It’s okay to sometimes want our roleplaying game sessions to be a refuge from the never-ending news cycle. When real life is already bleak, we don’t need our escapes to be equally depressing or hopeless. In trying times, many of us would rather tell stories of justice, empowerment, compassion, and hope. We want our characters to become reflections of the best we have to offer. In this way, the game becomes a welcome respite when we want to take a break from the daily struggle. For writers looking to imbue their stories with a ray of hope, you can adapt this advice to your fiction projects as well.
Although there are many examples of tabletop roleplaying systems and settings that evoke a grimdark flavor, there seem to be fewer examples of games that feel “noblebright.” The following article outlines some tips for game masters who would like to run RPG campaigns that inspire courage and recharge players’ emotional batteries. These guideposts can also be used to fine-tune a setting to be more representative of the one we wish we were living in—one where individuals can make a real difference and stand up for each other.
Showcase the Abundance in the World
In a world where headlines driven by scarcity and fear and hate are frequent, our made-up worlds can be sanctuaries of abundance. Grand vistas offer horizons of beauty and harmony. Food is a homecoming unto itself, the mead warm and the stew savory. In fantasy settings, magic is everywhere—a gift that is granted to even the meekest among us. In science fiction settings, technology is accessible to all manner of people and used wisely to improve the lives of everyone. Magic and technology alike should inspire a sense of wonder and awe, reminding us that anything is possible for those who put our hearts into it.
Conflict and stories arise when characters underestimate their own capabilities, and the challenges characters face encourage them to experiment and reach beyond their previously known boundaries. Game masters should reward those who refuse to give up and who stay true to their ideals with additional possibilities and powers. New discoveries await those with the courage to explore, and the player characters have the potential to usher in a newfound golden age of peace and prosperity for their communities—or even the whole world.
Provide a Place at the Table for Everyone
Abundance in the world may also show through in the form of opportunity. The factions, organizations, and institutions of the world are charged with protecting and uplifting, including not just those at the top but also those on the very bottom—even the environment itself. No matter where someone comes from, what they look like, or what struggles they’ve faced, members of the community can become the leaders of these groups by showing themselves as capable and compassionate. The leaders encountered by the PCs are true heroes, people with admirable traits like courage, empathy, resilience, and responsibility. And if the PCs demonstrate the same, they too can become leaders. Trust and camaraderie exist among the members of the noblebright world’s organizations, and where trust is lacking, the PCs have a chance to bridge the gap.
Quests and challenges result when individuals or institutions lose that guiding light. When a leader loses the trust of their people, they must repair that trust to step aside for someone else who can lead by example. The job of the PCs is to remind others of this and ensure that everyone is provided the same opportunity to rise. Importantly, noblebright settings contrast with their grimdark counterparts because fundamentally the institutions are forces for good and still capable of fulfilling their mission, even if individuals sometimes falter. We all make mistakes, and we are all worthy of second chances.
Prove that No One is Irredeemable
While the institutions themselves are beacons of principle, individuals may fall or lose sight of the higher good. The purpose of the player characters is not to defeat these fallen individuals through force of arms and violence, but to bring them back to a place of understanding and trust. Punishment isn’t the desired end goal, rehabilitation is.
Villains in noblebright settings are not hopeless embodiments of evil, but relatable characters who have come to believe that a certain process or principle is flawed. Often, their misconception stems from an inability to process their internal issues, such as a lack of self-confidence, communication, or trust. They are emotionally wounded, and the players can only be truly victorious by discovering the source of the hurt and helping the villain find the strength to tend those wounds. In this way, the villains can be inspired to reflect on their misguided ways and join the side of the PCs to become allies.
Misunderstanding is another root of disagreements and conflict in noblebright settings. When characters harbor suspicion toward their compatriots, it often says more about the character’s insecurities than the purported actions of their compatriots. To be a noblebright setting is to demonstrate that, more often than not, people are better than we give them credit for. Even the villains mean well and can be brought to a new understanding. Running through both types of redemption stories is the idea that communication helps us all thrive, giving both the accuser and the accused—the antagonist and the antagonized—a chance to be reconciled.
Give the Characters Self-Determination
In a more hopeless world, the characters’ paths are chosen for them, either by the constructs of society or the sad realities of scarcity. Villains are forced to realize their worst selves, potential heroes wither on the vine, and even the protagonists are forced to choose between bad and worse decisions. But in the noblebright setting, abundance and the innate trustworthiness of organizations give the world’s inhabitants a chance for real agency—the freedom to choose their own destiny.
Many adventures in the noblebright campaign are launched when characters hem themselves in and need help seeing all the possibilities lying before them. Epic campaigns may revolve around the player characters protecting these freedoms for larger groups and confronting the forces and people who would oppress others. And sometimes, sad stories may turn to bittersweet ones, because at least the characters were not forced into a tragic ending: they had the freedom to choose it for themselves.
In game terms, this means letting the players decide for themselves what their characters would do—and not punishing them for it. Certainly, their choices may have outcomes that are sometimes unexpected and less than ideal, but in the face of hard decisions, let the consequences delight and surprise the players. There is no one right or wrong answer in the noblebright setting. Characters even have a chance to recover from their mistakes and right their course if they have any regrets.
Show the Heroes that They Matter
Consequences play a large role in both grimdark and noblebright games. In the former, however, it often becomes apparent that the characters’ actions were in vain, or that they were only able to temporarily stem the tide of a greater darkness. In noblebright games, by contrast, no act of kindness is too small. Nothing is in vain. Even the smallest things can have a positive impact on people’s lives, or on the whole world. One hero can save the day—a team of friends can be the salvation of the world.
It’s a lesson that may not always ring true in our own world, but then again, we’ve decided to spin a story of the world we want to see, not the one that we have to live in now. It’s up to the group to determine what level of personal sacrifice may be needed to ensure the safety and happiness of the loved ones. But like in fairy tales, it’s the intention that matters most. Often, “the powers that be” are moved by what a character was willing to sacrifice, and they may intercede to prevent the worst from happening.
And maybe, when the group leaves the table and returns to the real world, the stories they’ve woven together and the spark of light they’ve lit within each other will inspire them to keep resisting.