There is a formula of sorts when telling a joke. I don’t think about it unless I think about it (heh) because it’s a natural reflex. This weekend, I am doing a panel on “Humor in Gaming” at TriaDCon, and things like this always remind me of the structure of humor.
It boils down to something I learned while studying child psychology. The muscles and expressions used in laughter and crying are almost exactly the same; they are expressions of stress or conflict. But the key difference is that laughter is that conflict is resolved, whereas crying is unresolved. Laughter and humor are learned early on as a way to release conflict that occurs. This is what humor really is: conflict resolved. Laughter is thus, incredibly healthy to one’s well-being. But how does one “make” something funny? What conflicts are we talking about?
Conflict breaks down expectations by removing an known pattern. Thus, the more a pattern is broken, the more conflict occurs are we try to adjust. If the broken pattern does not harm you, the conflict is moot, and thus, the tension is often released in laughter. This can be explained by a simple example. Most of the time, if we slip and fall in a pile of dog poop, it’s not funny. But it IS funny if it happens to someone else. And it’s VERY funny if it happens to the Queen. Why? The last two show resolution of conflict: it was not us, so we’re safe. The last one adds another broken expectation or pattern in the fact that the Queen “should be immune” from such things, which may cause resentment, and thus, when she slips, your conflict with someone you are supposed to respect but do not is resolved.
So, how to be funny? You break patterns. And patterns are everywhere. All you have to do is take any simple routine that is common to your audience and break it in an unexpected and safe way. Often, as a comedian, this means YOU show vulnerability. Most do so by trying to find a common bond, and yet lower themselves with the, “I don’t understand? What?” approach. A rare few use anger, like Don Rickles or other “insult comics,” in which other audience members become vulnerable. But most use a submissive approach where they are the victim. “What is the deal with Airplane food? I mean, could it suck more?”
So, when I think about “how to use humor in gaming,” as many of my former players will attest I use with great enthusiasm, it usually borders on the ridiculous. After all, when you are battling kobolds with axes, usually a player has preconceived notions of how such a battle would work. The typical “You hit, your fighter hits, your magic user casts a spell, and then the kobolds hit in turn,” sounds more like a dance. And we all know that when you have 8 dancers, and half are trying to kill the other half, well... that’s funny. There are also other things easily broken. I always thought about what happened before the battle happened from the kobolds’ point of view. What were they doing? Nobody ever thinks of that. I mean, to players, you turn a corner, kill some dog-lizard-looking things, and call it a day. It’s like these guys don’t even exist until someone sees them in some quantum gamer master state of being.
I didn’t buy that. There’s 4 kobolds. I named them. My players didn’t know that usually, but not only did they have names, I declined to cop out with foreign names like “Arrak” or “Zebok” but more like “Hank” and “Dave.” So my four kobolds for this example are Hank, Dave, Roy, and Susan (his father wanted him to grow up tough, you see). The D&D module I used say three had short swords, and one had an axe. Why did one (Roy)have an axe? Where did he get it? I assumed he was no woodsman living in a dungeon(although that would have been funny), but got it off someone he killed. That meant Roy was a seasoned killer. There’s a good chance that the others look up to Roy, especially Susan, who was very bitter about his name because it never really made him grow up tough. Roy, being a mean-assed kobold, made fun of Susan a lot, so one of the kobolds was particularly bitter.
The hard facts were, these guys were about to die, and had no idea, because the players rolled for surprise. Depending on the maturity level of my players, it could have been Roy was boasting about some bullshit thing he did, of maybe Susan was taking a steaming dump in a corner because this was yet another dungeon with no bathrooms (the gelatinous cube will clean that up anyway... eventually). In any case, four players came across four opponents.
What were these kobolds doing in this dungeon anyway? I assume they were hired because they all seemed to have copper pieces on them. Because of the plot of the module, I just took it they were hired by some recruiter who promised them money if they just guarded some place. They probably had NO idea they had to fight anyone. Most hired guards would run, which is another scenario altogether. In fact, one assumption many player make is whatever they see, they battle and kill. So when four kobolds take on look at four very tall humans armed better than they are, I’d say they run. This, of course, was funny to my players. I had one whole adventure where some obviously outclassed creatures just made a run for it almost every time. Some players would chase after them. So where do the creatures run? Back to home base, of course. Some place they can ambush and gain greater numbers. But some modules didn’t think this far ahead, especially with wandering monster rolls.
Wandering monsters. Why would they wander? Were they lost? Were they looking for something? When had they last eaten? While these seem like very good questions to flesh out an adventure, I ran into more people who thought this concept was humorous. It seems that when reality is applied to fantasy role playing, the conflict has enormous potential.
Not all module writers were dull, however. I forgot who wrote “Fluffyquest,” but in the RPGA, we had a series of test adventures where we had to find the small yappy dog (Fluffy) of a spoiled little rich girl. Most of the adventures were a series of puns and in-jokes. My favorite was “Fluffy Goes to Heck,” where Fluffy was kidnapped by a lesser demon. Where does a lesser demon live? Not Hell, but a lesser plane called Heck. Hell is guarded by a 3-headed dog named Cerberus, Heck is guarded by a 2-headed dog named Cankerous. Above the gates of Heck were the words, “Abandon All Soap Ye Who Enter Here.” I also remember a terrible series of puns on a race of demon frogs called “Slaad.” There was Ham Slaad, Three Bean Slaad, Tuna Slaad, Macaroni Slaad, and so on. There was another adventure, one of the Arabian styled ones, where you meet a gnome called Prit, who is a spoon fanatic (like how Bubba Gump liked shrimp). All he would talk about was spoons. There was an RPGA tournament called “The Eye of the Needle” or something where we met phase spiders who said “Gee Whiz” all the time.
The biggest opportunity of humor in gaming was spoof, and the more serious someone took an adventure, the greater the opportunity for spoof there was. In fact, after my high school days, it was almost impossible to take any character seriously. A lot of GMs really didn’t care for that; players didn’t much, either, which made it all the funnier. Of course, then I would come off as a jerk, and that’s part of why I stopped playing.
One of the pivot points to the end of my role playing gaming came at George Mason University where I played a 5 hour game that consisted of a little adventuring, and a battle that was nearly 4 hours long. There were 6-7 players, and we came across 8 dwarfs, I think. There was about an hour of talking, which seemed like posturing more than anything, before the talking fell apart because it was apparent the dwarfs wouldn’t let us by. Then there came the most excruciatingly boring game I have ever been in. Because I was new to the group, I didn’t want to run off screaming, but each “round” of fighting took up to 20 minutes because there were bonuses and demerits based on:
- Weapon vs. height and weight of opponent
- Weapon vs. armor of opponent
- Race vs. race dynamics (elves had a +1 bonus fighting an evil dwarf, for example)
- How many hits opponent had taken versus armor wear in battle
- How many hits of your weapon vs wear since sharpening or repair
- Morale based on a formula of group charisma and how the battle was going
- And this whole list again from the opponent’s point of view.
I watched these players pour over charts, compute formulas on programmable calculators and scratch paper, and have small debates over minor points like, “If I use a pole arm on a short opponent, I should get a bonus if I swing the pole arm at a distance at least the length of the pole unless I am swinging downwards, which I assure you I am not, which would cause the two dwarfs next to my dwarf to back away, and if that is HIS opponent, he should get a +2 bonus on his axe versus the dwarven banded armor which is harder to move in...”
My god. It was TERRIBLE. And any joke I used, even minor ones like, “Why would you bring a pole arm into a small dungeon? Are you that scared of what’s ahead of you? A game of ‘poke the dragon?’” brought silence at best, or a small lecture on some historical foot note of pole arm fighting techniques in tight spaces or whatever. But as the game dragged on, it became so absurd, I kept snickering. “By now,” I said once, “we have bored the opponent to death. My fighter has grown a fine beard during this battle, and has braided it according to this chart, which should give me +2 versus short and skinny dragons if they are wearing a heavy metal tee-shirt.”
I later found out that my gaming group was mostly engineers. Figures. [ba DUM tssh]
A lot of gamers fear humor because they mistake being serious with some kind of benefit to themselves personally. And while I never like to undercut anyone’s craft, I do feel that it’s a little sad when someone shows deep passion and devotion to a fictitious world when that kind of dedication is sorely lacking in educational and political fields in the real world.
I wonder how I will reach them tomorrow morning?