“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”
The other day Jess Purdy interviewed me about Dragon World for GamerXP, and some of her questions got me thinking more deeply about humor and RPGs. The first RPG I played was Palladium’s Robotech RPG, but the first RPG I owned and GMed was Steve Jackson Games’ Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game. I was in middle school, and really big on cartoons, but I also liked funny movies, stand up comedy, and Monty Python pretty much as soon as I knew such things existed. I like serious and even sometimes dark things too, but I love funny movies, TV shows, stand up comedy, anime, comics, and so on. I’m a huge fan of Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Jackie Kashian, Gravity Falls, Azumanga Daioh, Cucumber Quest, on and on like that. Most of my friends are people I crack jokes with constantly. My interest in humor RPGs is partly an extension of that, and partly its own thing.
Part of why I like humor RPGs is that playing RPGs is a pretty silly thing to be doing anyway, so it only makes sense to embrace that now and then. They can be a great hobby that brings friends together to explore realms of imagination and all that, but the default RPG involves pretending to be an elf in a setting that can be downright contrived at times. It’s a pretty routine thing that the group needs some time to settle down before role-playing can even begin, much less be serious. That’s not to say that serious role-playing is bad–it can be nothing short of amazing at times–but I think there’s also something to be said for being silly. Certainly by all accounts Gygax’s D&D campaigns weren’t exactly Serious Business. One of my favorite stories stories from that time is the one where a player asked him what the monsters in the dungeon ate, and in response he made the dungeon feature a McDonald’s. His successors (and to a lesser extent the AD&D1e-era version of himself) tried to excise the funny bone from D&D, and I think this hobby is a little poorer for it, despite the likes of Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre trying to keep RPGs silly.
The big question is how exactly an RPG can go about fostering humor. Some of that is necessarily going to fall on the group playing it, but I don’t buy the idea that the game designer is totally powerless to help, here or elsewhere. I enjoyed the heck out of Toon back in the day, but looking at it again, with the benefit of hindsight, experience, and, you know, 20 years of new developments in RPG design, I find it lacking in certain ways. It’s not obvious, but Toon is in a lot of ways a silly version of GURPS. The basic layout and structure of the book bears a very strong resemblance to the 3rd Edition GURPS Basic Set, and the rules are a lot like a simpler GURPS with Looney Tunes tropes and more randomness. Character have Hit Points, but running out means they Fall Down and then come back in 3 minutes. Instead of Advantages there are Shticks, but they have point values all the same. The Toon supplements had their moments, but there were also a lot of times when they seemed to miss the point. The Car Wars takeoff in the Tooniversal Tour Guide book (“CarToon Wars”) had rules for building a car by spending dollars, and while you could buy a cream pie cannon, there wasn’t any sign of stuff like Freakazoid’s sudden use of “16 Hours of Tony Danza” as a vehicle-mounted weapon. There’s a spontaneity to old-school cartoons that Toon sometimes struggles with, and other times excels at. It was certainly the first game where I encountered d66 tables of random things that can happen, even if they’re a highly informal tool for the GM (“Animator” in Toon parlance) to use.
I recently read the book The Humor Code, by the team of psychologist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner. It chronicles their globe-spanning journey in search of what makes things funny, covering far-flung places like Tanzania, Japan, Denmark, Israel, and Palestine. McGraw’s pet idea about humor is what he calls “benign violation theory,” which is essentially the idea that humor emerges from a violation–of expectations, or mores, etc.–that turns out to be benign. This is fairly similar to the idea I was developing, that humor comes from thwarting perceived expectations. (The “perceived” part because, for example, you know Homer Simpson is going to be dumb, but the clash between that and the expectations of a grown man can still create comedy.) A pun plays havoc with our expectations of what a word means, and while it can be a cheap form of humor, puns get reactions. The “benign” part helps explain why some things aren’t funny that otherwise could be. What constitutes a benign violation is going to vary greatly from person to person, but there’s a line beyond which people think you’re being an asshole (or just gross) rather than a joker, as the likes of Daniel Tosh and those Danish cartoonists (who apparently have much more nuanced views than people give them credit for) learned the hard way. Likewise, different people have different ideas about what constitutes a violation in the first place. For example, in Japan there was an incredibly popular 4-panel manga called Sazae-san, and it’s barely comprehensible to Westerners because it derives so much of its humor from violating very distinctly Japanese expectations. Even having studied Japanese language and culture for many years, Sazae-san strips often have me intellectually going, “Oh, this is an amae thing” rather than just laughing.
I don’t think there can ever be a silver bullet for making things funny, but I do think benign violation theory is a useful starting point, especially just for the duration of this blog post. McGraw consciously put it to use putting together a stand up comedy routine, and although it didn’t kill, it did get laughs at one of the biggest comedy festivals in the world despite him being a psychologist rather than a comedian doing sets week after week. Of course, things like a stint as a clown on a mission to Peru with the Gesundheit Institute (which is the real-life Patch Adams’ current project) and generally rubbing elbows with funny people all over the world may have also done a lot to hone his comedic sensibilities.
Maid RPG is a pretty fascinating game, and for a lot of people the word “violation” kind of sums it up. Where it bothers people is pretty much exactly where the violation stops being benign, and even I’m not fully comfortable with everything in it. On a more mundane level, part of its central conceit is the idea that we have a master-servant relationship, but the master is weak, the maids are incredibly powerful, and there are shenanigans that cross that divide. Similarly, although the random rules do allow for considerable disparities in power (although it’s not common, you could conceivably have a group where one maid has a stat at zero and another has a stat at 4), the rules also give players judo-like tools for overcoming those disparities. For some people the mere presence of the maids is enough to make it a non-benign violation, while for others the presence of underage characters is where the line gets drawn. (This is a big part of why if I were doing it now I would’ve handled the localization of Maid RPG very differently.) The acute level of randomness in the game creates violations of a much simpler kind, giving us the occasional chainsaw-wielding cyborg mermaid, or tea party interrupted by a ninja attack interrupted by the mansion turning into a giant robot.
With Dragon World I’m trying to distill what I’ve learned from years of experience with Toon and Maid RPG (and to a lesser extent Teenagers From Outer Space and the West End Games Ghostbusters RPG), and a bit from a lifetime of loving comedy as well. One of the key things in Dragon World is the use of Temptations. Each character has two of them, which can be things like Food, Women/Men, Love, Treasure, etc. This echoes how in the Ghostbusters RPG characters would have goals like Sex or Soulless Science, and how although it’s not as explicit, Maid RPG characters often have desires that define them, whether they’re things that the many random tables put in place (wanting to take revenge on the master, obsessively shopping when stressedout), things that the game and/or scenario suggests (wanting to please the master, wanting to be the one picked as his bride), or things that the player discovers along the way (having your character fall in love with another maid). On a similar note, Teenagers From Outer Space gets a lot of mileage out of playing havoc with teenagers’ sex drives, putting alien customs and physiology or just contrived happenstance in their way. For me this is kind of a post hoc rationalization though, in that the real reason I put it in my game was because in Dragon World‘s source material, most characters are constantly at the mercy of their temptations. Lina Inverse loves food, enough to point at a menu and say, “I’ll have everything from here to here.” And because she’s a magical hobo, she can end up having to dine and dash despite being a genius sorceress, or be welcomed as a hero only to shock her hosts with the appetite she’s worked up.
I think characters having strong desires is actually a pretty standard thing in comedic stories, because it drives situations that can create violations. Stories tend to use different kinds of desires in different ways in order to keep them sufficiently benign, but we seldom ignore them, if only because if a story ignores something, then for all in tents and purposes it might as well not exist. Comedy usually meets a desire for sex with frustration, but will often use the fulfillment of a desire for food as a launching point, or (in the case of Slayers) as the comedic event in itself. The villain’s desire for conquest is virtually always thwarted, but we get laughs from the details. The Dark Lord himself turns out to be a buffoon, or despite being so mighty himself he has an endless parade of idiots working for him. That’s not the only way that Dragon World creates benign violations–most every class is in essence a combination of a noble profession with a ridiculous foible, for example–but it’s one of the most important.
One of the things that makes Dragon World a little different from a lot of other humor RPGs is that it assumes an ongoing, multi-session story. Games like Toon and Maid RPG don’t prevent you from running longer campaigns, but their orientation is much more towards episodic if not outright one-shot play. Aside from fitting with the source material, I’ve found that Dragon World‘s continuing stories create an ongoing context for the humor to take place in. It’s possible to create humor that doesn’t require a wider context to work, but it’s a heck of a lot harder. It takes a special kind of talent to make a brief comic strip or a tweet laugh out loud funny, and only people with a certain genius do so with any frequency. With an ongoing situation, you can build up more internal expectations to violate. The other thing about Dragon World, one of my favorite things about it, is that it still has the capacity to be serious. Not always, or even often, but it has those moments. Some of my favorite comedy, whether it’s Red vs Blue or Slayers or one of Patton Oswalt’s stand up comedy acts, has its serious moments, when the humanity behind the humor boils over. You have to earn those moments, but they can be nothing short of amazing.