Flavor, or tone, is an important part of storytelling. Shifts in flavor of a story can improve or destroy the intent of a narrative. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always found horror a difficult thing to capture in an RPG; you’re in a comfortable room with friends, having fun, booze may be involved, and some of those friends not the most serious of folks…exactly the opposite set up for a good horror game. You can describe, you can have soundtracks and noises on a laptop or what not, but ultimately, it’s very difficult to get the flavor of horror for me, so it’s weird that when I started running Dungeons & Dragons from time to time over the last four years I chose not to do the typical high-fantasy D&D tone. (In many ways, D&D is now its own genre of fantasy.) Instead, lookin g over the books for 5 ed., I realized that the happy-go-lucky, seat-of-your-pants atmosphere of D&D was all wrong for what I wanted to do — an alternate Roman campaign to rope in two players that were fans of the old empire. Low magic — we used the magic-less ranger and fighter classes — assured less resorting to the magical equivalent of a bazooka, travel and healing were slowed a bit to make combat more risky, and most importantly…you’re dealing with monsters! In many ways, Dungeons & Dragons should be a horror game, or at least use a lot of the tricks and tropes of the same. More Wisdom or Charisma saves gave some mechanical bite to fear that the players, honestly, aren’t going to feel. (This is one of the reasons I like the stress/panic mechanic of Alien, although it doesn’t well handle characters who might be more resistant to the terrors of space.)

That beg the question of whether flavor can be enhanced by the mechanics of a game, which I think is fairly evident — it can. A good example is the Roman setting I quickly sketched. D&D really doesn’t push the dirty, poor, and low magic world that I wanted to put forward, and in fact, every campaign since the original has seen magic more prevalent, the flavor more high-fantasy. You can play elves and dwarves and other fantasy races. The hit point and rest mechanics create fairly low risk combats for characters that are higher in level, and they bounce right back into action with a nap. Wizards and clerics can throw the magical equivalent of magic bullets or explosives; they can heal incredible damage with wiggle of their fingers, and maybe a few bits of material for those stickler GMs. It’s light, fiun, but the system is a poor fit for the tone I wanted to create. The “Spaghetti Fantasy” campaign book Brancalonia created a 5e setting for Dungeons & Dragons that pushes a Renaissance-period faux Italy in which you aren’t hacking & slashing or killing monsters/stealing their treasures, but bumbling your way about the countryside fighting bad public officials, other gangs, or otherwise being lay-abouts with hearts of gold. To achieve the flavor, they had to spice up the rules with “brawling” rules that allowed for bar fights that weren’t murder sprees; the rules are bolted onto 5e and specifically draw a line between a friendly matter of honor (brawling) and drawing weapons (normal combat rules.) Intent is important, as is flavor.

Contrast that with Lex Arcana, a game set in a fairly similar setting to what I envisioned — in fact, I originally bought the game to use as resource material for the D&D campaign. You’re human. Most folks are dirt poor. Travel takes a while and is arduous. Disease is more prevalent. The system is much more dangerous in combat, with levels of success that can blow up a sword hit from a minor injury to instant death. No magic healing — the first aid or herbal medicines can heal a few points, but real healing takes days or weeks. Fights are something you want to be more careful with. And fighting monsters? They’re incredibly dangerous — just the thrall of a nosferatu left our party pretty mashed up, and that was four on one. No magic missiles and healing spells, just interpreting dreams and omens, maybe scrying for future events, or propitiating the gods for a nice deus ex machina moment when you’re really screwed. It’s a darker world filled with off-screen threats.

Flavor can mean an espionage game is a serious affair of investigations, lies, and a lot of social action, but little shoot ’em ups of LeCarre, or you can go for a James Bond spy-fi — an action movie with a tip of the hat to the world of espionage. Or you can go campy, like Man from U.N.C.L.E. or the Franco-Belgian comics that inform the new The Troubleshooters.

When putting together a campaign or a character for one, it’s important to understand not just the world you are playing in, but the tone — you don’t want to add too much sugar in a spaghetti sauce or you’ll ruin it. The characters should mesh with the game universe.