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.