Levity in Gaming

I hope everyone’s having a good day. It’s particularly cold and sunny here in Memphis, and my days are full of distractions and duties–last minute shopping, planning out the week ahead, and catching up on my reading and learning other nuances of the NOOKcolor–have all conspired to put my head in a very strange space. I realize you like the order and structure I’ve been bringing to the RWR of late, but sometimes it’s good to ramble and explore the remote recesses of the brain that don’t get as much activity.

Thanks to the NOOKcolor, I’ve finally succumbed to the classical diversions of chess, crosswords, and been properly introduced to the splendor of sudoku, something I never really got but now I have. Doing these things are forcing my minds to work in channels I don’t normally do. I thought I get a lot of mental exercise–I read a lot, I write a lot more, but some of the video games I play are not expanding the neural network, and I doubt some of the synapses light up when I kill yet another mutated ganger. Still, I do like my video games, but I ever strive for balance.

These mental workouts are, admittedly, making me sharper, so watch out, I’m looking forward to a brilliant 2011.

However, you didn’t just come here to see how I was doing? Admit it.  So today, we’re going to look at something oft-neglected by many serious roleplayers–humor in gaming.

In my works, I’m not known for humor beyond that of the dark gallows variation.  In person, I display my own flavor of wit and humor, often dry like sherry. Even in the Razorwise Report, which is definitely in a more casual, conversational tone, I tend to write as though I’m actually speaking to you (sans profanity).

The reason I don’t include humor in my work is the same reason I don’t season it with sex or drugs or rock and roll. People approach games for escapism. For most, escapism is being the hero, beating down the bad guys, and reaping the benefits of fame and fortune. Others want to be the creatures in the dark vying for power. For some, a slender hope of success against overwhelming, alien odds is all they need to move forward. Escaping into a real role is all they need. All these games have a tendency to be treated with a serious tone or at least treated seriously. However, there are times when seriousness needs a break to make it more serious. Think of slasher flicks. One murder is not enough and we’re treated to a cavalcade of cleavers and corpses and soon we become desensitized and numb to the violence we’re viewing on screen. We start to mock it. It becomes a parody of itself.

Is there a way to turn the excesses on their respective heads? Absolutely. Two examples come to mind and I don’t know if they’ve ever been used in the same sentence, but here goes. The Scream series and the Munchkin series both succeed by having fun with their corresponding sacred cows. Scream gets all meta and is a wonderful analysis on the structure of horror movies while, itself, being a horror movie (or series, as the case may be). Munchkin X by Steve Jackson Games  (X being a variable for the target of satire) embraces the tropes and conceits of things ranging from D&D to Cthulhu and more. These properties were both overwhelmingly successful because the creators know humor is as base an emotion as any we have and we like to poke fun at things we enjoy its human nature. We all need a break from the serious, so how do you incorporate it into your sessions?

Here are a few ways to do so:

1. Have a campy one-off: Are you playing a fantasy RPG? Have the characters do something altogether humorous. Watch Monty Python & the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride for examples of how to have an adventure, structured like an adventure, where humor (as much as danger) lurks around every turn. By exaggerating certain elements or adding disparate elements together, you have a recipe for laughs–Tim the Enchanter Springs to mine as does the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch…

2. Play an RPG structured for humor from the beginning: Certain games read PLAY FOR LAUGHS in large, neon signs. TOON and Paranoia spring immediately to mind. Judge Dredd, one of my personal favorites is another where you can easily play it for laughs as much as anything. C’mon. We had Mega-City One ruled by Judge Cal whose chief counsel was Deputy Chief Judge Fish (an actual fish).

3. Incorporate certain elements for emotional release: I suppose the Judge Dredd examples still work here, but you may also consider having NPCs provide some comic relief or even certain places with names lending themselves to humor. The best bet is the NPCs. Shakespeare has his Falstaff and I had an interesting character named Root who was so endearing to my players that he’s made appearances off and on in many games of varying genres and systems for the past twenty or so years. If you make his acquaintance, be sure to say hello. Having characters such as this pop up let’s the players take a break from the serious work for a moment of saving the world which they can revisit renewed. I’ve had a few places which served the same purpose—The Loaded Toad–inspired by a bit of Leiber and de Camp is a zany place, a transdimensional pub of sorts, where many adventures have had their beginnings. Hrmmm…

There is a place for whimsy in gaming, and it’s always good to not take yourself too seriously. Lighthearted game sessions or one-offs certainly have a space in every campaign roster, especially those which lend towards the grim or gritty side, so be sure to have a light at the end of your tunnel. With a sly grin, I plot and scheme for the next game session and bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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