People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
Tips for GMs and Writers
What’s Your Fantasy?
copyright 2000Christine Morgan
Part Four -- Humor
When I think of funny in fiction, two examples jump instantly to mind. These are moments that make me laugh every time I read them. In fact, I'll even be anticipating them a couple of pages ahead, so the pre-giggles begin early.
I should explain my way of reading: I read with both high speed and high comprehension, and I also possess the gift of being able to read the same book over and over with no diminishment of pleasure. This, I feel, makes me a very lucky person. It also saves me a lot of money on books, because I'm not always needing a new one. I can go back to old favorites.
The two examples are from considerably different sources. The first is from "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe," the second book in Douglas Adams' delightful Hitchhiker's trilogy-of-five. It's during the seance when Zaphod summons the spirit of his great-grandfather, and it's one single line. I don't know why. All I know is that whenever I read it, and even now as I'm thinking about it, I crack up.
... as if asked for a lightly-grilled weasel on a bun with french fries.
It gets me every time. I don't know why.
The second example is from "Needful Things," by Stephen King. In this book, King sets out to utterly destroy his town of Castle Rock. But he takes the violent tragic insanity and destruction and makes it funny!
The scene in particular that gets me begins when deputy Norris Ridgewick is "rammed amidships" in his VW by Danforth "Buster" Keaton. My helpless mirth continues for several pages, including a moment when a badly battered police officer is accidentally tackled and taken down by his own hyped-up colleagues, another man has his hand run over, and other brutal things happen.
Yet I can't help laughing, partly because the way it's written makes me think that King was having a blast while he was doing it. And because there's humor in horror, immensely valuable as a tension reliever.
Funny in gaming doesn't work quite this way. For one thing, funny in gaming is rarely planned. It is spontaneous, and sometimes even unwelcome. I've seen many a GM reduced to snarls of frustration over gags that the players just would not let go, and once had a game absolutely disintegrate on me in ways that I'd never expected.
There are three ways to try and handle inadvertent comedy in your game, but I'm here with almost 20 years of GM experience to tell you that most of the time, they're just not going to work.
1. Get everyone back on track -- you can pause the game or story and remind everyone to try and keep it serious, but sooner or later someone's going to start snickering.
A game that got away from me ... Snow Ogres had abducted the mayor's daughter, and the adventurers were supposed to go rescue her. Pretty straightforward, right? But those people (and some of you might be reading this and know who you are!!!) just would NOT let it work that way. No matter how I prompted, pleaded, reminded, and cajoled. It ended up, over my protests the whole while, eventually involving Created Servants, fake kidnap plots, and a crossbow wedding culminating in the theft of the mayor's coach and all the presents. To this day, I don't know what went wrong ...
2. Ignore it and hope it dies on its own -- what'll really happen is they'll get the idea that it's really really bugging you, and do it even more.
The example that comes to mind is a writing one, along the lines of how our mistakes come back to haunt us. Several years ago, I did two stupid things. I wrote a disgusting and objectionable story, and then I posted it. And then I regretted it, but it was too late. The damage had been done. I finally just had to acknowledge the damn thing, because people wouldn't leave it alone. They had to keep bringing it up even when (or, really, because) they knew it made me cringe.
3. Run with it -- this one works, but it can be awfully hard for a GM to see an entire planned session of gaming turn into absurdity. And once it starts happening, it snowballs.
My first GM and mentor, Don (whose articles have appeared right here in Sabledrake), once created an NPC to help our group. This fellow was originally named Errol, after Errol Flynn, a name meant to convey dashing swashbucklery competence. But one of the players forgot his name, and started calling him Elmo. Now, that doesn't have the same connotation at all! But it stuck, and poor Elmo became something of an oaf just because of his name.
So how do you get the comedy that you want? That's a lot harder than having it happen by accident. Writing comedy is tough. It's probably harder work than any other style. Of course, like all styles of writing and gaming, a lot of it is personal style and knack. Some have the knack for funny, some don't.
Those who do would include Spider Robinson, Douglas Adams, Robert Aspirin, Don DeBrandt, Terry Pratchett, etc. The pressure must be overwhelming, because people expect them to be hilarious all the time. In books, in person, all the time. Unless you're Robin Williams, that's a heavy burden!
But then, any expectation can be a heavy burden. People expect Stephen King to be scary all the time, people expect writers of erotica to be sexy all the time (and I can sadly report, being one, that it's not the case ... though I sure wish it were!).
Comics say that it's all in the delivery. Or, how many times have you heard or said, "You had to be there"? Conveying humor strictly by the written word is a lot harder than telling a funny story, and relaying a comedic incident has less impact than witnessing it for yourself.
To write or game funny, try to find the light-hearted side to your story. Word choice, particularly when it comes to the descriptives, is vital. So's pace; funny is like action and usually happens rapid-fire, while scary or sexy tend to be more drawn-out.
You can also make use of comic relief characters, usually sidekicks. Taken too far, these become cases of what I call "Orko Syndrome," after the character from the He-Man cartoons. In "Orko Syndrome," the comic relief is a little cutesy critter with a funny voice, but so annoying that most people would happily put it through a meat grinder.
Examples would include Orko (naturally), Bubo the Robot Owl from Clash of the Titans, Uni from the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, Elmo (there's that name again) from Sesame Street, and practically every Disney marketing tool of the past fifteen years.
But sometimes, rarely, the cutesy sidekick manages to be all that but still not be irritating as a heat rash. Bartok the bat from Anastasia, R2D2 of Star Wars fame, or Podo and Kodo the ferrets from The Beastmaster fall into this category.
And then there's Pokemon, which seems to be Orko Syndrome taken to such an extreme that it makes the entire show ... but if I were to sit down and think about it (which I am as I write this), the only one I'd really classify as being guilty of it is Team Rocket's sidekick Meowth.
I'm guilty of Orko Syndrome myself, both in games and in writing. There was Tylwyth the little purple fairy (and one thing about critters with funny voices, when you're the GM, you have to do the funny voice, which can get cloying pretty darn fast) in a game I ran many years ago. There's also Darkfire, Arien's drake familiar from my MageLore books, though I like to think he's only a borderline case.
Accents, mannerisms, and customs can be the GM's friend, but they must be handled carefully. Accents are contagious, mannerisms are mockable, and customs can get out of control.
I once played in a Traveller: 2300 game (not very well, I'm afraid; I've never been all that good with space) in which every PC was from a different country. But the players were for the most part American college kids. So there we were, all of us faking the most atrocious accents you'd ever hear.
We had to, because if only one of us did it, pretty soon everyone would end up involuntarily imitating that person. And that person would usually be Bill, playing Jetrock last-name-unprintable, a rabid Australian. So it was far less scary to have a roomful of diverse bad accents than a roomful of bad Australian accents. (The GM, John, actually had lived in Australia; we really felt bad for him ...)
Mannerisms ... be careful with this ... the GM that comes up with an NPC with a funny twitch will soon be looking across the table at six players with wiseass grins, all making funny twitches.
My most notable personal experience with customs would have to be from a fantasy game from four years ago. The country was Rakvi, and I thought it would make things interesting (always a warning sign) if Rakvians had the habit of announcing: "There's a saying in my village ..." and then dispensing some tidbit of proverb, wisdom, or downright weirdness. Even city-bred Rakvians who'd never been to a village said it that way.
Now, the first thing this did to me was force me to come up with a list of over two hundred "sayings in my village." I made extensive use of inspirational books and Reader's Digest, and to this day when I hear a good one I tell myself to write it down before I remember that the game has been over for two years now.
It got to the point that all I'd have to say was "There's a saying --" and the players would be wincing and bracing themselves. Then they started popping up with it at other moments; they'd be in another kingdom altogether and someone would say something profound, making them snidely reply, "Is that the saying in your village?"
I enjoyed the Rakvian experience, though it did get out of hand. And I'm saving my list of sayings; you never know! The time might come when I'll set a book there and need to have them all, from "Without the stones, the brook makes no music," to the one that still bugs my players, "A horse isn't a horse unless it carries the man up the mountain; a man's not a man unless he walks the horse back down."
Inadvertent humor can doom the writer or GM. You don't want readers and players laughing at the wrong things.
Be very careful to check your character and place names, make sure nothing can be taken to mean something you don't. In The Toy, with Richard Pryor, they referred to Master Bates on purpose; if you let it happen by accident, rest assured you'll never live it down! I once named a character Kurtius, and didn't pronounce it out loud until he was introduced, thereby not realizing that it sounded just like 'courteous.' Whoops!
Sometimes it's just going to be unavoidable, because we're all different and have associations that can be triggered. Or something might just plain strike you funny, and there's nothing you can do about it.
I start laughing during the Kenneth Branaugh version of Frankenstein at an inappropriate moment -- when he is dancing with the revived Elizabeth, a scene that is meant to be one of love and triumph and joy (mixed with horrified pity because of what happened to her and the mess she's in).
But he's whirling her around, and her head's tipped back, and every time I see that ring of stitches on her neck I imagine them all popping loose so her head goes flying off into the recesses of the lab. Terrible of me, but I can't help it.
On the other hand, it's vitally important to be able to laugh at yourself. This is why comics such as "Dork Tower" and "Knights of the Dinner Table" strike such a chord with gamers. We know those people. We are those people!
I've been a GM nearly as long as I've been a player, and I know exactly what Matt and B.A. are experiencing. Over-attention to standard dungeon dressing. Characters bound and determined to kill everything that moves. Long arguments with rules lawyers -- well, in my case they tend to be short arguments and I usually lose, because my style of play is much more "roll and shout."
It has been great, over the years, to see gaming and fandom crop up in other places. We're reaching a level of acceptance, nerdy though it may be. After all, isn't it said that once you've been spoofed on The Simpsons, you're there? And even before there was Galaxy Quest and Trekkies taking a heartfelt, lovingly brutal look at fandoms, there was "Bimbos of the Death Sun."
We'd owned this book for years. I'm not sure quite how we came to have it, whether we'd somehow inherited it from one of our many roommates over the years, but I'd never read it until Steve Jackson mentioned it in a chat. The title and cheesy cover didn't inspire confidence, but I was to find out that was the whole point!
If you've never read it, and if you're any sort of gamer or member of a sci-fi / fantasy fandom, you must read this book. The author is Sheryn McCrumb. For more on it, visit my Book Reviews page.
May will be Conspiracy Month here at Sabledrake Magazine, so in this column we'll be taking a look at the practical and not-so-practical applications of behind the scenes scheming, secret societies, and general connivery.
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