A Treatise On Humor – Part 2
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #256
- Specific Ways to Create Humor (cont.) Gameworld or In-Character Humor
- Satire and Parody
- Irony, Sarcasm, and More
- Scatological Humor aka Bathroom Humor
- Puns and Double Entendres
- Elizabethan Humors
- Running a Humorous Campaign
- What Would You Want In A Campaign Management Site?
- Support Player Actions In Advance
- Determining Special Materials Costs For D&D/d20
- Site: Message Board Gaming
- Plan Ahead – For The Next Generation
Last week we started our discussion of the benefits of adding humor to your campaign and the many ways it can be created. This week we conclude that discussion as well as touch upon the pitfalls of running a humorous campaign.
Specific Ways to Create Humor (cont.) Gameworld or In-Character Humor
This is a broad tip. Basically, you can get humor for your game from your game in that gameworlds are replete with jesters, comedy troupes, stand-up comics, situational humor, TV shows, holovids, laugh tracks, people falling down, and, of course, mimes. If your players or their characters need a quick laugh, pick something in the gameworld that is funny and expose them to it: court jesters in a fantasy setting, Lily Tamlin in a retro setting, Click and Clack the Tappit Brothers in a more modern one, and Thee-Collar Comedy Tour in a futuristic alien setting.
The characters can laugh as they might, but the players might get a kick out of your antics. Hopefully they’ll be laughing with you and not at you, but either way, they’re laughing.Comedic Effect Character
As a method of adding humor to a game, adding a comedic effect character is the most easy, effective, and overused way to do it.
That said, there’s a reason so many GMs fall back on it: it works. Adding in a court jester provides some levity to a rigorous session of court intrigue, adding in a spunky waitress spices up the usual fat barkeep/buxom waitress/dirty floored tavern, adding in a shiny golden droid who incessantly predicts doom fleshes out an already flashy space opera….you get the picture. These NPCs can employ any of the techniques herein or just generally act oddly enough to get a laugh.
An interesting side note is that a skilled or wacky player with the right PC can actually be a comedic effect character himself, though maintaining that level of humor can be difficult. Imagine playing a cleric of some storm deity with the personality of C-3PO, or the donkey from Winney the Pooh. That PC would be irritating to adventure with, but he’d be a crack-up around the table.
A related note is that sidekicks make extremely effective comedic effect characters, whether they are a wizard’s familiar, a bounty hunter’s ship’s computer, or a paranormal investigator’s skeptic partner. These types of characters can provide amusing contrast or joke-affirming “yes-men” to in-game humor.
How many people remember the old Monkey Island games? In the first, you didn’t have a combat statistic. How well you did depended wholly on your ability with repartee. Many games (Deeds Not Words is one example) have repartee mechanics, but even in games that lack them, combat shouldn’t be wordless blow after wordless blow.
Combat banter, whether between allies or between foes, livens up combat, helps engage roleplay, and is generally pretty fun, too. I mean, most adventuring parties aren’t made up of mute adventurers, and only in very odd games are all opponents mimes.
So, the party’s swordguy gets to go first and kills an opponent on the first blow. The NPC the party is guarding dryly observes, “I’ve heard that first blood foretells last blood, but I guess sometimes first blood IS last blood.” Another opponent shrugs off the death with ease, snapping back, “Well, he was just slowing us down anyway–chaaarge!” The ever-humorous NPC ripostes: “He might or might not have slowed you down before, but now he’s certainly dead weight.” Wasn’t that far more exciting than this: “Your strike takes down the opponent. ‘Nice shot,’ says the NPC.
Tip for repartee: when insulting someone, seize on obvious quirks or deformities (Cyrano de Bergerac, anyone?), demographic identity (“Only a gnoll could have missed that swing!”), failure (“Come on, was that your best shot?”), jibes at relative skill levels (“My grandmother shoots straighter, and she’s BLIND!”), jibes at known insecurities (“Your mama’s so ugly, she….”), or nonsense designed to make an opponent seem silly (“What are you, a MIME?”).
Given that the last tip mentioned mimes _twice_, I figure that this is a good place to put repetition. You’re probably wondering, what does this guy have against mimes? The answer is nothing. They’re just a conveniently silly group that I can keep drawing into my examples for no other reason than they’re, well, humorous. Repetition breeds humor. I don’t know why, but it does. It’s another universal rule, and there are lots of ways to apply it.
Picture this scene. A bunch of armored knights are saddling up for an epic battle against evil. One of them falls while trying to mount. Then he falls again. Then he falls yet again. And again. And again and again, until the audience (this is a movie, right?) is in stitches and the other knights are getting fed up. Eventually, they have to dismount, help him up, and get back on their horses.
The knight captain raises his lance, shouts, and begins to ride forth—whereupon the ground-hugging knight promptly gets bumped off of his saddle and crashes to the ground. (Cue laugh track.) This is similar to the Excess technique mentioned earlier.
A good humor device is to repeat something a few times, then wait a long time, and repeat it again, immediately reminding everyone of the previous times.
Repetition doesn’t have to be exactly the same. There’s a play called The Picture That Was Turned To the Wall, in which the villain’s name is Rudolph von Doberman, and over the course of the play, nearly every major character calls him some other dog name, be it ‘von Dachshund’ or ‘von Schnauzer’, and each time, the villain’s loud and angry response (“Doberman! Do-Ber-Maaaan!”) gets a greater and greater laugh.
One good way of using in-game repetition is to write down humorous in-character quotes, and then show the list to players, so in important or ironic situations, the characters can repeat them. In the movie Boondocks Saints, one character insists on bringing rope along on a dangerous mission, although his brother tells him that you only need rope in movies. After the rope plays a pivotal role in their mission, the character that wanted the rope turns to his brother and mockingly repeats the guy’s words: “Name one thing we’re gonna need the stupid <expletive> rope for?”
Satire and Parody
Satire and Parody are common and effective sources of humor. Parody just mocks something or presents it again in a humorous way. If you have a wizard who pauses in a battle holding a smoking wand and says, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering if I fired five fireballs, or six? To tell you the truth, I don’t really know.” The question you really have to answer is…today, do I feel lucky?” then you are making a parody of Clint Eastwood.
Satire is far more serious. Satire pokes fun at something with the intent of changing it or causing those who laugh to think about it in a new way. Most political cartoons are satires. Another good resource for satire is the Discworld series written by Terry Pratchett, which makes some very insightful commentary on technology and society in a humorous fantasy world.
For a more modern example, try the TV show 3rd Rock from the Sun, which uses alien outsiders to comment on things that don’t seem so obvious to us. You have to be careful though, if your gaming group contains ardent Republicans who don’t find political jokes very funny, a satire involving King Shrub and his rulership style and low Intelligence score might not go over very well. You could just as easily satirize the other side as well, with rival contender Prince Transport and his low Charisma score, trying to escape the shadow of former Prince Maul.
Irony, Sarcasm, and More
Okay, irony is one of those hard-to-define words because it means lots of different things. But in almost all cases, irony can be pretty funny.
Verbal: the most common type of irony is verbal irony, in which the speaker means exactly the opposite of what he says. This is also appropriately referred to as “sarcasm,” “dry humor,” or “being a smart<expletive deleted>”.
Situational: When somebody expects something, and gets the opposite, it’s situational irony (when the opposite is significantly less meaningful or terrifying then the original something, you have Anticlimax).
A more complex kind of situational irony can be found in a twisted coincidence. If a man with diabetes runs to the hospital to get emergency insulin and is struck and killed by a tractor-trailer carrying insulin supplies to the same hospital, that’s pretty ironic (though not very funny). The kind of coincidences from Alanis’ famous song, “Isn’t It Ironic,” (“it’s a death row pardon/two minutes too late”) aren’t really ironic in the technical sense, but most people think they are, so bizarre coincidence can go in this category as well.
Dramatic Irony: This occurs when someone operates without some bit of knowledge that an observer (traditionally the audience of a play) has. Greek drama is chock full of it. In the play Oedipus Rex, the audience knows Oedipus unwittingly killed his father (the former King) and married his mother to become the new King, so when Oedipus proclaims to the people of his city that he will find the former King’s murderer and swears an oath to make him pay for his crimes, the audience winces, and dramatic irony is born.
If the PCs know that the Duchess is having an affair with the Duke’s friend, the Prince, and they witness the Duke confiding in the Prince that he suspects his wife of some infidelity and charges him with the task of finding out the truth, it’s pretty amusing if the PCs are on the side of the Duchess and her paramour. If the Prince replies that he’ll need to isolate the Duchess, spending hours in her company at the private estate to lay a trap for a potential lover, and the Duke eagerly agrees to the plan, the moment is absolutely priceless.
Closely tied in with irony is the art of speaking with a deadpan voice. When telling any joke, describing a humorous situation, or even making a great pun, if you can pull it off without smiling, without warning, without cracking up, and just speaking in your normal voice so that there’s a second’s pause before everyone gets the joke and starts to laugh, then your jokes and stories will be even funnier, and you will seem like a more subtle and intelligent humorist.
Okay, so it’s not creative, and it doesn’t have a fancy word to name it, but it’s funny. I mean, everybody loves the Three Stooges and Looney Tunes. Anything involving non- lethal violence (or lethal violence that has no effect) can be funny. Every good chase scene in a castle should have a pie fight in the kitchen.
Scatological Humor aka Bathroom Humor
So, explosive diarrhea, reoccurring flatulence, and gym socks are nasty, but they’re also funny if you’re not too priggish to stick your nose up at that type of humor (especially given that a wise person would _plug_ his nose up around those three). Give the innkeeper dysentery. When the Warden of the Green Forest fumbles and falls, have him land in some griffin excrement to add insult to injury.
What happens when a prankster redirects the space station’s sewage from the garbage chute to the environmental controls? It ain’t gonna be pretty. Scatological situations are those that are funny when they happen to someone else, and in RPGs, they _are_ happening to someone else. Convenient, eh?
I guess this is an appropriate time to discuss cliche, a pretty word for those oldie-but-goody tricks. Now, before you groan in pain, here’s a note: only goodies get to be oldies. The beholder’s magical ray attacks being thwarted by the PC’s abilities? Use the telekinesis ray to drop–you guessed it–an anvil on a PC’s head. Then a piano on another. Then, because I compulsively list things in threes, an incredibly scatological outhouse on a third.
Have a pie fight, or have a character step on a rake to whack themselves in the head. Use cheesy lines. “If it wasn’t for you meddling kids, I’d’ve gotten away with it, too!” Has your evil villain managed to subdue the PCs, but you don’t want them to die? Don’t fudge rolls. Instead, start a “Now that you are powerless, I will unveil my complete evil plan…” monologue, or have them tied to an extraordinarily slow dipping mechanism over (you guessed it, again [boy, you are clever]) a pool with sharks in it.
Many cliches are silly, but they do tend to make sense and can be placed ever so often into a game without damaging an otherwise serious tone.
Okay, I heard this great joke the other day: “There’s this baby seal, and he walks into a club.” (Groan from readers.) Okay, so that was lame, but jokes can be pretty funny. PCs can tell jokes. NPCs can tell jokes. It’s a defense mechanism, something to do before settling down next to the fire or sealing yourself into the cryogenic tanks. And modern jokes can be adapted to futuristic and fantasy settings (a hint of parody, here) pretty easily to give an old joke a new twist: “Well, it looks like the manure golem has hit the windmill.” “Why did the Bothan cross the hyperspace lane?”
Puns and Double Entendres
A great way to come up with some side-splitting, groan- inducing jokes for PCs and NPCs alike is to use puns, words that sound like each other. “Hey, stormtrooper, why do Jedi’s need to learn how to treat injuries? Because a Jedi must have PATIENTS!” Puns can be more than terribly campy humor, though. Imagine two modern-day detectives tracking a man-killing grizzly. “Remember, these guys can tear you apart,” says one. The other dryly replies, “I’ll try to bear that in mind.” (Hey, that’s a pun, repartee, and sarcasm, all at once!)
A double entendre is a pun or some other creative use of language (symbolism or comparison) with a risqué meaning. When the beautiful and scantily clad Bambi and Thumper tell James Bond (in “Diamonds Are Forever”) that before he can go talk to their boss, “we’re going to have a little ball” seconds before attacking him, it’s a double entendre.
If a svelte islander told a muscular hero, looking for some ancient treasure on the slopes of her island volcano home, that volcanic soil often proves to be “fertile grounds for those seeking wealth and more,” and the hero replies, eyeing her up and down, that his only purpose is to “plunder to the fullest extent of his ability”…well, we won’t go further in that discussion for decency’s sake, but those were double entendres.
Mature groups can handle double entendres well, and even less mature ones can sometimes deal with such witty-yet-sexual banter, but be careful not to go too far with this.
There are four Elizabethan humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. They have no relevance whatsoever to a discussion about adding humor to RPGs. I just had to put them in because it was a pun I could not resist.
Running a Humorous Campaign
Unless you are Terry Pratchett, Robert Asprin, Piers Anthony, the ghost of Douglas Adams, or some other famous genre humorist, I’d advise against trying to run a humorous campaign. There are many reasons, but the biggest one is that jokes get old quick, even when they’re about mimes. I tried awhile back, and my players did enjoy their first visit to the “Get the Point” Armory, but the eighth time around, it wasn’t even remotely amusing, and seemed rather stupid.
But if you’re dead set on it, know that the pace has got to be fast. You have to hit the players hard with decent jokes, funny monsters, hilarious NPCs, chuckle-worthy settings, and terrible puns from the start, and you can’t ever slow down or repeat things.The first cross-dressing goblin named Klinger will get a laugh, the seventh won’t. The first appearance of the GAF will cause a chortle, the second might, the third probably won’t.
The first appearance of the manure golem will elicit an excellent reaction, but by the end of the battle, the PCs will be covered in guano and your players won’t ever want a repeat of the messy affair.
If you’re just dying to employ all these amazing, wonderful, and brilliantly written (right…) tips about humor, I’d suggest running a humorous session instead to appease your appetite, and then adding humor as a minor but consistent point of your games from then on. If you are running a fully humorous setting though, good luck! I’d love to hear how you ran it!
Yeah, I know how terrible it is, but this article has come to an end. I wish you luck in your humorous endeavors, and I would appreciate any (constructive) feedback you can offer me, as well. My email is rashingl[at]ncsu.edu.
Disclaimer: I apologize to all mimes reading this article. I mean, you are pretty silly. Oh, and no mimes were harmed in the writing of this article. Except for that one, but it was an accident, I swear! I’m not prejudiced against mimes, really I’m not….
Thanks: Big thanks goes out from me to the GMMastery list (though they may have forgotten it, since I queried them a long time ago), the people at Barrok’s Tower [ Barroks Tower ] who offered mostly useless pithy sayings (you know I love you guys), Adam and Jeff (for a few ideas), Johnn Four (without whom none of these articles would be possible.
And who’s limerick abilities I’m still trying to emulate), all the movies, books, plays, and famous people quoted above (plagiarism is the highest form of praise), and Douglas Adams (may his soul rest in peace), who wrote the book that first caused me to laugh out loud.
For additional aids in adding humor to your campaign, check out Roleplaying Tips issue #73 for suggestions for using funny names:
RPT#73 – 6 Ways You Can Use Names To Enhance Your Campaign, Part II
And issue #79 which covers everything you ever wanted to know about limericks:
RPT#79 – Using Limericks To Spice Things Up
A Brief Word From Johnn
What Would You Want In A Campaign Management Site?
A reader recently wrote me with a very good question:
I haven’t been able to find any decent Campaign tracking sites for pen and paper campaigns. My group and I use the forums on my personal website at the moment, but I am looking to extend this into a better campaign management site. However, my campaign management style is very lax when it comes to recording everything and I’m sure that there are some must-have features that I will miss.
Perhaps you could ask subscribers for ideas of what they would like in a Campaign Management Site?
I’m thinking that if we put a wish list together and then I post it in this e-zine, we might inspire some web folks to produce sites with the features we want. So, let me know what you’d like a web site of campaign tools to do for you. It never hurts to ask, right?
What Is Roleplaying?
Below is a link to a web site that offers actual game sessions recorded and made available to the public. Now, I know from past recording experiments that game sessions are never as interesting to listen to as they are to participate in. However, after listening to a clip from session one of a World’s Largest Dungeon campaign, it occurred to me that, of the many possible uses, these might make great examples to show what roleplaying is to people who have no clue or who have dark suspicions.
Parents could tune in, press members on a witch hunt could check them out, friends who are uncertain and unwilling to watch a real game can listen to the files anonymously. Just a thought.
Here’s the link: RPGMP3 Dungeon ON!
Have a great week!
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ALSO, Message Boards, Photo Galleries and News
Brand New Edition! Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne
Professor M.A.R. Barker has devoted over fifty years to
creating the Tekumel universe, developing it into a vivid
science fantasy setting with rich backgrounds and unique
cultural identities. The core book introduces players to the
land, history, and inhabitants of Tekumel, and gives the GM
the tools needed to develop and run epic campaigns or single
Readers’ Tips Of The Week
Support Player Actions In Advance
From Callan Sweet
Heya, a quick follow on tip from #251.
Hand in hand with ‘Players Tip: Take Action’, comes the GM’s responsibility to support this in advance. Players will look at their character sheet first for an answer, because anything they find there that’s useful, they then _know_ it will help them. By contrast, speculative searching of walls or casting of divining spells to look for things you aren’t certain are actually there, and you don’t know if they can help you, is only hopeful activity.
Players are also afraid of searching being the worst thing they could do, since perhaps the idea of the encounter is that they already have something to help solve the situation. And for not finding that and just searching around instead, they’ll be punished by death or a wandering monster encounter.
The same goes for when everyone is at a standstill. Individual players might be afraid of wasting everyone else’s time by poking around on a wild goose chase, and looking stupid if nothing turns up.
There are various ways to encourage this though. The primary one is to talk about it before the game. The second one is to make sure you’re not reinforcing behaviour that kills this. For example, hitting the PCs with damage when they don’t make the exact right move in some scenes, but latter expecting them to make speculative actions in order to save themselves (when they will be thinking, because of your previous scenes, they need to work out just the right move).
A third way might be to have less steep learning curves. Describe places in a way that makes them clearly worth searching until your players start actively looking for these places by themselves.
Determining Special Materials Costs For D&D/d20
From Matthew Burack
Here’s my formula for D&D 3.x for figuring out how much monster body parts are worth in terms of selling them and making items with them.
D&D is built around roughly 13 average-challenge encounters per level. To figure out the net value of the creature’s corpse:
- Take the Challenge Rating (CR) of the beast being fought and look at the table in the DMG (Table 5-1: Character Wealth By Level, page 135 of the 3.5 DMG) that gives an estimate for how much treasure a character one level higher than the CR would have.
- Subtract the amount for the previous level and you have the amount that would typically be gained in just that level.
- Divide that number by 13 and then multiply it by 4 (iconic party has four members) and that should be approximately the value of the rare squishy bits.
(Note that if my players made a habit of doing this then I’d probably reduce the amount of laying-around treasure by a similar amount in order to avoid getting Monty Haul-ish.)
For example: Sir Scavenger is a level 10 Fighter who wants to start a business selling rare components he harvests off of dead creatures. He learns of a nest of Black Puddings (CR 7) nearby and knows that a gland inside of them is useful to Alchemists. He kills them and harvests the glands.
A level 8 character should have about 27,000gp worth of stuff. A level 7 character should have about 19,000gp of stuff. That means out of the 13 or so average encounters between 7 and 8, a character should gain about 8,000 gp (27,000 – 19,000). If a Black Pudding was one of those encounters, then it should provide about 615gp (8,000/13) per character (assuming the standard 4 characters), or 2,460 gp (615×4) total.
Thus, the market price for Black Pudding glands is 2460 gp each. Adjust as you see fit, taking into account supply and demand.
Site: Message Board Gaming
From Olan SuddethJohnn,
My own site, the Red Dragon Inn [ The Red Dragon Inn ] hosts quite a few games in our message board forums. While most of these games are standard PBP online games, we have several that are simply repositories for games that happen elsewhere. We invite any and everyone to post their games – or the textual results of their games – to our forums.
Plan Ahead – For The Next Generation
From Peter Heyman
I ran a campaign that was based in a modern day/near future setting where the PCs not only contended with the main plot of the story, but with several personal and group subplots as well.
The campaign evolved over the course of 6 years, and therefore we saw characters grow from young, starry-eyed newbies into hard-skinned, worldly heroes who had “been there, seen that, and lived to tell the tales.”
Like any long-running campaign of any genre, the PCs could and did gain wealth, power, and influence over the course of time. However, I had from the beginning instructed all the players that they would need to keep a very close eye on their money. If they had a vehicle, they most likely had loan payments; an apartment, rent; a house, a mortgage. And all payments had to be deducted each month. In most cases, a lump sum was worked out for each character so that they knew exactly how much their “maintenance” was each month. Then, of course, there’s income tax each year.
All of this worked very smoothly, and no one had complaints. In this way, the level of “extreme” wealth was controlled, and the road to fame & fortune was made a little more bumpy. It made the game feel more realistic, and it made the player “think” before blowing large amounts of cash on a new toy or weapon.
In every campaign, genre, and system I have run for several years, I have instigated a very simple and fun concept that I learned from a fabulous GM I played under.
Any long-running campaign is going to get high level characters. And eventually they are going to push the limit- envelope of the game. That is when they transition from adventurers to heroes.
At that point, or actually some time before that point, the players should create new characters (maybe even 2 or 3). Slowly, the heroes should be worked out of the main action. They should be given the opportunity to retire from the road, gain positions of authority, transition from hacking through the jungles to find the lost temple to assigning the newbies to go forth and hack through the jungle to find the lost temple.
In actuality, these PCs are not totally retired. I was always told that when a character is retired, it becomes the domain of the GM. Well, in this case, the player retains control of the character. They are not exactly NPCs, but have actually become background characters.
When one of the new, young-buck characters needs to go to the Captain of the guard for training, or to the High Priestess of the temple for a blessing, or their department manager for new orders, or the unit Intelligence Officer for information, they are, in actuality, still roleplaying with one of their fellow players.
This in turn makes for a lot of fun within the group, because everyone gets to revisit their old favorite characters now and then, and it takes the pressure off of the GM from having to maintain a high level NPC with a deep background and long history, and then roleplay it when they can be assembling their notes for the coming scenario instead.
New D&D Module: The Crypt of the Devil Lich
This special tournament module was used for the First Annual
Dungeon Crawl Classics Open Tournament in at Gen Indy 2004.
The module includes the official tournament scoring system
and pregenerated characters, as well as almost two dozen
illustrated player handouts.
An ancient prophecy sends the heroes into the crypt of the
Devil Lich to destroy her before she can return to power.
Once inside, they must face horrors that could only be
dreamt of by a mad half-drow half-fiend lich!