Tone Policing Sir Bearington

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I have no idea how to classify this. That’s why it’s getting put into my Random Bulls$&% category. But it isn’t random or bulls$&% at all. It’s actually very important and the timing of this particular article at this particular time is particularly important. This article is about a concept called “tone.” It is also about a bear disguised as a human and new players to D&D and terrible lessons for GMs and good lessons for GMs. It’s about adventuring building and improvisation and it’s also about how to write and run games. It pretty much crosses every goddamned thing I’m doing on this site right now. Except the megadungeon thing that just restarted in its second season after a short hiatus in which I figured out how the hell to continue a series I didn’t plan out AT ALL.

Because I’m just making this s$&% up as I go along.

Ultimately, I decided this belongs in Random Bulls$&% not because it crosses so many topics, but because this is going to be one of those rambly, ranty lessons. It’ll still be useful. I don’t do anything that isn’t useful to gaming in some way. Seriously, I’m so goddamned helpful to new GMs that I’m pretty sure I can’t poop without someone getting some useful advice or ideas for their games. I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but I’m basically becoming the god-king of GMs. I didn’t ask for this, but I can’t say I don’t deserve it.

The reason for the rambly, ranty nature of this lesson is because it starts with a new player and a funny gif. But don’t worry. We’re going to get to meaty GM lessons shortly. Actually, several of them.

The Story of Sir Bearington

If you spend any amount of time living in the Internet, like I do, you know how gamers love to pass around funny gifs. Over and over and over. The same f$&%ing gifs. Like that one about tomatoes and ability scores. And, the thing is, they are usually pretty funny. I may be an a$&hole, but I’ve got a good sense of humor. I like funny things. And I firmly believe that you can totally make fun of something’s little absurdities and flaws while still loving the thing. Unfortunately, several ex-significant others disagree. But I digress.

The point is, a lot of funny s$&% happens in gaming or around gaming or attached to gaming. And we love to share it. And sometimes, those stories get out.

So, I’ve started running games for a new group of people. And when I say new, I mean, NEW. Team Chloroform is completely new to role-playing games. And they are bright eyed and enthusiastic and having a great time and I can’t wait until the first character dies or gets driven insane. It’s so much fun to break new people.

But, in our secret Facebook group, Jeremy (one of the players) who does the fantastic webcomic Up and Out, brought up one of those funny little jokey things that has been circulating the internet. It’s the story of Sir Bearington. He said “I’ve wanted to try D&D for a long time; ever since I read this.” Of course, the version he posted wasn’t the original. The problem with these jokes is that they get reposted and edited a little and the serial numbers get filed off. But I’ve reproduced the original, from Giant in the Playground forum user Dr. Gunsforhands.


It IS a funny story, isn’t it?

And we all had a good laugh about it. And it became a running gag for a bit. So, when I handed out a basic list of the races available for play, Jeremy sent me a message noting that bears are not a playable race. The version of the story he posted, by the way, was not about a bear magically awakened by a druid spell, but rather a perfectly normal bear player-character. And by the strict rules, a normal bear could not pull that s$&% off because he does not have the requisite intelligence to gain skill points as he levels up according to the Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide. But, whatever, it’s funny.

But let’s look at the story the way Jeremy saw it. And, more importantly, the way a newish GM might see it. Because, in the end, Jeremy COULD have ended up behind the screen. If he thought the story made D&D look fun and he decided to put in the effort to buy some beginner products and say “hey, friends, let’s try this thing because of a funny story about a bear.”

Because, after we laughed it off and had a good time, and we were chatting more seriously, I did tell Jeremy that the story actually isn’t a great introduction to D&D. Because it teaches potential GMs a few bad lessons. It wasn’t a situation of me crapping on a thing. Just to be clear. We’re having a blast. It was idle, after-the-fact chatter. The Sir Bearington story is a funny thing for gamers to share, but it isn’t a good example of a good game.

Angry Craps on Fun Again

Now, look, here’s the thing. I don’t want to give away the ending. But if you WANT the Sir Bearington story in your game, there’s nothing INHERENTLY wrong with that. And this isn’t just one of those “play the game any wrong way you want, dumba$&” things. I’m serious. Even though I’m going to use Sir Bearington (and a few other gags) to illustrate a few important points, which means I’m going to crap all over the joke, in the end, I AM going to tell you how it’s also totally okay. In fact, the thing that MAKES IT “okay” or “not okay” is a really central concept to GMing. But this is going to be a journey, okay? I’m just saying that if you get your panties all twisted now about how “Angry doesn’t think games should be fun,” you’re going to miss a lot of good stuff about how to make games fun. And how to make them the right kind of fun for you and yours.

So chill the f$&% out and listen. Read. Whatever.

The Magical Powers of 1’s and 20’s

Some of the funniest terrible gaming stories in the social medias are the “Crits and Fumbles” stories. The basic format runs like this:

  1. Player was trying to do thing.
  2. Player rolled a 1 or a 20.
  3. GM decided that because 1 or 20 was rolled, the thing succeeded or failed in an utterly ludicrous, over the top way.
  4. Hilarity ensues.

If you want some examples, there’s a cute little thread on reddit about it. It’s fun reading. But it’s terrible gaming. TERRIBLE.

Weirdly, a lot of these stories have to do with seduction. It’s just a strange quirk. A player tries to seduce someone or something (usually knowing it’s a ridiculous idea). The roll comes up a 20. The someone or something than becomes a mindless love slave and does everything forever, but the encounter also gets hilariously awkward.

And this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of GMing. If I caught a GM pulling this s$&% at a table, I would leave the table. Because the GM doesn’t understand how to actually run a game. The GM is f$&%ing THREE things up.

When you get down to it, fundamentally, these stories are the same as the Sir Bearington story. If the numbers align, the ridiculous becomes possible and that is what D&D is all about.

The Step the GM Skipped

Let’s look again at the basic principle of action adjudication. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s a good time for a quick refresher. Basically, here’s how the game works.

  1. Player declares action.
  2. GM determines what the player wants to accomplish and how they are trying to accomplish it.
  3. GM determines whether the player can get what they want by doing what they are doing.
  4. GM uses the rules to determine whether player accomplishes their goal.
  5. GM describes the outcome of the action and also applies any consequence of the choice the player made.

That’s what happens inside every action in the game. The problem is, the rulebooks never spell out this s$&%. They just assume that the GM will get it. Because the rules don’t actually tell you what is possible. Instead, they tell you how to determine the outcome of actions. The rules are relying on the GM to decide whether an action should even get into the rules or not.

What you find is that, because the rules don’t explain this s$&%, a lot of GMs skip from “player declares action” to “GM uses rules to determine outcome.” Some GMs will say no to obviously impossible bulls$&%, but for the most part, GMs tend to respond to all action attempts with “roll a *whatever* check.” And that is how people end up seducing bugbears and oozes and turning people gay.

Let me focus on seduction for a second. Because it’s probably the easiest one for me to highlight the utter absurdity in what the GMs are doing in these situations. First of all, I am bisexual. This is actual relevant. I don’t point this out casually. Because it’s not necessary to understand my sexuality to enjoy my gaming advice. But, in this case, it’s important. I am also very charismatic and I have nice legs and a great ass. And once upon a time, I cared about actual human contact and finding a balm against the soul-crushing loneliness of my life. Long story short, I’ve spent some time in various public venues trying trying to pick-up a potential companion or partner.

And here’s the things that gay guys and bisexual guys know (even if they have to learn it very painfully): you can’t pick up a straight dude. That’s what straight means. They just aren’t interested. You can be charismatic and sexy and charming and seductive. But if the dude ain’t interested in other dudes (or at least curious about other dudes), you ain’t picking them up. I imagine lesbians know the same thing about straight girls. But I’ve never been a lesbian. But I DO know the same thing about being a dude and picking up a lesbian. If someone says “sorry, I’m straight” or “sorry, I’m a lesbian,” the game is over.

That’s just how human attraction works. It’s the same thing with beauty standards. You can argue that people should dispense with conventional beauty standards all you want, but attraction is hard-wired into people. It’s not just a choice, it’s a chemical and biological thing. And arguing against anyone’s standards for “attractive” is kind of like saying a gay guy should choose to be straight.

AND YES, there are factors that f$&% with all of this. Altered mental states – due to various emotional states or alcohol or drugs – can f$&% with all of this. But those are the exception, not the rule. I only bring them up so that some dips$&% in the comments doesn’t point out that people who are depressed, who have self-confidence issues, or who are drunk, can be seduced by people they aren’t attracted to.

The point is this. If Alice tries to seduce Zelda in my game (Zelda being an NPC with useful information), before I call for a damned die roll, I have to decide – DECIDE – whether Zelda CAN BE seduced by Alice. Will she immediately throw up her hand and say “sorry, I’m straight.” Or will she have no interest in muscle chicks and be turned off by Alice’s fighter physique? Now, any answer is okay. It’s entirely possible that Alice has blundered into a guard who is a lesbian with a thing for body builders. But it’s also possible that she didn’t. It’s cool either way.

My point here is that GMs skip this step and go right to the die rolls. A violent hobgoblin, attacking a camp for food, is probably NOT going to be seduced by a halfling, even if he rolls a 20. And that isn’t even bringing sexuality into it. The GM need to decide if the action can even work BEFORE they let any dice hit the table.

And I’ll even say this (because, again, comment dips$&%s): the GM can even roll a die. The GM could decide to roll a check to determine if Zelda is potentially interested in Alice. Leave it up to random chance. Assign a percentage chance. Say, 5%. Done and done. But hold on. Because I know where you’re going with that. “If you say there’s a 5% chance of Zelda being potentially interested in Alice, that’s no different than her succeeding on a 20.” And you’d be right, if you weren’t completely wrong. That’s stupid.

First of all, the 5% of Zelda being potentially interested is just accepting the POSSIBILITY of seduction. Technically, assuming Alice has a 65% chance of succeeding on a seduction roll, the combine chance of blundering into the one in twenty people that are actually seducible AND succeeding is .65 x .05 or .03 or 3%. You can argue its close enough to the 5% chance of rolling a 20. But I’d argue I wanted to show off math and that it’s all irrelevant because of the forthcoming second of all.

Second of all, you’re confusing the example for the rule. This is something people ALWAYS do. I’m using seduction as ONE example of the problem of “skipping the step.” It’s equally problematic in other situations that don’t involve seduction. So, while the whole “natural 20” thing might TECHNICALLY align with the specific seduction example, the general rule isn’t invalidated by finding a loophole in the specific example.


How to Decide What’s Possible

And now we come to the multimillion dollar question: how do you, as a GM, decide what’s possible. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? I mean, it should be easy right. For the most part, you KNOW what is possible. After all, the D&D world (or any RPG world) starts with the same basic foundation as our universe. Things like cause and effect and gravity and mortality and the passage of time. These things are so fundamental, you don’t even realize you are taking them into account. Seriously. Cause and effect. We don’t even think of that as a property of the universe. We just thing “well, that’s how stuff works. A thing happens and it causes something else to happen.” Well, just go sit next to a black hole or travel very near the speed of light or read about a quantum physics. Cause and effect is a specialized things and it can break down just like anything else can. You can find places without places without gravity, you can find places without cause and effect.

It’s fine, though. I’m not arguing you SHOULD take any of these things out of D&D. They are important because they allow players to make decisions and assess the consequences of those decisions. And that’s the core of the role-playing experience. Making choices, exploring the consequences. That’s the core gameplay mechanic in all RPGs.

But if you want to see how easily the “what is possible” question can turn into screaming insanity, read a thread about whether female dragonborn have boobs or whether fireball spells work underwater. These threads basically break down into three factions. Faction one is the faction that tries to invoke real world analogues as to understand the situation. Faction two is the faction that argues “it’s fantasy and magic so the real world has nothing to say.” And the third faction watches the other two while laughing their a$& and occasionally leaving a trolling comment to keep the argument going whenever it seems like it’s going to die (that third faction is me!).

The truth is, it doesn’t matter HOW you answer the question. But what you have to understand is that how you decide what is possible has bigger ramifications than you think. Because every human being consumer of fantasy has a built in threshold for impossibility. We call it “willing suspension of disbelief.” It’s a part of our brain. And, just like sexuality and attraction, it’s not really a willing choice. The problem is, it’s arbitrary. And I mean that. It’s arbitrary for everyone. See, when you say something is arbitrary, people say “yeah, it’s totally arbitrary except for mine because mine makes sense” and then they can outline all the weird rules that govern their suspension of disbelief. And, OF COURSE yours make sense to you. You brain is wired up to make sense to itself. But the rules ARE arbitrary. They are something YOUR BRAIN invented due to its weird wiring.

As Albert Einstein once said, “there are no preferred frames of willing suspension of disbelief.”

So, if you have a realist at your table who uses his understanding of the real world to figure out how the imaginary world works and he jumps into a lake when an evil wizard pulls out a necklace of fireballs, he’s doing that because he figures “water + me = safe from fire.” But if you’re a fantasy wonk figure “magic trumps all,” you’re going to blast him just the same. And you’re going to break his brain.

The point is, deciding what is possible isn’t a simple thing. And everyone will have a different answer. And arguing about it is silly. The realists are ignoring fantasy. The fantastics are ignoring the need for consistency and verisimilitude. That’s why the third faction is the best faction.


Here’s the dirty little secret. There’s a whole other criterion for “what’s possible.” And it’s where the Sir Bearington story breaks down. And, frankly, it’s where a lot of the D&D jokes break down. Especially the silly Natural 1/Natural 20 stories.

Figuring out what is possible in terms of how the world “should” work for the purposes of verisimilitude, fantasy, cause and effect, and decision making; you can think of that as the simulation side of what’s possible. It’s based on the idea that D&D is trying to create a world that could exist so that players can make choices and explore the consequences and overcome challenges. It’s the GAME side of what is possible.

But D&D is also about people enjoying a good story together. And that means, it’s not just a GAME, it is also a NARRATIVE. And narratively, there is a hugely important concept that has a very strong say in what’s possible.

It’s called tone.

The Tone Argument

Here’s the deal: every story has a certain feel. It has a certain emotional weight to it. It makes you feel certain ways. You don’t watch a horror movie because you want a good laugh. You don’t watch a comedy for catharsis. And you don’t watch a sober drama to be frightened. This general mood, this general feel, is what we in the biz call “tone.”

Tone is a vague, nebulous, fluffy, sort of bulls$&% concept. Because it has to do with feelings. And everyone knows feelings are useless fluffy bulls$&%. But that doesn’t make it any less important.

The Sir Bearington story is funny. It’s ridiculous. As the author notes, it sounds like something out of a cartoon. Specifically, the Chicken Boo shorts from Animaniacs. And honestly, that is WHY it’s funny. Hell, most funny stories are funny because they are absurd. All those Natural 20/Natural 1 stories are funny because they are the sorts of things that shouldn’t and don’t happen. Remember, most humor comes from the subversion of expectations.

Of course, that should also be the first warning sign. Most humor derives from the subversion of expectations. RPGs are about making choices and exploring the consequences. Choice and consequence rely on an understanding of cause and effect. You can already see the friction, right?

Here’s an example of tone at work. Remember The Hobbit: An Unexpectedly Awful Movie? There is a seen during the escape from Goblin Town wherein Bilbo Dent, Sexy Dwarf, and the Bearded Extras end up on a bridge that collapses. They ride the bridge, like a rubber raft, as it tumbles down into a chasm that is, scientifically speaking, approximately one bajillion miles deep. Seriously. That fall goes on for a LONG time. And when it finally hits bottom on solid rock, the bridge is fine. The characters are fine. It’s fine.

Now, I’ve seen movies where characters can fall long, LONG distances and end up totally fine. They are called cartoons. And they derive their emotional weight from the absurdity of the action. They are funny things. But The Hobbit was purporting to be an action adventure. I was supposed to care about the characters and worry about their lives. Later on, I was supposed to be afraid for them when they were cornered on the cliff by all the orcs and the wolves. But all I could do was wonder why they didn’t just jump off the cliff because Middle Earth has the most unforgiving gravity of any terrestrial planet ever.

The cartoony physics of that scene – played for laughs – didn’t match the dramatic tone of the rest of the film.

And you thought I was going to bring up Radagast “Rabbit Sled” Brown, didn’t you. Well, I could have. Because Radagast seemed like a Harry Potter character. Seriously, he could have replaced Hagrid as the Care of Magical Creatures teacher at any point in that series. Well, actually, not at any point. Because that’s another good discussion of tone.

Harry Potter had a very weird tone. If you read the whole series, the tone changes. It starts as this charming, silly little story about a child wizard in a zany magic school. Sure, it’s got drama and heart, but the world itself is also kind of silly. But that was fine. But the silliness dropped away. The story got dark and serious. It still had drama and heart, but the silliness started to drop away. And, for the most part, the transition worked well. Because the series matured as the audience and the characters matured. I have nothing but compliments for the way Harry Potter handled its tonal shift.

But there were still spots that got a little weird, right? Like, once we learned that the Ministry of Magic had constructed an entire secret infrastructure under muggle society and had political connections to the muggle government and that there were muggleborn wizards and wizards living in muggle society pretty freely, Arthur Weasley’s comical obsession with and misunderstanding of everything muggle became sort of silly. It was downplayed, but it would still pop up occasionally. And it looked weird when it did. Especially because he WORKED for the ministry in a department specifically established to maintain the secrecy of the wizarding world by policing the use of muggle technology. The hidden world of wizards would not remain hidden very long if Arthur Weasley really represented the expertise with which they hid themselves.

Tone is weird. And like suspension of disbelief, we can accept tonal breaks in small doses. The silly bits of the Harry Potter universe didn’t ruin the stories. You can argue whether the Hobbit was ruined by its tonal inconsistency or whether it was ruined by the visual effects or whether it was ruined by being actually really boring, but you can at least SEE the breaks. Tone is why people didn’t like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as much as Raiders of the Lost Ark and it’s why people had problems with Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion by hiding in a fridge.

But tone does vary. In fact it has to. Emotions get fatigued or desensitized. A movie can’t just be a constant string of unbroken zaniness. Or it can’t be all depressing all the time. The tone has to vary a little just to keep the audience from getting worn out. But wild swings in tone have to handled carefully. Pixar movies handle tone WONDERFULLY. That’s why we call them emotional roller coasters. Because they handle tonal shifts well and because there’s an underlying consistency in the differences in tone. The tone never swings too wildly. The ending of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is the opposite. You have four simultaneous stories: the duel with Darth Maul, Anakin piloting the spaceship, the Gungal war, and Princess Leia infiltrating the palace and fighting racist caricatures. And each of those has a different tone. A different feel. And the movie flips back and forth between all four and it expects your emotions to keep up. And your emotions are like “da f$&% is happening, am I supposed to be laughing at clumsy robots fighting clumsy cartoon rabbits or am I supposed to actually be sad that Oskar Schindler is dead, forget it, I’m out!”

Tone Policing

And THAT brings us around to the job of the GM. As The Hobbit and Phantom Menace show us, f$&%ed up tone is the fastest way to get people to emotionally disengage with a story. If their emotions can’t make sense of how things are supposed to be feel because the story is tonally all over the place, they are just going to check out. And THAT is really dangerous in an RPG. Because emotional engagement is a key part of good role-playing. For you to make decisions for your character, you have to be invested in your character. But you also have to be able to understand their emotional state.

But you’ve got a bunch of people at the table. And, just like suspension of disbelief, their tonal expectations are all kind of different. And their tolerance for tonal breaks varies. And that brings us around to another one of the GM’s many, MANY jobs. Policing the tone. The GM has to maintain a consistent tone and manage tonal breaks.

Imagine that Sir Bearington story in the Lord of the Rings. Do those things fit together? No. Obviously not. If you’re running Lord of the Rings, you can’t also have Sir Bearington. Most people’s tolerance for tonal breaks will slap you in the face if you try to do that. But, if Sir Bearington is in your adventuring party, you probably can’t pull off the Razing of the Shire. You’re running a cartoon show, you can’t suddenly switch to Nazi orc genocide.

As a GM, you’ve got to be cognizant of the tone of your game. And it is YOUR JOB to protect it. It’s okay to run a silly game or a serious game or an epic game or a dark comedy or a horror game or whatever. You can run any sort of game you want. Any sort of tone. But, until you learn to handle transitions artfully, and that’s a skill not everyone develops (George Lucas, Peter Jackson), you want to stay pretty close to consistent. It helps keep your players emotionally invested in the game.

And that means, when you have to decide what is possible, you can’t JUST consider what “should” be possible from a sort of “nature of the world” approach. You also have to decide what is possible from a “tone” approach. I mean, here’s a simple example.

If you’re running Crouching Tiger, Ninja Turtles and a player wants to jump basically to the top of a small building, that’s probably possible. Because that’s part of the whole flying ninja, wire-fu, wuxia bulls$&%. But if Aragorn pulled the same s$&%, you’d call foul.

The thing is, most GMs already sort of have a vague sense of tone and tone policing. But they don’t know how to put it into words or they feel like they aren’t supposed to do it. For example, did you ever have a player bring a character that just felt a little silly? Like the wacky gnomish inventor or the half-elf bard who casts all spells through the performance of mime and never speaks? Hell, have you ever had the player who made a perfectly serviceable character and then gave him a stupid name like Murry McMurrystine? Have you ever felt, in your gut, that you should just say no?

That’s tone. Tone is kicking you in the teeth. Because you have a sense of the tone of your game, even if you can’t articulate it, and you just can’t take the mime or Murry seriously.

Guess what: it’s your JOB to say no. As the GM, it is your job to safeguard the tone of your game for you and your players. It’s your job to protect the tone that makes a game you want to run that is also a game that the players want to play. And if you’ve got someone breaking the tone for you and others, you’ve got to reign that s$&% in before the dumba$& nukes the fridge.

So What Actually IS Possible

Well, that’s a good f$&%ing question. On the one hand, you have consistency and verisimilitude and cause and effect and all that other crap. On the other hand, you have tone. Sometimes those things align, sometimes they are at odds. And that’s because basically one is driven by your brain and the other by your gut. One is logic, one is feels.

How do you decide what’s possible? I can’t tell you that. Because it is highly subjective. You’ve just got to sort of feel your way through. Consistency is important. Consistency of tone and consistency of reality. But sometimes, preserving one will break the other. And you’ll have to compromise. But whatever compromise you go with is probably okay.

I’m serious. It’s actually a lot easier to handle this than you think. If you’re aware of these ideas, you’ll tend to keep things mostly consistent. So, if occasionally, things swing too far one way or the other or the tone breaks a little or the suspension of disbelief breaks a little, your game will survive. As long as you aren’t just ignoring the question, you’ll probably do find. You really do have an intuitive grasp of tone. Most people do. And your brain has an inherent logic. Most people’s do. If you sit and think for a moment and trust your instincts, you can make a pretty good decision.

And paradoxically, if you find yourself REALLY struggling on a decision – if you are going back and forth and feel like you’re trapped right in between – it’s probably because the decision can go either way and be fine. If that’s the case, you can probably safely just flip a f$&%ing coin.

Sir Bearington is okay if your game is Animaniacs. But not if it’s Lord of the Rings. The only thing that’s NOT okay is not thinking about it. And THAT is why you never, EVER let someone roll a die until you already know what the possible outcomes are.

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48 thoughts on “Tone Policing Sir Bearington

  1. Great article, as usual. I would like to add one thing to it: the rules of the game.

    RPGs are games, as they are narrativas, and the rules for character creation and evolution are like a box of LEGO pieces, where the players fiddle and tweak until they have a character they like.

    Now, I know you have taoked about removing options from your game (by making those constraints worthwhile), but after you laid the common ground (of rules and tone), you have to stick with it.

    So what do you do if a player wants to do something that the rules permit him to (like casting awakening on his Bear), but you think it would shift the tone of your game. How do you make it so without the aftertaste that you are depriving your players of agency? Because Its easy to just take away their toys than teach them to play the way you want it. And even the last option feels wrong.

    • Hi Oniguma,

      I think that then comes down to intent. There should be nothing stopping them from attempting what it is they are doing (Such as casting awakening on the bear) What becomes the problem is what he does with the action,

      In those scenarios you either would need to sit and discuss directly why it’s not something that fits the game. Or come up with in game reasons why it’s not valid. (Such as Sir Bearington, No manner the cloths or disguise people can still tell he’s a bear).

    • The GM always has control over everything else, such as the consequences of actions taken by the PCs, such as NCP reactions.

      For example, thinking and talking is not what made Sir Bearington absurd. If the bear behaved more like Aslan, (or given the apparent campaign setting of the story, Oalian) the tone would have been entirely different. The bear is an NPC, and while at most tables GM’s let players run their pets from a combat perspective, I think at most tables it would be acceptable for the GM to run the awakened bear’s basic personality, or at least set limits on it. The GM _certainly_ has control over other NPCs reactions to the bear, and whether it can successfully disguise itself as a human.

    • Definitely on the same page as Beoric here. It’s dropped out of common usage in the last few editions, but back in AD&D the DMG specifically noted that it was not just the DM’s right, but his DUTY, to step in and take control of a player’s henchman if the player was attempting to have the henchman do something wildly out-of-character or otherwise inappropriate based on the assumed PC-henchman working relationship.

    • Other people have addressed why “Awaken animal” is not the same as “Mr. Bearington” so leaving that aside, and just focusing on a game where awakened animals as a whole are out-of-town with your game, well…you should probably have thought about this problem before you started. As a rule, games that explicitly say ” is A Thing in this game.” are probably totally a bad fit for your game. This is one of those reasons where it’s pretty darn important for the GM to understand the system so that they know what the game things is and isn’t possible, so they don’t get surprised by this sort of thing.

      So if having a self-aware bear would be a tonal failure for your game, you might want to seriously consider a system that doesn’t have effects like that – because while this is a specific example, and you could fix this specific case by saying “That spell/ability/whatever doesn’t exist in this game” the odds are that if there’s one, there’s probably more. Often, a lot more.

      • Yeah, that was I was thinking. The problema It’s not the spell per se, But gow the GM adjudicate It’s outcome. An awoken Bear can be a wise protetor, a misunterstod Guardian, or even a cunnig villain, But it can also be a tuxedo-bearing Bear.

        Like Angry said, what is wrong is not what the players do, But if their actions (and more importante, your adjudication of them) keep in the tone of your game. It can be fun or serious, dark or silly, But it can never jump from one to another – except if you plan for it, and this is an advanced skill

  2. Those D&D memes will drive me to the madhouse. One day, anyway.

    I was having an argument with my players about the “good necromancer” meme – one of the stories I actually used to love. But after reading Angry’s stuff, I saw it from an entirely different perspective, and realised how stupid the story actually was. I was able to show 4 our of 5 players the problem with the story – all thanks to what I’d learned from reading Angry’s rants and articles.

    Slowly, session by session, I’m making better players of them and a better DM of myself.

      • Enlighten me. I just read the story. As long as the players (singular and team) didn’t feel betrayed by the GM, I see nothing wrong with that story at all. Now, I realize that some players would feel betrayed by having the knife-twisting tonal twist at the end, and if these players did, then the GM should be ashamed. But I’m assuming he knew his players well enough to judge that it would be effectively gut-wrenching and heart-wrenching but appreciated rather than angering. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a story from a narrative standpoint that undergoes, as I put it, a “tonal twist.” Many people don’t like that kind of story, but it isn’t invalid.

        • I think the sense of betrayal at the tonal twist is implied. As a rule of thumb, most players don’t like the rug being pulled out from under them at the end of a multiyear campaign. The sheer misunderstanding involved in this story, with either the necromancer not realizing how his good intentions are going to hell, or the adventurers not realizing they’re doing more harm than good, implies the GM was purposely hiding vital information from them to ensure the twist ending occurs.

          This actually undermines the tragic tone of the plot. According to Aristotle’s guidelines on Tragedy, the protagonist’s fall has to be “brought on by his own Fatal Flaw and past mistakes”. For example:

          “To borrow a simplifying example from Educating Rita, Macbeth is generally considered a tragedy in literary terms because throughout the play, Macbeth is warned time and time again by numerous parties that his actions will bring nothing but doom and misery upon himself and his family, but he ignores these warnings and proceeds regardless until it is much too late; Macbeth’s fate is inevitable because his own character flaws have made it so.”

          I can’t tell whether the adventurers were warned away from their decisions on their end of the story, but it sounds like the necromancer PC was never warned about it until it was too late to do anything. He had any chance to react to it ripped away from him by the GM to make sure the twist ending proceeded as planned, which is the death knell of almost any campaign.

          In short, it’s the type of story the GM doesn’t need the players for, since he took away any chance for them to react to what he was throwing at them.

  3. Thank you, THANK YOU for this article. I have come to LOATHE “Natural 20s/1s” stories because of how they misrepresent what tabletop gaming can be and continue to perpetuate the fuck-around-and-do-whatever mentality.

    And despite you being The Angry GM, you managed to articulate it a lot more patiently and respectfully than I probably could have.

      • Adding in my thumbs up on that portion of the article. While reading those things can be funny in moderation, it’s absurd to let a lucky or unlucky dice roll let the player do the impossible.

        Player: “I seduce the wall!”
        Me: “It’s a wall. Everyone around looks at you like you’re crazy.”
        (Behind the screen, I roll a Clarity breaking point for the character)
        Me: “…Though, on second look, you notice the bricks kinda look like a skull at this angle and in this light. You hear a faint demonic whisper, but you can’t make out the words, aside from your name being said a few times. It’s probably just your imagination.”

        The whole “I seduce everything!” thing wore particularly thin while I was binging through Out of Context D&D. Certainly reinforces negative perceptions of RPG players as perverts who can’t stop thinking about sex. I’m perfectly fine with seduction being used as a social tool, but if the players don’t have the sense to know when not to use it, well, they’ll discover their escapades have earned them a bad reputation. And possibly legal trouble.

        NPC: “Wait, I know you! You’re the guy who *&^%ed that wall! You’re not welcome in my store. I don’t want your juices on my merchandise, sicko. I don’t want your friends in here, either. Leave before I call the cops.”

        …Note to self: Look up / invent statistics for pepper spray.

        • And don’t forget, players should never decide when they can roll the dice – that is a DM power.

          Player: I roll a persuasion check on the guard.
          DM: The guard says “I can’t play dice now, I’m on duty. If you want to gamble I’ll be at the inn after 3.”

  4. I never really got the whole concept of Natural 20’s as an automatic ‘whatever you were trying wins in the most spectacular way possible’-roll.

    To me, a nat 20 is a character using his/her full potential. A nat 20 is simply the best a character can do, nothing more, nothing less.

    A nat 20 is still relative and what it can do is still tied to the character.

    If I rule a nat 20 doesn’t get a player what he wants and he comes to me after the session and asks: “Why didn’t that thing I tried work? I rolled a nat 20.” I tell them exactly that, “Yes, you did. You gave it your all. You did your best you can do, but sometimes your best still isn’t good enough.”

    The strange thing is, this idea is already implemented in combat:
    A nat 20 combat roll isn’t a 1-hit kill, it’s a critical hit. Yes, it does more damage, but it doesn’t automatically kill the monster because the damage it does is still tied to the hit dices and the players damage bonuses.
    Ability checks work the same way: a nat 20 ability check is a critical hit, it’s not a ‘1-hit kill’-style automatic succes. Yet people still expect them to work that way…

    • It’s because a Nat 20 on a combat roll let’s you hit even if 20+ your hit bonus wouldn’t be enough to hit. So lots of players see a 20 on the die as a “the action succeeds no matter what” button.

    • I like adopting the Star Wars RPGs of triumph and despair for 20 & 1 rolls. Triumph you succeed and get some other benefit. Despair you fail and some negative side-effect also occurs (you lose the tool you were trying to use for example) it doesn’t need to get crazy but it can add to the narrative richness if it remains within the tone constraints.

      • Why can’t YOU add those things?

        See, we call those things consequences. They come from the way you chose to accomplish your goals. And they resonate through the game. That’s how storytelling works. Why leave that up to dice? Why do that only 5% of the time? Especially because some of that stuff is just a random screwjob.

        For example, if the person is bent at a weird angle in a maintenance shaft trying to reach a difficult panel to fix a transflux induction coil, it makes sense that a failure might cost them their tool, lost in the bowels of the maintenance tunnel. But if they are just unscrewing the front of the vending machine, why bother with ‘1’ is an extra screwjob. Let the game and your judgement of the situation drive the consequences, not random chance.

        • Well the only time I ask for dice to be rolled is when there are consequences for success and failure (no roll for unscrewing the front of vending machine so no chance of a screwjob there) – the 1 or 20 just add some interesting narrative surprises (it’s fun for me too). Similar to a critical hit on combat.

  5. I guess my question is similar to Oniguma’s comment. What role does the system play in setting tone?

    For example: exploding dice make for insane swings in probability, but d20 means that you always have a 5% chance of sucking. Can you run gritty in an exploding dice system? Can you run comically slapstick in d20? Or do the systems themselves fight your tone too much?

    • If health pools are low and all the attackers are using exploding dice, I think that you could have a very gritty system indeed. The key would be to find one where things defense ratings and actions that depend on physics (jumping distance, running speed, etc.) are pre-calculated static values – if there’s no dice roll involved, then there are no exploding dice to allow impossible dodges or death-defying leaps or whatever.

      I don’t know if there are any systems out there that do all this; you could probably hack together your own by modifying any existing exploding dice system, though.

    • System matters, obviously, and you should pick a game that supports the tone you want. That’s why you don’t see too many people running soap opera games in Call of Cthulu. But there’s a lot you can do to tweak the tone of a system too.

      5% chance of “sucking”? No. 5% chance of not succeeding. Which isn’t even really the same as “failing”. Tried to pick the lock? Apparently, it was just crappy hardware, and the mechanism is completely fused – no one was going to able to open that this time, even with a key. Failed your diplomacy check to get the King to listen to you? You were doing great, then a messenger ran into the room, whispered something in his ear and he broke off with “I’m afraid we’ll have to continue this later; Other matters demand my attention.”

      And just because you have an exploding dice system doesn’t mean that what is possible changes, any more than it does with a natural 20. If you declare “I jump to the moon!” and then roll a total of 200 successes or whatever, you STIILL don’t get to jump to the moon. Jumping to the moon is not possible. Therefore, a good GM won’t even let you pick up the dice.

      So yes, you can do it, but the less you have to, the happier you’ll be. Though in general, you should err on the side of “lets the players succeed too much” because it’s much easier to avoid that by stating something cannot be done than it is to justify your 14th stupid failure of the night.

      • Well, there is usually something like an “incredibly lucky break” you can give your players in such swingy systems on extreme roll results. Somebody can’t jump to the moon, I fullly agree. But the highly improbable (as opposed to the impossible) is still fair game.

  6. Great article! It made me realize something about myself that I could never quite put my finger on.

    I hate monks. HATE them. I could never quite put my finger on why I hated them, but now I know its because they don’t match the tone of D&D I have in my head. When I think D&D, I think ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies, or ‘Game of Thrones’; basically, a somewhat realistic simulation of a medieval’ish time period, but with wizards and dragons. And then here comes the monk. In my game, one of my players is a monk and they just reached 8th level, and now the monk can literally run on water or even run straight up the side of a 100 foot tall wall. And I HATE it. Catching arrows or using martial arts? I’m fine with that. But now there is one tiny element of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ magical wuxia in my game and it ruins my immersion. I’d be fine with a ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ game, or even a ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ game, but my current game has a tone closer to ‘The Mummy’ and the monk is driving me crazy.

    I wonder what I can give the monk player so that they’d be okay with me taking away the ‘running up walls’ stuff.

    • My understanding is that the monk wallrunning is running along walls, not up walls, which is still silly, but much less so.

      If you are ok with silliness that is explained by magic, you could give him magic footwraps that allow the user to run across water and walls. You can also specify that they still require immense agility and speed to use properly, so that only level 9+ monks can use them.

    • Thank you for the comment. I always felt this way about monks and Psioinics(!): “The thing is, most GMs already sort of have a vague sense of tone and tone policing. But they don’t know how to put it into words or they feel like they aren’t supposed to do it…Have you ever felt, in your gut, that you should just say no? That’s tone. Tone is kicking you in the teeth. Because you have a sense of the tone of your game, even if you can’t articulate it….”

  7. Great article. I was just thinking last night about handling the ‘suspension of disbelief’ issue. It comes up with my son’s group. There is one kid in particular who is a very grounded, very smart kid, whose suspension of disbelief threshold is incredibly low. We have to constantly remind him that this is a world where magic is real. On the other hand, another kid has a very active imagination and has to be reeled in from attempting the impossible and pushing the limits. On top of that, tone is especially important to police when dealing with teenage boys.

    It becomes a real issue when you are working with people who are new to RPG’s. You want them to get into the spirit of things. Try something outlandish. But you also don’t want them to expect that they can use a refrigerator to avoid the effects of a nuclear explosion.

  8. Ive had an interesting tone experience with a player over the last couple years. He was coming in fresh with a group that already had a couple adventures under their belts. He didn’t seem to take the character generation all that seriously when he named his fighter ‘Marth Mc Masher Potatoe’… Now, the name was obviously slightly irksome, but he’s an old friend and rather than play the tough DM card I took the soft power approach, figuring Marth was a cool name at any rate, and I could just call him that. Now, my self made setting is located in a wind blown tundra with little population outside of two large cities, and little food and resources. It’s gritty, it’s dangerous, and it’s rough, a real frontier feel. And most player characters are suitibly rough and grim. I’ve found that as we progress through the campaign, the player of Marth is getting into the setting to the point where he’s starting to justify his odd name with new backstory here and there, and it’s slowly becoming less rediculous that this man has a weird name… he’s also a fighter with 16 int so he’s eccentric and brilliant as well and gorgeous and buff (his rolls were just nuts). So rather than bugging him about his odd name, I just worked hard on driving home how gritty and rough the setting is, and as other, more serious player stories unfolded, I think he felt out of touch and has been continually “growing his character” in a way that meshes with the world around him. It’s been rewarding to see that happen without having to force him to get serious haha. I mean, I’m not sure you would stand for it, but it’s been a learning experience for me. As always Angry, thanks for the stellar material.

    • I’d say well done you. It’s hard to gauge, though, which players you can work with and which you can’t. Sometimes it isn’t, and the cost of a ruined campaign nobody takes serious anymore is indeed very high. I know a player who only choses ridiculous names and also sabotages other players often. Since he’s a fun guy we tolerated that often only to find that now we can’t abide and don’t like the fact he constantly tries to have the spotlight on him (and make everybody groan about his actions) and ruins the tone often as well.

      I never realized how bad his behavior was before I actually gave the GM duty to some other friend and had to deal with his antics from the player side. And then this sometimes tone-breaking, sometimes game-breaking style really got to me. And I realized he always does this, only the amount varies. I thought he could be engaged. But in the end the group ended up protecting itself from his shennanigans, it became a real constant struggle, and then finally half-disintegrated. It’s good you had the chance to actually prevent such deterioration.

      I would tend towards avoiding tone-breakers in the future simply because I got burned by this. Some other poster mentioned teenage boys. I find that even in their 20s (or later) some people are entirely incapable (or unwilling) to play to tone and do anything but slapstick. Okay for them, but I don’t want that stuff in my games. Too tiresome, too much waste.

  9. Great article. I am a big non-fan of the ridiculous 1’s and 20’s stories, and Mr. Bearington makes me shake my head in dismay. Fortunately, this is stuff I already knew, so I don’t have these problems in my games, but holy carp, does this stuff NEED to be in game books.

  10. I agree with everything you’re saying about tone, but I still take issue with the whole “decide if it’s possible before rolling” thing.

    The whole point of the die roll is to represent all the unknown factors that can contribute to success and failure. Failing at the seduction check could mean you weren’t very seductive today, but it could also mean the target was tired and just wanted to go home, or finds something distasteful about you, or, yes, isn’t attracted to people of your gender. It’s physically impossible to account for all of these factors ahead of time, so what you do is interpret the roll after it’s rolled but before the outcome is announced, and retroactively decide which of those factors made success inevitable or impossible.

    And then, of course, you use that decision to build the fiction of the game world. If the seduction failed because of someone’s sexuality, then that sexuality is a known factor for future attempts.

    • May I ask why it’s impossible to account for all of those factors ahead of time, but completely possible to account for then all afterward?

      Or are you just saying you want the dice to make the decision for you? That’s perfectly fine, but you probably shouldn’t be using a binary system, because what you’re asserting is patently false in such a system. A binary system sets a target number and the roll plus modifiers determines whether the action passes or fails.

      Are you familiar with how the new Star Wars system works? That might be more up your alley.

      • It’s not possible.

        What did the target of the seduction roll have for dinner? Did it give them indigestion? Did their mother just pass away? How does that influence their decision? Are they already in a relationship? Are they loyal, or fed up with it? Do they have a headache? A toothache?

        Now matter how much of that nonsense you try to account for, you won’t think of every possible factor. That’s why you roll.

        But on the other hand, it makes no sense for a character who is super charming to have a lower chance of encountering someone who “doesn’t swing that way” either. In much the same way that you determine that the wall is 50 feet high and there is no way you can jump over that, you need to determine in advance whether the attempt can succeed before you involve dice to see if it does.

        Or you can have a game where halflings seduce bugbears and people jump to the moon, and folk who like their games to make sense can sit out while you generate “hilarious” Mr. Bearington stories. It’s up to you.

    • You are still deciding; you are just deciding that a great deal more is possible than Angry (presumably) would. Do you decide after the roll if your mute PC is trying to flirt with the blind god of rage?
      What you are doing is coming up with explanations for the success or failure afterwards, which is fine, but as the plausibility is stretched in some cases, that will create tonal issues. “Yes, by chance you have encountered the one bisexual hobgoblin guard captain who is willing to turn his back on his king and people for a quick roll in the hay with you! Make an endurance check! 20? Wow, well, three days later…”

    • Yes, it is impossible to account for all of the things that might swing the outcome toward success or toward failure, but it is not impossible to determine whether a particular course of action CAN POSSIBLY lead to a desired outcome or NOT. And that is your job as a GM.

      Randomness will never build a better world with more engaging characters than a creative human mind. If it could, we would not need a GM at all. Instead, you could just declare an action and roll the dice yourself. And then everyone could sit around and decide why the dice said what they said. But that’s not storytelling anymore. That’s explaining a random result. That’s a little random riddle.

      Look, if you want the job of making excuses for the dice and letting them dictate what is and is not possible in your world, fine. It’s your game and you can run it any wrong way you want. But then everything I talk about is kind of moot. Tone, pace, motive, character, structure… you throw all of those things away when you give up control of the story beats to random chance. Do it if you want. But I want a great game that is also a great story.

    • I don’t think any of you are quite getting what I’m laying down here. Well, Angry is getting about half of it, maybe, but the rest of you have missed an important point:

      I’m not remotely advocating for an anything-goes, Bearington-style campaign. The only claim I was making is that deciding whether something is possible or not can be done after the roll, without violating the tone.

      You see, the question of “Is it possible?” is actually composed of two sub-questions: “Can it be possible?” and “Should it be possible?” And I think you’ve all conflated the two.

      The first question means, does it contradict established facts? This includes setting information, tone, previous actions taken by the PCs… all the things you’re talking about, Angry. Basically, will the world cease to make sense if this happens? This stuff you can and should decide before rolling, yeah.

      The second question means, how does the DM want this specific encounter to play out? It’s basically an arbitrary decision on the DM’s part whether to allow or disallow a specific approach. Typically, the PCs will not know ahead of time that it’s impossible. How could they have known that this NPC you made up on the spur of the moment was or wasn’t attracted to their gender? (If they did, then we’re talking about established facts, which puts us back into the realm of the first question.)

      Since the answer to the second question is already arbitrary, and often doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, there’s no reason not to leave it up to chance—at least in part. It’s true that chance doesn’t make better stories than a human mind, but the two working together *are* better than either on its own when you’re in an improvisational context like D&D. The human mind, left to its own devices, naturally falls back into safe, familiar patterns. Introducing an element of randomness can shake things up and send you to places you never expected to go. That’s kind of why the game has dice in the first place.

      So, what you do when you’re faced with the second question is: you roll the die, and then you use that roll as a tool (one of several) in determining which of the many unknown factors proved to be the one that caused your failure or success. You don’t have to decide on all of the unknown factors, of course; just make one up that corresponds loosely to the number on the die, with lower numbers corresponding to more final failures (“Sorry, I’m not into women.”) and higher numbers corresponding to more transitory ones (“Sorry, this pub is kind of loud. What was that?”). Or you can ignore the dice if you have a better idea. That’s still an option. The important thing is that the dice entered into your decision making, if only for a moment.

      And then once that’s done, you add the consequences of that roll to your library of known facts. From now on, any attempt to seduce that NPC by a PC of a wrong gender will fail.

      In any case, this doesn’t mean that a 20 lets you seduce someone sexually incompatible or jump to the moon. The myriad factors still only exist in the context of the established facts. All a 20 means is that events turned out as well as they reasonably could, given the situation. That could mean, for example, that while the NPC isn’t attracted to you at all, they still think you’re pretty cool and want to be friends.

      (There’s a lot more that could be said on that last bit about process-based vs outcome-based resolution, but that’s a topic for another day.)

      Now all this isn’t to say that your method is by any means invalid. It’s perfectly reasonable, and possibly mandatory, for a more simulationist style of game. But if your primary aim is to build a compelling story, then deciding after rolling is, I think, more effective overall.

      • (Sorry for the wall of text.)

        And oh, yeah, I have played the FFG Star Wars system. It’s one genius idea buried in a mound of inconsistent bullshit.

  11. One of the biggest problems with the ridiculous crit stories is that despite the rules explicitly turning against that type of adjudication, it’s still propagating itself through these stories. In D&D, automatic success/failure on a skill roll hasn’t been a thing for almost 20 years now. But, people love the idea – at least in a vacuum – of someone managing to jump to the moon just because they rolled a 20 on Athletics. Despite the fact that the rules implicitly forbid this kind of absurdity – probably because these ridiculous stories are so popular in the first place – these are still everyone’s favorite stories.

    • More than 20 years – it was never a thing. In AD&D 2nd Edition, *low* rolls were good in the optional non-weapon proficiency rules, and before that proficiency rules didn’t even exist (except perhaps in Unearthed Arcana or something similar; I’m not as familiar with that product).

      Heck, when Gary Gygax was in charge of TSR, he didn’t even endorse the idea of critical hits in combat! The best you got from him was that the number 20 was repeated five times on the AD&D to-hit matrix before the progression continued to numbers 21 or higher needed to hit. Even that wasn’t an endorsement of the natural 20 – those repeated 20s referred to the modified (by strength, magic, and/or circumstances, though not by character level – level directly determined the number required to hit each armor class rather than giving an attack modifier) attack roll.

  12. Those D&D memes will drive me to the madhouse. One day, anyway.

    I was having an argument with my players about the “good necromancer” meme – one of the stories I actually used to love. But after reading Angry’s stuff, I saw it from an entirely different perspective, and realised how stupid the story actually was. I was able to show 4 our of 5 players the problem with the story – all thanks to what I’d learned from reading Angry’s rants and articles.

    Slowly, session by session, I’m making better players of them and a better DM of myself.

    The story I’m referring to is here See if you can spot the problem(s).

      • So one of the core assumptions in the D&D world is that gods are present and oversee the world, right? Additionally, they go out of their way to state that creating undead is an evil act. Not necromancy, but specifically creating undead (there is a difference). The vast majority of deities, (including many evil ones funnily enough), condemn it because it screws up the natural order of things. It’s outside of just good and evil – for example, devils know that if people don’t die, they can’t stack up hell with new souls. Remember that in a world where there are gods and planes of existence that are actual manifestations of good, evil, law and chaos – there is no room for debating morality. “Good” in D&D is not a nebulous concept invented by people, there is an actual and tangible definition of good in the universe, and it is not up for debate. Right?

        Ok, so, for that story to work (in my mind at least) there has to be one of two assumptions:

        A) The necromancer was just crazy, which completely ruins the punch of the story. That he somehow had no idea that what he was doing was wrong is very unlikely, considering he was teaching them “in the dark” etc. So he obviously wasn’t doing the right thing – he knew it was forbidden – so him being “angry” at the PCs for undoing all of his hard (forbidden) work is stupid. The PCs were in the right. They have no reason to be like “whoooaaaa mind blown, we’re the bad guys” because the necromancer’s dying monologue was gibberish. It wasn’t for the greater good. The PCs pursued him, like they were supposed to.

        now, the one that bothers me – really bothers me, is the possibility that:
        B) the core assumptions outlined above don’t apply to this game’s universe, that necromancy is “allowed” by the deities (if they exist), and that this was supposed to be a twist-ending for the PCs. But for this to work, the PCs would have to be completely oblivious to the difference in core assumptions. Which means that throughout the campaign, nobody anywhere said “hey whoa why are you trying to kill that guy, he’s not doing anything wrong”. They obviously were given a reason to pursue him – if necromancy is cool in that world, the players would have no reason to harass some old traveler. And literally every NPC they met along the way would have given some indication (through dialogue or action) that the PCs were trying REALLY HARD to kill someone for no reason. But again, why would he teach them “hidden away in cairns and crypts” if it was acceptable?

        If B) is the case, that means that the “necromancer” got a cool campaign, at the expense of the entire other party, whose entire story turned out to be garbage. It would be the equivalent of saying “you know all those goblins you killed? well it turns out you’re actually a deranged psycho and you were murdering children but didn’t know because you hallucinated them as goblins! haha! bet you didn’t see THAT coming!”. OF COURSE they didn’t see it coming, they had no way to know.

        • What about C) The gods don’t dictate morality, D) the gods are assholes, or E) the concept of Good and Evil is fundamentally flawed? Like, if you define Good purely as what the Good deities like, or as the deeds will get you sent to the Upper Planes when you die, then Good is kind of an arbitrary concept that holds only a tenuous connection to the actual idea of goodness.

          Remember that in 3e, nonsentient undead were basically automata, without any will of their own. The only thing evil about them was how their existence went against “the natural order.” Now when you consider that a lot of people think that any piece of technology made after they turned 50 is against the natural order, regardless of how much it helps people… you can see pretty easily how a rebellion against the concept of Good in the name of goodness is actually a very decent plot.

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  14. I sincerely wish I had read this article YEARS ago. I had a GM who did the 1s-and-20s-break-reality thing, and so when I took over as GM, I did the same thing. It’s so hard for my players to take the sessions seriously AND NOW I KNOW WHY. Man, I’m an idiot.

  15. I’ve been running a game for a few months now. The first game im actually GMing. I had high expectations. Put lots of effort into preparing. I had Lord of the Rings in mind. But it constantly devolved into Bearington.
    There were actually points where i would get physically angry at my players for ruining my game. For not taking all my hard work seriously. Where i was close to just abandoning everything and stopping running the game.
    And then instead i just decided to roll with it. You want to rifle through the villains wardrobe, find the shortest shorts possible and then pull off the captain morgan pose to taunt him into recklessly attacking you. Sure, roll that d20.
    Ended up being a lot of fun once i accepted what they clearly wanted.

  16. Shadowrun handles tone quite well usually, with the ideas of “pink mohawk” and “black trench coat”. Pink mohawk is the whacky, zany punk game without consequences. Where as black trench coat is the ocean’s eleven heist style where the PCs scan the details and make a delicate plan.

    I admit my perceptions of D&D’s tone shifted over the years due to stories like Bearington and Pun-Pun and all that nonsense. It was refreshing to switch to a system that breached the topic of setting a tone, rather than it being a nebulous idea in the back of our heads. I decided I wanted a black trench coat game. I told my players this would be a serious game, and they embraced that.

    Not to say there aren’t tone shifts. The great thing about having a episodic game like Shadowrun is they can take a light hearted run when things get too heavy. Sometimes they need to pull their heads out of the swirling conspiracies for some easy, no strings attached nuyen. Some smaller truly pink mohawk moments happen too (e.g. the disarmed street sam grabs a potted ficus as a weapon).

    tl;dr black trench coat is cool

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