Monday, October 23, 2017

Avoiding Tonal Dissonance Always Makes Your Game Better

Even if you haven't heard the word tonal dissonance before, you know what it means. It's when you're watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game, and there's a sudden, jarring shift in the tone. Like if you were watching Winnie The Pooh, and all of a sudden Pooh picked up an ax and started chasing Christopher Robin through a darkened wood. While that might be entertaining as hell, it wouldn't jive with the previous half hour of tree-house fun and adventure we'd been having. For any kind of storytelling experience to suck you in, and be immersive, you need a consistent tone. Any time it jars, there's a chance you'll be flung right out of your suspension of disbelief.

What does that have to do with gaming? Everything.

Because there is no escaping tone, no matter what you roll.

How Players, And DMs, Can Avoid Rocking The Tone

So, you've all agreed to play a game. Let's say you were told it's going to be an action-thriller sort of setup. Lots of combat, lots of fast-paced action, and a lot of explosions as the party walks away from dungeons, slowly putting on their sunglasses. The DM expressly requests players to bring badass characters with hardened reputations. This is going to be the A-Team, if they were from Middle Earth.

Now, the first part of keeping the tone relies on the players. If you've been told we're looking for ass-kicking soldiers, former spies, hardcase mercenaries, and swashbuckling rogues, it is the table's responsibility to bring characters who fit that mold if they agree to this setup. That's why Bridgett's ex-army evoker, with a burn scar along the side of her neck and a chip on her shoulder, works just fine. Keith's dandified bard who gets the vapors at the sight of blood, though, not so much.

Why doesn't that work? Well, when you ask for hardened characters who've been around the block, and who are putting the pedal to the metal on the action road, you don't want to have the nagging question of, "So why are these four scarred veterans dragging a terrified court singer around with them?" looming over the campaign. And the more Keith's bard tries to play comic relief, or alleviate the tension and action of the campaign, the more out-of-place the character will look. Not only that, but the more ridiculous it will seem that the party still keeps him around. It would be like bringing a feather duster to the Normandy landing.

Yeah, I know you put a lot of thought into him, Keith. But not this campaign, all right?
The other part of the responsibility for maintaining the tone, though, is on the DM. And since the DM is the one who set the tone in the first place, they will be held doubly tight to this standard. Most DMs understand that they should keep to an established tone, but they often undermine themselves in little ways. For example, if you're running a serious game where you want players to feel like badasses, the way you describe their actions (or allow the players to handle that description) matters.

Let's return to our example campaign. Mike's getting into the spirit, so he brings a mostly-reformed pirate captain, who has since turned privateer. He's a renowned swordsman, as evidenced by his choice of swashbuckler, and use of solid feat choices. However, when they get into combat, any time Mike's PC misses an attack roll (not even a natural 1, just a plain-old miss), the DM describes the attack as a whimsical prat fall. Oh, Captain Black missed because he slipped on a banana peel (rather than because his opponent managed to jerk aside, catching the point of his enemy's rapier on his shield at the last moment). Oh, he missed again, must be because a sea gull pooped on his head (instead of, say, locking blades with an equally skilled opponent, the two of them shoving and snarling for advantage on the ship's heaving deck).

Combat is one of the most obvious places a DM can undermine their own tone, but it's far from the only one. If you're running a light-hearted game, you wouldn't interrupt the local festival with the discovery of a grisly murder where the body was hacked to pieces, and the head put up on a spike. That would, essentially, be a play straight out of the Tyler Durden book of splicing a single frame of pornography into a family film. If you specifically ask for a crack team of warriors, you wouldn't then send them into a political game where everything is back-room deals and information gathering where they can never be armed, and even an attempt at combat gets them all thrown in a gulag.

Etc., etc.

So, in short, you should know the tone you want for your game. You should then communicate what you want to your players so they understand what they're signing up for. Once you have the tone established, stick with it. Try to keep things fast and flowing, and lead by example. If you blaze the trail, your players will often follow.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. Just a little niggle that bothers me, but I thought some other folks might be looking for a solution as well. If you want to check out even more gaming content from yours truly, take a look at my Gamers archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag as a thank you.


  1. I agree with this, but in a campaign changes in tone if done well can work.

    The issue is really more to avoid tonal problems inside specific situations. Like you say, presenting the battle with a series of prat falls presents a sensation of a light hearted adventure-comedy series. Basically when trying to do one thing, do that one thing.

    I'd argue though that setting a tone of lightness in certain places makes it hit harder when the tone abruptly changes (if the forest of happy elves and social RP is abruptly fire bombed by the villain for example), and you can use tonal changes to make certain situations feel more dreamlike or 'weird' and get the players on their toes.

    If I were playing a game like Dark Souls and all of a sudden found myself in a land with bright colors and cherry apple trees and giggling bears, and no one trying to obviously murder me, it'd put me spectacularly on edge.

    So I don't know if I'd say avoiding tonal dissonance always makes the game better, I think you can use it sometimes as long as you know what you're doing.

  2. I was going to suggest the same thing as Spook- you can sometimes play the tonal dissonance to the advantage of the story. Spook gives a very good example about the land of bright colors in a Dark Souls game. Some of the best episodes of Doctor Who leverage exactly this kind of dissonance to ultimately scare the viewer and for dramatic impact. But the OP's advice is solid- don't cause dissonance when it's not intended. And know when to intend it as a corollary.

  3. If you're going down that route, do it Cabin in the Woods-style.

  4. I dunno, I would read the hell out of a book of pooh chasing the brat with an axe...

  5. It has not been my experience that if you tell the players the kind of game you're trying to put on, that they'll play ball-- it doesn't matter how blatantly inappropriate it is, it doesn't matter how many times I say "make your character a fighter", every time I try to run a kung fu game, I get at least one PC who doesn't know kung fu and refuses to fight.

    Every. Single. Time.

    The last time I ran *Street Fighter*, I had a player decide he wanted to play a pacifist werewolf.