Trick Monster: This applies to any variation of a listed monster, such as: A two-headed giant ogre, a carrion crawler that walks upright and has paralyzing tentacles for arms, a wild bore (a shaggy man who tells long, dreary stories), a quartering (half-sized halfling), a Mouth Harpy (who can't sing but plays the harmonica), an Ogre Jelly (looks like an ogre, but . . .), and so forth.
I came across this last night while stocking one of the levels of Sangmenzhang, and it raised a wry smile, but I have to say my kind of D&D doesn't really tolerate this kind of thing. I get the joke, I get that not everything has to be po-faced in any RPG, but still, it's an incredibly unsubtle way of crowbarring humour into a game.
I have two objections. The first is the simple one: every single RPG session I've ever been involved in, as player or GM, has more laughter in it than serious moments at a ration approaching 2:1. This is achieved without anything substantively "funny" in the rules, set-up, or content of the game. It's just because that's the way gaming is - funny things happen, and when they don't, funny things can be said about the things that are happening. So actually, I've never felt any need to insert pre-planned jokes or make any self-conscious attempt at humour in the setup of a game or session. It happens organically anyway.
The second is more philosophical, and is that jokes and puns are a kind of Brechtian alienating device which distance the players from the game world. As soon as a Mouth Harpy makes an appearance, suddenly you're not even remotely inside your character's head - your willing suspension of disbelief has been shattered and you've been wrenched out of the Secondary World which has been created. This is not really conducive to what I enjoy about gaming.
What this boils down to, I think, is that good humour is generally about what the Japanese call the tsukkomi and the boke, or what we call the straight-man and comic: you need a sensible springboard for the jokes to bounce off. For me, whatever the game is you're playing, the game's contents have to take on the role of straight-man - they have to be relatively serious on the face of it for the jokes to riff on. Seriousness of content is the necessary foil for all manner of jokes, sarcasm and piss-taking - and the overall level of humour in fact suffers without it. That is, overt humour built-in to the game world undermines it: to borrow again from theatrical comedy, there is no-one "feeding" the lines, because the lines are all stupid jokes in the first place.
I don't know how "immersive" super-serious games look or who plays them in real life but I also don't know what a game where someone thinks a mouth-harpy is funny looks like.
Though I have played Jeff's game and he has an ability to Steve Martin it--use material that would be Dragonmirth dumb in other hands and make it matter. Probably just through his obvious earnest pleasure in doing it.
I have heard about groups where there's a rule prohibiting out-of-character chat at the table - you either have to speak in character or you can ask the DM questions but that's it. That might make it more immersive and super-serious...but when I think about that it doesn't actually sound all that fun, and would surely feel horribly forced.Delete
I play with this rule, and it's not about having a super-realistic game.Delete
It's actually primarily about consequences and humor.
First, it means that players have to decide for themselves what to do. I don't end up having to conflict with their cohesive plan as a group. They each have to make a decision as an individual what to do in a fight, and that means they sometimes do dumb things.
Which are very very funny.
The other thing, is that they have to talk as players, and it allows me to make funny interjects as the NPC's who are located in proximity to the PC's. I'm not telling jokes, but reacting to the players.
yeah i agree. i think you could even extend (or reduce?) the metaphor to say that the DM is the default straight man in the average game of D&D. when you're DMing, you're setting up a playground for the players to mess around in. I think the creative abuse of the playground that comes with being a player lends itself very well creatively abusing the DM as well. At least, that's how it always seems to go down when I DM. I often find myself slipping into a straight-man role to play up the crazy shit the players are trying to pullReplyDelete
Yeah, I try to deadpan when I'm DMing as much as possible. Just give the players the rope...Delete
You also can't really make things super-awesome if you try too hard. Like when you explain this mystical storm in the game and suddenly very real thunder cracks outside the house.ReplyDelete
You can't plan funny and you can't plan awesome. You just don't get in their way.
I like my campaigns to have a certain sense of whimsy about them, so I have no problem with a 'trick monster' or silly names and the like.ReplyDelete
However, I like it as a spice, not a vegetable. Too much is overwhelming and spoils the meal.
I don't think it is stretching the metaphor too far to have the DM as the straight man. They have to maintain face and keep tone which the players can play off of. Even the most goofy NPCs I have (like the guy who talks like a villain but that's just the way he talks "...oh yes, there will be cake...") is played as seriously or at least as consistently as I can.ReplyDelete
That's it. I take take things seriously (or at least I present a facade of seriousness) because I know that there will be laughter, without me making any effort to force it. It's the same reason that, despite my protests to the contrary, I don't set out with the expectation that my games will turn out serious. They will not.Delete
They will, however, turn out rubbish without that sublime-to-ridiculous-ness where you can laugh at apparently serious things like who is in charge of vampires in Constantinople and suddenly turn serious when a bunch of goblins decide one of their number deserves a proper funeral. That shift is, I feel, Important.
I think I'm on much the same page as the author. Humor *about* the game is great fun, humor *in* the game less so. As the usual GM I try to keep a consistent tone to the setting that's believable, and stuff like Mouth Harpies just don't work for me. My players might enjoy it, but if I'm not having fun as GM, the setting / scenario I'm trying to bring to life suffers as a result.ReplyDelete
That said, not a session goes by that at least two or three of our standing jokes don't get mentioned, and laugh breaks are commonplace, so humor *about* the game is always there.
The one exception that proves the rule, maybe: I once hid a series of historical puns in an adventure, revealing only after it was safely over that they'd been investigating the Water Gate at Nick Dickson's Millhouse with the Wood Warden Burnsteen for a reason ...ReplyDelete
Yes, exactly! It works with the milieu, provides a good plotline, and doesn't interfere with the playing.Delete
I like the idea of silliness like that, but when you put it together you just get things like Paranoia, in which nothing makes any sense or difference, and the only person who gets the jokes are the DM. Well, ok, maybe it doesn't always get as awful as Paranoia, but it can easily trend that way. As anyone who's seen a "crossover" show on TV where a dramatic series' characters interact with a comedic series', the comedic suspension of norms entirely clashes with the hopefully-realistic premises of the dramatic. Thus also with fantasy world styles.ReplyDelete
That's not to say that you can't have humor or whimsy without sacrificing a realistic, reliable setting. Zany things happen in the oddly realistic real world, and with magic going off half-cocked now and then, real hilarity can and does follow. When it comes to absurdity, I prefer to keep it more subtle. There's a pair of NPCs I have for plot points and comic relief named Mitch and Bone. One adventure's moral (if you will) can be summed up as "Better Nate than lever." And in the permafrosted north lies the land of Farga, from which pale-skinned NPC Bone hails, where the people live in cities entirely carved into glaciers and frozen tundra, the famous ice-caverns of Farga. Experience points are awarded to the first player to come up with the phrase, "Fargan Ice-Holes".
You can be completely ridiculous as long as you keep it subtle. Not so much of a contradiction as it seems, really. For the most part, the laughs at the table are situational and spontaneous 1-liners, as they should be.
Ok, everyone is wrong.ReplyDelete
No, really. Zak hits it on the head when he mentions Jeff. These aren't meant to be funny. They should be presented as deadly seriousness.
It has to do with that 'theme' that Zak is talking about on G+. There are supposed to be funny things that are taken very seriously, making them humorous but oh so very deadly.
I can more or less go along with this.Delete
The most common joke monsters (or artifacts or NPCs) are too ridiculous for me. However, I'm all for coming up with a joke idea and then using it as inspiration to create something serious, weird, horrific, or some combo of those three. The shapegoat started that way, although maybe it's too serious/horrific, what with it raping people and all. I probably won't use that as written. The art hag is about right for me, though.
A large portion of the Fiend Folio is only useable in games if it's played this way.Delete
But man did it take a lot of practice to play it deadly serious as I described a Flumph inhaling and exhaling to propel itself forward!
Fortunately, Flail Snails are terrifying as-is.
"Everything that's really funny has something terrible in it." from Funny BonesReplyDelete
I find CoC to be the funniest of all games, maybe because it's tense and laughter is all about releasing tension. OTOH Toon is the least funny of all games. IME Paranoia can be funny but only because of that hocketing distance thing Zak talks about in his famous chess with squatters post.
So like everyone else, I agree with you. I'm also coming around to thinking that the players should probably bring most of the gonzo, while the DM should bring the solid ground. That's why I love gonzo character generators like Jeff's for Carcosa, Scrap Princess' recent girl alone, killing and Arcadian's adaptations from Encounter Critical. Thy get me fired up about playing the game because I think about what I can do with them, and then I want that outrageous character to interact with a meaningful environment.
-c is wrong. Actually I'm not totally sure of that, I just love saying it. Wrong, wrong, wrong. His game must be no fun.
...yes, absurdism turned serious is great. I think mostly the same way random tables are great: it makes you exercise your imagination. It's an unexpected mix of flavours. The flipside of this is that I find zombies and wraiths the most boring of all monsters - you really, really know what they're all about before you go in, whereas the first time you meet an owlbear you have no idea what it might be able to do. For me that's the power of the supposed-joke-but-serious monster: it confronts you with contradictions and you have to make sense of them. As long as it's also axe-proof.
Telecanter's literalized dungeoneering mechanic pygmies are an example of this done well. The Mouth Harpy is more like an open and rather petulant challenge to the players: "find my monster ridiculous, do you? Well now you're dead, so there!"
dammit, blogger didn't understand my "po face" tag. That should read: (po face)it's tense and laughter is all about releasing tension(/po face).Delete
See, that's what I get for trying to inject some humour.
I agree, very strongly, with your commentary on humor in games here, and as a player I find it frustrating when the GM tries too hard to be the source of the funny in the game.ReplyDelete
If the whole game world itself is "funny" then those individual joke-type elements do not stand out or wrench your mind out of the game world, they contribute to making it coherent. Some of the most hilarious and memorable things I remember from D&D were from an intentionally humorous campaign we did in college. It worked, too, though it was not especially long-running. As far as the typical game goes, however, you are absolutely right. There's no need to inject jokes, the players always bring enough humor to the game anyhow.ReplyDelete
I loved this piece and couldn't agree with it more!ReplyDelete