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So I'm a pretty snarky person to start with. One of my big challenges when running Dark Heresy is to get the tone right. I want it to be dark -- the Warhammer 40K universe has plenty of horrific aspects. I also want to maintain the dry sense of humor that's characteristic of the source material. Since I have a tendency to go for the easy joke, I sometimes/often slip over the edge and wind up making my own jokes about the setting, which sort of gives players permission to laugh rather than dread. And to me, the dread is important.

What's a good way to maintain tone in a Dark Heresy (or Rogue Trader, or even any of the Warhammer Fantasy games) campaign? How can you keep the game from going too far over the top, given that it's such an over the top setting to start with?

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I recommend reading the Eisenhorn omnibus as it is essentially the cornerstone of defining the 40k theme within the inquisition. I think this would help you establish what kind of tone is appropriate for the setting. Adjust as necessary to what is appropriate for your players. – MadMAxJr Sep 8 '10 at 19:53
Heh, those were what got me interested in running it. I should go back and re-read them, they're great inspiration. – Bryant Sep 8 '10 at 21:15
The first book establishes how an investigation is conducted in the first few chapters (or at least for his particular school of thought). The supporting characters have roles that parallel to the classes of Dark Heresy. Examine closely how they all begin to react towards the pursuit of their goals and I think you'll do just fine. Worst case scenario? Ask your players after the session what they felt was in theme and what was not. – MadMAxJr Sep 9 '10 at 16:16
Stick that comment about talking to the players in an answer so I can upvote it. :) – Bryant Sep 9 '10 at 16:19
your tag is "w40k"; I think you want "wh40k"...but I don't have enough rep to fix it. ;) – Alex Feinman Sep 9 '10 at 19:48
up vote 4 down vote accepted

If you are the guy with the temptation to go for the easy joke, this may be extraordinarily difficult, since as GM you really have the opportunity to set the tone.

Maybe you need operant conditioning. Every time you go for the easy joke, throw a token in a jar that the players can use as a bonus of some kind. Make them the arbiters, so they are both watching for you to slip up and tacitly monitoring their own behavior.

Maybe you need a way to express this stuff directly. Sometimes playing an inherently over-the-top setting absolutely straight is just not viable, and injecting a little appropriate recognition of the absurdity is both a relief and helps maintain focus. Maybe have a comic relief NPC, a guy who recognizes the ridiculousness, a sort of court jester, and use that guy as your mouthpiece for that stuff.

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Have a read of the Ciaphas Cain books. They're as grim and gritty at the rest in setting, but the tone is quite different. It still all works though. You have to acknowledge the grim and gritty, but also that people will try to have fun, too. especially the upper classes. Have a ball, while the city is burning. and so on. Jokes about the setting are fine. Just have a bite in them.

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I would say that humor is not antithetical to dread, but it depends what kind of humor. Specifically, as the GM you need to keep all humor strictly in game. Say it through NPCs - don't go meta.

Humor that destroys the mood is almost always "out of game" humor. If it's in character, there's plenty of examples of dark/gritty with humor - Boondock Saints, Aliens, etc. @naugtur's answer makes me think about a scene in Burn Notice I watched this week where Bruce Campbell's character was cracking wise while being beaten and interrogated. It didn't change the darkness of the mood.

When it's in character, you can bring a lot of "peer pressure" to bear if you need to. Other people don't laugh... It gets back to someone you're mangling his name to "Whackbag Gimpcaller" all the time around town... And impose discipline if an Inquisitor or Space Marine is acting all fruity, their superiors don't take kindly to that. You can have the NPC that was always making altar boy jokes about the Inquisition show up after having been treated to all seven sin-treatments from "Se7en"...

Humor can actually be helpful to horror, in that if properly paced it provides a momentary lessening of the tension necessary to plunge it deeper. Rather than paying quarters into a jar, take every time there's joking and put something really jacked up into the next scene.

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Bryant asked me to stick this in an answer:

Ask your players after the session what they felt was in theme and what was not. While you may have an understanding of what is and is not in the 40k theme, the overall group experience is important. Find out what they're expecting to get from the game and try to fine-tune the game events to play upon those wants.

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The tone of Dark Heresy, when I ran it, was much like that of Judge Dredd... Dark, bouts of humor in between grim-n-gritty scenes. Given how absolutely over the top the 40K setting is, your players will need to laugh, otherwise the setting is so grim and hopeless that they will start to feel worthless and impotent.

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Add the humor and tension breaking in. For missions, have some NPCs who can be silly or go quirky. They can vanish, or have horrific things happen to them (in a dark comedy sort of way) when you need them to go away, since life is cheap in 40k. Don't be afraid to give the occasional OOC tension breaking quip during the rough scenes, but try to stay focused on the build up when you are playing into a set piece.

If you establish the mood IC, a bit of tone breaking OOC can be fine to keep the players having fun while handling it seriously IC. It takes a bit of work, but the further divide you make between IC and OOC is also good for the role playing, and player sanity in a world as bleak as 40k.

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1 How about some dark humour?

I also like to pop in some jokes, but I always fight to keep the tone right. My players seemed to enjoy sarcasm and bold replies from NPCs [tortured interrogated guy making fun of their questions not making sense, etc.]

To keep everything dark and still joke a lot use NPCs that are pesimists, create situations resembling addams family style, use heavy jokes about death [especially when one is ocurring]

NPCs' background stories can also be a lot of laughs in the right tone when told in a bar of any kind, by a glass of cheap whisky.

2 Metahumour

What You want is to keep up the good tone of the story and the grim feeling. So why not bump some jokes into the narration itself instead of messing with the adventures?

Eg. A gag: GM-voice: It looks like it's going to rain heavily in just a few moments while you're still half the way up the cliff. [give them time to say what they do, or not] GM-as-NPC: Hey boss, it looks like it's going to rain heavily in just a few moments while we're still half the way up the cliff.

I loved this kind of jokes in the book "Bored of the rings" But look out for this one - my players once started doing this instead of me ;)

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