Comedy in RPGs – #RPGaDay 2017, Day 28

August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:

Today’s question is this:

What film/series is the biggest source of quotes in your group?

Huh, funny assumption. I can say I’ve played with people who do this a lot—who love to quote lines from Monty Python or action movies or whatever—but not so much, lately. I don’t have a regular group, right now, but in my last group, I don’t really recall anyone quoting movies so much. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t comedy, it was just more situational or (imaginary) slapstick comedy. Do groups really habitually quote movies or TV series? It’s not my experience. Occasionally, but not that often. 

I guess I’ll talk about comedy in the games I’ve participated in lately. 

The types of comedy that jump out at me, when I think this over, seem to be sort of in line with the sitcom. Now, sitcoms are funny things: like a fire, comedy comes from the tension in a story or situation, and in sitcoms, the comedy often seems to emerge by rubbing a character (or chartacters) against another character, or against a situation, in a way that sparks fly. That is, it’s another form of tension and conflict and resolution distinct from, well,. combat or what we usually think of as conflict.

Now, in the RPGs I’ve run, the two main sources of comedy have been the characters, and their hijinks. (Okay, there’s a third, but I’ll get to that.) 

First, the characters, when they’re funny, are usually funny because they represent a type, an archetype of sorts. The dumb barbarian who is really dumb; the conniving, cowardly crook who is really cowardly or conniving; the gorgeous space fighter pilot who is constantly being hit on by fellow space jocks so much he can barely get anything done; the nerd who is obnoxious, and then she’s really obnoxious. The secret is that you have to commit to the character’s nature even when you know that’s going to screw the character over in play. It may get ’em killed, in the end, but it’ll be a fun ride.  

Next there’s situations that these characters get into, that can be funny on their own. For example, it’s funny when someone gets turned into a gorilla, or a monkey. It’s less funny when they’re turned into a toad (unless they’ve been loved up and turned into a horny toad, har har):

But seriously: characters getting stuck in a hole they’re too big to get through; falling into a pit trap they forgot to check for; characters exploding because they cast a spell wrong, or being eaten by the otherworldly being they stupidly attempted to summon? Or, you know, the Computer incinerating them because they’re Commies (because they frowned after having a bad day)?

Yeah, sure, all that’s pretty funny too, in the moment. But what’s really funny is the comedy you get when the ridiculous situation and the ridiculous character inevitably collide in the inevitable way you always knew they would, and had to do, except it catches you by surprise in the moment. That’s the third source of comedy I alluded to. It’s also depends on the dice, often. It’s spontaneous, and that’s why it’s even funnier. 

The lunkhead barbarian stereotype who’s been mocking the smaller characters gets stuck in a tunnel he can’t fit through, say; or the party’s paranoid rogue, who’s been checking for traps incessantly for weeks’ worth of game sessions, suddenly decides he’s not going to bother… and five minutes later, tumbles down into a spiked pit trap. The character who’s been miscasting spells and getting great results, and got a little too comfortable with the whole idea, suddenly miscasts badly and explodes: that’s funny. Or how about if the character who vast summoning was eaten by the thing he summoned… but, ironically, he only bothered to try summon it to protect himself from being eaten by a different monster that is much less horrible than the entity he summoned. (Ooops!)

My last group was pretty good at this: one character was just a sex-crazed, drunken warrior, but the player followed through on it, and got the poor character into a lot of trouble doing so—there was a pot of shrinking ointment he found in a witch’s tower that, well, it ruined the poor guy’s life for a while. Another character was a man of faith blessed with a sort of good luck that didn’t always seem divine; he got good mileage out of that, as well as his staunch defense of his faith in the face of that belief system clearly not lining up with the world around him. Another player ran a mage character who, being secretly undead (the character was a Revenant), basically lived recklessly, took too many risks in his spellcasting, and… yeah, he finally blew up when he miscast a spell one day. 1 It was kind of horrifically glorious, even as it bummed us out because we really liked that reckless jerkwad of a mage.

There was a degree of poetic justice in that death, and also in the way that one time, a character was being a jerk—killing some unfamiliar dogs because he felt like it—and he rolled a critical fumble, causing his musket to misfire: he lost a few of his fingers in the blast, and we (the player included) laughed with schadenfreude-laced contentment. 

I like that kind of humor in game sessions—stuff that organically grows out of exaggerated characters and the exaggerated situation they put themselves in, and the sparks that fly when you run one against the other. I prefer it to even really well-placed, clever quotations of lines from movies or TV shows, personally.

That said, if people are quoting shows, I prefer it to be surprising and clever. In a fantasy adventure setting, quoting Lethal Weapon or The Godfather or The Sopranos in a way that’s both appropriate and funny, is far more unexpected than quoting obvious sources such as, say, Monty Python’s The Quest for the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride.

It’s a better joke, to me, because the fruit is less low-hanging. Someone who can riff on Nietzsche or a famous rock song lyric or some bit of The Canterbury Tales in a way that makes sense in-character is inevitably going to be funnier (in my opinion) than someone who goes for the easy, obvious quote, like, er, you know:

But that’s just me, and I have plenty of idiosyncracies about things like this. I’m not saying people who quote shows are doing it wrong. If you’re having fun, how can you be doing it wrong?

One more thing: I think that genre of games that are written to be read and laughed over—whether or not you play them—is altogether valid. HOL (Human Occupied Landfill) and its companion BUTTery wHOLesomeness are another example: I’ve heard of people trying to actually play it, but most sane people just stick with chortling over the book. (I’m shocked to find it still in print and available from the publisher, in a “new” (2002) edition.) 

But I’m more impressed when humor is integrated into the rulebooks for games that really are intended to be played, as well as read with delight. On some level, I suspect some of the Paranoia XP line was designed in part to be like that. (I mean, this is Paranoia. Rules and setting supplements need to have something more going for them than mere usefulness in play, right? And they are funny.) Another book that was designed more to be a joy to read than for clarity in play is the Magnum Opus Press edition of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a book full of uproarious digressions that happen to illustrate exactly how the game ought to be played. RPGs have come a long way and gamebooks having more purpose than just reference during the middle of a game is a fine and splendid thing. I think humor even in regular old mainstream gamebooks is worthwhile… but since comedy is hard, maybe we shouldn’t go so far as to expect it, especially when it might contradict the mood of the game at hand.  


  1. Okay, the character actually turned inside out, with his innards hanging in the air, fully extended out in every direction all around his body, for nine seconds. But the result was pretty much like temporarily exploding.

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