You’ve probably heard this one before.
“I think our next game should be dark fantasy! We want a world of danger, where life is cheap and death is around every corner!“
And if you’re like me you probably responded with something like,
“Hell yeah! That sounds awesome.”
And why wouldn’t people be excited to play some dark fantasy? Some of the most famous fantasy stories ever told sit comfortably in the genre. From Warhammer to The Witcher. Besides just the thought of it sounds cool, the visions that sprung into my head of my players barely surviving in a dangerous world, winning desperate battles by the skin of their teeth, tragic death and dark magic made me quite enthused to get my player’s out of their enchanted armor and into dirty gambesons for a game of mercenary companies and intrigue.
That was a few years ago now, my much hyped mercenary company game chugged along for about nine months before ending in an ignoble whimper.
Later, I was invited to participate in a friends living world campaign. We were to be villagers living in a mostly-abandoned town after the end of the world. Sounds great! Who doesn’t enjoy some dark fantasy?
After six months of glorious highs and lethargic lows the game came to a sputtering conclusion
The reasons for our respective failures are rather complex. I severely underestimated the amount of prep a game of my intended scope would require. The system I had chosen for the game, Mythras, also severely impacted my ability to enjoy it. Meanwhile, work had forced my friend to take a five week hiatus from running his living world, and as the sole GM his absence left the game dead in the water.
However at the heart of both campaigns was a fundamental lack of understanding between GM and players.
You see, when people say “We want a world of danger where life is cheap and death is around every corner” what they really mean is “We want a world of danger where life is cheap and death is around every corner, and we want to win despite that“.
As a GM, when you hear the request, and are unaware of it’s silent corollary, you will probably do what me and my friend did. Make a game world and adventure that is difficult, dark and more than likely to kill a character or two if they muck it up real bad. The players will probably even be excited the first few times a horrible beast tears one of their sorry adventurers to little bloody pieces.
But think about it over the long course of a campaign though. Death after death, small victories dwarfed by catastrophic losses. Even as you grow, you’re never quite up the challenges you face. You are distressingly, crushingly, regular.
That’s what dark fantasy devolves into. Dark, dangerous and dreary. An absolute slog through a world you can’t change and where your victories will never matter.
Eventually it ends, everyone is sick of it, and you probably be left wondering how it all ended up like this when you did exactly what the palyers asked for.
People often don’t really understand what they want, so when you give them what they ask for they won’t exactly be thanking you when their newest character ends up dead in the mud after a few bad die rolls.
They want danger, but they want to overcome it, not be crushed by it.
Take one of the most popular dark fantasy series, Glenn Cook’s The Black Company. The gruff soldiers of the company are harassed, beaten, and are constantly escaping life-threatening danger. But they don’t end the first series all dead in the gutter. They win, they stop the evil overlord, they might be broken, exhausted, and covered in blood, but they win.
So don’t take this as a declaration that you shouldn’t try to run a dark fantasy game. Take it as a word of caution. Remember the unsaid corollary, we want darkness, danger, death, and we want to win.
So that is my advice to any aspiring GMs of dark fantasy out there. Let your players win, and let those wins mean something. The world can be as dark and dangerous as you like, but for god’s sake don’t be constantly ripping away hard won victories from the player’s bloody arms if you want them to keep playing.
This post originally appeard on my first blog “The Gamemaster’s Codex” on December 9th, 2019.