Tabletop Tidbits: Gaunt Brad Pitt and the Slippery Slope

One of the primary elements that influences how something is perceived is the tone in which it is presented. Even the most serious of content will be taken more lightly if it’s delivered between giggles. As the GameMaster, the responsibility of maintaining the campaign’s intended tone falls to you. Players, being in a largely reactionary role, take their cues from you, and respond based on the manner in which you run the game. Unfortunately however, they also grease the slippery slope towards a campaign that can be far different from what you’ve envisioned.

In my own campaigns, the first step onto the slippery slope is almost always something that seems innocuous: a joke made out-of-character that elicits a hardy laugh amongst the players; a series of bad rolls or poor choices that lead to a tough encounter or a difficult situation for the PCs; an NPC who does something that appears foolish or irrational at first glance. Most recently, it was a comment about how the written description for an NPC didn’t quite match up to the character portrait.

A few weeks back, our group finished the Star Wars campaign we had been playing, and I took to running the Shattered Star Adventure Path for Pathfinder. I decided to add in the optional character Unselm Oldurac; a former-addict alchemist whose decision to mix his drug of choice into his feral mutagen once caused him to lose control – and resulted in him slaying two of his party members. Now a repentant scholar at the lodge where the PCs take up the campaign’s initial quest, it wasn’t long before the Party encountered him in the library. His description reads as follows:

Do I look gaunt to you?

“…his appearance is fragile — pale and gaunt as a living man can be — and he walks slowly with the aid of a cane.”

Having my trusty tablet at the ready, I proceeded to show the players the character portrait provided alongside Unselm’s sourcebook writeup. The idea of course, was to increase immersion by displaying the face to go with the name, and also hint that this particular NPC was perhaps worth getting to know (he has a portrait after all). That’s when it happened… Aside from the obvious ‘he doesn’t have a cane’ commentary, the Group decided that Unselm didn’t really look gaunt to them. ‘He kinda looks like Brad Pitt’ one player stated flatly; and thus the moniker of Gaunt Brad Pitt was born.

After a brief round of chuckles and a few jokes, things resumed. With the campaign’s quest looming, and no reason beyond basic introductions to talk to Unselm for the moment, the Party didn’t stay to chat long. This was fine by me, as my intention had merely been to plant the proverbial seed for later. ‘Mission accomplished’ I told myself. What I didn’t realize then was that the players had planted a seed as well, or to put it another way, a little grease at the top of the slope.

It wasn’t until the next game session, after the PCs returned and I caught myself referring to Unselm as “Gaunt Brad Pitt” that I noticed I had started to slip downward. It’s one thing for the players to make a joke out-of-character and laugh to themselves. It’s another entirely for the GameMaster to bring the joke into the presentation of the campaign. In the case of Unselm, I was taking an interesting and tragic NPC and turning him into a caricature of who he should be.

Allowing the tone of the campaign to slip is an easy thing to do, and is often seen as harmless. Like the players, you’re there to sit around the gaming table and have a good time with your friends. Is it really such a crime to engage in the running jokes and NPC nicknames with them? Does it really matter if the tone of the campaign’s presentation shifts? The answer depends on what sort of campaign you intend to run, and how much investment you have in story versus just enjoying yourself each session.

For me, the simple activity of tabletop gaming with my friends is always fun. Whether I’m running or playing, winning or getting annihilated, it’s doesn’t matter, as long as the story makes sense. There are some differences when I’m running though: I want a game that’s consistent – and I want to get the full value out of everything I put into it. Said plainly, if my game starts out like Lord of the Rings, I don’t want it to turn into Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail by the end (or vice versa). Also, I don’t want to have invested tons of time into things that aren’t seen or go to waste.

Guys, can we stop goofing around?!

To that end, it becomes important to double check myself, and the reasons why I am doing things. I didn’t decide to put Unselm in my campaign for comedy relief. I put him in because I thought about the many interesting ways in which that character might make an impact. I wanted to see how the players responded to his backstory and where the events of the game might eventually take him with relation to the PCs. Getting the most out of my choice means being committed to presenting Unselm in such a way as to be true to his character. Even if his portrait doesn’t quite line up to the description; even if the players think he kinda looks like Brad Pitt.

The same thought process goes for the campaign as a whole. I’m trying to tell a story in which the players have a starring role. In this case, that story is Shattered Star. If I’m not true to the material, and the tone in which that material is supposed to be presented, the meaning behind the story changes, or can even be lost. In the interests of the story I have chosen, I have to be vigilant. I have to maintain the tone.

That means monitoring my footing on the slippery slope, and looking out for where the players have unintentionally greased it. While there will inevitably (and rightly) be temporary shifts in tone as the game progresses (which allow for highs, lows, lightheartedness, reprieve from intensity, and dramatic profoundness), the overall tone must be consistent for the campaign to feel right; to be what it was meant to be. That starts with the little things, like ensuring that I present Unselm Oldurac as Unselm Oldurac – and not Gaunt Brad Pitt.

Failure to do so could open the door for every character to be a joke; for every in-game situation to be approached in anticipation of ridicule. Were that to be permitted, the tone of the campaign would be beyond hope, and very likely the campaign itself would be too. Mind the slope!

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