In the far too many years I have been playing RPGs and such I have encountered a ton of campaigns, official and (mostly) unofficial. I have made a few campaign worlds and I have talked with and even helped others build them. One thing that I have noted is that many world builders don't consciously consider the tone of their world, they sort of assume it but at the same time campaign tone is one of the first things players notice.
Now, the overall tone of a campaign has a lot of moving parts, so I am going to focus today on something I call the tenor of a campaign. To illustrate what I mean when I say tenor, let me give you a few examples.
In Vance's Dying Earth series is a collection of fantasy stories set when the world is very, very old: the sun is darker and dying; people are few and listless; discovery is focused on finding what great minds of the past discovered and made, not new thought.Horrible secrets seem to be everywhere and most communities are focused on not being destroyed by some terrible, lurking threat.The tenor of the dying Earth is one of grimness, loss, and ultimately despair. The world is close to death and no one mentions it, let alone tries anything. The tenor is one of futility and loss.
In Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar is a science fiction novel set (then) 42 years in the future on an Earth choked with crippling overpopulation, rampant crime, rising insanity, never-ending brush war, and escalating terrorism. The book focuses on the intersection of greed and extremism.The tenor of this science fiction book is very similar to that of the dying Earth - the end is nigh, insanity and despair are everywhere, etc. So while the time, setting, etc. are very different both the Dying Earth and Stand on Zanzibar share a "tenor".
On the other hand!
Burroughs' Barsoom novels are set on a Mars about 3 millenia past Vance's Dying Earth - Mars is all but dead and tribes of savages roam the dried seabeds of ancient, quiet Mars, camping in the vast ruins of long-abandoned cities while the last remnants of civilization cling to the few bits of air and water that remain. In the meantime, everyone is in thrall to a death cult that ultimately dooms all Martians to slavery or horrible death at the hands of their secret cannibal masters - and every year the atmosphere grows thinner.
Yet John Carter finds men and women of courage and honor throughout Barsoom. People are often reasonable, trustworthy, and open to the truth. Racism is absent and all people are judged for their virtues, not their status.The tenor of Barsoom is very positive and optimistic even though it is set in a world more grim than the Dying Earth. The Conan stories are similarly set in a dark, grim world of lost civilizations, vanished knowledge, creeping savagery, and dark magic, but - it is likewise upbeat and positive in its tenor.
I don't like to call this the tone of a campaign world because, properly speaking, tone is about the language used. Both Vance and Burroughs can be florid while both Brunner and Howard could be sparse. Theme and setting likewise don't seem exactly what I mean. Perhaps someone with more formal education in English can tell me a more precise term, but I have been using 'tenor' for so long that I might never change.
I had a friend in high school who had a fascinating campaign world, all his own, using the Aftermath! rules. An ancient war had culminated in the world's moons colliding and death raining down upon the entire planet. The knowledge of the Ancients was lost, but some of the terror of the Sky War remained: the glowing cores of their power stations could still kill and things that lived too near became horrible mutants; a few of the weapons of their long-dead armies still existed and could kill with focused beams of light; the hybrid creatures they had made in their labs roamed the vast wilderness; the dwarves ['engineered' to be miners, whatever that meant] and the elves [also 'engineered', but to be beautiful servants for the rich] hid in the wild places. Wizards studied the secrets of the ancient 'Quan'Taam Lords' to cast spells as clerics tapped into the 'inner secrets of the Sykiks' to heal others. Bands of desperate adventurers crawled through the impact craters that speckled the land dodging mutants, the war hybrids, cannibals, cultists, and worse to enter the Ancient cities, hoping to survive the deadly ruins long enough to find enough metal to make new armor, or perhaps even Ancient tools and weapons! The night sky was lit with the debris of the three moons and the falling stars were visible day and night as they hurtled down do continue the Rain of Death.
Here's the thing - it was a humor campaign. No, really, it was a humor campaign and it was hilarious. Think post-apocalyptic done up like Bored of the Rings. The Road Warrior as reimagined by Monty Python [as a matter of fact, there was a 'Duke Ginormous' who ruled the Desert of Black Gold -he had a thick Aussie accent and called everyone Bruce].
So the setting was about as grim as you can get. The tone was very straightforward; the tenor was light-hearted. Yes, characters died a lot; yes, missions were often desperate schemes to prevent a village from starving to death, or worse; yes, we dealt with themes of nuclear war, terrorism, etc. And it was funny.
Now, the tenor of the Broken Sky campaign, above, was pretty heavy-handed and was actually the point of the campaign. But in my experience in many campaigns tenor often just - happens.
Let's look at Greyhawk for a minute. I have had people tell me they don't like Greyhawk because it is 'generic' or 'bland' or 'boring'. It is 'too lighthearted' and 'not grim' and, my favorite 'way too optimistic for real storytelling'.
First, lighthearted and optimistic can make for great storytelling.
Second, Greyhawk is a terrifying world obviously derived from the Dying Earth. Don't think Greyhawk is a grim, dark, scary world? Look at Salt Marsh - this ocean side town is cheek-by-jowl with demon-worshipping cults, a cult that worships evil fire, a lizard man army, a sahuagin army, smugglers, and worse things that creep from the nearby marshes (which are as large as El Salvador or Israel, BTW). Who can they call on for help?
4-8 1st level characters, that's who.
Not a lord, not a king, not a powerful wizard - some low-level newbies.
Or the Grand Duchy of Geoff: a nation the size of Kuwait with the population of the city of Hastings, East Sussex, UK, they are threatened with swarms of Giants from the Crystalmist Mountains and horrors from the Barrier Peaks. In the face of attacks by large gangs of giants the Grand Duke of Geoff marshals...
...a group of adventurers.
Not his armies. Not his best knights. Not his court wizard.
In my favorite bit the Against the Giants series (which I recently ran, heavily modified, for my Blackstone campaign) begins with the Grand Duke telling the PCs that of they don't stop the giants they will return and his people will execute them! This begs the question - if the Duke's people are tough enough to capture and kill the party, why does he need the party to kill the giants?
But gain and again in Greyhawk we see the same thing - incredible levels of danger are everywhere and local authority is either nonexistent or so weak they need bands of adventurers to step in and save them. Eldritch abominations lurk in every mountain range and swamp and just beyond the western border of the game world proper are the vast ruins of two empires utterly annihilated in a magical war so destructive that in one case it killed everything and left only a vast wasteland of dust for a thousand miles....
And there is worse!
There are corrupt despots in the Great Kingdom and a literal Demon King (Iuz) who physically rules an actual terrestrial nation just beyond that forest over there. There is a foul cult in every third village and urban tavern, a cabal of assassins has spies everywhere and there is probably an otyugh in your sewers. As my sons love to point out we must assume the Urban Encounters chart from the DMG applies to every large urban center in Greyhawk - this means there is a non-zero chance of meeting a Type II demon in a dark alley just because.
Greyhawk's tenor is a grim, nasty world where good people huddle together for safety and hope that they aren't dragged from their beds, screaming, in the middle of the night to be slowly eaten by some tentacled thing from beyond the walls of reality because tomorrow they have to fight an army of giants. Again.
But how do you build a world tenor on purpose?
As I mentioned before, campaigns have a lot of moving parts and so does the tenor of a world. I think there are five major elements to creating tenor.
1) Campaign history. Is the history of the campaign pessimistic, optimistic, or neither? While I have a complete and complex world history stretching back thousands of years for both Blackstone and Seaward (my two campaign worlds) Seaward, the oldest, started with just 'the last 80 years in this little area'. There can be good and bad patches of history, but the overall trends can be important. Was there a past golden age? Are things getting better or worse? Is evil spreading or retreating over time? Think about Conan and Hyperborea - while it is set in 'the dark times after Atlantis sank' the history is positive because things are getting (very slowly) better.
2) Current events. How bad are things? Are things different? In the Barsoom series the history is about as dark as possible (the last years of a dying planet) but the tenor of the books is positive because civilization is on the march, nations are joining together in positive alliances, and even the savage Green Men are starting to ally with the heroic nations.
3) The attitudes of NPCs. This is huge! As I mentioned before, the overall trend of NPCs being trustworthy or untrustworthy is important to the campaign as a whole. Is the campaign city obviously run by the thieves' guild? Are NPCs more positive than negative? Do they often cheat, steal, or betray the party? Is the bartender a cultist, the barmaid an assassin, the linkboy a were-rat, and the chambermaid a doppelganger more than once each ever? While creeping paranoia can be fun and drive adventuring, it sets a dark tenor.
4) The events of the campaign. Probably the biggest. Are there orc raids on villages near cities? Are the authorities helpless? Is the king mad? Evil? Ineffectual? Are the borders secure? The less there are places where good people can relax and be secure, the more grim the tenor of the setting. Think of it this way - the adventurers are crossing the border into the wilderness to push back the orcs has one type of tenor; the adventurers hunting down assassins from the Realm of the Necromancer-King next door as the county prepares for invasion has another tenor entirely.
5) Does the status quo rule? This one is pernicious because some DM's hate to change the status quo. On the one hand this can be positive - if the Necromancer-King's invasion and the loss of 1/3rd of the Count's army doesn't change much it can make the player's feel like they did a great job. On the other hand, if the players go all-out and kill the Necromancer-King only to have another guy take his place they will soon feel like their actions don't matter, which makes the tenor darker.
So when looking at your campaign think about how the players and outsiders see it. Is the tenor positive or negative? Do the layers feel like the actions of their characters matter? Are NPCs only plot points or are they also tools to emotionally involve the players in your world? Are events in the campaign overwhelming, dark, and beyond the control of the players?