In Defense of Funny

Three years ago, I was in the best D&D group I’d ever been part of. We were an odd bunch. Not all of us even got along particularly well, and we swapped out a couple of members over the years but we had a particular chemistry that I haven’t experienced elsewhere.

It was in this group that I discovered the way that I personally prefer to play Dungeons & Dragons. I’m the class clown. I like coming up with a strange (but well-fleshed-out) character concept, and pushing the limits of this character’s environment. Unfortunately, this has also meant testing the sanity of our DMs on a few occasions, and has taken it’s share of adventures off the rails. I’m not the only guilty party here, either. That was the beauty of it, for me anyway. Our group managed to keep a (mostly) serious tone to the adventure, and managed to save the world several times over it’s lifetime. Those of us who were inclined to do so were given a lot of room to play and be weird and funny and outrageous on the journey, and the more down-to-business types got theirs as well.

The end result was that everybody had a great time, no matter what it was they were after. I have to administer mad props to our DMs for balancing everything so well. I really do. But I think one other major factor to this working was that we took responsibility as players and didn’t let the funny stuff get in the way. I’ve heard so many people talk about how they don’t care for humor in their campaigns. It wrecks the suspense of disbelief. It spoils the sense of high adventure. I get it. I also see no reason one cannot have one’s iron rations and eat them too. (Fact: iron rations = adventure cake. look it up if you don’t believe me.)

I think the first rule of Funny Club is that you don’t talk about Funny Club. If you’re a player with a strange character, don’t remind everybody every ten seconds about your character’s neuroses. That’s annoying. Duh. This also means you should keep an eye on whether you’ve painted yourself into an Annoying Corner with your concept. Don’t forget you still have to fight, either. I played a necromancy specialist wizard once with both problems. He wanted to use necromancy to help others, but the setting dictated that magic in general (much less raising Grandma from the dead to help with the chores) was feared and reviled. That coupled with the fact that I had chosen nothing but noncombat spells “for role-play purposes” meant I had some choices to make at 2nd level if I wanted him to live.

Over the years, I’ve found I have the best fun roleplaying strange characters when I see an opportunity to let that character’s freak flag fly WHILE staying in character and still trying to achieve the party’s goals. I think in these cases it’s OK to metagame a bit and perhaps not play that berserker barbarian with irritable bowel syndrome or compulsive kleptomaniac you made COMPLETELY to the hilt. Sure, it’s not always Exactly What Your Character would do, but it follows the advice on page 149 of Vanir’s Guide To Surviving Social Contact with Other Humans, which clearly states that there are other people at the table who want to have fun too. It’s common sense when you think about it — don’t hog the spotlight! Better yet, if you’re going to go do something odd, include the other party members. This requires a DM that can think on their feet, but everybody has a lot of fun.

Part of whether a humorously-constructed character comes off as funny or annoying simply has to do with your sense of comic timing. It’s a skill just like anything else, and it takes practice. I have no illusions that I am a comedian, especially with a live audience, but if you can keep your eyes and ears open, you’ll be able to tell if what you’re doing is working. Your end goal is not to be awesome or the funniest dude in the room. Your goal is to have fun yourself and to make the experience more fun for everybody else. It’s a very difficult line to walk. I find myself tripping over it frequently, to be honest.

This incredibly scientific analysis wouldn’t be complete without a little bit of input from a man I’ve inflicted many aneurisms upon, my best friend and frequent DM — otherwise known as Dante from Stupid Ranger. He’s got plans to write about this more in-depth (which I will link to IN DUE TIME), but here’s what he had to say in the meantime:

I enjoy the thrill of having to come up with reactions to your crazy actions in the moment. It’s the same part of my brain that handles impromptu speaking and enjoys it. Plus, poop jokes are funny. Every single time.

I understand some groups really dig a high fantasy or a serious, somber mood. I am just not one of those people, most of the time. Plus, I think it provides a great contrast when you do want to have serious moments in your campaign.

I can really relate personally to that last bit – one of the most memorable moments in any D&D game I’ve ever played was the day my normally goofy, bumbling, brash battle-cleric’s best friend died in battle. All of a sudden, his world is shattered and he rages out and kills the monster that ended his friend’s life. Afterward, he sadly carries her body back to town. I still get a little weepy thinking about it. There were a lot of moments like that during that campaign.

As for how to DM a funny campaign? I’m afraid I’m not going to be of much help. Unless you’re running a campaign in Xanth, basing your encounters and setting on jokes and puns is going to get a little old, at least in my opinion. I’ve played plenty of one-off games that worked well with this format (NASCRAG, anyone?), and I know there are a few commercially produced modules out there, so it can work. I’m more of a fan of making a particular situation amusing than I am basically declaring Martial Humor Law.

I have no idea if any of this will be of use to anyone. If nothing else, it has served to remind me of some good times around the D&D table. But given how much fun I’ve had turning the serious dial down a couple notches, I can’t help but want to share. Have any of you had any experiences running a less-than-serious campaign? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Comments

  1. I think that comedy and sillyness is an essential part of the D&D experience. After all the games are supposed to be fun. As long as the sillyness doesn’t sandbag the game or interrupt the story too much I feel you need that joking to keep everyone engaged since most groups are not entirely down to business types.

    I myself have mused over running a comical campaign but have only ever successfully done so in a superhero setting which lends itself to sillyness a little easier I think.

    you might enjoy this:

    http://morethandice.com/?p=75

  2. I think this pretty well describes the fine line of silly and serious that Dave and I have in our D&D games as well. There are a lot of funny quotes said around the table, and many of them are in character as well, but we try to keep it from detracting from the impact of the story, characters, and overall campaign as much as we can – and I think we succeed at that. I’ve tried to combat it personally as a DM, with the only real reason being “I want a more serious game”, but then I have an instance where a minotaur NPC ends up becoming a racial supremacist on the spot and that ended up in the PCs being much more endeared to the character. The silliness actually served to improve the NPC in my player’s minds, and so I went with it.

    On the other hand, I have also experienced a lot of adventures and games that were completely derailed or even failed because of entirely serious issues. I think that what you propose, having a certain amount of humor and silliness in a game, does not mean that the game can’t be quite serious in the end. To me it just means that some types of players have a lot more fun with it. The real balance of it depends largely on all of the players around the table and the DM, just as much as it depends on the content or themes of the game you’re playing.

  3. I agree in my opinion its all about knowing your players and striking that balance that will keep them involved and having fun. which is why Ive tried to take an approach of letting the players show me what they want to do instead of always trying to moderate and control the game by myself. As the DM you are the one creating the world and maybe the base story but the players are the ones that really bring it to life and make it memorable. keeping things off the rails and letting the party have a fair bit of autonomy as to the path and the feel of the game is very integral to the way I run.

  4. In my games, if it’s not funny, it’s not fun. (“Poo-De-Gras” is my personal favorite and I will spare you the details on that night’s encounter….)

  5. If we end a session without at least one 5 minute long period of everyone breathless from gales of laughter I have failed as not only a DM, but as a human being. Constant grim tension gets exhausting to pull off over more than an hour and besides, look at the popularity of stupid internet movies; D&D would be the greatest thing in the universe if it consisted of kittens riding dragons while swinging dildo swords at each others balls – in a dungeon, with golden elven breasts as the prize 🙂 Pop culture could finally consume itself, and the resulting black hole would pull us all into a dimesion where it is actually no different, just two days ago or something.

    Funny or die, not just a stupid movie site, more like a way of life.

  6. Starwind1985 says:

    I consider myself lucky to be currently having that same group chemistry at this time with our group. We also have a mostly serious game, but it is liberally sprinkled with bits of hilarious insanity. How can it not be with charcters such as Jaxon Roqster, the pot-smoking rock ‘n roll bard (who has eerie similarities to your own Batloaf) and Apocolypto the dwarf who is a walking cliche?
    Oh and Vanir, if you ever do write a “guide to surviving social contact with other humans”, I will totally buy it.

  7. As I see it, as a DM, I’ll be best off if I play to my strengths.

    I’m really bad at creating a sense of fear, and horrible at creating drama or angst, but it’s very rare that I tell a joke at the game table, and it falls flat. When I DM funny games, they’re good. When I DM serious games, they don’t work. All the best game moments I’ve had were memorable because they were funny. Really, my group has gotten to the point where the term “good roleplaying” is synonymous with “making the other players laugh while in character.”

    All my favorite entertainment franchises know how to blend humor and adventure in a way that doesn’t negate from either. Where would Doctor Who be without humor? Indiana Jones? Hitmen for Destiny? Star Wars? (Oh wait, Star Wars without humor is the New Trilogy)

    That said, there’s an art to it. Humor is very subjective, and while humor is good, silliness isn’t always. Usually, even if most of the table is laughing, there’ll be someone present who thinks that all your jokes are groaners. If you have five or six PCs running around personifying various players’ senses of humor, you’re going to think that some of them are groaners.

    I mean, some players think it’s funny to play wacky characters who constantly get the party into trouble. Some players think it’s funny to play a cliche so straight, a newcomer wouldn’t even recognize it as parody. Some players think it’s funny to play a completely normal character who makes a lot of wisecracks. Some players think it’s funny to play a character with a really useless build. Some players think it’s funny to play a character who is too powerful for reason. Some players think it’s funny to play a character who constantly references present-day pop-culture. Some players think it’s funny to play a character who fits the game world perfectly, and is simply very eccentric. Some players just play regular characters and make meta-jokes about the system.

    These different styles of humor don’t always play well together, and even if you’ve got an all-funny party, you’ve got very different levels of connection to the game world, which can be a pretty significant source of conflict among players.

    When the DM starts joking around with the players, it creates an “official” brand of humor that can either unify the players to a single “common ground” style of humor (which I’ve seen gradually happen), or alienate players with senses of humor that didn’t fit (I’ve seen this happen too).

    If you’re not used to playing a high-humor campaign, it may be best to DM it like a straight, serious game, and leave the comedy to the players. Give them material to work with, of course. Make the game world just a little bit absurd now and then, and they’ll do the rest.

  8. Well said, sir.

    I, for one, will defend humor in D&D every time. I just finished running the AD&D Castle Greyhawk module for my Thursday night group, and they loved it.

    I notice that the humor is what the players remember more than anything else in the game. One of my players had a water clock obsession, and would spend all of his loot on them (as well as horses and wagons to transport them).

    Bravo!

  9. The only funny I dislike is the funny inserted spontaneously and inappropriately into the serious or tense situation. Maybe that’s part of your “don’t be annoying” credo.

    It’s a natural response, though. When events become emotional, people often deal with the tension by cracking wise. I’ve started to think of it as a sign that I’ve actually created enough tension to warrant a breaker.

    That makes it better.

  10. I’ve got a thread going where people are posting their funny moments (or random D&D jokes). It’s been a fun read so far.

    http://www.familiar-ground.com/2010/08/17/dd-free-village-of-hommlet-4e-adventure/

    As for my personal playing style, I find that I like a mix. When I played in Living Greyhawk in the RPGA for example, I was known mostly for my cleric of Zagyg, god of eccentric humor. He’s fun, but the character kinda forced me to play the polar opposite to get away from him once in a while in the form of Arissa, the strict Lawful Neutral Pholtan grandmother.

    Right now in the Living Forgotten Realms campaign, my main character is a Genasi Taclord, who speaks with a vague eastern European accent and tends to begin sentences with “in Genasi Akanul….”

  11. Excellent article, and much appreciated. Just based on your writing, I think you would be a world of fun to play with. I love the points about not hogging the spotlight and sharing the moments, and about NOT being the funniest person in the room.

    And this is from a player who named his favoritest character after the pencil he was using.