Wednesday, 8 April 2009

game for a laugh

Aristotle posited comedy could emulate characters of base nature who despite their flaws and outrageous behaviour obtain success until they get their comeuppance. Aristotle also posited drama was born out of a need to know the other, provoke thought and to experience emotions in a safe, controlled manner. Does this sound familiar?

What comedic tropes are appropriate for RPGs?

Blue - Some of the more amusing April posts this year (including this provocative guest post by Geek's Dream Girl on Critical Hits) involving situations best filed under adult. I only imagine what a Benny Hill-style chase would look like as a 4E skill challenge. Before indignation at the smut sinks in, this kind of comedy has Classical precedent in the works of Aristophanes (Lysistrata) and the satyricon, running through troubadour plays and commedia dell'arte into Shakespearean farces and Edwardian burlesque.

Dark - Laughing about unpleasant events and horrific situations is a defence mechanism and the better dark comedies (Death Becomes Her) are very gamer-friendly. Not every game needs a Joker derivative to be dark comedy either. Having personally led attacks of gallows humour (in one case literally) on a truly dark 2E Ravenloft game, it can help alleviate things and provide a counterpoint to the relentless horror. Just try not to invoke too many action-hero one-liners because that way lies cheese. And cheesy is the death of dark humour.

Observational - Two words - Murphy's Rules. Although skewering the rules in this fashion is antithetical to suspension of disbelief, some things deserve commentary; such as 1E AD&D's three ranger rule (more than three rangers can never travel together - no explanation - do they reach critical mass?). Playing against assumptions can also work well (the half-orc fighter whose orcish mum left her abusive human husband) and contrast existing preconceptions while making us laugh about them.

Surreal - Monty Python and Terry Gilliam provided endless inspiration to gamers, such that the typical reader of this blog may recite the Parrot Sketch in regular, movie and Hollywood Bowl. Absurdity, juxtapositions and non-sequiturs outline the fate of characters trapped in a world with seemingly no meaning but that imposed by those flawed individuals or their individual flaws. From the Goons to Castle Greyhawk, there are things to provoke laughs and if you're looking for something more contemporary, I recommend the Mighty Boosh.

Word play - This is something Gary Gygax was particularly fond of, his use of ananyms in the GDQ modules in particular (drow names in particular) as well as obscure terms and cant to describe character qualities (a magsman is a thief y'know). As Stan Lee famously remarked "If a kid has to go to a dictionary, that's not the worst thing that could happen." Word play is also found in kenning (Norse symbolic poetry) and heraldry, which uses punning allusions or a rebus to identify knights or towns.

Wit - The snappy comeback, sardonic response and sometimes cruel ripostes that target a character's defects or dialogue - by exposing the situation as it is against how it should really be. As with all comedy, the response must be timely unless you are haunted by l'esprit d'escalier. Word play and conceptual thinking are keys to wit, opportunity is the lock. A past master was the talented Cyrano de Bergerac.

A word on jesters - The role of the jester was a significant one. The court of a king is politically loaded and the jester could provoke frank discussion on controversial issues purely due to their role and could be consulted because they lacked any kind of holdings or interest. The role of fool often needed someone who was anything but since an unpopular fool could be banished from court (as happened to the celebrated jester Archibald Armstrong, formerly of the court of James VI of Scotland) and forced to live off the proceeds of their written quips.

Finally, a shaggy dog story from a friend's AD&D adventure in the manner of Ronnie Corbett - In the words of Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst "Don't blame me man, I didn't do it."

"The adventurers find a magical ring. They don't know what it is, only it's powerful protective magic and the inscription says "Don't identify me." So being literate they take it to an NPC and render him insensible with money. He uses magic to identify the item and starts laughing so hard that in his weakened condition he dies from being unable to breathe. Fearful they have found some terrible cursed item, the party take the item to a shrine so it may be cleansed and then passed onto another wizard. Same thing happens - needless to say, they take the item to a sage. She recognises it as being made by a powerful wizard known to have fought dragons. At this point, all the greed flows into the heads of the players and they round up the party wizard and offer a ridiculous sum of money even though she probably won't make the identify check. She does and then she starts sniggering but then manages to control herself (a saving throw was required). It's then learned the ring protects you from flying dragon dung and communicates this by a mental image. Which goes to show where there's dung, you'll get adventurers willing to pay over the odds for it."

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