month when we continue our dive into Grim Dark Fantasy with character development and story arcs within the genre.