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Bells & Thistles: Humor and Gaming

Not What It Says It Is, part two

Meera Barry
July 27, 2001

[Editor's note: Yes, this is actually part two of Thistles, Feb 2000-- I had split the original into two parts then never put up part two! It was only when a tenative comment from Meera raised this little point that this got corrected. With no further ado, then, the end of humor! Err... I mean, end of this two-parter!]

I tried drawing a line in my last article, but I didn't provide you with a definition. I was explaining that there's a difference between games that are written to be funny, and games where you just have a hopping good time. Or a skipping good time. You get the point -- such a good time you're moved...or moving from it. (Boy, I'm glad I'm avoiding toilet humour. We'll...erm...discuss that in another article, I'm sure.)

How many times did you laugh during your last gaming session? If you're not laughing, you might be playing the wrong game, or at least with the wrong people. I'm granting some exceptions for those dark, angst-filled sessions, just because I know it breaks the mood for some of you...but really, when you're with your friends (and your fellow gamers ought to qualify to some extent, IMO!) you should be able to laugh. You're supposed to be having fun, right?

I played a couple of sessions of AD&D recently. First edition, none of that pansy stuff [giggle]. Straight from the books I inherited from my father, who spent an hour of a session once explaining that our characters were helpless with (Tasha's Hideous, Uncontrollable) laughter because of the sight of a Rubber (marching) Band.

I was... (counting on my fingers) um... no more than 12 at the time. We had learned some hard lessons -- like that a giant slug really IS a dangerous monster, especially when it fills up a corridor ahead of you. The C'thuloid miniature that greeted us at the power plant is still my favourite. I still have the character sheets from that game. (Yeah, I'm either sentimental or a pack rat. Eh, forget it. I'm both. But mostly the latter. Don't get any ideas.)

So, 12 or so years later...what are we laughing at? What other kinds of "Cure" scrolls there might be. (I liked "Cure-Chew," and "Cure-pie Doll" myself. "Cure Bacon," The Fool's contribution, got the quote XP.) Whether or not the troll in the shower regenerated. ("The troll was wet. They're hard to burn even at the best of times.") Vegepygmy salad. If having a beard is just a subset of the hairiness a stout halfling can aspire to... yeah, you could be shaking your head. "That's dumb." Or you could be nodding, because that's exactly what you do, too.

That latter definition I can't be concerned with...either you have the right gaming group or you don't. (Personally, I think we need some good venery for gamers... My e-magazine occasionally does it for monsters, but would you call a bunch of RIFTS gamers a "Nexus of RIFTS Gamers" or is that too confusing? Would you call a bunch of Amber gamers an "incest" or a "conspiracy" or a "cabal"? Erm. Distracted easily? Me? Oooh. Shiny thing. Um, what was the question again?)

We're going to focus, then, on funny campaigns. Not gamers. Not games. [I just deleted a paragraph about my woes in advanced English classes and how unfair it was that my teacher didn't agree that Lord of the Flies was a Werewolf adventure. See? I can edit my own work. It was extremely relevant until I found the word for which I was searching. Um. "Campaigns." Don't ask. It's been a long, long year, already.]

Alright, I'm taking a step back already. A funny campaign can be influenced by the gamers of your group. It can be influenced by the game. It's going to be influenced by YOU. We really can't ignore those variables, but since I can't account for them, you're going to have to do some of the work yourself.

Let's use me as an example. I'll be the guinea pig here. Just as long as you don't expect to troll me with a roll of duct tape...erm. Just forget that sentence and move on...I am not the hamster you're looking for...thanks. My Jedi Mind Control roll failed. Maybe I'll just go use that ritual suicide chart again...

What do you need to know about me? You've just gotten a whole lot of trivia, but specifically, you need to know my gaming style. For example, I don't really do science fiction games...unless they're parodies. I don't really have a feel for the modern style, either; I'm not really qualified. (Unless you want to run a game about customer service for a comic book company...nah -- that's a horror campaign.)

[I don't know what reminded me...well, actually, I do, but if I mention it it'll be even more irrelevant than the comment I'm making in the first place...but I found out last Thursday that my little sister (the Model K.A.) knew the word "Samurai." (We saw it on a movie poster she was reading aloud.) I was astonished. I mean, she's not even seven. Apparently, she picked it up watching us play Wizardry: Bane of the Cosmic Forge a couple of months ago. Isn't that great? I'm just waiting to play "mythological creature" Scrabble with her.]

When I choose the genre, then, for my humour campaign, I probably want to stick to something I'm familiar with, and, frankly, pretty good at...these are, hopefully, things the group likes. (I'm just going to let you know, we're called "The Minions." Sometimes "The Minions in Black," of course. "The group" just sounds so...generic. So pay attention -- that may be on the quiz.) As much as I like the idea of, say, Castle Falkenstein, I don't feel creative enough for steampunk. So that's out. We do a lot of Amber, but, well, let's use the AD&D stuff I was talking about above...that'll put things into perspective, and it's a pretty good bet that you (the reader) know something about AD&D. Not perfect odds, but I'll take the chance.

In reflection, as I write this article (low on blood sugar and sleep, but that's as per usual) AD&D is going to be a challenge. It's easy to make AD&D humourous -- there's plenty on the web pointing to the laughs of it...I should know. (And yes, I'll be doing updates to the humour page soon.) But let's try to break some of it down.

One advantage to using AD&D is exactly that -- the wealth of material. Twenty-plus years of banging at the rules, having the adventures, and telling the stories gives AD&D a mythological weight. The Minions have over a century of gaming experience between us -- much of the early part of it AD&D. So keep this in mind. This basically means that I don't need to spend any real preparation on familiarizing the Minions with the system.

Familiarizing is a key technique, so we'll discuss it for a bit. While the Minions will play just about anything, we don't KNOW everything. My husband and I have a huge collection of games...and we're basically familiar with them, but again, while I have Blue Planet and I read through it and could keep up with a basic discussion of it, I couldn't go into too much detail. I have specific strengths in Nightlife, and Amber (two very low-mechanic systems) and then Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and all that White Wolf stuff. Oh, and I can do great characters in HoL if that counts. (No. Not even with the "Buttery" supplement. Do not be fooled.) Two people in our group are, like, GURPS experts. Well, they're not like the GURPS savant we had as a GM once -- the gentleman could tell you almost any relevant page numbers. I basically put it down as, "We can build characters without the book for a good round number of systems," so we're set.

We tried Earthdawn a while back. Since it's dead, dead, dead (sorry, guys, but I have no illusions about some mythical comeback) we've been able to just about complete our collection on the cheap. (I have a "Bargain Hunting" flaw (two points) when it comes to games because of that aforementioned collection...) I had written it off at the time it was out because, frankly, I wasn't interested in the genre, and, well, I don't like elves. (Visions of old Talislanta ads dance in my head...) The "Blood Wood" supplement, on the other hand...well, let's just say I changed my mind.

I didn't change my mind because of just one supplement, though. ("Shadow Knight" comes immediately to mind, and is discarded. Bah.) I changed my mind because I asked my husband (who had been perusing the Earthdawn stuff for a while) to describe it to me. He called it a "post-apocalyptic fantasy."

Familiarizing goes both ways. How you describe the game you're about to play is essential to setting the mood. When you're trying new games, or when you want to play something fun, you develop this technique. You say, "We're going to run a Katie Karnage game." Everyone in the group knows Katie is a frolicsome lass with a penchant for signing autographs and with her Karnage Kar, Klaw up the landsKape. (And any pesKy troublemaKers, too.) The expectations are laid out that fast. With AD&D, a lot of the same stuff applies -- it means we need a mage, a fighter, a cleric, and a thief, and everything else is gravy. I threw in a few foibles (no clerics, and no racial restrictions to class) but that's called "house rules," right?

I recommend that the first thing you tell your group is that the game is intended to be funny. How you do this is going to depend on what the best way to get this through is. The best way to get me into Earthdawn was to call it "post-apocalyptic." That was the key, the hook, the way to describe it to me. I find players are a whole lot more likely to cooperate when they're comfortable with the premise, and GMs more likely to be disappointed when they try to surprise their players. [I may be biased. I hate surprises. I have an anti-surprise aura that actually gives me a +1 modifier on any d6 to ruin surprise.]

Which brings me to the next technique. Premise.

I got into a brief discussion on the forums (which could have been quite heated, but my partner in the discussion was well-behaved, and I managed to tone it down a bit, too) about the hoity-toityness of the tactics taken to determine exactly what it is we do when we game. There are a lot of camps on this topic -- some people insist it's "merely" entertainment (as if "entertainment" was a luxury. Pshaw!) Some people say it's an "art," all dramatic. For some it's a teaching technique, or an educational expression. For some people, it's a dessert topping AND a floor wax.

Why is it so difficult to come to a conclusion everyone can agree on? Gaming is different to each person, between game, group, genre, and GM, those are BIG variables... and there are a whole lot more I'm not even mentioning! Some people go into gaming for therapeutic reasons. (I'm one of them, in a way. If I don't game, I have too many ideas and they spill.) Some people insist gaming is a recreational activity, dangit!, and jes' fer fun. That's what they're in it for...while others find it a competition, a quest for the challenge of it, the chance to test their minds... That has a whole lot to do with premise.

I wish I had a rule of thumb to give you on this one. A premise can be exceedingly lame on paper and still work. A premise can be brilliant, and come off looking pretty darn silly. No adventure survives contact with the PCs...but I've run a number of highly successful games based on nothing more but a premise.


I cannot underline that enough. You could use all sorts of HTML tricks to mark it up, make it blink and turn it red and have it take up the whole of the screen. Even if you have a talent, a shining blessed golden talent to spin the yarn into a tapestry without a plan... I cannot in good conscience promote it.

[I am NOT a wargamer at heart. {grumblemuttergrumble} I play DICELESS, darn it. I have thrown CAUTION TO THE WIND...I have given up charts for number of siblings and whether or not I can have a character make a critical fumble when walking across a room... I have banished the demons of doubt with absolute power! I have... I have... I have digressed again, haven't I? Oooh -- look! Air!]

Ahem. Premise. You've already had the opportunity to introduce humour into your game. (Were you paying attention? That was actually unsaid during the "familiarizing" discussion, but I thought it was pretty obvious.) Funny introductions (Peregrine's "Murphy's World," for example) are great ways to set that mood.) This is where you start putting big heavy nails into it.

Is your premise funny?

Well, to go back to my example AD&D game, I started it off with a dungeon. Actually, I was going to roll on the random generation charts (yes, I CAN hear the chorus of groans... My hearing's so good, I can hear things Out Of Character...) but I ended up drawing a little maze instead. I tried to look at it from a designer perspective.


They could have been jail cells, but...cubicles. AD&D characters in the modern world is old hat, and still fun. It's old hat because it's a comfortable hat that goes with a lot of your outfits. We actually haven't done a lot of it with the Minions, and it'll be fun seeing who "gets it" first.

There are laws of humour, though, that apply.

I have been Ordained in the Way of Humour (although I am not the most experienced scholar...I'm always learning.) I know some of the commandments that need to apply to your premise. (I believe you can claim at least some initiation just by reading this column. I caution you to use this power only for good...for now.)

One: Use the familiar, Luke.

Cliches and in-jokes, and time-honoured gigglers. Yes, you should always point out a gazebo. (We found one in "Daggerfall" the other day. We hit it a few times, then moved on... which is also an in-joke for us.) Comedians and jesters can use "famous last words" or other great RPG lists for punchlines.

Two: Stick with a technique.

What kind of humour is this? Toonesque? Satirical? Parody? Does it culminate with a joke?

I once ran a Shadowrun game over a BBS with less than fifty posts, all told. After a set-up, the characters (all experienced, and warned-in-advance, with a "munchkin" bent) were politely excused. "Ahem, when we said we were Dragon Hunting...we were not...hunting...FOR...Dragons. We do apologize, of course, for the mistake. Our invitations were... improperly extended, or rather, if you must, had qualifications... You needn't mind -- we will pay you handsomely for your time."

Admittedly, some types work well together. Hyperbole, I mean, just goes with EVERYTHING. (I'm trying to get together a movement to stop calling them "Monty Haul" campaigns, since that isn't particularly relevant to the new generation, and call 'em "hyperbolic" campaigns. Or not. Actually, the thought only now occurred to me, but I'm sure we can set it up sometime so you can register your vote.)

I recommend choosing only one to start because I haven't taught you how to juggle. While juggling is really cool, and I know you're cool (you're reading my column -- that'll give you a lot of points in my book) I won't assume you know how to juggle. GMing and juggling have a lot in common, but just because you can speak in 13 different squeaky voices to mimic the stinkin' yellow faeries, doesn't mean you can throw a ball, knife, or squeaky toy in the air and catch it with any regularity. After all, I said I'd use myself as an example.

In the case of the cubicles, then, I'm settling on parody. I do a lot of "real life gaming" parody -- as some of you chronicling my writings may recall. The name of the adventure is the "Dripping Blade Corporation." That's one of the "known Orc tribe" names (um, minus the "Corp." part) according to the literature. (Really -- it's In The Book!) (Hey, is the Libram of Ineffable Blessings also known as "The Good Book"? Nevermind.) Now, I don't want my characters going up against orcs. I run orcs all mean and nasty. (I know. "Big surprise there, eh?") I know -- let's pick on something traditional. Kobolds. Kobolds are also connected to several Minion in-jokes, so I have given myself two places to focus my humour.

From premise, you go to character design. I didn't end up worrying too much about this -- again, it's AD&D. We did end up having a thematic note -- everyone ended up being short. Even the token human was, well, let's just say the cow at the end of the tunnel towered over them. [Being a short person myself, there's nothing wrong with that. It just means making more "climb walls" rolls than usual.]

If you asked me (and I know you didn't, but I'm preparing you for it) what I thought created the most "mood" for a game, I'd have to say character creation is it. That's something that varies for people a lot. Setting, genre, obviously these things apply, but character generation is what clinches it for me. I won't understand the game to the same degree if I can't get immersed in the world when creating the character. It's one of the Good things about Amber -- having the competition of an auction really can (if you're running that style of game) underline the mood. Feng Shui, however, dropped the ball on that one somewhere. I don't get involved in it -- I'm doing math, not katas. (Which leads to a whole set of interesting thoughts on its own, but that really is too far a digression.) "Pre-gen and play" is the way to do it, and wham! The game begins.

Pitfalls. I'm going to get to them, really, I promise. Apparently, I'm going to explain how I set games up so pitfalls aren't so easily found. [It's like Minesweeper. Sure, you could play in expert mode from the beginning...bang! Try again. Bang! Try again. Bang! ...but I'd rather set you up in a custom game so you can learn my way.] While I hope it's been entertaining, I should really draw this to a close...that way I can start writing next month's article...before it's due. First, though, I'm going to..erm..digress.

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