Serious vs silly D&D is a debated topic by different DMs for years. Some DMs can’t play in a serious setting and others cannot play in a silly setting.
Serious vs silly D&D, which do you prefer? Consider what you run in order to focus on those strengths and inform your players on how your game runs.
If you run a serious game and a player only wants to play in a silly game, you need to know and let that player know before hand. I am talking about personal experience, so let’s dive into it.
Why establish the tone?
You need to let your players know asap what your stance is on serious vs silly D&D. If you are a more serious DM, the players need to know. If you are a more silly DM, your players need to know.
There are many different kinds of players and DMs out there. Just because some styles clash doesn’t mean a style is wrong, but you don’t want to have people in a game they won’t enjoy. Consider a serious wargamer, or power player who wants a serious game. What would happen if they were thrown into a silly game?
They would not enjoy it.
I recently had a player leave my game. They weren’t completely honest (at least I don’t think) about why they left. Real-life issues, joining 4 D&D games, (that part is probably true), and other excuses were given. A major reason why this person left though was the difference in tone. They wanted a lighter silly game while I focused on consequences.
If you do not make it very clear what tone your game is going to have, it can affect your game later and even have players drop out because of it.
These are the reasons to establish the tone, but how can you do so?
If you can, in session 0 establish the tone of your game. Even if you are past session 0, I highly recommend that you read our article on session 0 here to help you out.
Setting the tone will help your players figure out how they want to roleplay and if their method of play is viable. If the rules don’t matter, it may not benefit everyone. If the rules do matter, you can use good powergamers to help everyone else make a good character.
There are many reasons to set a tone, but what does that look like?
The different tones
We talked about how there is silly vs serious D&D, but what else is there?
There are 5 spectrum’s of serious vs silly.
The closer you are to the top it is, the sillier the game is. The closer it is to the bottom, the more serious the game is.
We will talk about all 5 in detail, but here is a summary of each setting.
- Ridiculous– Anything can happen and rules/reality is subjective.
- Light hearted- Jokes are the center of the game, but physics mostly work and consequences are not really thought of.
- Moderate– A healthy mix between the two.
- Epic– A lord of the rings epic saga with a quest and the fate of the world/lives at stake. Consequences are always in play.
- Grim Dark– Apocalyptic, survival based, comedy is dead. Everything is hardcore.
This is the summary of each level, but you can be in between levels in your game, and your games can have a range. For example, my games generally are more around the moderate area but do blend into epic more than lighthearted.
Most games are between light hearted and epic. Only rarely do they get to ridiculous or grim dark.
We will now cover every section, so see where your game falls and talk about it in the comments section!
When you start to discuss silly vs serious D&D, these games laugh at the debate. Debates can be rational and level headed. They usually include logic, which is unnecessary in these games.
I have read many stories online, and been in a few ridiculous games myself. They exist, and can only work when a group of players and a DM are in complete sync.
Stats are unnecessary in these games. You could just come up with a centaur archer who has +30 attack and rolls 6d6 per bow attack. None of that makes any sense or has any foundation in the rules except by the loosest definition.
Think of Alice in Wonderland. That scenario is a wild scenario that tries to defy reality. The setting has a great time doing it and is a lot of fun. Some people like this, and want to have games like Alice in Wonderland. They do not need to take place in Wonderland but can be just as bizarre.
The problem with these games is obvious. You are either with the program from the start, or you want to play using some rules. Getting a full group together to play these games and make a campaign out of it is extremely difficult.
It is the ad lib of insanity for D&D, and only doable for the most creative of groups.
In light hearted games you start to consider silly vs serious D&D. You can’t always be ridiculous and have to adhere to the rules, but the rules are more of a guideline. If something would be cool and the rules say that you can’t, screw the rules!
Light hearted games are where the campaign is based around a joke. Puns are what fuels quests, and generally good things happen to the party almost all the time.
These games require a group that wants to play normal D&D, but also wants to value roleplay more than combat. Combat might not even be that often in a light hearted group. They just want to play and have a good time.
These games can still have a storyline that has consequences for when players fail, but the consequences are limited. Most consequences that happen are positive in nature, and only when the players royally screw up will there be negative consequences.
Combat can also be more light hearted with players battle ‘the dread table of doom!’ The title is silly, and the character concept/motivations can also be silly. This encourages players to be creative and silly in combat and roleplay.
Light hearted games are a lot of fun and can lead to long campaigns with a good group. I would say that most people though play a moderate approach.
Moderates consider silly vs serious D&D all the time in their game. Should the tone for this quest be more serious or silly? Is it too silly? Too serious? Those questions pop up the most with moderate DMs. They really consider the effects of consequences.
If the players do something stupid, they suffer the negative consequences. If the players do something good, the gain the positive consequences. There can be times when the game dips into a more silly area because they players are in a good place, but players can also get more serious when a player dies from something that the other players could have prevented.
These are the DMs who do their best to let players only die if it is their fault. You didn’t heal the person who was unconscious or even try to stabilize them? No wonder they failed their death saving throws. You all now have to deal with the consequences and understand that this death was preventable.
The world itself isn’t extremely deadly or harsh, stuff just happens.
This is where most games probably fall into. Players and DMs might dip into light hearted more at times to get that brevity into the game, but other times dark things can happen. These dark things lead us into the epic scope.
Epic is the Lord of the Rings tone of Serious vs silly D&D. You go out with your party into the wilderness and embark on an epic adventure! Ok, it might not be the wilderness but your game will span an epic adventure and your actions will shape the world!
This naturally means that the players can fail. The degree of severity the DM tries to make the players fail can vary, but consequences are a huge part of this tone. Consequences are at play here just like they are in the moderate section, but many consequences are negative. In fact, players could suffer consequences from actions they did not do.
This could lead to a player dying from intentional situations, like a DM trying to teleport an unconscious player underwater to kill them.
The stakes are raised in epic adventures because it isn’t just you fighting against yourself, it is the world that is fighting against you and your success!
These games sound epic, but can have mishaps. If the DM makes things too epic, the players might not be able to adjust to the difficulty and everyone dies. To learn how to deal with a TPK, read this article!
Epic games can have light hearted moments, but that is all they are, moments. Combat is going to happen possibly more than most games, and the players would do well to take everything seriously. If they don’t, they might just end up dead.
Speaking of dead, let’s talk about grim dark!
Grim dark is the tone that stares the serious vs silly D&D question and monologues of happier times. In a grim dark campaign, your players are most likely going to die. This happened a lot in 1st edition D&D and I would consider almost any 1st edition D&D game grim dark when you compare it to D&D games today.
Grim dark settings are where everything is bad, bleak, and society is at best in decay. At worst, it is gone and the players must survive for as long as possible in a harsh world. Food and water are luxuries, and trying to survive is the real goal of the game.
You may think I am joking, but we always have those stoic characters who say nothing, do nothing, and talk about how they are the worst off in the world. These campaigns are for people who want to play like that, or who want a challenge.
Grim dark campaigns are challenging beyond all belief. Players who are looking for something harder than the average easy D&D will be in for a treat. These games might challenge creative players, or let your players run lose going through crazy antics in order to survive.
Only rarely do these games devolve into silly existential campaigns. Those campaigns have players realize nothing they do matters and they die off very quickly. Most of those campaigns are just one shots, so you won’t hear of many, if any grim dark campaigns with a light hearted tone.
There are lastly some extra tips that we need to cover.
You as a DM might intend for your game to be more serious. With that intent, the players get to adventuring and slowly it turns into a light hearted campaign.
Your players will affect the tone of your game.
Your choice of serious vs silly D&D isn’t the only one that matters. We have repeatedly talked about how the players are meant to shape the world just as much as the DM is supposed to. If the tone changes and you are alright with it, then that is fine. This brings us to another point.
It is okay to change the tone of your game.
When you start the campaign you might have thought that it would be better to become a light hearted game. As the plot develops and you get more ideas from the players actions, you realize that the story has taken a shift. It is not light hearted anymore, but instead epic. This is okay.
If you brainstorm and find something even better, then go with it if you want. Just make sure that the players will be on board and consider if they will enjoy or despise the change.
Always have fun.
If you are a player or a DM, the fact that you should have fun has not changed. If you see the tone change and you do not like it, talk to the group or DM. Your fun is extremely important, and the tone of the game can make it not fun for you. Speak out if you need to.
Serious vs silly D&D is a debate that you have to answer yourself.
The answer depends on you as a DM and your players. You have to decide which tone is best and tell them in session 0 or let them know asap. Luckily, they may already know if you are playing, but you should still make sure they are on board or the consequences could be players quitting mid-game.
There are 5 spectrum’s of serious vs silly.
Chose which one is best for you after thinking about your playstyle, and have fun with it. Your spectrum can change due to the players, new ideas, or anything really. That is okay, but make sure that your players are open to the new change.
With this, I hope that I have helped you understand a bit more about Serious vs silly D&D.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!