A Treatise On Humor – Part I

From Acolyte

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0255

A Brief Word From Johnn

Missed Last Week

My apologies for missing sending out an issue last week. I’m in the process of questing for an Editor, and they’ll be helping me improve the reliability of mailouts.

Also, a number of subscribers have written in with reports of not receiving #254. If you’re missing a back issue, just let me know!

Politics Revisited

In Issue #243, Joachim de Ravenbel posted some great tips about a political rating system. He’s recently created a Windows helper application for it.

You can find the tips here:
RPT#243 – Bad Gamemasters I Have Known And Loved: Part II, The Favoring GM

And the application can be downloaded from here:

Thanks Joachim!


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

A Treatise On Humor – Part I

Why should I introduce humor into my games? What can I do with humor?

Humor should be a part of your games, most simply, because humor is a part of daily life in the real world. RPGs imitate real life or explore what real life would be like given a different set of conditions. In times of extreme stress, such as a melee brawl with fire orcs over the Chasm of Eternal Flame or a dogfight around the moons of Jupiter with endless alien hordes, humor is a common defense mechanism used by people to protect themselves from the horrors that surround them.

Humor can be an important component of these situations, and GMs who ignore it turn their backs on a wealth of variety and immersiveness they can add to their games. Mel Brooks, who directed some of the funniest movies ever produced, said that “humor is just another defense against the universe.”

Humor also links players emotionally to PCs and NPCs, and can help jumpstart roleplaying encounters in ways that more weighty emotions like hate and revenge cannot, not to mention that it’s just plain fun.

You can do quite a bit with humor because it can have many effects in your games. The first section of this article will deal with the general effects of humor, and the second with specific tips for just how to create that humor. The final part discusses the feasibility of and strategies for running an entirely humorous campaign. [Johnn: I’ve split this article into two parts, and next week you’ll get the rest of section 2 and the final section Ross talks about above.]

A General Caution

The line between being humorous and being offensive is often extremely thin. Take care. Jokes directed at demographic groups that exist out of game or at ones that closely parallel real-world ones might offend a player. To avoid an egg-on-your-face moment, steer clear of those jokes (“I didn’t know your sister was deaf…” is not something you want to be saying). I know some people who love “dead-baby jokes” and some people who cannot abide them due to their graphic and amoral outlook. Make sure you use humor devices that your players can swallow.

What Can Humor Do For You?

Ask not what humor can do for you, but what you can do with humor (okay, so I botched that quote):Add a Bit of FlavorThis is perhaps the most obvious of the effects that humor can bring. At any point in which player interest is waning, or when a session is becoming bogged down in mechanics or combat, or even if a grueling role-playing encounter has tapped the players out, a bit of levity can go a long way toward recharging spirits and recapturing the verisimilitude of the gameworld.

The session slowing down? A dash of humor can be quite the adrenaline shot to get everybody’s gaming hearts pumping again.

Change Things Around

Humor can provide a more significant shift than just a little variety, though. In campaigns dominated by a single tone, humor can provide the segue between stages or themes, because humor is a ubiquitous device. By finding the link, the humor device present in both the original and the desired tone, through emphasizing it over the course of an adventure, a GM provides a logical and consistent way to alter a campaign without railroading players, making an abrupt and unrealistic shift, or playing with more serious emotions.

Humor isn’t the only device that can link this way, but it is nicely suited to the job because of its levity, subtlety, and the fact that players tend to enjoy it.

For example, if Sarah wants to explore the option of altering her post-apocalyptic fight-to-survive campaign to become more of a fight to preserve human life, she knows that trying to shift straight from one to the other will stretch the credulity of her players, testing the verisimilitude of the campaign. Humor, however, is present in both of those archetypes (as the dry sarcasm of those who face death on a daily basis).

Connecting the two can be accomplished with as little as an NPC who says, “yah, Captain, I know well that we’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell, but I’m willing to venture my own life to protect these here innocents.” Connecting the two could also be the work of a session full of interactions with like-minded NPCs, or even the prevalence of this devil- may-care-BUT-good-can-triumph attitude over a given number of sessions.

Reward Completion of a Difficult Goal

Okay, so the PCs snuck through the City of Endless Shrieking, fought their way through the Citadel of Horrible Torture, killed the elder dragon, Strife Flametongue, on the highest level, passed through the portal to the Plain of Torture, and eventually confronted the Painbringer and his highest minions in a climactic battle that took the better part of two Saturdays before he was slain and his dark dominion cast into the Void. What next?

Many GMs wrestle with this problem, and one viable answer is “some downtime.” A night of drunken revelry, a personal performance by a comedic troupe of the Emperor’s, the groveling admirations of all those who formerly treated the now-heroes with contempt, or a standard dungeon crawl in which the near-deific PCs obliterate small enemies with ease while bantering back and forth in witty repartee, can all serve as effective “cool-down” sessions as the players and the PCs prepare for whatever taxing adventure is to come.

Prepare a Huge Shock

This is perhaps the most insidious use GMs might have for humor, and can be an extremely effective, if manipulative, device. Humor, when done properly, relaxes players, puts them off their guard, gets them emotionally involved in the game, and ultimately lures them into a false sense of security. A GM who wants a cruel announcement or nasty surprise to be that much more effective should spring it upon players and PCs alike when in that state to achieve maximum bewilderment, shock, and discomfort.

For example, a group of space travelling PCs have often encountered prophets of Ubu, members of a seemingly harmless sect with a nonsensical belief in the meaningless of everything and so act randomly without direction. In one session, they dock on a space station where everyone has been converted over to this belief, with many humorous and chaotic results: no one cleans, few people do their job, and some actively practice “nothingism”, which seems to involve the abuse of alcohol, hallucinogenic drugs, and the self.

The station is self-sufficient, even in this reduced state, and the people are happy and friendly. Three days after leaving the station, the PCs learn that it was the first human outpost to be horribly obliterated in a surprise attack from an old enemy in violation of the peace treaty.

A slight variation on this device is to make a given NPC more loveable through the use of humor, and then killing/maiming/kidnapping that NPC to make the PCs and players more upset, as they’ll have a greater emotional attachment.

For example, the PCs will have a stronger reaction to the abduction of Rosie, the buxom and saucy tavern wench whose lewd comments about “size” and “length” and “potency” are freely directed at all men who accost her, than they will to faceless tavern wench #2.

Make Things More Silly

Note that there are two broad groupings regarding the nature of humor in a game.

  1. Humor that enhances the game without
    dramatically changing the tone.
  2. Humor that makes the game sillier.

Many GMs worry that trying to add humor to their games will result in a silly situation that destroys verisimilitude, but none of these techniques will necessarily produce such an effect. However, if that _is_ your goal, humor is obviously the fastest way to accomplish it.

If a game is just too serious, or players demand more levity but want to keep their characters, feel free to unleash silliness upon them in the form of the GAF (the Gnomish Air Force: flamingo-mounted gnomes), sentient mattresses (that, of course, flollop in swamps), wands of flatulence, disco- dancing stormtroopers, mimes, or the Jackson Five.

Run a Humorous Session

So your players _really_ need a break. It was a rough week at the office. The last five sessions ended with dramatic cliffhangers. The PCs have just dodged the 67th assassination attempt since becoming the Grand Vizier’s aides and are no closer to discovering which of the 898 lesser viziers poisoned the sultan. It’s 107 degree outside and the air-conditioner’s malfunctioning.

Your status as GM _depends_ upon a good time being had by all. And yet, you are unwilling to run a different game, let someone else take over, play a few games of Munchkin/Risus, or let the storyline slide. So, you drop in a humorous session.

If you don’t mind defaulting to “silly” humor, do the most zany, random, and bizarre things you can think of, hitting the players with one silly device after another (the mime- stormtrooper one-two punch is a favorite of mine).

If you want to preserve your storyline, your task is much harder, but not impossible. There are a few organizations with which humorous contact (at least for players) is always possible. Bureaucracies top this list (“No, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go to floor 8 to the Bureau of Letters to get the correct subform, though the workers in the basement at the Bureau of Stamping will have to approve it… and I think they get off on Wednesdays…”), but other contenders are strict churches, romantics, school officials, drunks, gnomes, old ladies, and, of course, mimes.

So, the last session ended with the players trapped in a city being burned and looted by dragons—now, as they flee through a house, they have to contend with the formidable old lady who refuses to let them pass unless they ask nicely and treat her cats with respect. After bypassing her however, they find themselves blocked by a lover’s quarrel (“I thought you loved me, not Esmeralda!” “But Diane–!”); then a guard keeps them from interrupting a gnomish inventor’s unveiling of a new invention.

They might even need papers signed by the Constable to leave the gates, according to the stubborn guard, despite the fact that the Constabulary is in flames.

To keep the session from becoming too silly, you can space out these humorous encounters and stick a few run-ins with looters or dragons to increase the sense of danger. The players are likely to think the encounters funny, but the PCs, who are in mortal danger, might find otherwise funny situations a bit less amusing (switch the city to a colony and the dragons to alien bombers and you have a humorous session for a sci-fi campaign).

Dropping in a comedic effect character is also a good way to add humor to any session without sacrificing storyline. The players are lost in a forgotten crypt? Have a powerless and depressingly mournful ghost appear and follow them around, muttering about how terrible its lot in un-life is, how un- lonely it is, and how pathetic it must un-seem, all the while bawling at the tops of its un-lungs.

Specific Ways to Create Humor

Okay, so you’ve seen exactly what humor can do for you, but you’re hesitant. “How can we create such humor?” “Tell me how to get my players to laugh!” “O Acolyte, help us!” (Maybe not that last one, but you are ready for some down- and-dirty humor tips.) Well, a freebie lies in those three statements: the rule of three.

Note that many of these tips overlap, and they try to generalize an extremely wide spectrum of humorous events.The Rule of ThreeNo, I’m not talking about some apocalyptic prophecy or some method of divining the truth about a teenager’s romantic exploits; I’m talking about something that many writers, playwrights, and readers know as gut instinct – that when listing anything, a list of three is generally better than a list of two or a list of four; humor is _not_ an exception.

So far in this article, I’ve employed the Rule of Three about 12 times, give or take a few. I’m not sure why this is; it just is. Must be one of those ‘universal laws’ physicists are always blabbering on about (case in point: how many Stooges are there?).Excess

Speaking about lists, just about the only time when a list of three isn’t preferable is when adding another item would be too bulky and complex, or when you can go over the top with 1d6+4 or more examples. In that case, an excess of examples or a massive listing can be quite humorous.

Example: “And the Lord did grin, and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats and large…” (Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail. Note that this is also an example of satire.)


Another perfect list-related humor device is anticlimax. All it really means is “hey, I was expecting something great and exciting, and I got This instead,” where “This” is something that utterly fails to be great or exciting.

Because the Rule of Three is so instinctual, throwing in anticlimax is a great way to get a humorous reaction on the third item in the list. Adding an anticlimactic fourth item is also acceptable. Anticlimax can also exist outside of a list any time that players expect a whole lot more than they get.


  • “Sir John spent his time in the noblest of pursuits: the hunting of the fox, the hunting of the deer, and the hunting of the woman.”
  • “Sir John was a noble in every sense of the word: chivalrous, brave, gallant, and as dumb as a post.”
  • “Sir John held close to the wall, his lady pushed behind him for safety. Her heaving breaths were quite distracting, but not so much as the clicking footsteps of the assassin that surely was creeping around the corner even now. His epee held at the ready against the assailant’s more than likely poisoned blade, Sir John leaped around the corner as his lady screamed, causing him to lose sphincter control. Before him stood that most terrible of villains, the domesticated housecat.”

Non Sequitur and Nonsense

A closely related humor device to anticlimax is non sequitur (“does not follow”), where you substitute something incredibly random that makes no sense in a limited context (though it would make sense, given the complete context).

This usually has a very silly result, but can sometimes come across as cryptic or simply inane. For NPCs (or even PCs) who are insane, under the effect of certain drugs, or just extremely annoying, this can be an effective way to ham up the role. When the otherwise normal NPC uses a non sequitur, it can be eerie, weird, or indicative of something much more sinister.


PC: “Hello, what is thy name?”

NPC, who is tripping on the 14th century equivalent of acid: “I want to eat daisies.”

Girl: “Don’t you think these dresses are cute?”

Guy: “Die Hard is a great movie.”

Girl, not knowing that the dresses are worn by a character in Die Hard: “Uh…what the heck?”

When a random spoken phrase has no motivation under any context, it’s not non sequitur, it’s nonsense. Nonsense is also very funny, in the silly way.

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Johnn: Thanks for the great tips, Ross. More tips on humour to follow next week!

Celebrate with Expeditious Retreat Press!

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Players’ Tip: An Enemy Of Your Enemy

From Deacon Rayne

Dirty PC Tricks: I against my Brother, my Brother and I against our Cousin.

A very common low-level task is “slay the beasties.” Frequent targets of this attention are humanoids: bugbears, goblins, and the ever-popular orc.

A common misperception is the forces of evil (and the forces of good for that matter) are united against “The Other Team.” History shows us, however, that the bitterest wars are often civil wars and the defining psychological trait of evil is that it will, out of sheer selfishness, eventually turn against itself.

To use the orc as a popular example, unless they are united (a task best saved for evil kingdoms and monomaniacal demons/wizards/lichs) chances are their warlike society has them at odds not only with the “good races,” (man, dwarf, elf) but also with other evil races. The desire for more land, more resources, prestige, or good old-fashioned bloodlust can inspire orcs (and other evil races) to make war on other goblins, hobgoblins, bugbear, ogres and even their own kind.

Rival orc tribes might be slaughtering each other, and rival “clergies” of Gruumsh are disputing the best way to exemplify the one-eyed deity’s values is not exactly unknown amongst the warlike orc race.

How can a clever PC troupe exploit this charming trait? Simple. Any history book will tell you: a war fought on two fronts usually is a bad thing (look at Germany’s experience in Russia for an example of this).

The next time a king or noble charges the PC with “ridding the {fill in beastie} scourge from our lands,” rather than charging them head on while they are fully rested and on their territory, simply do a little research. Hitting the local library can reveal the history of any wars involving said beastie and more importantly, who it was with and why, while a trip to the local ranger’s guild can impart more current or even firsthand accounts of who is slaughtering whom out in the wilds.

The town militia may also serve a similar use (“Yeah those goblins never attack the town during the summer, they are too busy with those orcs from the east.)

Now armed with this information, it is a small matter to then seek out the “other team”. Of course, walking into the arms of a monster’s encampment without taking suitable precautions is tantamount to suicide. This is where spectral messengers, illusions, and other methods of information conveyance become important.

This method has the bonus feature of conveying mystical power, which is by its nature strange and mysterious and therefore fear inducing (remember we’re dealing with goblinoids, and while not all of them are stupid, enough of them are that the “what I do not understand, I Fear and resent” gambit is worth a shot).

So, assuming one has now gotten the attention of the soon to be “disposable ally” (read: cannon fodder) it is usually a simple matter to motivate them to violence: greed, fear, pride, and racial hatred are the most prevalent psychological traits of most evil goblinoids and make a wonderful advantage.

On the issue of greed: bribes can work, in the form of a few pieces of gold, or a chest full of silver or even copper (many evil, not terribly smart creatures place more value on a LOT of shiny, relatively worthless things rather than a few number of nondescript, valuable things) or weapons with the promise of more to follow).

On the issue of Fear: threats can work, such as a combination of what the enemy will do to them if they _do not_ attack (stick it to them before they stick to you mentality is also pretty common with these creatures) and, if you can pull it off (sending a few impressive illusions or undead minions can go a long way towards this trick), what th PCs personally will do them if they do not obey.

Magic is wonderful in that you can bluff magnificently. Fear of force is a greater motivator than the force itself. Demonstrate a few impressive looking parlor tricks with the demeanor that you are capable of _far more_ than you actually are and you will find intimidating others not terribly difficult.

Any beastie can calculate strength and power that he _can_ see and thus fear less. Calculating what one _cannot_ see causes one to fear what one does not know. Remember the monster under the bed? Imagination is more terrifying than any reality. Let the minor display of power you show them force them to _imagine_ what you are capable of and you are well on your way to cowing them into submission.

Pride, especially the blustering posturing that fear oftentimes breeds, is another handy tool. It works better on the more intelligent, dangerous types, such as the militaristic hobgoblin who pride themselves on their martial prowess (be warned: many hobgoblins are fiercely intelligent and are going to be difficult to coerce into fighting your battles for you). Simply put: if you infer that the other guys are stronger, smarter, faster, more virile, and so on, it tends to breed a wonderful hostile resentment towards them that can be put to good use.

Finally, racial hatred. Every evil creature and predator would prefer to be the _only_ predator on the block since it means more food and less sharing. Remember, evil is selfish 99 percent of the time. Playing on this mentality to convince the bugbears to murder “those weak wretched goblins over the next hill” is certainly a viable tactic. Remember the Two Towers? “I don’t take orders from Orc Maggots!”

So, put it all together and you have the following: a group of orcs that you have:

  1. Supplied weapons and gold to, with the promise of more. (Promise them anything you like, it is not as if you plan on having them be alive to collect).
  2. Inferred that the enemy will “take care of them” unless they “betray them first” and that, should they defy you, will slaughter all their first born, rain blood from the sky, or something else equally dramatic.
  3. Brought into question, or mentioned that the opposition has brought into question, their martial prowess. If you have sufficiently terrified them with your own “substantial” powers you should be able to convince them to target the opposition doing the slander and not you.
  4. Played on their racial belief that _they_ are clearly superior than the other creatures, and since the weak have no purpose but to serve as cannon fodder for the strong, it is their racial obligation to slaughter and enslave them.

Therefore, now you have a group of evil creatures afraid, angry, greedy, full of bluster, and mightily pissed off at the notion that these weak inferior creatures are slandering them and planning on stealing their land/food/women. What do you do now?

You let them do what it is in their natures to do. Do not give them any time to figure out that they are being played or why they are suddenly inspired to go out and wreak havoc. You have wound them up with lies, innuendo, and possibly a few illusions and enchantment spells, so let them go.

What commences next is probably an orgy of barbaric violence as the creatures that you and your party were originally hired to deal with are suddenly beset by a group of seriously irritated neighbors howling for their blood. The besieged creaturesí reactions may range from bewilderment (for weaker creatures) to anger and assault (for stronger creatures).

So, you and your cohorts sit back and watch the carnage you have orchestrated as these two evil forces tear each other to bits. What then?

First, take stock of the situation: unless one force or another was vastly stronger, both sides should be more than a little bloody and wounded. It is entirely possible that one side is entirely exterminated and the other side is hovering on death’s door. Now is the time to strike: martial your own forces, ride in, and slaughter the weakened creatures. Having beat each other bloody in typical “Hulk Smash” humanoid fashion, neither side should be able to put up much of a defense or counter attack.

So, not only are the original creatures targeted now destroyed, but an additional tribe of monsters has also been dealt with. Seize the assets and goods of both creatures and return to your employer hopefully none the worse for wear to collect your reward.

Remember, one of the best and oldest games in the world is, “Let’s have you and him fight.” If you have a DM who appreciates a little PC ingenuity, this tactic of divide and conquer can reap worlds of benefits with very little risk.

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Random Animal Encounters

From Dariel Quiogue

Roll a d8 or choose:

  1. Animal, predator: The animal is a carnivore seeking food, and is big and mean enough to threaten the party or their mounts. e.g. a hungry wolf pack spooks the horses at night.
  2. Animal, hidden hazard: The animal is a well-camouflaged and dangerous creature that attacks if disturbed, or is a big ambush predator. The archetypal encounter of this type is a poisonous snake lying unseen in grass. Roll to check if you spot it, else it gets a free attack when a character steps on it!
  3. Animal, spot guardian: The animal is trying to protect a specific spot, usually a nest site. e.g. a crocodile with a riverbank nest lies hidden in the water, but will rush out at any PC that comes too near the nest. Typically, spot guardians will attack or feign an attack, but not go far.
  4. Animal, irritable bruiser: The animal is a large, strong, and highly irritable creature that may attack simply because one has gotten too close to it. e.g. rhinoceros. Alternately, this might be an animal or herd of animals that spooks easily and can cause problems by its panic. e.g. a herd of buffalo.
  5. Animal, portent: The animal’s appearance or call is a sign of something that could be trouble for the party. e.g. a flock of birds startled out of its cover by an approaching gang of bandits; a troop of monkeys screaming because there’s a tiger nearby – the tiger is too well-hidden for the party to spot by themselves, but the monkeys have seen it. Alternatively, the animal could really have magical meaning or value, and may lead the party to something interesting.
  6. Animal, thief: The animal is a small, quick, and cunning thief that will steal food or items. These animals will usually strike while the characters are in camp or taking a rest break and have their stuff strewn about. e.g. a troop of monkeys steals a PC’s clothes, weapons, provisions, or pouch of spell components while he’s taking a bath in a forest pool. You can have a fine comical chase scene with situations like this one.
  7. Animal, wondrous creature: A rare, magical creature, possibly intelligent. e.g. a unicorn or pegasus.
  8. Animal, mystery: The animal is not seen, but its calls or its activities near the party are disturbing. It may seem to be stalking the party, it may steal food from the camp, or its yowling at night is simply unnerving. This is specially fun when the party is in an environment that is strange to them and they have no way of identifying the creature.
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Pretzel Dungeons

From Tony L Thomas

An inexpensive alternative to the Vinyl Battlemats or the molded 3D terrain pieces is…pretzel sticks! Our group has been using them for several years. The typical, thin pretzel stick is almost exactly 10 scale feet in 28 mm scale. When exploring dungeons, ruins, or buildings, we use the pretzels to construct the walls in 10-foot sections…broken pretzels make shorter wall sections.

And even better, when the party gets trapped in a no-way-out room…they can eat the walls to keep from starving and provide a way out.

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Campaign Tracking Web Sites

From Scott ThorpeHey

Our group is going with Guild Universe. It is mostly used for guilds from games like Everquest, but it suits our needs so far. http://www.guilduniverse.com/

The Falcon Moor campaign has a fantastic site that their DM seems to host, but they use the phpbb service for their campaign forum for discussions and adventure logs.


I hope those can help out if someone else is looking. [Johnn: If anyone else knows of a web site that is good for pen & paper campaign tracking, let me know!]