Story games, that hard-to-define cousin of mainstream roleplaying, generally leaves the heroic stuff to Paizo and Hasbro, concentrating on paths-less-travelled and often, less bright. So much so that the page header at the Story Games forums used to read "people writing sad things on index cards". That about sums it up.
For myself, the tone and intention of the game are less about what you are playing than how you are playing it. Sure, it's true that a story game is typically going to have more rules support for playing in a style that embraces drama and narrative than a mainstream game. I'm not sure anyone I know of brings the intention to play an intense drama to a system like GURPS.
I have actually had very good luck running challenging, dramatic material in traditional game settings and in genres that don't often lend themselves to drama and introspection. I think SHADOWRUN: DISAVOWED was probably the high-water mark for that kind of play, and that game went into some very dark territory indeed. In that case, I think the setting gave us a lot of nice texture to enter that world and immerse ourselves in the characters. I changed the game system at the half-way mark because Savage Worlds wasn't helping us get there, but FATE would and did.
But you absolutely can't play that kind of game, whatever the system, without everyone in the group being committed to swimming out into the deep waters. And even if you're playing a story game, sometimes people just aren't that into sad, gut-wrenching shenanigans, you know?
Getting that level of commitment is not easy.
As a GM pitching that game, you need to signal your intentions early, and make the case for going deeper than usual into dramatic material. You need to talk about the kinds of material you want to tackle, and take the temperature of the room -- is everybody okay with it? Is anybody going to balk at the subject matter? What land mines could there be? Do you need to establish lines and veils? Ultimately, if you don't have the right group of players who enjoy the challenge of going deep into heavy themes, it's not going to happen.
Even if you do have a group of players willing to play hard, you probably still have to sell them on the idea of this particular challenge. Talk about ways you'd like to push the game in interesting directions, the stuff that gets you pumped up. Inspirational material that's getting you excited for the game, and maybe could do the same for others.
It's been a while since the groups I play with have played a game that really tested us. We've had good sessions, for sure, and there have been plenty of satisfying scenes in lighter fare like SEVEN STARS OF ATLANTIS, my love letter to the pulp era. But as my friend Amanda said recently, nothing that really challenged us. Nothing that had that moment where as a group we all looked each other in the eye, drew in a breath, and went for it. Really played hard.
I was ready to throw down the gauntlet and bring the hardest stuff I could manage in my aborted APOCALYPSE WORLD game last summer, but that came to naught. And if it had gone ahead, I'm not sure I would have been mentally capable of playing at the top of my game. But I did relish the challenge.
So what's our next challenge...?