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When I GM, I tend to make the scenarios/campaigns "serious" -- they're grim and gritty, much more about drama (and violence) than anything else. In addition, I tend to focus on some degree of realism (e.g. in D&D I worry about dungeon ecology), which probably ties into this, and thus don't tend to include the more whimsical side of fantasy.

I'm currently (just started) running an Edge of The Empire game, and I think that my players might want a bit less seriousness and a bit more lightheartedness.
I don't want to cross the line into comedy/silliness per se, but am looking to try to move the feel to something lighter, a movie example might be "The Mummy", which might be a lighter, and more fantastic, derivative of Indiana Jones, which itself isn't that dark.

What are some techniques or approaches for lightening the mood when my natural inclination is to make grim and dark scenarios?

I'm currently running a premade module, so things that I can look for or apply to pre-existing material will be helpful in the short term. But I'm also interested in techniques that might apply in charting out future adventures.

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You're trying to set a tone. This is an abstract quality that will inform and emerge from your game. To shape how it goes, you'll need to keep your desired tone in mind during preparation and play, and identify specifics that will help guide you.

Gritty Drama vs. Lighthearted Adventure

You're used to grit. Let's define some of the qualities that comprise it, so you can see more objectively what creates this atmosphere:

  • Dramatic setbacks & character flaws are part of what makes a compelling story
  • The protagonists are "regular" people. They are made exceptional because the narrative is about them. Even if they are exceptional within the setting, their flaws and humanity are important.
  • Getting by in the world is challenging. Simply holding one's ground can sometimes be considered a victory.
  • Risks are serious. Whether you are wounded in a fight or mocked before your peers, there will be consequences that matter.
  • Happy endings aren't a guarantee. Tragedies and downwards spirals are compelling gritty stories.
  • Life isn't fair and good doesn't always prevail.
  • "Good" and "evil" can get murky, and most people and situations are shades of grey.
  • Narration includes realistic details and nuances.

Gritty stories are at least as dark, miserable, and challenging - often more so - than the reality we are used to. We can relate to the adversity, and even take comfort that our own world isn't any worse. Empathizing with the characters' struggles is a central appeal; one which is enhanced by maintaining a sense of realism.

By contrast:

Lighthearted adventure stories are about empowerment and escapism. The best of them also highlight the value of virtue, giving the audience inspiration we can carry into our own lives. Notable qualities:

  • Dramatic victories achieved with flourish are part of what makes a compelling story
  • The protagonists are exceptional. Through some combination of skill, luck and virtue they stand out and get things done.
  • Risks are exciting. The heroes win more than they lose. When setbacks happen, it's possible to recover, and often to turn the setback into an advantage.*
  • Endings are happy. In the rare event that a main character dies, they hailed for their sacrifice by the survivors, and their accomplishments are always large.
  • Life might be full of danger, but virtue will ultimately prevail. Honesty, bravery, kindness and cleverness will defeat selfishness, cruelty, and ignorance.
  • Characters, while still ideally having some depth, are more likely to play directly towards or against tropes.
  • Narration includes larger-than-life action and details that are stylized and exciting.

*Example: A hero is kidnapped by bad guys and locked in a dungeon. After escaping their cell, the hero is now in the bad guys' lair and ready to some serious damage.

How the magic happens

As you can see, this is a style that deliberately uses less realism. This is where the room for comedy comes in. Comedy is how we respond to the absurdity of a situation. In a gritty story, one is often too immersed in the drama to laugh much. In a less realistic story you are just enough removed that it's easier to laugh. Also, the lack of realism fosters more absurd situations, so funny things happen more. Don't worry about forcing comedy. It's a spontaneous quality of the genre.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Gah I want to +1 this twice, it's a much better answer than mine. Great use of literary analysis to get the point across. \$\endgroup\$ – sillyputty Mar 24 '15 at 11:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a pretty good run-down of the two styles, but I'm not seeing much on the implementation of levity. Could you add some examples of how to add these elements in play? \$\endgroup\$ – HighlandRat Mar 25 '15 at 16:05
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-Beat- ...What?

Comedy in a semi-serious campaign is often times, in my opinion, funnier than if you try to go full bore into slapstick wackiness, and that is due to one time-tested principle, the Only Sane Man (TM). Even in grim and dark fantasy, in RPGs there are tons of things that happen that either don't make a whole lot of sense or are great sources of incredulity for people. The adventures that happen are fairly absurd by default- our protagonists are much like those in an old Greek legend- beholden to an indifferent god (the GM) and the Fates (random dice numbers). *

*Note that I'm being a little facetious when I call the GM an indifferent God.

So where, then, does the comedy come from? From the reactions of the characters that are put into these absurd situations. Don't punish players for snide remarks in character, for lamenting their plights, or for just maintaining a level of sarcasm about the absurdity of their misfortunes.

Inconvenience instead of Harm

The best examples I can give of the same subject manner but with different tone are two campaigns I've personally been involved in- one I ran and attempted to evoke emotion out of my players, the other I played in.

In scenario 1, I GM'ed a modern game where my players had magic powers and were uncovering that the mayor of the town they lived in was a murderous loony consorting with elder gods for destructive power. One of my players really wanted to get this guy, and attempted to threaten the mayor's family to do so. In response, the mayor killed his own family and sent the remains to my player. It angered him. It was a dark moment in our campaign, and got some real pathos. My players really wanted to see the mayor brought to justice because he harmed innocent people just to make a point.

In scenario 2, I was playing a ranger in a D&D game. I and two of my companions were captured by a hobgoblin town because we were causing a bit of a ruckus and killing their scouts. My character, who had done much of the damage, was nailed to a wall by his ankles upside-down. Now, this could be a tortuous moment that is full of darkness and cruelty, but instead I was allowed to play it a littler differently. Mainly-

"Welp...let's think, self. How did we end up here. Oh yes, by being stupid, I remember." I try to pull myself off of the wall and fail the roll. "OWWWWWW Ow ow ow. Ok...ok we're not doing that again."

Two distinctly dark scenarios, two very different reactions from the players because one set are allowed to bring levity to the situation while the other set keeps seeing how much farther the villain will go into depravity.

NPCs can do it too

And if things are getting a little too dark, don't forget that at any time, really any time, you can bring in an NPC that cracks jokes at the PCs or villain's expense. Those types of characters really lighten the mood without shifting the overall tone of the game.

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Let it happen.

Forced comedy rarely works, and is even more rarely actually found to be funny. The best situations arise out of misunderstanding, misinterpretation or just plain human error. One of the best stories in all of roleplaying, "The Gazebo" came about because someone didn't know the meaning of a word.

Set the stage

While forced comedy rarely comes off, you can introduce the probability of something weird or offbeat happening, and if humor happens, great. You can then roll with it. One of the adventures we were in, our GM had a storage and live animal area that was livestock for the duergar tribe that was living there. In trying to decipher the switch arrangement to open the back door, our rogue accidentally opened the pig pen door. So there we were, the stalwart party, attempting to run down a bunch of squealing pigs in the corridors.

Take your cues from your players, most of the time humor will come from elements that they introduce or things that they screw up. There is a reason that a pie in the face and/or a banana peel on the floor is still funny.

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The first piece of advice I have for GMing in Edge of the Empire or any of the other FFG Star Wars line is to Play it Loose. The dice do all the intricate story telling you need. Advantage and threat tend to take care of any small problems you may want to put into the game. You should have a good idea of what things might be able to happen to your players in a encounter you design but the players will often hurt themselves more than you would.

The thing to remember about Star Wars is it IS a dark story. It's a dark overpowering empire that has limitless power oppressing everyone and that fact in itself drives home the grim part of the story. Now I think what you're saying is that you are having trouble with some of the more pulp elements of laying out a game. Let a funny thing slip once in a while. If a player rolls 3 advantage let them kick a storm trooper out the second-story window of a house on Tatooine. It's funny. If a storm trooper tries to throw a grenade at the group and fails with a despair, they drop it at their feet. Now that is funny. It's all in the dice rolls. Also this is a game that is built on everyone involved in the game putting the story together — it's not really an on-the-rails type of game. Everyone should have input on what is happening, that's why it's called a Narrative Dice System: everyone is involved in the narrative.

Also, you may want to check out the Order 66 podcast for advice on GMing the system. They have a couple of great episodes; The Return of the List and the new Holocron Episode are both excellent.

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Maybe what you need aim for is a "High Adventure" setting. Add in another attribute such as the old James Bond RPG hero points and encourage the players with a run down of the setting you are trying to achieve before the game starts and by the actions of the NPCs (particularly minor/major villains). Allow actions such as tapestry off walls to work as nets and running across tables to give a defense modifier. Once the players see the things the actions of the NPCs they will hopefully give things a go themselves. On an additional note, you may need to relax the realism mechanics slightly to make maneuvers possible and reward the players for attempting actions which are in keeping with the setting.

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