Humour is really hard to do WELL in an RPG, some types of humour moreso than others. Silly jokes, like Orcs in tutus, are easy, but are more likely to bring a moan and grimace of pain than a genuine belly laugh.
There’s an art to genuine humour: it’s a little like a seduction, with the humourmeister leading his audiance one step at a time towards the punchline that will reduce them to hysterics. One misstep along the way and the whole thing can explode in your face, and the punchline falls flatter than a soufle.
Like an RPG, humour has its own internal consistancy, zigzagging its way through plot and dialogue as it homes in on the denouement. It can sometimes help to think of it as a game within a game.
So, for this month’s Blog Carnival, I thought I would look at some of the different types of comedy and how they can work – or not – in an RPG. (Definitions and categories taken from Buzzle.com).
Anecdotes have a limited value in RPGs by virtue of their nature as an ‘amusing story’. Either they are told to the characters, or the characters are participating in an anecdote. The first is not very interactive, and the second means that the GM is relying on the characters to react in a specific way to the circumstances – which usually places the humour at such a far remove from the characters that it might as well not be there.
The best use of an anecdote is to use them to convey NPC personalities to the characters in a way that’s a little more entertaining and memorable than a dry recitation of qualities (or their absence).
If the banter is between an NPC and a PC, this relies on the player being in the right frame of mind for it to occur spontaniously. The best ways of using banter are PC-to-PC and NPC-to-NPC. The first requires collaboration and collusion between the players, but it can work brilliantly and is solid roleplay.
The second only works if there’s a second GM to take the second part; the advantage is that it can be polished and rehearsed in advance to both sound more natural, and to convey both overt information and personality information to the players. Be careful not to overdo it, though – RPG is an audiance-participation activity! Consider, for example, the extract below from the most recent Adventurer’s Club session:
Mike: “Yes, absolutely, Lionel. Horses would be faster, but at some point would have to be abandoned – hopefully, they would still be there when they came back down, but who knows?”
Blair: “I agree, Malcolm. So, anyway, you have to leave your boat –”
Mike: “It’s a ship, Lionel, It goes out to sea. I’m told Sea Captains are fussy about that.”
Black Humour AKA Gallows Humour
Black humour juxtaposes distressing subjects like death with humour to make them more tolerable. As such, it has a definite place in RPGs. Good players will use it to reflect their character’s response to grim situations, and good GMs will have NPCs use it to lighten grim moments. Don’t expect too many lasting laughs from anyone, though.
Blue humour is based on body parts, bodily functions, and sexual acts, and there is a razor-thin line between funny and vulgar – a line that’s drawn in a different place for each person. Blue humour in an RPG similarly walks a tightrope, between entertainment and offensive. While it might suit some groups of players and some GMs, the majority of campaigns should steer well clear of such dangerous waters. A good guide is whether or not the players use blue humour when not in character.
I’m not a fan of Mr Bean and the style of comedy he represents, but my players are, and it is an exceptionally easy style to incorporate into an RPG from time to time. The most recent use of this style in one of my campaigns took the form of a British character, “Lionheart”, in my Zenith-3 superhero campaign. “Lionheart” had significant powers, but was hopelessly incompetant at using them for anything more than a spectacular show. The character was well aware of his limitations, but believed that any admission of them would damage the public confidence and do more harm than good; instead, he let the PCs do all the ‘heavy lifting’ in the encounter while he manouvered the enemy forces into exposed positions, and took all the credit. Between alternate rolling of the eyes, gales of uncontrollable laughter, combat, and roleplaying, a good time was had by all. Except the villains, of course!
Burlesque & Caricature
This is a handy tool for GMs to have in the armoury, and one that most GMs utilise whether they realise it or not. Essentially, it consists of exaggerating a style of language or behaviour way beyond cliche, to the point of lampooning it; think “Inspector Clusou” from the Pink Panther movies, or just about anyone from “Allo! Allo!”.
This fingerpainting of personalities suggests superficiality to the players, often leading them to underestimate the NPCs – a trick that, even when they get wise to it, can trap experienced players. To meake it work, though, the GM needs to throw himself into the role, heart and soul; play it to the hilt. Cross your eyes, wave your hands, do whatever you have to, but ensure that you go beyond what you would normally do even when playing a flamboyant personality.
And, in the meantime, it’s entertaining to both players and GM.
A farce starts slow and gradually gets sillier and sillier. This can work in a one-off campaign, but tends to be disruptive to long-term campaigns. However, there can be occasions when the GM can bring about the opportunity to engage in a farce even in a more lasting campaign, such as a character who is temporarily tainted or cursed with abysmal luck, when anything that can go wrong, will. When this is not due to any fault of the character affected, it can be tempting to sublimate the potential harm that could be inflicted on the character into a ‘preposterous disaster'; when this happens, you will usually have the support of the other characters, who will percieve that you are ‘pulling your punches’ to make events humerous and not disastrous.
Irony is a more intellectual type of humour in which an achievement or outcome is inverted in consequence, ie the process of succeeding in the immediate task subverting or undermining the overall objective. Irony is an essential element of any RPG when the time is right.
Melodrama is all about exaggeration and artificially-heightened drama. When pushed to extremes, it can be humerous and entertaining to watch, but I’m not convinced that it’s as much fun to experience from the player’s perspective, so while it is possible for high melodrama to play a role in selected scenarios, lesser doses – below the comedy threshold – are better suited to RPGs.
A work designed to mock, poke fun at, or comment on, some other original work. Individual scenarios and entire campaigns can be set up as parodies or homages. These generally function by taking one or more distinguishing elements of the source material and placing it into a new context. When the context is inappropriate to that source material, or incongruous in some respect, or depicts some of the more absurd aspects of the source material through that juxtapositioning, the result is a parody; for example taking the gang subculture of a modern urban environment and setting it in a nursery or preschool.
Practical Jokes and Pranks are stunts or tricks designed to make someone feel foolish or victimised for the amusement of a third party or to humiliate the target. Careful application of practical jokes with one or more PCs as targets can elevate the player’s level of motivation to engage in a scenario in which they were only mildly interested while taking advantage of the inherant distance between player and character to minimise the extent to which the player takes it personally. Beyond this application, practical comedy has a limited applicability to RPGs.
Witty comebacks, clever replies and droll retorts can all be entertaining and reflective of a particular personality – Spider-man has used this technique since the character first appeared back in the 1960s. But as the basis of scenarios or campaigns, there is no real value in this style of comedy.
This branch of comedy makes use of witty language and situations to convey insults or scorn; human vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are reprimanded using ridicule, burlesque, derision, or irony. Typically, the subject of satire is too narrow to be the basis of an entire campaign, but individual scenes or scenarios can be satirical.
Comedy in which the humour derives from reactions to ordinary situations. Sitcoms don’t generally work well as foundations for whole campaigns; either the characters, the game setting, or both, generally have to be extraordinary in some respect. However, a sitcom scenario in the context of an existing campaign can be an amusing change-of-pace, or ordinary lives in an extraordinary setting can make the basis of a sitcom campaign if it has a humerous bent.
Since this comedy is all about someone standing up in front of an audiance and telling anecdotes and jokes, it is not especially conducive to interactive game-play. It can be used for an interesting alternative to a monologue every now and then, but that’s about it.
Comedy with chases, collisions, practical jokes, where people just do silly things (or do ordinary things with silly results). Slapstick runs the gamut from Charlie Chaplin to the Three Stooges to Bugs Bunny. It can be hard to sustain and keep different and fresh, so it’s probably not suitable for a campaign, but it can be a recurring element or even the foundation of a single scenario.
Comedy is hard. So many types of it are unsuited to form the foundations of a campaign. But individual scenarios, recurring comedic themes, and specific encounters can all be used for comedic purposes, and if you’re careful to draw on the full gamut of comedy, an entire campaign can be built as a comedy.