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Sometimes a story can turn away from its original direction and take on a darker tone, what is a good approach to lightening the mood?

As a new DM, I started a Pathfinder campaign a year ago with a small town with a temple/dungeon crawl set up outside, my players and I both had a great time and when it came time to move on, they decided to travel to a major city. I decided to introduce the major plot arch and due to bad player decisions, one player was kidnapped and experimented upon, and the plan to investigate his disappearance went south fast when the rogue was recognized immediately due to a nat 20 perception check. When they got the character back he ran off again and was beaten within an inch of his life and the next day the town fell into chaos as a cultist group took power by force.

My whole party was sacked in the process and my trouble character ended up dying in the conflict. In the end, they were exceedingly afraid to do anything and were often distracted from the game when they were previously not. Their characters managed to escape alongside an adventuring shopkeep and I plan to open our next season with them having taken up the roll of caravan guards protecting refugees of the city.

I have a direction to go in, but I need to give the players a good excuse to feel confident and have fun, even if that means another dungeon crawl. I want to try to approach a more light-hearted game without breaking continuity, but the players and characters alike have seen the other side of the coin now and I fear will have difficulty returning. Even if they were not afraid, the game has come away from its roots of just having a good time to a darker, more treacherous game. My players were much more comfortable and entertained when they are able to joke and laugh around the table, and as the game grew less light-hearted, they have started breaking out of character in order to have their laughs, slowing gameplay down considerably. Tangental conversation has blossomed and the game has lost focus. Thus: how can a DM lighten the mood and recapture the interest of his players as a result?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great topic, but can you please give us some specific information about the challenge you're facing? (System, the usual tone of the game, what kind of "darker tone" crept in, how the players and GM responded, etc.) Don't worry about it being too specific to be useful for others; good answers to specific questions explain themselves enough that the principles can be generalised, while vague questions get vague answers. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Sep 20 '14 at 3:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ And if you are using a well-known system, it would be helpful to mention it. We're happy to discuss specifics like that, and it lets us get into the nitty-gritty for your system if it's relevant, which lets us be more helpful to you and - by extension - anyone else facing a similar situation. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Sep 20 '14 at 4:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm. Sounds like you've got a lot in common with this question's scenario. Can you focus on the bits of your situation which that question and its answers don't address? \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Sep 20 '14 at 4:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Still getting used to formatting here, maybe that will provide a little more context/explanation \$\endgroup\$ – Zer0ah Sep 20 '14 at 4:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this still too broad? I know that the close happened after the clarifying edits, but I wonder whether that was some reviewing mistake? \$\endgroup\$ – Jonas Schäfer Sep 20 '14 at 13:37
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The word that comes to my mind is 'ALLIES'.

The ally is an NPC that wants (or needs) the group. They can help in three ways

A) Offer themselves to the group as a wandering helper. A person who wants to travel to the city you are going to will welcome the extra security.

B) Offer them equipment to help the part. It could be a character's parent (mum!) passing on a family heirloom magic sword, etc.

C) Offer them help with contacts throughout the realm. If an old wizard has asked the party to gather ingredients from another town, then there is no reason that the wizard doesn't have friends in the other town. Someone roughs you up when you go to pick up the the ingredients, and suddenly the local wizard guild comes to the rescue.

My rule of thumb for lightening a session up is to have the NPC do two things: be funny with an outgoing personality that makes them very likeable, and allow them to crack a joke at the best (or worst!) of times.

The other thing this NPC needs to do is to somehow show a display of power; if your brother joins the group and he is a peace loving monk then have him beat up the local bully, afterwards he turns to you and says 'they did teach us to fight as well as flower arrange you know ... '

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Personal experience - this works very well. Our GM threw in a NPC that accompanied us through dungeon crawl, and he was hilarious comic relief. He died (horribly, lol) in the end, but we wrote him a song "The Plight of Kurder" in his honor, because we enjoyed his accompaniment so much. \$\endgroup\$ – Faye Sep 21 '14 at 15:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ The last paragraph is a good use of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Badass. \$\endgroup\$ – Codes with Hammer Jan 15 at 21:41
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It seems like the obvious answer here is to give the characters something that they can ACCOMPLISH. Whatever your motivations for things so far, it's clear that the party is basically battered by events. They feel like they are adrift at the mercy of whatever happens to them.

The cure for this is to set up some situations in which the party is clearly in control and where they can "win"; These don't have to be BIG victories, but you need to show that they can make a difference and turn things around. I don't think the party needs allies - they need AGENCY.

Are they caravan guards right now? Great. A child goes missing. His mother comes and implores the PCs to please find her little boy. He hasn't been gone long. He's easy to track. He's in some sort of trouble, but can be easily rescued by PCs with a plan (it doesn't even need to be a GOOD plan - cut them some slack if it seems workable at all.) They can bring him back home, feel good about themselves, and get a sense that they have made a difference. Not some NPC ally. Not events. THEY made a difference.

You may need to do a couple of these - ideally, building up to bigger 'wins'. Maybe next time the PCs get to successfully safeguard the whole caravan, or topple some bandit king, or whatever, but right now it sounds to me like your PCs feel like they can't influence the world (at least, not in a positive way), and you need to show them that that isn't the case. So resist the urge to try to make them fail, and I don't care how many natural 20's the opposition rolls.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for recognizing the PCs need a confidence boost in their abilities. I do think it should be noted that what comes next shouldn't feel TOO easy. If the PCs don't feel like they overcame a real challenge it may not have the desired effect. \$\endgroup\$ – MonkeezOnFire Sep 22 '14 at 15:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is true, but at the same time, you want them to catch a break; And if you have to engineer one, well, sometimes luck goes their way - and apparently it hasn't been lately. I'm not suggesting that you let them get away with whatever, but rather, that if they are making a plausible, good faith effort, that it should be successful. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Sep 22 '14 at 17:16

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