RPG a Day 2020, Part Twenty-Four – The Tricky Art of Humour in RPGs

I listen to the System Mastery podcast and they covered an RPG I’ve owned for years but never actually played. The Land of Og. It brought back all the memories of picking it up at GenCon UK, reading it and raving about it to my players over the years.

The expansion, because Land of Og was such a classic it needed an expansion.

The Land of Og is an RPG where you play cavemen. A comedy game about them. You use D&D stats and stat spreads, but where D&D players go from 3-18, you go from 1-6 for most of your stats or 2-12 for your primary stat. The joke is that cavemen are really bad at everything. Listening to System Mastery’s episode and looking at the books again I can confirm these cavemen would not have been the ones who survived and evolved. It’s funny saying that you’ve got a tiny vocabulary. There’s a table of words like ‘sun’ and ‘stick’ and ‘verisimilitude’ (which is how I first learnt that particular word). The problem is that communicating as players and characters only using a small vocabulary’s fine but I didn’t even realise how few they were until my reread. Overall, the concept’s funny but it looks like it would be a painful slog.

This is the problem with some comedy games. It’s traditionally been difficult to make a fun system which also makes a fun game. The humour often ends up inside the book, which will probably only be read by the GM. The Red Dwarf RPG and countless old d20 system era games suffered from this, where they were more funny than functional.

So what are some good examples of how to deal with this?

I ran my players through the psychological tests here and they were great fun. Having to point at the [blank] and the [blank] on the nearby Gamma World book had one of the players cracking up.

Paranoia’s an ancient game, but still works for the most part. The system has almost always been completely superfluous to the fantastic dystopian comedy world. I’ve played almost every edition but it’s only been the most recent one which has stuck in my head. In a way it survived because no one cared that much about the system. Paranoia’s world is a ‘utopia’ set underground in the year 214 (now and forever 214). The Computer runs the Alpha Complex, run by clones who in theory are perfect and compliant with its wishes. Only The Computer isn’t working right, the clones are all defective and the countermeasures against problems are based on a box of 1950’s propaganda which was uncovered. Players are ‘troubleshooters’ who have to hunt mutants and members of secret societies while all actually being mutants and members of secret societies. I ran my first session drunk and having managed to lose the core book. It made frankly no difference. The game was very much the case of when things start to go awry, the system is extreme enough that it rarely mattered what it did.

The most recent edition had a more robust system powered by picking what you were good at and what the next player was bad at. This drove players against each other and made erratic characters. A ‘Computer Dice’ was great for randomly making The Computer or other technology interfere. It mixed mechanics and the world to make a daft, entertaining game. My only gripe was the entirely superfluous card-based initiative and combat action system which I just replaced with Balsera or ‘Popcorn’ Initiative represented by the foam guns from Cash & Guns. This had the added benefit of making everyone weirdly trigger happy.

Paranoia took several editions and is one of the classics which still works, albeit with the added necessity of mentioning how GMs shouldn’t take the opportunity to be a complete dick to their players. We’re all watching the characters screw each other over together, as is The Computer. The GM doesn’t need to get hostile to the players as well.

In this modern age of fantastic indie RPGs we’ve got a lot of ways of handling comedy.

A grizzled gull.

Some games play the concept straight. My good friend WH Arthur has made, “B-Town Beak-Tectives” which tells noir mysteries from the point of view of seagulls. These are horrific monsters in Brighton, where we both live and B-Town is a kind of fictionalised version of. The world is ludicrous and the system’s brilliantly seagull-themed but in-world it’s all played straight. The mechanics and the mystery creation are all there.

Then we have the Grant Howitt one-page RPGs. There are several authors such as Ursidice and Minerva McJanda who also publish these kinds of games, but Grant Howitt is both prolific and silly. From the Actual Play darling Honey Heist to Jason Statham’s Big Vacation, Adventure Skeletons and more, these are all very fun, silly games. In this sort of game the humour is front-loaded to you can see the broad concept, get some prompts about what to do and then are sent on your way.

Bears. Hats. Crime. What’s not to love?

I remember before running Jason Statham’s Big Vacation having a moment of panic, wondering how I could be funny and whether I’d end up forcing it. Luckily the mechanics the group have prompt a lot of silliness, as did the tables. The conflict as a GM is less about being funny as it is being quick. I found myself having to work almost one step ahead of the players through fits of laughter and barely able to keep my notes together as I went. This is why I’ve ended up having to use notes my players made as well when writing up reviews of those games. Grant himself has said before that he forces a lot of cognitive load on the GM in return for everything being contained in a single page. It can seem daunting, but the payoff is fantastic. Finally, I also wanted to give a shout out to the 200 word RPG, “Fuck! It’s Dracula!” This was the first game I ran during lockdown. I figured I’d run something nice and simple, which it was. The tale was very daft, involving a relationship between Dracula and a vampiric cow who was his bride. The group rode a jet-powered coffin across a desert. It was a fun time and I’d recommend checking it out.

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