I was perusing through Netflix and noticed that a lot of movies and shows are now getting described as “gritty”. I didn’t remember a gritty section of the movie rental store so I started thinking about it and eventually began thinking (big surprise) about gaming. I’ve been in games that I’d describe as “gritty” and others that I would not, but I had to give it some thought before I figured out what the difference was. My first conclusion was that it boiled down to one element: body disposal.Games (and shows, I suppose) are gritty if the characters have to worry about body disposal. Buffy and Charmed are not gritty because whenever anyone dies they disappear in a poof of CGI. X-Files was gritty because even when it was some supernatural creature that died, there was always the problem of a corpse. Right? Well, kinda… In a game that sort of applies in the sense that most of the time bodies are left after a combat, but in some games the bodies matter and in some they do not. Take D&D for example. So you killed an entire tribe of orks. Who cares? They’re just orks. In Shadowrun however, if you were to kill an entire community of orks, you’d be a murderer. People would notice. Speculation on hate crime rates would be discussed as a result. So I suppose in a game the physical corpse remnant isn’t so important as the moral question. In some games there are no moral questions or ambiguity while in others, there are. I suppose that would be the “grit-factor” in game terms. Now the question is how much grit do you want in your game? Do you prefer your games like wonder bread? Smooth, homogenious, and undifferentiated? Or are you more into games with a bit of ambiguity in them? Personally, I like the ambiguity. For me it increases the realism and pulls me more securely into the story. In the Pathfinder game I’m in right now we have a serious problem. We are sort of in charge of this mining town that has stumbled upon an entrance into the Underdark. That’s not the problem though because it is only a tiny corner of the Underdark and we’ve already sorted out all the Drow and most of the undead that were roaming about. Now we just have a village of Under-Dwarves sitting on this huge Mithril mine who would like to work with us and a village of Veggie Pygmies between the surface and the mine. We want the Mithril, but would have to go through the rather inoffensive Veggie Pygmies to get at it and the Veggie Pygmies are contagious (for lack of a better term). Interacting with them is hazardous to our health. So do we kill off the entire village of Veggie Pygmies just to get at the Mithril? We could seal them off somewhere, but that’s only a temporary solution. We could move them, but that too is only temporary. The situation is a little frustrating. It would be so much easier if the Veggie Pygmies were simply “evil” and attacked us on sight like the Drow did. Then we could kill them in self-defense and take the Mithril. However, I enjoy discussing the various options we have and trying to decide how to manage them without betraying our own morals. By their very design modern or futuristic setting games seem to me to be more gritty than those set in the past. Even those set in the not-so-distant past. In a game set in the 1940’s I seriously doubt there would be much agonizing about being required to kill off a whole building full of Nazis. I guess we were just more comfortable with an “us vs them” attitude when set in the past. Today the closest thing we have is “us vs the terrorists” and even then we understand that most of them are doing what they do out of a lack of other options (regardless of whether that lack is perceived or real). Destroying them all out of hand, while definitely being the easier course, is not necessarily a morally black and white choice. Now, how much grit do you need in a game? Enough that the gears grind, but not so much that you stop them from turning. In other words, if the consequences of the choices you present your players with make them question motives and debate morals and wrack their brains for which solution is the lesser of any number of evils, that’s good. If it goes on for weeks and weeks though and seems to completely paralyze your game, you need to recognize that happening and take steps to keep the story moving. I mean body disposal is problematic, but if it goes on too long you end up morphing your RPG from X-Files into Weekend at Bernie’s except frustrating instead of funny. In a good game, frustration should not be the central emotion around which your story revolves. Why, you ask? Duh. Because being frustrated constantly isn’t fun.
Grit: True or False?