When planning for your games, what’s the first thing you think about? The plot? NPCs? Combat? Puzzles? All important aspects, but there’s one thing that encompasses all of them; Tone.
In a general sense, tone in writing refers to how serious the game is; a light game is more comedic and less dour, whereas a dark game covers heavier, more serious themes. You can have a light game of Delta Green or a dark game of Monsters and Other Childish Things, but in some ways you’d be missing the purpose of those rule sets. Per the lore and system, Delta Green games are generally dark because of the heavy themes of cosmic horror and the atrocities committed by mankind. Comedy can be found in the system, and you can certainly joke with your friends at the table, but DG is best suited when the plot of the game is something a little more serious and real, the combat lethal and dangerous, the NPCs unhelpful and cruel. Similarly, MAOCT is light and fun; it deals with being a kid. It can take darker stories as well, but with hard if not impossible to kill kids and monsters, it’s not advisable.
This doesn’t mean the tables should never be turned. One can always break the rules; however it generally works best when you understand the rules and know what the conventions are. Horror-Comedy works by keeping things tense but sometimes using a psych out and making the release a joke instead of a kill scene. In Delta Green, a well placed joke or gag can make a game. In MAOCT, if the players are willing, the kids and monsters can deal with heavier subjects, and yet still keep a lighter tone at other times.
Whether it’s following the rules or breaking them, the most important thing is to be open with everyone at the table. The GM may have prepared the game, and the players acting it out, but both roles work in conjunction. If the players don’t want to play a dark game, the game the GM prepared may not be suited for them if they didn’t know that ahead of time. Inversely, the group may have made an agreement, but if a player doesn’t adhere to that, the play may range from annoyance and anger at making jokes, to bringing up uncomfortable topics out the blue, both of which can break up gaming groups.
When I prepared Red Markets and Road Trip, I made sure to ask the players what they wanted in the game. I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page, and luckily we have been. I’ve taken trips to darker topics (like the child zombies in Red Markets), but generally I keep an even tone, settling in the middle for Red Markets and on the lighter side in Road Trip. It’s led to fun at the table.