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Keeping Kosher

The Joke's on You

by Walt Ciechanowski
Apr 07,2005


Kosher Break

By Walt Ciechanowski

The Joke's on You

Humor is a big part of roleplaying games. After all, the biggest reason to play games at all is to have fun. If I asked any gamer to recall their most memorable scenes, chances are that many of them would involve humorous situations. I can still fondly recall a game I was running more than ten years ago where I had two players playing secret government agents storming the lavish home of a drug lord. The players smashed their way through the door, upon which the drug lord was shooting at them with a submachine gun from his staircase balcony (hey, I was still inspired by the 80s!). One of my PCs took careful aim with his pistol and fired. He rolled a critical miss and his gun jammed. Upset, the player informed me that his character was throwing the pistol at the drug lord in frustration. Feeling generous, I allowed him to make a "throwing" roll. He went for borke and called a head shot. He then rolled a critical hit. The drug lord dropped to the floor, knocked out cold. The game was put on hold for a half hour of gut-busting laughter.

Still, when misused, humor (and irony) can be damaging to a campaign (not to mention friendships in general). Oftentimes we don't even notice when we're doing it, and the player or GM at the butt of the joke may shrug it off, trying to be a good sport. Of course, even when the person seems to go along with it, the wound festers.

One example I can recall was a player who recently let go of a beloved character after several months of trying to move his subplot (too much detail to go into here). In response, he designed a character that fit better with the party (a mage in a modern Witchcraft campaign). Unfortunately, he had a propensity for bad dice rolls, and more often than not whenever he cast a spell it would backfire on him. As the GM, I decided to have fun with the system and gave him what I thought were pretty funny misfire effects.

The result? The player was extremely offended. He had let go of his last character partly because he felt it wasn't appreciated, and now his new character was little more than a clownish buffoon whose powers exploded on him every time he tried to help. While no one else saw it that way (indeed, the other two players actually loved his portrayal of the character), he couldn't shake the bad feelings. He ended up ditching the character and never returned to it. To this day he still can't understand why the other players liked the character so much.

Similarly, I know another player who always wants to play the "lone wolf commando" type that oozes machismo and style and takes no lip from anyone. Unfortunately, the player's social skills never quite match his character's and he always ends up bungling his way through situations. In one memorable case, he was playing a billionaire playboy superhero. His overreaction to a brush with the law made him panic; and being egged on by the other players I kept hammering him until he was practically a penniless fugitive. His character ended up dying when he panicked during a police sting. After canceling for two weeks, he confided in me that he wasn't enjoying himself and checked out of the campaign entirely.

In both cases, I could probably brush off my complicity as "not my fault" or that the players involved were being "too sensitive." Still, as GMs we wield a great deal of power and we should be aware of our players' wants, needs, and sensitivities. In the first case, an occasional spell misfire can be funny. Given the player's situation, I should have downplayed or ignored the effects (beyond wasting a spell) until the player was comfortable with his new character. In the second case, I could have offered guidance to the player on how to get out of his situation with dignity (his brush with the law was intended as a minor encounter. I presumed he'd be taken in, questioned, and released. Instead, I fed off his panic and kept the heat on him as he floundered around).

Another lesson to take from the second case is that peer pressure can have a strong influence on a GM. Since the foibles of one player were making the other four or five at the table laugh, I kept rolling with it. It never occurred to me to notice that there was only one person at the table not laughing, and under the circumstances his reaction was the most important. I had justified my position on the basis that this was a "gritty, realistic" campaign, and that bad actions would have bad consequences. Yet at the same time, I never allowed him to make an intelligence or skill roll to see if his character would have done what the player wanted. I was guilty of letting a joke go too far, and it wrecked the campaign.

I mentioned "irony" earlier, so I'd like to give an example of that. In one swashbuckling campaign, there was a character whose father was a Viking pirate and whose mother was a more civilized and religious woman. The player decided that the mother raised her character. In typical teenage angst, she hated her mother's strict discipline and idolized the romantic lifestyle of her largely absent father. When I announced that the character got a letter from her mother stating that she was visiting the player relished in the thought of confronting her.

Now during this campaign I made a habit of writing "prologues," short cutaway scenes that introduced some aspect of the upcoming adventure. Prior to the "mother-daughter" adventure, I wrote a cutaway of the mother's thoughts as she stood on the deck of the sailing ship headed to port. She was reflecting on her relationship with her daughter. It turned out that everything the daughter thought and felt was horribly skewed. The father was an abusive louse, and the mother did everything she could to ensure that her daughter would not follow in his footsteps. She also allowed her daughter to keep her romantic image of her father, hiding the abuses from her. I thought it was one of the best cutaway pieces I'd written. Luckily, I showed an advance copy to another player, who suggested that I approach the affected player privately with it.

It was a good suggestion. The player absolutely hated it, as it made her character look like an ungrateful idiot (especially since she made a barb about the mother every previous session). Had I sprung it on her at the game, I would have done serious damage. As it was, the player mentally checked out of the scene when her mother did arrive in town. What could have been a very interesting encounter turned into an over-hyped non-event.

These three examples also illustrate three types of humor in a game: spontaneous, slippery slope, and calculated. I'd like to spend a few moments on each.

Spontaneous humor is the hardest to control. It's the off-handed joke or chance encounter (such as a bad dice roll at an inopportune moment). While it can be a source of great fun (remember the drug lord and the thrown gun) it can also do serious damage. When making spontaneous jokes, try to keep in mind what the player is looking for in the game and don't belittle that. In effect, you're telling that player that what he enjoys playing is stupid (i.e. if he enjoys playing a lone wolf with a katana, and you constantly make katana jokes, you're sending the message that you don't appreciate his contribution to the game). If you think the joke might be taken the wrong way, don't use it. Similarly, an unlucky dice roll has already cost the player some face. If she looks flustered or upset, it's probably not a good idea to add insult to injury.

Slippery slope humor is when spontaneous humor rolls out of control. It's when your dark, gritty horror campaign degenerates into a Three Stooges session after a particularly bad dice roll or decision and the after effects. Usually, one player is bearing the brunt of the jokes. This could turn very ugly if the player feels the rest of the table is persecuting her. If you see a player struggling, don't continue to hammer her. Throw her a life raft and get the game back on track.

Calculated humor is when you design an encounter for humorous intent. Calculated humor often comes in the form of irony, and irony may or may not be appreciated. If you are planning a humorous encounter or happenstance, make sure that the player can handle it. If your encounter is, in effect, telling a player how to play or present her character, it probably won't be well received. Calculated humor is at its worst when the GM intentionally messes with the players for her own amusement. While this can be fun in small doses, I can tell you from experience that players don't enjoy showing up week after week just to get ridiculed by the GM. No one enjoys being around mean-spirited people, and you soon may find cancellations or quitting to happen more often.

Keeping Kosher

Jokes, irony, and humor are fun and should be a part of any game. When using them, however, be careful that you aren't doing so at another player's expense. It could cause serious and needless damage to the campaign.

Good Gaming!

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