Sometimes humour is unavoidable. I fear that I’m my worst enemy in that regard.
I have run sessions of The Dee Sanction, The Cthulhu Hack, Symbaroum and others where I aimed for grim and gritty but came away with something less. Oftentimes, that works out, because the moment of light counterbalances the greater darkness. Other times, that humour steals the darkness from the session.
I think, for example, that the humour in Lost in Translation works. It’s fleeting but intentional. I would compare it to the sort of humour that appears in many of Shakespeare’s serious works (though, I have no intent to compare myself in any other way, shape or form to the peerless art of the Bard).
On the other hand, when I ran a one-shot session of Symbaroum at a convention, the humour stole away from the claim of grimdark fantasy. When you’re showcasing a game for a certain quality, you may have to wrestle the atmosphere in the right direction — in this instance, the prevailing temperament of the players weighed too heavily against me to make it possible. In the end, rather than fighting it, I gave up.
It’s tricky. One-shots suffer when you’re not seeking it, but equally, you can have an incredible session when humour’s intended and the group at the table gel. In a campaign with a regular group, humour will become an aspect managed and maintained by the whole table. When the session requires it, it’ll be there naturally more often than not. When it isn’t required or desired, you’ll have a better handle on how to keep it low key or non-existent to enhance the immersion.
Whatever you do, I’d suggest you create the atmosphere rather than flagging it at the start of the session. If you propagate the darkness in the description and colour, then the players will become engaged and humour will only arise when natural and then only as a gasp for air in the sea of despair (pardon the accidental poetry!).
Every day during August, I’ll be writing something new on The Dee Sanction and aim to connect the word prompt of the day with the development of the game. Check out the concept, the list and the graphics over at AUTOCRATIK.