Behind the Screen – Chapter 12: Having a Laugh

In chapter 9, I wrote about running a horror based role playing game, such as Call of Cthulhu, the best method and what to include and focus upon to maximise the experience. This chapter is the opposite, running a humorous game and what is entailed by that.

I always like to include a little humour in my games, where appropriate, to liven things up. This could come in the form of something comical spoken or performed by a character or NPC or some other related event, but I also like to joke around out of character with the other players about events happening within the game, even if those events are not funny in and of themselves. So what about an entire system that is humorous, how should one go about running something like that?

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There are a few different ways one could approach a humorous role playing game.

  • Taking a system and setting you know and love and just running a funny game in it. An example of this would be just inserting a funny session into an existing Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Getting a blank system, such as Chaosium’s BRPS (Basic Role Playing System) or Wizards of the Coast’s d20 Modern and put your own comic setting on that and have it. There are also blank systems built for specific settings like BESM (Big Eyes Small Mouth) which is designed to work with anime.
  • Get a specific system designed to be comical and play that, such as Munchkin or Paranoia.

Then one must consider the type of humour that the game will revolve around, because there are various types. Some of the more common types are as follows:

  • Satire – From what I’ve read, Satire is large composed of Irony, Burlesque (the original meaning, rather than the adoptive meaning which refers to the stage show generally involving scantily clad women) and parody. The general premise of satire is to exaggerate or mock a given item through those ways mentioned above. A prime example of satire in respect to role playing games is Munchkin, which pokes fun at the generic fantasy genre. Even the books for the Munchkin RPG make fun of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd/3.5 editions.
  • Slapstick – This style of comedy is typically based around body comedy, where physical activity is exaggerated upon to surpass typical comedy. A classic example is a chase scene in any Benny Hill video, where several people are chasing a single person, but all the chasers are in single file, following the target through a series of amusing situations, all played at double speed with a specific soundtrack. Other notable proponents of slapstick are Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges and Monty Python.
  • Surreal – A style which uses illogical reasoning, bizarre juxtapositions and irrational or absurd situations, and a lot of nonsense. Monty Python features a significant amount of surrealism, such as Mr Creosote exploding due to a single, wafer-thin mint (after a particularly large meal) or a gentleman coming out of a refrigerator and taking a (man dressed as a) woman on a trip through the universe while singing a song exclaiming how insignificant she is (this is after the husband of the woman is gruesomely hacked up, because he is an organ donor).
  • Black Comedy – Normally based around darker themes, such as death, drugs, terrorism or horror elements, black comedy takes those normally very serious components and makes fun of them, or introduces comedic situations involving those components. The 2013 movie ‘This is the End’ is a good example of this style, a darkly humorous approach to the events following the Biblical Rapture, where the characters encounter all manner of demons and monsters. Black comedy is present in a wide range of different things.

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Using an existing system to run your humorous session or campaign is an easy path for the entire group, but of middling difficulty for the GM. The group and GM know the rules, so nothing needs to be learnt there. The tricky part is the content of the session or campaign. Something like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t typically tend well towards humour with its normal setting, but it can be adjusted to work, it all depends on what you want to run. It is easier if it is a stand alone session, and doesn’t fit into any existing campaign, that way, whatever happens, it doesn’t affect the game as a whole.

Using a blank system to run the game is probably the most difficult of the three options. If you are unfamiliar with the system, then you will need to learn the rules in addition to creating the setting and sessions, and then teaching the rules to the group as well. Dependant on how complex the system is, this can take a fair while, and might not be worth it if the system is only being used for one session. There are some blank systems that are very similar to other systems, such as d20 Modern which is almost exactly the same as Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, which is also very similar to Pathfinder, so the learning curve should be pretty shallow. BRPS is similar to Call of Cthulhu. Once again, like the previous section, the difficult part for the GM is engineering the session or campaign and laying it over the top of the system.

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Utilising a system that is designed specifically for a humorous game, beyond learning the particular rules of the game, is a significantly easier way to play. I mentioned the Munchkin RPG earlier. I know that game runs on a fairly standard d20 system, like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. However, it has been changed to include many of the things you would find in the Munchkin card game, like a 3 Handed Sword, the Magnificent Tinfoil Hat and so on. The setting is already made for you, you just need the story. The d20 rules are well known to a lot of people, and so running a Munchkin game would be relatively easy. Paranoia, on the other hand, while designed to be a darkly satirical game, has it’s own rules system, and thus would need to be learnt. Some people can easily grasp a new system, while others have a lot of trouble with it, and take extended periods of time to learn that new system. Depending on how good the GM is, it might not be necessary for all the players to learn everything. I’ve run games for players before where they had known little to nothing of the system, but since I had a fairly good hold of it, we managed to get through. This, of course, is easier if the game is run in a free-form fashion and does not heavily rely on the rules.

However, the system is not the main focus here, it is about the story and the humour. The story plot does not need to be something funny in and of itself, but the set dressing that surrounds that plot is typically where the humour comes in. Take, for example, the movie Mr Bean’s Holiday. The basic premise is that Mr Bean gets fed-up with London weather and takes a trip to the French Riviera. There is nothing funny about that, but the physical humour performed by Rowan Atkinson, along with various other story elements, is what makes the movie funny. It is a normal setting with fantastical elements. On the other hand, an outright funny story plot can be used, such as the movie The Mask, with Jim Carrey. A man finds a magical mask that gives him fantastical powers that he uses to fight crime and save the girl. One could take a normal dungeon romp style  from any fantasy based RPG and use it in the Munchkin rules, and it would work. A lot of the humour for that game is already supplied. Or you could build a fantastical style dungeon romp for existing characters, where they, for example, are transported to some alternate universe through a defective portal, so instead of appearing in the Plane of Magic, they pop out in the Care Bear world or something similar.

One of the main things to remember here is that humour is subjective. What one person finds funny is not necessarily the same for another. If you are to make a humorous game, you must find out first what your party will enjoy. For example, even though this doesn’t directly relate to role playing, most American sitcom style comedy is something of which I am a fan, but British black comedy is something I very much enjoy. In terms of role playing, I’ve not had very much experience with solely comedic games, my grand total of experience is one session of the Munchkin RPG, but I have used humour in my games a lot, and have been part of groups that have done the same, even if those games are not completely humour based.

With all that said, players should help contribute to the comedy as well. Not everything should be left up to the GM alone. Depending on the situation and game, players should jump in with anything funny they can come up with. In that Munchkin game I mentioned just before, I remember that my character was a Gentleman Fighter called Sir Badass Kilington the Third, and would only reply to the full title. At another point in the game, the GM said “You’ve come to a fork in the path…” to which a player immediately replied “I bend over and pick up the fork, then continue down the straight path”. Some time later, the rogue of the party got bored with a portion of combat that we were in, so instead set up a folding lounger and sun lamp, and sat down to get a tan. Things like that are what add more humour to the game and make it more enjoyable to all.

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Sometimes I like to try and add a funny character to a game, just to see how much it will annoy the GM. Not everyone should try this, you really need to know the GM and how they will react to that situation. In one game, I made a non-combat Bard, who talked his way out of, and into, trouble. He convinced a guard to let him into a palace by buying they guard an umbrella, because it was a hot day. He convinced two thugs, who had been sent to beat the bard up, to fight each other, while the bard made a hasty retreat. In another game, Rise of the Runelords to be specific, the majority of the team were bards, being a travelling troupe of performers visiting the town of Sandpoint for the festival. My bard was essentially a re-hash of the previous one, focusing on Oratory performance. When goblins attacked, he convinced them that there was a giant in the town, and they fled. When returning, he convinced the goblins a regiment of Dwarves had entered the town, and they fled again, this time for good. These two were both in Pathfinder.

In another game, World of Darkness, I created a vampire character. The change had sent him insane, and he believed he was the earthly reincarnation of the Slavic god Czernobog. This meant I played the character in a very specific way. This was not intended to be a funny character at first, but it ended up being so because of they way the character acted in relation to events. At one point, a zombie bit him, and he flipped out, picked up the zombie and threw it down the street. At another point, when the party arrived at a house that was emitting some sort of aura, he raged again, ripped off the gate, threw it through a large picture window on the second story, climbed in through the busted hole, sparta kicked another zombie out the same window, then picked up the bed that was in the room and threw it out the window, to land on the zombie below. While my initial concept for the character did not contain any humour, it ended up that way, and everyone in the group enjoyed it, except the GM, who didn’t know how to handle the character, being a fairly new GM.

After all that, probably the single best thing to remember is to just roll with whatever comes. While a structured story can work, with comedic set pieces, an improvisational story would probably work better, at least it does for me. I can’t come up with funny things off the bat very easily, but I can in reaction to what others do or say. So for me, running a game that has funny overtones, but nothing set in concrete, with all the rest of the humour coming from me providing reactions is the best thing. This is what I mean by rolling with whatever comes, providing that improvisational response to the players. A fighter might be trying to descend a slippery slope, but fails a check. Instead of having him just fall, you could have him slip and collide with another, with the final result is that the fighter is essentially used as a sled by the other character, ridden down the slope, sliding on the plate armour.

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But why participate in a funny game at all?

Because it is something different. As I stated before, I’ve participated in (sadly) very few comedic games. I can’t speak for everyone, but I would hazard a guess that the majority of games played are not solely-based humour games. Those games may contain humorous elements, but are not dedicated to it completely. Sometimes it is good to just let your hair down, not care about consequences and have a good old-fashioned belly laugh. It has been said that laughter is the best medicine, and I am inclined to agree with that.

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