A-Z Action: Jocularity

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?

9 thoughts on “A-Z Action: Jocularity

  1. When I played my first game of Dungeons & Dragons, I played a giant cliche. A big, brooding fighter guy who was super serious about everything, but would never talk about it to the rest of the party, because that would cheapen his grim quest for revenge.

    I had a lot of fun with it, but that was when I was first starting out. My next character was a big broody serious paladin guy, followed by a big broody serious secret agent guy (Spycraft), and so on, and so on, and so on.

    The most common question I was asked at the table by other roleplayers was “What was your guy’s name again?”

    It was expected, really. My characters had all the depth of a bad 80’s action movie. Ryu from Street Fighter was a more interesting character, and he literally thinks of nothing but fistfighting and becoming better at fistfighting.

    So, I went back to the drawing board. I crafted characters with deep, involved backstories of love, betrayal, loss, fury, and heroism.

    I ended up with a barbarian who survived the death of his tribe at the hands of a traitor, and the harrowing story of how my character defeated incredible challenges to get to safety. I had written paragraphs of backstory about his unique personality and tragic past and I can’t even think of it anymore without rolling my eyes. No one cared about how my goat was crushed to death by a frost giant when we were fighting orcs for their pies.

    Right around this time a buddy had been pestering me to get into Living Greyhawk. From what I’d heard about it, joining a quasi-MMO and playing non-campaign D&D with a bunch of random slap-drags didn’t excite me. He was insistent, though, and one sunny morning I said “Aight, screw it, let’s do this.”

    I made my character at the table, because the party needed a wizard. I’d been reticent to make a character that fast, because I wouldn’t have had time to build a pages-long tragic past. The guy who brought me said “Dude, no one cares. Play the first thing that comes to mind.”

    Exasperated, I look out the window, and see IHOP across the street. I blurt out my entire character backstory, extemporaneously:

    “He’s a goddamn pancake chef.

    Everything else just tumbled out automatically. Phineas “Flapjack” Torrence, a pious worshipper of Jemima, who quested for the fabled Stone of Bisquick. With this he could realize his dream: Open the Interplanar House of Flapjacks.

    Flapjack’s spells were all pancake related; Melf’s Acid Arrow became a ladle-full of hot maple syrup, Magic Missile was a handful of thrown frozen pancakes, and I’d summon pancake batter constructs.

    Flapjack was a hit at every table I played him at. People got in on the joke- they’d eat masterwork pancakes that I crafted and rave on and on about how they were better than Heroes’ Feasts, druids would volunteer goodberries, and other players would ask after rumors of the Stone of Bisquick.

    I came across one guy who hated Flapjack though, and he played a big broody serious paladin guy. I saw myself in him, playing the character that I could see no one gave a shit about.

    I came to realize that humor gives a character an incredible level of humanity, and it allows other players to relate to the character as a real person that they care about. Observe Captain Reynolds of Firefly; He’s a broody badass, but he can crack a joke every once in a while, and for that people love him.

    The application of humor serves as a counterbalance to grim reality, and it pulls people deeper into the story. People are naturally willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a joke, and then they’re hooked in.

    This got a lot longer than I’d planned for a comment, I should probably start a blog.

    1. You start it, I’d read it. Especially now that I’ve had the epic backstory of Kash, which explains how he drew the Cudgel of Chuckles from within the Grimrock!

      Something I have enjoyed since I started up this more active blogging project has been seeing how many gamers actually followed trajectories similar to the one I did. I just resurrected a character from my college days for Sandster’s Courts of the Shadow Fey game…and actually found most of my character writeup from back when I first created him. That app ended up being a couple thousand words of bitter, twisted corpses exhaled from the hellscape within his chest; and that’s after I cut the brutal backstory where he was from a village cursed to produce no girl children, and where every woman died during childbirth (turning the men into bandits, brigands, and murderers).

      I’ve managed to move away from that level of angst, but I’ma be honest Kash-> I don’t think I could ever get IHOP on dat ass. I respect your mastery of the craft even more knowing you could pull it off. I am trying to steer Blordik in a lighter direction, but with Joe swapping out yet another character in that game I think the dwarf’s going to end up even grimmer than before.

    2. You’re my hero, Kash.

      I mentioned my struggle with the role-playing rut I find myself in these days to Thyme the other day, and I think what y’all are talking about is another side to the same coin.

      It’s not that I make character that are necessarily too serious or angsty (though I’ve drafted a few of those in my time as have we all), but they’re one and all thoroughly up their own asses with self-indulgent back story. I’m still prone to missing the point that “Dude, no one cares” about your past, tragic or otherwise, and I struggle to make characters interesting without relying on a 10 page biography that no one will ever read. The character I’m playing in Sandster’s ‘Tears’ game is the closest I’ve come in quite a while to playing a fun memorable character that has little or no back story (he’s a chortling masked egg-man), and it’s an experiment that I really need to be trying harder to reproduce in future games.

      I don’t think it always has to be SLAPSTICK humor that makes you stand out in the moment, although I think its a great example of a thing that you can decide your character is about that has nothing to do with history. Some sort of exaggerated quirk that plays out in the interactions you’re having with other players DURING the game, rather than with yourself outside of it, is what makes characters funny and memorable for everyone at the table. There’s really no reason you couldn’t do the same thing with exaggerated angst or machismo or cowardice, etc, but what’s especially easy about the absurd is that it’s so self-referential: everyone around you appreciates it, because they don’t need to go read something else you wrote earlier to understand why pancake magic missiles are great and be in on the fun.

      So, as I wrote to Thyme earlier, the lesson I take away is to play SIMPLER characters, and play them larger than life AT THE TABLE rather than with yourself. Which… makes me suddenly think that what I’m really writing about, and perhaps understanding for the first time, is this whole FATE “aspects” thing that you guys have been trying to make me use in my write ups for your games. If what your character is about can’t be simply stated in a sentence by anyone you’re playing with, then you really shouldn’t be about that. Huh.

      1. Aspects are hot, aren’t they ‘Mo?


        One thing I can point to having definitely improved on over the last five or so years of gaming—something that was very pronounced once I left the Pits and moved from being a member of the board community to a guy who was just there to game—is that I’m far less prone to develop ridiculously elaborate backstories. Which is kind of crazy, given the length of some of the backstories I have dropped on Myth-Weavers. But the lesson I took away from my time on the Pits was that I had to stop writing and DMing my characters; I used to develop a dude, then write up several paragraphs of his past adventures and nemeses and goals and achievements. I’d pump their back-end so full of bullshit that there wasn’t much point in actually playing the character…his story done been told.

        In a way, I think this conversation is moving from humor into character concepting in general. Might do that it’s worth approaching another post with that ish.

  2. I tend to be more subtle with my humor; I think that might help in your darker campaigns. It’s not so much that it isn’t there, it’s that it’s thrown into the descriptions (I once described one NPC’s last-minute attempt to save herself from a deadly fall as involving “what could only be described as grabbing the laws of physics by the throat and explaining to them in a venomously cheerful voice that they will suffer grievous bodily harm if they do not permit her to do this) or in a character’s comments (one who had just been saved from what would have been a fatal illness describing how she’d felt the symptoms to be and ending with “I have a fret ration, and I am going to use it.”). I think the key is mostly making sure that your humor doesn’t beg for a pause to laugh or a rimshot.

    1. That’s well-taken advice, and probably humor I’d be better-suited to running anyway. I have to admit that when I imagine running a laugh-a-minute game, I feel like I’m somehow being impious, given how good gaming’s been to me.

  3. Pardon the four month late response, but this topic was intriguing to me.

    I like a bit of humor injected into my games, but the problem is that generally speaking, my friends and I tend to riff on a joke to the point of being a distraction to the game.

    Speaking slightly off-topic though, here’s some out-of-game humor… I think I may have stumbled upon my childhood best friend while browsing blogs for D&D. Unless there’s another child of interracial marriage from Casper, WY, in his late 20s.

    Seth, if you remember me, we should chat sometime about D&D and other forays into nerddom. Feel free to find me on Facebook or Google +

    Oh, and congrats on the successful proposal.

    -Robin Hebert

    1. Oh you’ve the right of me; I recall the first place I ever saw Zero Suit Samus was at your house! We’ll have to get caught up sometime we’re both on the nets.

      And no need to apologize for the late response; after all, I haven’t been very good about updating the site at all since I started setting things up for the move I just completed. Glad you found the article worth a read, though, and hope you pull a few other gems out of the backlog until I start generating new content.

      I threw you an fb invite as I was typing out this response.

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