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Use A Quote To Set The Tone Of Your Campaign

Posted By Phil Vecchione On June 5, 2009 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 6 Comments

I love quotes; movie quotes, inspirational quotes, Biblical quotes, and even fortune cookies.  In geek culture, quotes are very popular.  If I say:

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

I am betting most of you know the movie (Aliens), the speaker (Ripley), but more importantly you know scene that the quote came from.  In my group of friends, this quote is shorthand for saying:  the enemy is very tough, and that the best thing to do is just to roll in with the biggest guns we have and eliminate everything (and best from a distance).

I am sure that your gaming group has its own collection of quotes, with their own inside meanings. This illustrates two things:  One, quotes have power, with just a few words they conjure vivid pictures in our minds. Second, quotes are a condensed version of communication, a verbal shortcut. They can communicate complex ideas in few words.

Communication is the currency of the GM.  We live and die by our ability to communicate to our players. One of the most important things that needs to be communicated in a campaign, tone of the game. The tone is related to, but different from the setting.  Forgotten Realms is a setting, but there are many ways to run a campaign within the setting.  Your tone may be one of high fantasy, or you could be running a game of gritty politics.

Players who misunderstand the tone of a campaign can have a very negative play experience.  It can damage a campaign, and in a few cases, has been known to kill a campaign.  That said, it is critical for a GM and the players to be on the same page when it comes to the tone of the game.

When I started my Iron Heroes campaign, I had found a quote that expressed the tone that I wanted to express in the game.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing”.—Helen Keller

Expanding on the quote, here are some of the elements of the tone I found within the quote:

  • The campaign world is dangerous. This would be a world where,  a town could disappear overnight; overrun by monsters.  If people felt safe, it would be either because they were fools, or or fooling themselves.
  • Big combats scenes. I did not want to do the classic fantasy dungeon crawls, with filler encounters.  If there was going to be a combat scene, then it would be meaningful, and more importantly it would big, with interesting terrain, compelling monsters, and high stakes.
  • More action, less planning. This was not going to be a tactical game. Players were not expected to over-plan. Combat scenes would be designed so that good decisions would provide an advantage in the scene, and bad decisions would provide a disadvantage.  But neither choice would make or break the players.

I then shared the quote with my players, and then shared with them the ideas above. After doing so, I could always bring those ideas back to my players by repeating the quote. I also was able to use the quote, myself.  Re-reading it always reminded me of what I wanted in the campaign, and helped to keep me centered in my writing and playing.  And there lies the real power of the quote.  It is the ability to recall a concept with just a few words.

Ok..so I think you can see where I are going with the quotes.  You need to convey the complex concept of the tone of your campaign, and using a quote is a great shorthand way to communicate that idea.  So how do you do it?

First, you are going to need to find some quotes.  There are a lot of places to look. For movie quotes, go to IMDB.  For famous quotes I like BrainyQuotes.  There are the books and the blogs you have read. Some game books contain quotes, that are there to help set the tone as well.  Finally, don’t forget to save those fortunes from your take-out.

Second, you need a way capture those quotes. I keep a page in my campaign notes where I put the quotes that I find.  You can put them up on your campaign website/wiki.  I have been known to write memorable quotes into my Moleskine notebooks, and the little pocket in the back is great for holding those fortunes.

Finally, you have to share those quotes. So after you get some quotes, make sure to tell them to your players.  You can easily email them, but I recommend that you tell them to your players in person, so that they can hear the inflection in your voice.  Then take a few minutes to explain what themes the quote embodies.

Now its your turn.  Have you used quotes in your campaigns?  If you have, share some of the most powerful quotes you have used and tell us what they have meant to your campaigns…

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Use A Quote To Set The Tone Of Your Campaign"

#1 Comment By timgoh0 On June 5, 2009 @ 7:58 am

I am suddenly reminded of the opening quotes from Andromeda[1], the TV series. I used a similar technique in my last game, with quotes from fictional historical characters in the setting.

[1] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Andromeda

#2 Comment By Volcarthe On June 5, 2009 @ 10:12 am

most of the adventures i run online are started with a quote, since it sets the mood rather well.

sometimes it’s an odd source like Douglas Adams, sometimes just a bit of line from some song or another.

being able to tap into a shared experience really helps the players keep on the same level for how the game is going to play out.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On June 5, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

That’s a great idea that I never thought of! Some of the most suspenseful movies start out this way, and it lets you know what you are in for. I can see having an over-arching campaign quote, and then other quotes for each adventure. Much like quotes that start off each chapter of a book.

#4 Comment By Razjah On June 5, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

My group sort of adopted this during an Eberron campaign. Every time we encountered something terrible like an angry house or Xen’ Drik one of us was bound to day, “Dicks- everywhere.” It summed up our campaign as a whole, at least how we felt about it.

I do like the idea of using a quote to capture a feeling and mood of a campaign in a serious tone. Great idea! *steal*

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 7, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

I’ve been subconsciously doing this for so long that I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t share the quotes, however, but I’m starting to think I should.

#6 Comment By BryanB On June 8, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

I like something like the intro script for the Babylon Five TV series. Not so much of a quote as an intro mission statement for the game.

“It was the dawn of the third age of mankind…etc. etc.”

Just like in my Star Wars games, as no Star Wars series should start without the three paragraph script scrawling at the start.

I find that doing that sets the right tone most of the time.


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