I have been known to crack wise.
I’ve produced a chuckle or two, elicited a snicker, even provoked a guffaw. I come from a family of jokesters, particularly my father, uncles, and cousins. We once relied on Big Lebowski quotes for the lion’s share of an entire Thanksgiving holiday’s conversation.
I’ll poke fun at myself, at my friends, at my foes. I’ll break tense moments with an off-color remark. I interlace most stories with a blistering stream of profanity that provides a staccato undercurrent to the thrust of my statements.
But I don’t tend to joke when I’m gaming.
This is something I’m only recently becoming aware of, honestly. The awesome sandbox 4e Pathfinder game I’m a part of was heavily Deadwood-inspired, and thus speeches are interspersed with heavy cursing and bawdy subject matter. Major plot points have included: severing the hemipenii of a massive wyvern in order to cure a trading post owner’s impotence, so that his wife would be less tempted to tussle with every adventurer to ride through town; stealing a crop of very valuable aphrodisiatic radishes from amidst an orgy of copulating kobolds (which ultimately also went to solving Oleg’s “problem”); and cleansing a pool of a stank so powerful it was capable of assuming corporeal form.
The character I play is a combination of Caine, Balki, Mr. Wu, and Arjuna. Several of those influences are actually accidental; I wrote him as a very Mahabharata-inspired character who was trained to throw himself into losing battles on behalf of the peasantry, train them to defend themselves, and bring peace to embattled regions. However, as we began the actual gameplay, I started presenting his misappropriations of language and boundless cheer as an intentional foil to the fact that he’s one of the most thoroughly lethal characters in the party. It’s worked especially well because another character is a thoroughly menacing sociopathic eyepatched midget (reskinned halfling) who tends to be angry and acerbic…but stops short of actually cracking the ribcages of his fallen foes and eating their hearts. Napan is also distinguished from much of the party by his reliance on swords (most of the characters use weapons reskinned as shotguns and pistols), and the enthusiasm he shows as he rushes into melee with foes is partially due to his childhood training, partially due to his genuinely hopeful disposition.
The key element of the Pathfinder game, though, is that we’ll flip between serious and farcical at the drop of a broad-brimmed Stetson. We went from the hemipenii caper to a long sojourn in a ghost town replete with actual ghosts, where we solved a murder mystery which turned out to be the mystery of how the party’s revenant had died. The party actually stepped back through the thinned veil of time and stood with him and his family against the faceless hordes of the evil Hearst, killed all them cocksuckers, and stole a precious moment for our Deader to spend with his lady (played by Christina Hendricks). That scene was followed by the stank elementals, whose creation turned out to be the result of a thugee-inspired cult’s machinations—machinations which very nearly spelled the death of everyone for several-score miles.
The party just finished slaughtering a group of bandits who were very self-aware of their banditry, crying out “Oh boy, I sure can’t wait to rob someone!” That’s also where we picked up our elite unit of existentially-conflicted or dysphoric ogres.
Napan manages to be funny in this environment because the DM managed to create an environment which can vacillate between hilarity and grimness from post to post, and I’m just filling a role. The player of the aforementioned homicidal halfpint also DMs another game that I recently joined—joined right before we enjoyed a TPK, actually. That game, too, is characterized by long-running comedy monologues broken up by vicious combat, though the borders are slightly more defined. I built a character whose chassis is something of a joke: a dragonborn social activist who is opposed to adventurers and the work that they do because he used to live in a red dragon’s compound, which he viewed as something of a social utopia. He champions the cause of the poor kobolds and goblins, so prone to demon-worship in the absence of a strong and guiding draconic hand. This let me have an entertaining monologue when I joined the party, which had just formed an agreement with a dragon and brokered a peace accord with a tribe of kobolds and goblins…none of which my character realized. However, I’m ultimately playing that character as much more of a straight man in most situations; the hilarity spotlight is pretty well centered on the party’s monk, the Unusually Large Gentleman.
I enjoy playing in these funny campaigns, but they still feel like a revelation to me despite what is approaching two decades of gaming. My campaigns in high school were never played for laughs; quite the opposite, usually. I tried to give the characters a sense of heroism on a grand scale, with consequences and antagonists to match. Even when I did present something amusing, I usually tried to walk a line (let’s call it the Burton Tightrope) between chuckle-inducing and unsettling. I once had a dungeon boss shit on the party, but as he was a gigantic Ooze Mephit his defecation served the dual purpose of being disgusting and adding several reskinned mudmen to the fight.
Tinderbox has no humor so far, at least none provided by me. I’m trying to present an almost post-apocalyptic setting which the players must struggle to survive within. That said, I very much enjoy the characters who are played for laughs, whether it’s lightly sardonic black humor or the character (played by the man who also plays the Unusually Large Gentleman AND DMs the Pathfinder game) who once yelled “The lightning, it does nothing! You weren’t expecting that, were you?” after his fourth or fifth miss in a row.
When I see how effortlessly some campaigns support tension and laughter, I wonder if I’m going about my own gameplay all wrong. My more well-received characters have usually been built around a kernel of humor, whether it’s Napan the Vudrani Arjun in Pathfinder or Nasty, the Gothic Rock Gargoyle in an old Silver-Age Sentinels series I played back in the day. At the same time, though, the idea of writing a campaign tuned to anything but the darkest of humor just feels…wrong to me. Like any other time I find myself unwilling to, or even incapable of, writing a certain way, I wonder if this is a failing on my part or a part of my personality.
Obligatory turn to the reader: How much of a place does humor have in your games? Is it more welcome in certain genres, or even certain systems?