If you’ve ever played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Dark Heresy, or any of the Witcher games, you know there’s a distinctly grimdark, gritty tone to those games. By concentrating on certain themes, you can evoke some of that depth and despair in your own games—and raise the stakes of the campaign in the process. If you’ve enjoyed grimdark books and are looking to expand into that genre, you can adapt this advice to your fiction projects as well.
But GM beware: it’s a fine line to walk between simply punishing your players and making a game with greater challenges and rewards. The key is to keep the pendulum swinging between light and dark, hope and fear. And to keep your players coming back, they’ll need to have seductive opportunities to succeed or make a positive impact on the world, even if they can’t save all of it.
Show Evil as Ascendant
The first step to cultivating a feeling of grim darkness in your campaign is to adjust the tone of the setting. Dial up the hypocrisy, helplessness, and hopelessness of the people, places, things, and technology in the world. Create scenarios where the PCs are the only force that can serve justice, improve the fortunes of a group or individual, or shine a light on forgotten or forbidden technologies.
Start by giving your non-player characters selfish and baser motivations for what they’re doing. Give them more cynical, less forgiving mindsets overall. Let them expect the worst of each other, and rightfully so. Include a few more noble-minded NPCs to help cast a brighter light to draw out the shadows, but give them dark secrets to hide as well. To help drive the point home regarding the characters in your game, let the baddies get away with their misdeeds more often than not. Portray the moral authority in the setting as understaffed, inept, or downright corrupt.
For locations, be sure to give everything a feeling of decay, of lost grandeur. Let those things that were glorious be relics of the past, mostly forgotten or buried under the miasma of the present. Castles might be falling apart, as those who inherited them are too poor to make the necessary repairs. Make the locations more dangerous and inefficient, such as a poorly patrolled, monster-haunted road separating towns, or a farmstead that struggles to eke out a living from the land, only to have their meager harvest taken to pay taxes. Those few places that are left gleaming should be out of reach of the general population, be they beyond the kingdom’s borders or exclusive to the ruling classes of society.
Objects and artifacts might be in similarly poor shape, with superior quality or even magical items rare to nonexistent. When such wondrous or useful items are found, have people’s squabbling and conflict overshadows the utility it might have provided to society. Alternatively, give it some cursed nature, such that it is as much a bane as it is a boon upon those who found it and tried to wield it.
Finally, hint at examples of knowledge and technology that could be used to raise people up out of their squalor being reserved for only the highest classes, or deemed heretical and locked away lest it give too much power to the lower classes. Let change be suspect, and tradition followed to the point of foolishness.
Show The PCs that Everything Has a Price
Do the PCs want something? Make sure that they feel the cost either physically, mentally, or spiritually. If they want to wield power, such as magic or a futuristic technology, ensure it imposes some heavy toll on its wielder to keep it mostly out of reach, or at the very least, make the wielder think twice about bringing it to bear on the situation. Perhaps it drains their life force. Perhaps it degrades the land around them. Perhaps it has a chance to call forth horrific beings from another realm. And perhaps it casts a social stigma on them, dogging their steps wherever they go.
If rgw group needs equipment, have the shopkeepers sense that and wring as many coppers as they can from the party. Set any items that would provide an improvement for the character just out of their price range to force them to go adventuring–or turn to petty crime.
While they’re working for their gold, let the dice fall where they may. If the group wasn’t sufficiently prepared for their travels, or they don’t exercise enough caution and patience in hunting monsters or witches or aliens, don’t shy away from the charts of conditions, critical injuries, sanity loss, and corruption. After accumulating a half-dozen or so such scars, death might seem like an escape for those characters, but you can always turn the fallen against the rest of the party with a necromancer or corpse-animating nanobots. Those characters who limp back to the town with the monster’s head as a trophy will feel the sting of its cost, even if the town still won’t grudge them any real gratitude or truly appreciate their sacrifice.
Force The PCs to Choose
One of the biggest ways to turn up the grimdark factor is to force the characters to make hard choices: choices that exact a price or choices that seem equally bad. The players will likely seek to make the “right” or “moral” choice–but in a grimdark game, they’re forced to try and discern the lesser of two evils. Which choice are they willing to bear on their conscience? To what depths are they willing to stoop to try to achieve the “better” outcome? Which of the two towns’ leaders will the PCs support: the corrupt one or the cruel one? Which magical entity does the party believe: the one they’ve been sent to kill, or the one that sent them to kill the other? Leaving one unchecked will not bode well for the local inhabitants, but allowing the two entities to continue to feud will result in greater misfortune. In grimdark campaigns, no one can survive as an angel. You’ll rack up too many enemies to live for long.
Show The PCs That They Won the Battle, But Not Without Losses
After the PCs have been forced to choose, don’t neglect to showcase the consequences of their actions. How has the attitude of the townsfolk changed? When they return to the location, what will be different about it? What objects have they looted, or lost? Have they acquired an even more powerful and dangerous technology? To really drive home the grimdark, include unforeseen consequences, especially negative ones. And just when things start to look completely bleak, let them see a small, fleeting glimpse of the positive consequences they’ve wrought. Try to get the players to ask themselves, “was it worth it?” Try to make the answer a “maybe” or a hesitant “I think so.”
Show The PCs That They’re Losing the War
The difference, I think, between grimdark settings and dark fantasy is that in grimdark campaigns, the PCs actions cannot save the world, whereas in dark fantasy, the world can be saved so long as the heroes are willing to pay the price. The PCs can forestall a great calamity, or protect their pocket of civilization, but the forces of darkness and decay cannot be stopped. For each small victory they achieve in their own sphere, let them catch rumors of the downfall of great people or civilizations happening just beyond the horizon. Their actions mean little in the world–in the end, “chaos always wins.” But make those few things that they can achieve worth the pain and sacrifice that was asked of the player characters–or you may find that the players lose the will to continue playing in such a world.