Poor Aristocrat. It looks as if her power play isn’t working out so good. As if the legible stuff wasn’t bad enough, the options obscured by our nefarious #1 Regent include Drowned in Excrement, Anal Implosion, Mouth Impaled, and Autocannibalism. I guess Wicked Uncle gets to earn his name.

It’s been a good long while since we talked about torture. Three IRL years have passed since Fighter brought out the dental pliers, and now we’ve got an allied NPC in the hot seat. In my mind, this goes a bit beyond the mature themes we talked about back in Bad Romance. We’ve all heard about X-Cards and Session Zero precautions, but today I’d like to talk about what happens when we turn the sliders up to 11. What happens to the game when all parties agree to Hard-R play, and things get a little more Game of Thrones than Princess Bride?

First and foremost, the term “grimdark” comes out of Warhammer 40,000, coined with the famous tagline, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” You can read the full history over at Know Your Meme, and you can get a taste for grimdark themes in the corresponding 1d4chan entry. For our purposes today though, I’m less interested in taxonomy than utility. What good is grimdark on the tabletop, and why would you want to consider it for your game?

I’ll admit that I haven’t done much experimenting with the genre. Most of the dudes in my playgroups prefer noblebright, and I’m not going to rock that boat. I can just hear them echoing Aristocrat’s “tone it down a little” line. Speaking for myself though, the big benefit of the grimdark style—and the reason I’d like to give it a shot—lies in psychological realism. Violence, death, and unpleasant settings have been a part of roleplaying since the very beginning. We go adventuring in dungeons after all, and those aren’t exactly cheerful vacation properties. When horrible trauma shows up as a central focus rather than window dressing, however, the tone shifts. Suddenly we have new emotional colors to paint with. Difficult choices, moral ambiguity, and injustice can all yield intense player reactions, the kind that “vanquish monsters and save the day” never quite delivers. And if you’ll forgive me for getting a little bit cultural-commentary up in here, that might just reflect the world we live in better than happy endings and moral certitude.

So what do you say? Have any of you guys given grimdark a chance? I’m sure there are some Dark Heresy players out there. Why do you love this stuff? Is my little “psychological realism” theory on point, or is there a broader appeal? Let’s hear all about your experiences with dilapidated, dystopian, despair-filled gaming down in the comments!


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