This is a guest post from Toby Strauss who currently has a 1970s cartoon-based RPG Jinkies! on Kickstarter.
I want my game to be funny but I don’t know how. Help!”
You’re in good company! Many gamers want to do “funny” but don’t know how. What’s the secret sauce to comedy? The formula to funny? The magic to mirth?
As a game designer whose niche is comedy games, I’d like to share a few tips and tricks for getting yuks out of your gaming group.
- Give your players space to be funny. Every GM gets impatient when their players are riffing instead of hopping on the plot wagon. Before pushing them along, give them a little time to wisecrack. After all, comedy can be found in the spaces between destinations, and it thrives among the unruly. Give the players a longer leash and you might be surprised at what they cook up.
- Violate expectations. “Benign Violation Theory
”isa popular theory for why things are funny. The gist of it is that people (as well as some primates!) are amused if something is simultaneously funny and a violation of expectations. This one is easier to demonstrate than explain: Two men, Bill and John, go hunting in the woods. Out of the blue, John falls to the ground, lifeless! Bill dials 911 on his cell phone and says, “ Helo! My friend is dead!” The operator calmly replies, “Take a deep breath. We can do this. First, let’s make sure your friend is dead.” The line goes silent for a moment, then a gunshot is heard. Bill comes back on the line, “Got it, what’s next?”
- Go blue. Nina Strohminger, a researcher at a symposium held by the Mind Science Foundation, once profoundly stated that “farts make everything funnier.” Dirty jokes are both funny and timeless. Historical luminaries like Martin Luther and Benjamin Franklin famously relied on blue
humorin their headiest writings. Just be careful. Off-colorjokes have the potential to deeply offend or hurt people. Before making those bathroom and sex jokes, ask the table for permission to go blue. After all, you can still be funny and be clean.
- Use understatement. “The giant is 15 feet tall” is a descriptive sentence. “The giant is a mere 15 feet tall—a trifle, really” is the same sentence but with understatement. Understatement is idiomatic to British comedy, making it indispensable if you want your game to feel like a British comedy (Monty Python, Discworld, etc).
- Use exaggeration. Small becomes impossibly small. Big becomes cosmically large. Draw contrasts and you’ll get some grins. To quote the late Johnny Carson: JC: “I visited a small town last week.” Audience: “How small was it?” JC: “The enter and exit signs were on the same pole.”
- Use “yes, and . . .” Gaming is an improvisational exercise, a collaborative effort to tell a story as a group. The backbone of improv is building on the ideas of others. Player one wants the ogre to have a bad back? Yes, and . . . player two adds that he wears a very visible back brace. Yes, and . . . player three adds that he only speaks Esperanto. The more details you “yes, and” in, the
more goofythe result can be.
word play. Everyone hates puns until they hear a good one. Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon? Great food but no atmosphere. How does a penguin make a home? Igloos it together.
- Relax! Sometimes you try and you try . . . and it isn’t funny. The more you try to force it, the less funny it will become. The answer: stop trying so hard. Maybe this session just won’t be funny. That’s ok!
Itsbetter to play a game that doesn’t feel the way you want than it is to twist arms.
I hope you enjoyed my suggestions on how to add some comedy to your game. Do you have ideas to add? Feel free to comment below!
And remember: never battle warlocks without first bringing your war keys. *Rimshot*
Toby Strauss is a game designer who specializes in comedy RPGs. He was a finalist in the 2016 200 Word RPG challenge for his game “Is the Space Pope a Lizard?”, and his 1970s cartoon-based RPG Jinkies! is currently on Kickstarter.