The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place: Creating Complex Tone In Your Adventures

As a Referee and adventure writer, I wholeheartedly believe that horror and malevolent danger only work in adventures if they are balanced by moments of ease, lighthearted connection, and empathy. 

In the movie musical Dancer in the Dark*, possibly the most depressing movie, the moments of viewer escapism are wrapped into the story via imagined musical numbers. They function like Tolkien’s poetry songs in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, creating an alchemical balance that deepens the connection of the viewer/reader.

But how do I do this in my elf game?

Relentless grim can easily become samey, inducing a kind of numbness in your players that can make them connect less with the world. There are a couple principles I consider and use to balance this in my home game. They are informed by the GMing philosophy of Nate Lumpkin over at Swamp of Monsters.

1.  The world is Not a Cold Dead Place: events do not revolve around your player characters’ actions. Another way of saying this might be: everyone dies, but everyone also lives at least a little. 

2.  Everybody hungers for something, everyone has an agenda. There should be inklings of joy amidst danger, troubles, and sorrow. 

3.  Reward the thinking and behavior you want at your table. Provide opportunities for temptation.

4.  Give players all the information they need to make informed decisions. Provide it through captivating NPCs with their own funny and petty problems. If they are going to get betrayed, let it be for an NPC’s small and selfish reasons.

5.  If there has to be combat, make it vicious. Telegraph danger and provide opportunities to leverage the environment or gain an advantage with wits.

6. Incorporate the unexplainable and fantastic, and don’t always make it evil.

7. Don’t make the players go anywhere relentlessly miserable without a highly motivating reason.

This might all be obvious but it’s what I take into consideration when planning.


*Lars von Trier is completely horrendous as a person but Bjork is great in that movie 


  1. "This might all be obvious but it’s what I take into consideration when planning."

    I think the important thing with advice like this is that until you put it into words, it's something you're only ever doing by accident. This is one of those posts that I love and is going into my folder of really important advice that I want to remember because you've put something into words that I wouldn't have necessarily thought on my own.

    This advice is perhaps slightly less actionable than Arnold Kemp's Dungeon Checklist (another of my favourite posts like this), but it really hits that designer part of my brain. Thanks for writing it!


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