Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Problem With Funny (Part One)

So we're going to see THE WORLD'S END today, the new Simon Pegg / Nick Frost / Edgar Wright comedy which mixes "lads at the pub" with killer robots. (I would provide a link to the trailer, but I figure if you're reading this you are probably already aware of it, either by dint of your hobbyist tendencies or the fact the commercials for it are running almost constantly.) Very happy about that.

This put me in mind of comedy in roleplaying games.

I have to say that, although I've played and read a lot of RPGs in my time, very few of them actually billed themselves as Comedy. The only ones I own are Teenagers From Outer Space, Fiasco, and Low Life (the Savage Worlds supplement of postapocalyptic fantasy where you can play a flatworm barbarian or a Twinkie weilding magical powers). I've played Paranoia, of course -- and that's the game most people think of when they think of comedy RPGs -- and run several games of Ghostbusters, but somehow comedy always seems a hard sell at the roleplaying table.

Some players seem to think that the act of actually sitting down with the intention to create a comedy game is doomed to fail -- that comedy is something that happens spontaneously while you're doing games that are mostly serious, or sometimes serious, or oh bugger it we're just arsing around with the dice and killing orcs so if we crack wise at each other cut us some slack, okay? In other words, that comedy is something that exists mostly in the realm of the players and not in the realm of the game setting.

Certainly, it's true that a good deal of the humour in roleplaying comes from spontaneous exchanges between players. Who doesn't have dozens of beloved, hilarious quotes from their games over the years? It's strange to me that comedy seems to be such a fringe part of the roleplaying hobby, however, because practically all of my experiences with it have been successful and good. Some are funnier than others, sure, but the same is true of dramatic games. Some nights you're just "on".

Perhaps part of that is self-consciousness on the part of the players. Saying that you're going to play a game that requires everybody to be funny can be nerve-inducing; but again, the same thing happens in HTHD games. I've written before about the difficulties with getting people to commit to scenes and really go after those moments of vulnerability and emotion. I suspect that this is a thing that becomes easier with practice, just as regular practice at improv scenes can loosen up those mental muscles and build skills at riffing off each other.

The other part of the problem is that roleplaying games are a time-intensive hobby. Players perhaps spend 3-4 hours at the game table, each week, in the groups I play in. I'm sure some of you still indulge in 6-8 hour marathons, but most adult gamers don't have the same luxury. (I remember the halcyon university days of playing D&D until the wee small hours of the morning, then trudging out through the Montreal snow for breakfast at Picasso's before finally stumbling home to bed. Ah! Youth.) People want to play a game with some "meat" to it, if they've got limited time, and somehow comedy -- playing a game that is explicitly comedy -- feels slight. Not worthy of your time. It's easier to play something that's more vanilla fantasy (or horror, or whatever) and toss in occasional wisecracks than it is to commit a lot of time to an ongoing comedy game.

Like the modern Cookie Monster says, comedy is more of a "sometimes" thing in roleplaying games.

But maybe we're selling comedy short.

To be continued...

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