Since today is still April 1st (in GMT+1) , and I really dislike April’s Fools, I decided to make a serious post about comedy at a D&D-gaming table. Why only D&D? Because there are systems which are meant to be played in a comedic style (like Toons) or those who are so unbelievable in terms of character feats, that you transcend the grasp of realism (like Scion).
A normal D&D-campaign balances around realism and fantasy, in most cases it does so well, even though (in the typical American Fantasy Style) it’s always turning into an epic story with powerful characters which defies the laws of realism in one time while being very vulnerable to realism otherwise. For this, I point to the Tyranny of Dragons Story, which is good imho, but bringing Tiamat t the Forgotten Realms and fighting foes which can shape the realms to their whims, while there are a ton of situations, where you can easily die? It’s very over the top, which is not something all people enjoy.
But like I said, normally D&D balances the realism and the fantastic moments pretty well. So we have a sense of seriousness, coming from the realism, and a sense of freedom, from fantasy, which can turn into humor. Is it bad? Of course not, since everyone having fun is one of the main-goals of playing after all. Can it disturb? Definitely.
Now I simply write about my personal experiences of having comedy in D&D (with some insight in other campaigns).
Maybe some of you experienced a comedy-based campaign already and in most of the times: It won’t last long, since the DM will run out of ideas (s)he wants to master. The problem is to find a balance between serious story-telling to get the characters to where the fun belongs and the jokes which are cracked to be cracked. In movies it works well, since the characters aren’t sentient beings, in P&P it’s problematic, since the players often don’t recognize when to stop.
If you give the players the whatever-bag (in: take out whatever you want), you can be sure, that they pull out a grenade launcher to bomb the villain you’re just introducing. But if you don’t give the whatever-bag, of course in the end they end up in only having the resources they have, without much spark of creativity. It’s basically only what they do in normal campaigns, except they’re more brave, like trying to make a Looney Tunes routine (“Duck-Hunt.” “Rabbit-Hunt.” “Duck-Hunt.” “Rabbit-Hunt.” “Rabbit-Hunt.” “Duck-Hunt!”)
How do you work with that? There are several ways. One of the easiest: Only one side is comedic. If the players like to play the fools, let them form a party which doesn’t take anything serious (like the old TMNT) and match them up with serious plots. Since only goofing around won’t stop the plot, they will somehow or another pull themselves together when needed and make it right through!
Or maybe the heroes are serious, while the villains and plots are somehow strange. Like a wizard, who tries to reshape the weave, so every spell will create cookies. Or another is just a maniac, who wants to break out the 4th wall, trying to convince everyone, that they’re nothing more than notes on a paper.
If only one side goofs around, it’s much easier to control the plot itself and make something like a story. With a real story, a DM is much better able to keep the campaign going, since one scenario will flow into the next and in the end it’s simply a direction to follow. Those who play regularly needs something like that, since simple and connectionless-episodic is very tiring when done repeatedly.
Another got rule in the DMG (p. 269) are: Plot points. This optional rule allows the players to shape the story to their own ideas and of course limiting the access of unbelievableness is another great way to make a comedy without playing randomly.
Comedy as a supplement
Normally, I don’t play comedy-based campaigns, but I do add often some comedy as supplement. So when you (for example) play Tyranny of Dragons, you might think: Hey, this might work. Why don’t I add a bullywug, which is actually thinking, it’s a transformed princess. The bizarreness of the situation is something that might enhance the story in a funny way without breaking it. Just be sure, that the players can’t possibly think of it as a subquest or story-hook.
Funny things happens in real life and in Fantasy, you can make it more funny with just a bit of work. Like adding a fart-sound to the evil wizard’s Stinking Cloud or just a description, how a critical hit looks like on the enemy: “Your sword cuts deep into the body of your enemy and splashes hits the adjacent one, which complains: “Hey, look where you’re leaking!”
In the end the most important thing is to determine how much comedy your gaming-group can process. If you’re joking as much out-of-game as playing serious, maybe you should consider to add some more comedy to the game itself as a DM or a player, to keep the rest more focused on the game. So maybe your character has the flaw, that he regularly messes up serious situations. Or maybe you add, as a DM, an additional condition to your lich, like that his phylactery can only be destroyed while he can see it, so you can deliver this line: “Erm, how do you… wait, I meant, what are you holding there? Seems like a very valuable treasure, so it might be better if you keep it somewhere safer than this battlefield. I know, I’m your enemy and trying to kill you, but I really had the urge to give you that piece of advice. Take it, seriously!”
And often the most memorable moments of a campaign are the most funniest. And that’s definitely better than the most annoying ones. -_-