Welcome to back Genre police, a new series of articles where I take a look at a genre or sub-genre, how it has been handled in gaming and how we can implement that in our games. This column we are going to take a look at Grimdark, the new weird kid that moved into town.
Hard To Define, Hard to live in
As a genre, Grimdark is hard to define. If we label it as ‘Dark, hard hitting storytelling’. We can identify that some fantasy definitely fits into the category – Anything by Cook, R.R Martin, Abercrombie or the Warhammer world is probably as safe bet. Can also be found in non-fantasy genres? Does Atlas Games Unknown Armies count as Grimdark? What about something like Watchmen? I think all can be included.
For the purpose of this column, a tenements of ‘Grimdark’ must be that its heroes live in a violent world where often the mighty succeed, irrelevant of moral right. All choices lead to pain of some kind. Morally correct choices are the hardest to make and come with a terrible price. Lives are short and bloody, often ended without meaning. Justice can be come by, but it is a long journey that changes the seeker forever.
In order to look at Grimdark in a useful way, we are also going to assume that this genre has merit beyond cool trenchcoats and edgelords. Grimdark is popular because its best works deconstruct the genre, arrest the standard heroes journey and wrongfoot our expectations on a regular basis. This element can anger some but to others, it’s the whole point of the genre.
Examples in RPG
Song Of Ice & Fire RPG: Obviously. While it might seem like to easy a pick, I am suggesting this one because it has a wonderful chapter where they break down the tropes apparent in Martin’s work and show you how to write an adventure in a Westerosi way. Worth the admission price alone for that.
Warhammer Fantasy RPG: Warhammer Fantasy really was unlike anything else when it came out. Rather than noble paladins, cool druids and thieves, often you’d end up with a group made up of a squire, a rat-catcher and someone who follows soldiers around for profit. Then you’d end up nearly killed fighting a handful of ratmen in a sewer. Wonderfully bleak with mechanics that support it.
Dark Heresy: The other Games Workshop RPG, the entire genre is named after this universe’s tagline ‘In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war’. An oppressive, hardline society, devoid of any joy that makes for some really unique roleplaying opportunities.
Getting All Grimdark
If you want to give a Grimdark feel to your games, here are some tips to try.
Hard Consequences: No gesture, no matter how pure, goes totally without consequence. All decisions are bad decisions. When you introduce a choice for the players, make sure that most of the ways out attract some kind of downside. After a session think about one thing the players did that could come back to bite them. Whenever you introduce a new NPC, particularly a villain, make a note of a bad thing that might happen if they are killed. It is possible for the players to spot the consequences of their actions and avert them but if they aren’t thinking about it, it can get them in hot water – just ask Robb Stark.
Kill Their Darlings: If the players like an NPC, consider if you need them for the plot. If the answer is no, consider killing them off. Only do this maybe once or twice but when you do, make the death largely meaningless and no easy recourse. Maybe they just get crushed in a riot or a minor wound becomes infected. Life in Grimdark is short, pointless and bloody. This arresting of potential is very affecting.
Subvert Expectations: Examine your plot regularly. Is what you were going to do a little trite? Reverse something. Think how it could go differently, given the scope of human ability to fail hard. Re-visit and revise. Make the villains have reasons, make the heroes monsters if they need to be.
Change For The Worst: When players do gain victories, make it at total cost. If your system has Hero Points/Inspiration/Bennies, make one of your conditions that a player gets one if their character becomes more worn down and beaten up by the universe. Soon you’ll have players who have lost all humanity in their quest for vengeance and power. Also sometimes a physical cost must be paid. Prepare players ahead of time and bring out those critical hit charts and corruption tables.
Minor Victories: Sometimes, keeping your humanity is enough victory for Grimdark. Sometimes finally killing the guy who murdered your friend is important. In some universes, one night’s safe sleep is a victory. These are the victories the characters can achieve. So give them out occasionally so it’s not all depressing.
Just Enough Blood: This is a difficult one. Grimdark is not the splatterpunk horror genre. People die in unpleasant ways but it isn’t a non-stop parade of gore. Mostly. Grimdark in a roleplaying game works best when the threat of danger is ever-present but the protagonists are mostly resourceful enough to avoid it. The trick is to be realistic with wounds and when thinking up horrid things, take the most horrible thing you can think off then back off – just a touch. Pull no punches but don’t descend into atrocity.
Unfairness & Oppression: It’s important that some characters and NPCs don’t get a fair shake. Maybe through circumstances of birth, maybe through naïve notions but some characters are going to be oppressed and have it worse. Make sure you pay attention to where background could make a character out of depth socially and use that. Whether it’s a poor person trying to beg for help from the nobility or a wealthy noble heir captured by bandits who want to make an example of the rich kid, it must be clear that because power here is earned by might, those in power are bullies.
I hope that provides you with some ideas of how to skew things towards the Grimdark. Any other
Ben Jackson-Ellery is a freelance writer with experience in the fields of drama, education and RPGs which means he has always been poor. He has also designed an escape room, built a grand piano and curated a castle because what’s life without whimsy?