Representational artists must consider the value scale when planning a drawing or painting. Without light, dark and mid-tones, a picture can look bland and flat. When actually executing the picture, the artist must decide whether to work light to dark, dark to light, or something in between. A similar process can be used when planning your sessions. In this article, we’ll use the painting process as a metaphor for game prep, and we’ll look at three possible approaches.
LIGHT TO DARK
Most watercolorists work in this manner. They put in their lightest values and colors first, then gradually add the darker shadows in subsequent layers.
To plan a session in a light to dark fashion, think about the bright spots first. What great reward can the PC’s attain at the end? What noble cause can they strive to support? Who will praise them upon their successful return? What cool moments can you give them? In a Star Wars game I ran, one player stood up from the table in joy because he got to speak to the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi. That was a “light spot” that I put into the adventure early on (and a huge light spot for me as a GM. I’m smiling just remembering it.)
NPC’s can also provide light spots. Are there innocent villagers who need protection? Does the noble star princess (or prince) ask them to undertake a perilous quest? Is there a friendly community of elves who will offer them sanctuary in the middle of their journey?
Obviously you can’t plan every light spot precisely. Sometimes players don’t trust your friendly NPC’s, and sometimes the dice don’t cooperate. Still, planning light to dark helps ensure that some potential bright spots are built into the session.
After deciding on the bright moments, you can now gradually darken the session. Like mid-tones in a painting, add some easy and medium encounters. These encounters are meant to be challenging, and should provide some foreshadowing to the darkness ahead. In a painting, the mid-tones link the brightest areas with the darkest ones. So in mid-tones encounters, attacking orcs may cry out the name of their evil wizard overlord. The captured spacetroopers may brag about how powerful their new superweapon is. Even trash, grafitti, and broken statues in a temple or church can hint at the darkness to come.
The darkest tones are reserved for the main villain and their immediate henchmen. Let’s talk about how one might design them in the next section.
DARK TO LIGHT
Ever watch Bob Ross paint a tree? He’ll block in the general form in an almost black hue. Then he’ll dab in middle tones and finish with bright highlights. The process works well with more opaque media such as oils and acrylics.
Dark to light session planning starts with the villain’s black heart. Why do they do terrible things? What is their endgame? How can you show players how much a threat they are throughout the session (the earlier the better)? How can you make players HATE them? In a way, it’s like writing the climactic scene of a movie or novel first.
Then you work backwards, adding the easier, mid-tone challenges that need to be overcome to reach the main villain. Then think about the light (rewards, noble causes, etc…) just as we did in the light to dark section.
Another way of painting is to put in all the mid-tones, then work towards the dark and light spots. In terms of session prep, this is probably how most of us work. We have an interesting idea, and maybe a few set piece encounters or NPC’s. Great, write them down as mid-tones. Then see how to make the situation more dire with really dark villains and add really light elements such as friendly NPC’s and great rewards. You might even make a brainstorming chart. Here’s an example of one that I made for an adventure. I only had the “Mid-tones” section at first, then filled in the “Light” and “Dark” columns afterward. By adding the light and dark, I made it more personal for the PC’s, and (hopefully) produced a more defined main villain. (Click on the picture for a larger view).
Session planning is rarely as linear as this column suggests. There’s no need to work strictly “light to dark” or “dark to light” every time. However, it’s still worthwhile to think about whether your sessions have some bright lights to interest the players and some deep darks to challenge them. Just as in art, strong contrast can make for a memorable picture.
(And if you run a PVP game, ignore everything in this column. Darkness and backstabbing all the time, baby!)
How about you? Do you prefer to think about the light or the darkness first? Tell us below.
I tend to work from Dark to Light; often the PCs are reacting to the villain’s schemes. It’s dangerous though–if you start with dark and don’t finish your prep, you can leave the whole session gloomy!
Thanks for the perspective Scott. True, gotta have some light and not all dark. And one should take the group into account as well. I’m not one for having the group find bloody corpse after bloody corpse, etc..
Thank you for this.
I normally start with the dark (same as Scott) but I’ll try working from the midtones, or even from the light first.
Reading this, I noticed that I leave that question “what can the players achieve?” unanswered a lot of the time.
And experience points might not be enough of a claim.