By Randy Angle for DunDraCon (years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009)
How to add humorous elements to your RPG’s. For both players and game masters of any game system from TOON to d20. Details just what humor in gaming is and how it works. How to develop characters and NPC’s that are functional and yet entertaining in a way that will make playing them humorous. When to draw the line so the party won’t revolt against your character. How to design scenarios and run them so players will experience the silly and wilder side of both dark and light humor.
- What is humor in gaming?
- Dark Humor vs. Light Humor
- Overview of Funny RPG’s – TOON, Risus, Teenagers From Outer Space, Ghostbusters, Munchkin…
- Overview of Standard RPG’s and how they might be made funny
- How to make funny Player Characters
- How to make funny NPC’s
- How to run a humorous adventure/campaign
What is humor in gaming?
I would wager that in every game session I’ve participated in someone cracked a joke or pun while playing. Everyone tries to be funny at some point, but – good or bad – that doesn’t make a humorous RPG by itself.
As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open manhole cover and die.” It is very difficult to think something is funny when all you feel is the pain. Some of the stuff that makes comedy work is the same stuff that makes games bad. Players want to have control. The consequence of failing in a game is usually death. They want to know that the “rules” of the game are consistent and that they can succeed. Much of comedy is about a lack of control. When Abbot and Costello line up to get ice cream and accidentally get inducted into the army they completely lose control of their lives.
Plato, when philosophizing about drama, believed that the difference between comedy and tragedy comes down to the consequences for your actions. If there is the treat of death for any choice the player makes in the game, it will feel like tragedy. It is interesting to note that in horror gaming and fiction the loss of control is almost identical to comedy. The difference is, again, the consequence of death.
Like all good RPG sessions, the game master must encourage the comedy and allow for players to feel, occasionally, in control, even if the rest of the world is not.
Dark Humor vs. Light Humor
One aspect of humor, things that make us laugh, is the stuff in our lives that makes us feel uncomfortable, or even disturbed. Dark Humor explores those recesses of our minds and tickles our funny bones in ways that Light Humor doesn’t. RPG’s like HoL, Over the Edge, Violence, and Kobolds Ate My Baby can tend toward the Dark side. RPG’s like TOON, Teenagers from Outer Space, and Ghostbusters are much sillier and tend toward the Light side. Your own gaming group may have their preference toward one side or the other. Often the difference between Dark and Light comes down to satire verses parody. Satire can be mean spirited while parody usually celebrates the subject’s uniqueness.
I actually enjoy playing my worlds somewhere in the middle. Evil characters will tend toward the Dark side, while most other people will tend to the Light side.
Overview of Funny RPG’s – TOON, Risus, Teenagers From Outer Space, Ghostbusters, Munchkin…
Funny RPG’s tend to have very simple mechanics and allow players and game masters to be very creative in the interpretation of the rules. The philosophy is that simple, easy, rules means the game can move along quickly and the action can stay at a manic level. The lighter of these games also has limited, or no, death as a consequence.
TOON – Steve Jackson Games, play as your favorite or made up cartoon characters. It uses simple stats and skills. It has lots of funny tables for wacky stuff to happen. Players succeed by being true to their characters.
Risus – Cumberland Games, very simple cliché based conflict resolution system. Clichés are ranked and used to resolve combat, be a 5d Viking and 2d Hair Dresser. Risus focuses on the dichotomy of playing characters with conflicting personality types. It encourages wackiness.
Teenagers From Outer Space – TFOS is a parody of life as a high school student with the added distractions of a reality where aliens have moved in next door. Very anime influenced.
Ghostbusters – Based on the movie, Ghostbusters takes rules somewhat similar to TOON and places it firmly in the world of ghost hunting.
Men in Black – MIB is a D6/Masterbook series game that takes a very funny subject and makes it into a viable game. Rules are more serious than some other games.
HoL – Human Occupied Landfill is a very dark parody of science fiction gaming and role playing games in general. The rules are very simple and the action can be intense, do not expect your characters to last very long.
Paranoia – Paranoia is a humorous look at the dark future after the apocalypse. The game mechanics are very solid. Rules allow for lots of places to introduce good role playing. Characters don’t last long, but the game allows for that by giving you a series of clones to replace departed ones. It has been known to cause fights between players.
Kobolds Ate My Baby – Self described as a “Beer & Pretzels” game, KAMB puts players on the side of the monsters. Effectively creates the alternate reality of thinking and behaving as a monster would by encouraging monster like behavior to succeed.
Pokéthulu – Parody of Call of Cthulhu and the popular Pokémon video game, cartoon, and CCG. The monster in your pocket is cuddly, evil, and itching for action! Gotta catch you all.
Elfs – Using a very modern RPG design style this satire of elvish life as an RPG has many unique design concepts. It works well to create the comedy atmosphere.
Stuper Powers – Super Hero parody. It is a little hard to believe that you would use this for more than a single game session.
Hackmaster – Based on the Knights of the Dinner Table comic it is essentially the AD&D game repackaged with comedy elements from the comic included.
Munchkin – Originally an inspired card game, the translation to RPG left me wanting more. It does show you how to add humorous elements to the d20 system.
Snarf Quest – Based on the popular Dragon magazine comic, Snarf Quest has several good ideas about how to run funny games and walks that fine line between a serious fantasy and a goofy one.
Overview of Standard RPG’s and how they might be made funny
Dungeons & Dragons – The original RPG and certainly the way most of us entered into this hobby. Gamers can easily add funny character classes, races, spells, and feats. Make it much harder to die and you remove the threat of death helping to make it more comedy like.
GURPS – Steve Jackson Games megalithic Generic Universal Role Playing System. Arguably has the largest number of source books for any game. If you want to make your GURPS games more funny look at the source books for Discworld, Goblins and Planet Krishna. It may be a bit too rules heavy for some but you can fix that.
If your RPG has a rule that provides tactical strategy and realistic simulation of some trivial element of the real world it probably should be surgically removed to make your game funny. Pacing in the game will come down to how easy it is to resolve skill and conflict during game play. If players are worried about initiative, attacks of opportunity, and bookkeeping they will be thinking much more than they will be having fun. An important corollary to that concept is that if your players like that stuff they might not enjoy a comedy RPG.
One popular technique for adding an almost Monty Python style incongruity to your world (every body knows that chaos is the next door neighbor of comedy) use the Chinese Menu style of random tables. Choose one from column A and one from column B. Peregrine Games’ Murphy’s World has more tables than you can shake a chicken at. You can also adapt the random generation tables from TOON or any other game for your own purposes.
How to make funny Player Characters
Sure you have some funny players, but do they have funny player characters. Most players have learned that evolution works, adaptation and power means you will be around to play again another day. Their characters become superheroes with the highest stats they can possibly achieve. This is what makes a satire of RPG’s like Munchkin so absolutely funny. But what makes a character funny is internal conflict. Any creative writing class will tell you that for a character to feel whole they must have dimensions of personality. Characters are striving to meet their destiny while fighting their weaknesses all the way. For a character to be funny, their destiny and weakness must be weird and comical. Your character may have 18 in strength, but is he also gullible to the extreme (low wisdom), or easily forgets which side he is on (low intelligence).
As mentioned before comedy and chaos are next door neighbors, if you play a lawful good Paladin you may find it hard to act impulsively. On the other hand you may scream heartily as you spring into battle almost carelessly defeating the spawn of evil in your glee to “Do the right thing”. Al Lowe, game designer on Leisure Suit Larry, once told me that whenever he had to make a decision about what happened next in the game, he always went with “what was funny”.
Having played many funny characters in a variety of games I can testify that if everything is a joke to you, your party members may revolt at some point. I cut up while I can, but always make sure that I come through when the cards are down and the party needs my assistance. An awful lot of whoopee cushions can be overlooked if you save their butt a few times. It is also important to let the GM have his moments in the sun too, if you hog the GM’s glory you may find your character a pulp of burnt flesh at the bottom of an elevator shaft, mine was. Played correctly your GM may actually appreciate your comedy interjections and you may find yourself the sole survivor in a quest to destroy the source of ultimate evil, mine was.
How to make funny NPC’s
Making a funny NPC is very similar to making a funny PC. An important part to remember is that for RPG’s there is no gray area, like Melodrama, it is best to paint your characters firmly black or white. Shades of gray means the players are thinking again, instead of acting. Your bad guys must be truly evil, even if they can be reformed. Your good guys must reek of saccharine goodness, even if they are driving taskmasters, they’ll do it with a big smile, cookies and milk.
I keep a few templates of common character types around for both good and bad guys. I use tables to generate (or pick) typical destinies and weaknesses. If the character survives more than just a simple exchange they get a funny name and go into my box for later use. Many of my longest lasting nemesis are legends in my campaigns.
Like a talking frog in a fairytale, some NPC’s are just there to drive the plot or the characters forward in the story. In the animated feature, Titan AE, the party encounters a guard that must be passed. The characters immediately try to bluff their way through. The guard is actually quite smart and like a clever detective points out all the reasons he can see through their ruse. After a quick fight one of the party says, “An intelligent guard. Never saw that one coming.”
How to run a humorous adventure/campaign
One of the all important rules of running a humorous game is to keep the pace moving all the time. You need to have slower moments in between the hectic moments so the players and you do not tire out during the adventure. When things start to slow down, drop something into the scene to cause excitement or conflict. Killjoys can be bottleneck puzzles or moments where the players are lost, traveling, or just don’t understand what to do next. Stay one step ahead of them and prepare for contingency. Keep a couple of wild “random” encounters on hand to use so you are not winging it too much.
When I run a game I really like to use props. Miniatures are just the beginning. I have buildings, vehicles, giant monsters, flora, and terrain I can use for most any location where the action takes us. I use a large play mat and draw out other details so the players really feel like they are in a place. Many times the player will use some feature of the terrain in their combats or sneak into a secret headquarters through an alternate entrance. I’ll have handouts of the documents they find and occasionally props of the items they find.
When you create your adventure outline remember that the players are the ones who “write” the story and the game master sets the stage and referees the action. If you become wrapped up in the idea of your epic story and drive the adventure too hard the players will feel that their actions do not matter to the outcome of the story. I drive the plot by seeding the location with elements that will make the players move generally in a direction that the over-arching story needs to follow, but leave the details to the players so they can feel they are participating. To make it funny make sure that the setting and the elements you choose can lead to humor.
Go forth and play great games, do Good, annoy Evil. Make big bucks and buy more of my games. Thanks.
Original content created and Copyright © 2004-2009 Randy Angle