Irony Is A Great GM Tool – 9 Tips
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #158
- GM-Player Irony
- Player-Character Irony
- Player-GM Irony
- Rules Irony
- Hypocritical Irony
- Dice Irony
- Dramatic Irony Vs. Comedic Irony
- Irony From Contrast
- Create Irony By Finding Patterns
- Gosford Park Movie Good Inspiration For Servant NPCs
- New Submission Guidelines Posted
- NPC Trick – Use Work For Personality Stereotypes
- Use Index Cards To Speed Up Combat
- Increasing Player Fun – Quotes Tip
- Anime Great For Character Names
- ITL – It’s Too Late
- Dungeon Time Limit Ideas
Dictionary.com defines irony as “the use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.” The effect of irony is to deepen story conflict, heighten tension, add a bitter emotional tang, or produce great humour. For these reasons, irony is a wonderful story technique.
In English class I was instructed that dramatic irony was a tool used by Shakespeare and other playwrights to enhance the entertainment or drama of their plays. Dramatic irony occurred when the audience knew something that the characters on stage didn’t.
For example, the audience knows that a character’s employer is eavesdropping while the character complains about his job to a friend and consequently puts his foot in his mouth.
In roleplaying, the opportunities for using irony are even richer because there is more than just the audience- character relationship involved. In RPGs, you actually have three parties: players, characters, and game master; and the permutations suddenly open up to make irony an amazing storytelling tool.
GM-player irony occurs when the game master is aware of some contradiction that the players do not see. For example, the players are being hypocrites, are contradicting themselves, or are not “walking their talk” while the GM looks on in amusement.GM-player irony also occurs when the GM uses meta-game information to personalize an encounter for a player so that it becomes comical, clever, or tragic.
Game masters should watch for and use these situations to enhance the game.
The players agree to stick together and watch each other’s back, but when combat erupts the party scatters and each character proceeds to do their own thing.
Possible GM actions:
- Pause the game and make the players aware that they’re not following their own wisdom. Perhaps give them a redo, or let them have a quick Out Of Character (OOC) discussion so they can rally.
- Wait until the action ends, point out the irony in a friendly way, and then have a good chuckle with the group.
- Integrate the irony of the situation into the on-going narrative. “Ok, sensing that you are an organized, efficient, and wise group, your foes appear to shake in their boots with fear and then barely hide their mocking snickers before they set about dividing and conquering your party. Roll initiative.”
- Use NPC actions to reveal (and mock) the PCs’ actions.
Goblin #1: “Watch my back Gnasher!”Goblin #2: “Ok Splitnose. Stick together!”GM: “Ok, goblin’s initiative. Gnasher runs east, Splitnose run west!”
The heroes have recently done something un-heroic, or have performed an amoral, alignment-breaking, or unethical action.
Possible GM actions:
- Have NPCs demonstrate the same action in the hopes that the players will feel shame or at least sense the irony.”The instructions from the rogue you just ‘interrogated’ were good and you find the hideout. Spying through the keyhole, you spot a prisoner who is being brutally tortured by a group of thugs. Finally, the victim manages to meet the leader’s eye and spit out, “Ok, ok, I swear never to park my horse in your stall again!”
- The GM uses her acting skills to mock the players or to get the players to think about what they’ve just done. If the players “shot first, asked questions later” and killed a significant NPC, the GM could lay the NPC’s character sheet out on the table before the players, silently point to the spot where it reads “Diplomacy Skill 95%”, cast her eyes down, and silently shake her head in mock tragedy.
The GM finds ways to victimize a player or players in the same way repeatedly.
Possible GM actions:
- A player’s previous character died at the hands of a wight (a D&D undead creature). Fudging a wandering monster roll, the GM attacks the player’s new and wounded PC with another wight.
- A pickpocket robbed the group’s map last week. This week, it’ll be a hellhound’s breath weapon and a resistance roll of paper vs. fire for the map. Next week, it’ll be a beholder’s disintegration ray. And the week after that, it’ll be a Trap >> Magic Curse >> Dyslexia.
This technique works best if the players believe you’re being fair or that it was their actions that resulted in the irony. The idea is not to pick on a player so that they get frustrated, but instead to look for opportunities to create ironic situations or to slightly tweak situations to further enhance encounters.
In the theatric sense, the players are the audience and the characters are the performers on the stage. Player-character irony occurs when the players know something that their characters do not and thus, the characters cannot act on this knowledge. This is often called “metagaming”, where players try to use OOC information to benefit their PCs.If you have a player who metagames, and asking them to stop hasn’t worked, try presenting the concept to them in terms of player-character irony.
Let them know that it’s common for players to have knowledge that their characters don’t, and that this is all part of the fun of roleplaying.This might adjust their thinking and your refereeing from “don’t/can’t do this” to “try to do this so you can enjoy the irony.” It could become a point of pride for competitive players where they can claim with satisfaction, “hey, check out the irony–my character doesn’t know you just failed to pick his pockets, so I’m gonna buy him a beer for being such a great pal!”
As you might have guessed, roleplaying is at the heart of player-character irony. Consequently, anything you can do to enhance or promote this type of situation is encouraged.
- Reveal GM-only facts to the players to heighten drama. For example, just as the battle with the big bad creature begins, show the players the monster’s hit points/health and potential attack damage. The characters won’t know this, but it will certainly add a little tension to the combat.
- Reveal GM-only facts to the players for comedic effect. For example, an NPC tries to bluff his way out of an encounter with the PCs. You roll a critical failure. Rather than tell the players how badly the NPC fails at his attempt, you lift your GM screen to reveal the critical failure dice roll. The players will hoot, holler, and laugh, and then wait in delicious anticipation of your portrayal of the bumbling NPC.
- Reveal GM-only facts to heighten the effects of a tragedy. For example, the PCs battle a major foe only to collapse in defeat. It turns out that the victorious foe only had one hit point left, and you inform the players by revealing your paperwork.
Player-GM irony occurs when the players know something that you don’t. Sometimes, this might feel threatening, especially if you prefer to control all aspects of the game. However, it’s a wonderful situation you should take advantage of when it happens because it makes the players feel privileged and engaged in your story. For once, they know something the GM doesn’t, and the fun factor goes way up.
- When the players do their group planning, step out of earshot and have them come get you when they’re done. This means you won’t know what they’re planning, and as the game unfolds, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a player who isn’t grinning madly.
- When a player knows a rule and uses it against the GM, it’s ironic. Avoid getting upset or frustrated. You’re human and will make mistakes. Plus, you’re busy running the game the whole night so you don’t have the luxury of quiet periods or between-turn moments to scour the rules looking for tricky exceptions or loopholes. In most cases, let the player(s) have their victory (and allow yourself to celebrate with them), add the rule to your knowledge base, and move on.
- When you forget an important detail and the players remember but don’t fill you in, that’s player-GM irony. For example, you forget that a recurring NPC has a magic Ring of Lie Detection and the PCs are getting away with murder.Take advantage of this situation by adding more details to your story that will make it more interesting and which will account for the mis-remembered detail. Avoid thinking of this as a huge mistake and avoid penalizing the players for their duplicity. Instead, it’s an opportunity to add an unexpected twist to your adventure. Roll with the punches (pun intended) and move on.For example, perhaps the NPC mentioned above has had his ring stolen but doesn’t want to let anyone know, so he made a duplicate to wear and has sent his agents out to track down the thief–who happens to be a friend or acquaintance of the PCs and who will appear in the next encounter and request help against the thugs who are on his tail.
It can be useful to teach roll-players and rules lawyers about irony. Often, if you can get closed-minded people to laugh at themselves, half the battle is won.Rules irony occurs when a player knows about a useful or pertinent rule, but either her character or the GM does not.For example, the player might know that fire is effective against the troll her PC is fighting, but her character does not. In this case, it might be useful for you to point out the irony to the player before she can act.
This might curb the player’s inclination to metagame and have her PC start pulling out the torches and oil flasks. “Oh the irony!”If a player employs a rule that the GM didn’t know or forgot about, then it’s important to be a good sport and keep focused on the job of having fun. Avoid making it a player vs. GM issue (which many rules lawyers thrive on). Either laugh at the irony as you would have your players do and move on, or try to knead the situation so that the game continues smoothly on and arguments are kept to a minimum.Rules irony also occurs when a GM knows a rule that will affect a PC, but the character’s player does not.
This situation is to be encouraged and sought out when the rule in question will end up creating a more entertaining adventure or encounter. Do this by periodically re-reading your game books and plan encounters around the likely-to-be- forgotten or unknown rule.
Rules from the player’s guide are especially effective as the irony will be that much greater.
Hypocritical irony occurs when the GM, a player, or a character commits a false act or claims to hold a belief that he doesn’t possess.
- A GM claims to encourage role-playing, but most encounters can only be resolved through combat. Or, a self-professed hack ‘n ‘slash GM creates puzzle or role-playing focused scenarios.
- A player claims to enjoy the campaign and to be serious about gaming, but he always shows up late and has a high absentee rate.
- A PC acts and talks tough, but is the first to head to the shadows when combat erupts.
Recognizing the irony in these situations is important. If someone is committing a serious hypocrisy, then noting the irony takes the edge off and lets you approach the problem in a more indirect, non-confrontational way. “It’s ironic that you’ve missed the last three sessions without advance notice Bob, because I think I recall you saying you were serious about the campaign. Are you still serious about playing?”
Another great technique is to make your NPCs hypocrites and to create ironic situations with them involved. This either lets you illustrate player or character hypocrisy so they get the hint, or it simply serves as the basis of a wonderful roleplaying situation with no innuendo intended.
Be on the look-out for when hypocritical irony happens. If the situation is humorous or innocent, such as when the character does something hypocritical but does not know it (yet), then celebrate the irony and let the players in on the joke so everyone can have a good laugh.
Dice irony occurs when the least favourable roll turns up at the most inopportune time. Perhaps a character fumbles during a called shot. Maybe a foe only has a 1% chance of succeeding against a character and rolls it. Or maybe the worst possible random effect is rolled, such as a character growing twice in size while trying to hide.Celebrate dice irony when it occurs. Give the player a sympathetic pat on the back after a fumble roll, or do a happy dance to mock the players when an NPC beats the odds.
Dramatic Irony Vs. Comedic Irony
Before you celebrate an ironic situation or tweak an encounter to become ironic, first consider whether the effect will end up being funny or tragic and then compare that to the game atmosphere you’re trying to create.If you’re running a serious game, seek to avoid comedic irony. I think this is the second most important reason for hiding important player dice rolls when a character is performing a risky task.
If the roll reveals an ironic result, any atmosphere you’ve tried to create will evaporate in the ensuing player uproar.Alternately, if you’re running a lighthearted game, avoid irony that will cast a serious or tragic pall over the table.
Irony From Contrast
If you have difficulty spotting or creating irony, start by looking for contrast. You can practice this in real life and at the game table by first getting a big picture view of any given situation, and then imagining its opposite.For example, if the PCs are in the middle of a deadly combat, the opposite would be peace and negotiation. How could you morph the concepts of peace and discussion into a planned combat encounter so that it becomes ironic?
- Appearances are deceiving. The nasty monster is actually considered a scholar amongst his kin.
- The dragon is really peaceful, and it’s actually the princess in chains using mind control magic to make the creature attack the PCs.
- An alien culture’s gesture of peace and negotiation involve throwing missile weapons at the feet of the other party (thus, giving up their weapons as a gesture of peace, but possibly appearing as an attack to foreigners).
Dictionary.com associates the words incongruity, contrast, opposite, difference, twist, satire, and sarcasm with the term irony. Keep these words and concepts in mind to help you conjure up irony.
Create Irony By Finding Patterns
Another key skill in creating or finding irony in any given situation is to spot a pattern and then look for the break in that pattern. The break is where your irony lies, and if a break isn’t ironic, then that’s what you’d change so the situation becomes ironic.For example, let’s say you start almost all your adventures in the tavern. The PCs hear gossip that leads them into trouble, strangers approach with help requests, or conflicts arise amongst the regulars that the PCs can help with.
And let’s say, for an upcoming adventure, the PCs need to find a map to get them started out.The pattern is that adventures normally start in the tavern, so the break in the pattern would be to start the new adventure elsewhere. To make the break ironic, you could mislead the PCs to look outside the tavern for their next adventure, while the adventure seed turns out to be in the tavern the whole time.
In game terms, this could be done by a dying messenger throwing himself on the PCs as they’re on their way to the tavern and uttering the final words, “give this scroll to the mage Ereamon.” The mage is waiting at the tavern for the messenger, but hopefully the Mage’s Guild seal on the scroll will cause the PCs to look elsewhere first.
Conflict fuels the stories in movies and books, and they should fuel your adventures as well. Irony is a great way to create conflict at many levels at your game table in such a way as to avoid hurt feelings and arguments that other kinds of conflict can create.
Unlike books and movies, RPGs offer many different and unique permutations of irony between players, characters, and GM. Be on the lookout for irony and wield it as a GMing tool whenever possible.
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A Brief Word From Johnn
Gosford Park Movie Good Inspiration For Servant NPCs
I recently saw the movie Gosford Park, a murder mystery. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie (some might find it too slow, and there’s nary an explosion or car crash in it) because it revealed the secret world of servants working in a small country manor.
If you decide to watch the movie, pay particular attention to the social hierarchy of the servants–it’s as intriguing as the hierarchy of the upper class people they serve. Great RPG material!
New Submission Guidelines Posted
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
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NPC Trick – Use Work For Personality Stereotypes
From Andy T.
I have always had trouble with NPCs.
I never used to enjoy playing them, and coming up with different but memorable NPC personalities on the fly made them turn out to be stereotyped. I just couldn’t think of enough different characteristics on the fly.
Then I hit upon the idea of using your work or college environment as a resource for personality stereotypes. It’s a nasty little piece of character assassination I like to call “Stereotyping your friends and enemies.”
After a couple of minutes reflection you will soon realise that you can easily exaggerate, twist, and turn the most memorable characteristics of your work colleagues or college friends/lecturers into stereotypical characters perfect for the genre of your choice.
For example, I work in an office divided into four teams, each with a supervisor, plus manager, plus marketing team, plus Uber-boss. (Evil Fat Cat director. Fans of Dilbert see: Catbert.)
So the manager in his office far-far away becomes the hermit in a cave, Guardian of the Important Bits of Paper and mystical Stamp of Authority, which become magic scrolls or some sort of magical artifact in your game world.
The supervisor and her deputy from down the end of the office become the Vain & Isolated Queen of the South with Whitestaff, her loyal and dedicated Druid, valiantly trying to keep the country in order, effectively ruling in her distracted absence.
Your mates from two desks over become the Feisty Red-Headed Warrior Woman of the Jungles of Wherever and the Quiet Brooding One always watching over her, always tagging along.
The slightly odd little man that no-one talks to becomes The Comedy-Side-Kick Odd Little Man for those light relief moments. If YOU are the slightly odd little man that nobody talks to, go see a movie, or better yet, write one.
The marketing team become a cabal of slimy cabalists in designer suits. Acting in secret, concocting lots of fiendish little plans to earn themselves favour with the Uber Boss at the cost of making your heroes’ lives that little bit more difficult.
The Uber-Boss (Managing Director with the Fat-Cat salary) can easily become the Evil, Soul Sucking Vampire, draining the life force out of everybody he controls and casting the broken and exhausted aside in his never-ending quest for more power and wealth.
Pretty soon you will realise that you can plunder the whole building for ideas and model the political structure of an entire game world on the microcosm of relationships you find in A Typical Office Building.
For those of you that have seen “The Office” on TV in the UK, you will know exactly what I mean.
Use Index Cards To Speed Up Combat
From Palmer Of The Turks
f you can (and wish to) get organized well enough, index cards are simply godly tools.
Make up one card per PC for the DM, listing AC, BAB, HP, initiative, damage, stats, spells, wands, and other basic sundries good in combat.
Each magic item should have its own card–2 actually. The player version names the item, gives a physical description, and lists all known qualities/abilities of the item (as they find them out). The DM copy has the same, but has everything listed. Mark them both with a ref number in the corner so you can match PC copy to DM copy.
Most monster stat blocks can be compressed to an index card as well and they’re great for keeping major NPCs in order. For NPCs, you may need two: one combat card, one social card (listing personality, who they are, what they have to do with the plot or PCs).
Make a bunch of chits (1 set per player, plus 1 or 2 for the DM) numbered 1 to (the highest initiative mod + 22) that players stick in front of themselves after rolling initiative so you can easily just glance around and see who goes when. Similar chits can be used to track spell use… PCs get 1 chit per spell they can cast labelled with the appropriate level.
For example, in D&D terms, the generic Lvl 4 Cha 18 Sorcerer gets 6 Lvl 0 chits, 7 Lvl 1 chits, and 4 Lvl 2 chits. As they cast spells, they toss them into a used chit container. Memorization-type casters simply write the name of the spells they’re memorizing on chits and toss in as appropriate. They naturally have already prepared 1 card per spell that they know with the full writeup on it.
For spells with descriptions too long to write comfortably on an index card, you can just write the School, Level, Components, Casting Time, Range, Target, Duration, Save, and Spell Resistance, maybe a brief summary, and then “See PHB p 123” or whatever. When you actually need it, you know the exact page and don’t waste time fumbling and searching.
The same sort of thing can be applied to feats and other class powers like Monk attacks and Barbarian Rages. [Comment from Johnn: for other super-organized GMs out there like Palmer, have any of you tried getting each player one of those small dry-erase boards? Each player gets a different pen colour and brush, and can record their hit points, initiative, spells available, spells cast (and remaining durations), marching order, etc., on the boards.
I haven’t done this, but have wondered about it. Any success stories out there?]
Increasing Player Fun – Quotes Tip
Assign a player as the quote keeper. As your group becomes comfortable with each other they will make memorable comments that are either on purpose or by accident. Keeping track of these quotes adds to the enjoyment of the game.
Anime Great For Character Names
From Jim B.
Great stuff! I always look forward to your articles and can always find some tidbit in each newsletter that I can use right away in my games.
Sometimes my players have difficulty coming up with names that aren’t cliche and a source for names occurred to me while watching anime. I mean no disrespect to the people or their families, but in the end credits there are hundreds of names. Select one and simply remove the last vowel, and viola, new fantasy name.
For example: Hiroshi becomes Hirosh and can be pronounced a number of ways. Some times this method will lead to the evolution of a name. i.e. Hentachi to Hentach to Hen-ttak the Half-Orc.
ITL – It’s Too Late
From Christian T.
One rule I like to play with that I jointly invented with one my players is the ITL rule: It’s Too Late.
If someone forgets a rule, whether it be the DM (Hey! Black dragons have spell like abilities!) or the players (Hey, my boots of elvenkind give me +10! I made that last check after all!), and if the game has already proceeded, one or more of us will shrug and quote: “You forgot? Tough! ITL!”
It definitely speeds up game time and makes us more interested in remembering important things.
Dungeon Time Limit Ideas
From Michael Ullom
Other time limit possibilities for your dungeons:
The dungeon is an area where the PCs have a limited period of time to get the treasure out, and every delay increases their chances of running into an army.
- Recently Unearthed
The dungeon has been discovered only a few days ago and will likely be crawling with adventurers. Compete or cooperate with other adventurers in getting the goods. And most importantly, hurry before some bigger group comes along!
- Temporary Demand
If there’s a crazy merchant clamoring for platinum, it’s only a matter of time before some other merchant comes in town with the goods, or devalues whatever’s inside the dungeon now. One group raided a wizard’s tower to get healing potions before a battle…
- Multiple Forces
Recently, my group bagged a white dragon and his evil ogre henchmen outside the cave. Imagine our shock when we discovered his treasure lay in the hands of rapidly evacuating ogres and the dragon’s pet ogre King after using up our best abilities on the initial encounter. A good way to remind people that ‘lesser monsters’ can be dangerous.
- Dubious Legality
If the dungeon is on somebody’s borders, it may only be a matter of time before the owner discovers this and the dungeon and everything in it become his property.
- Fairy Hill/ Rip Van Winkle
For every minute or hour spent in the dungeon, a different amount of time passes outside. Rest in there too long and come out a year or more later.
- Weather/Magic Related Time Limit
If the storm of the century’s coming in three days, the PCs might want to be long gone before then. Likewise, the dungeon might have a puzzle only solvable during a solar eclipse or stellar constellation…
- Minor Events
- Gambling debts called in
- The pawnshop only holding the magic sword for another week
- Yearly taxes coming up