Tabletop role-playing games have sense of insecurity hiding just beneath the surface. They haven’t become the cultural phenomena video games are and certainly don’t bring in the same kind of revenue. When they did have a cultural moment, part of it was being the subject of a moral panic. The outside perception of the hobby doesn’t seem to have moved too far away from an association with greasy teens in a bearded guy’s basement improvising some low-rent Tolkien fan fiction. This insecurity is betrayed by taglines like “games for mature minds.” Insecurity produces an unhealthy focus on seriousness that can lead to bad outcomes at the tabletop and cuts us off from more interesting choices. As the cliche has it, the best remedy is an audible contraction of the diaphragm, and so as an alternative I propose we get funny.
It is nice to pretend we are not affected by external judgements, especially ill-informed ones, but it took Roger Ebert exactly one article on video games to imbue a lot of gamers with strong opinions about the status of video games as art and his merits as a critic. It is understandable to want to live the counter example in the face of criticism but it is often the need to prove to oneself that becomes the problem. Maturity comes up frequently in these discussions and in slippery ways. The bearded guy in the basement is immature because he is playing a game for kids while the mature people are watching and discussing the athletic performance of another game played by slightly older kids. A Critique of Pure Reason is a mature book, but does not tear up the bestseller lists like something that has more sex and violence in it like 50 Shades of Grey or The Bible. In the maturity trap mature becomes synonymous with serious and adult (in content) gets smuggled in unexamined. The blurring of these lines is where the real trouble starts.
The “games for mature minds” tag is from White Wolf, which can be held up as an example of games that defy the kinds of expectations mentioned above, but also provides a surfeit of examples of the problem. The mature minds tag is a perfect bit of branding that appeals to a more legitimate form of gaming while offering a nudge and a wink that the stuff you really want to see is in these books too. White Wolf is at its best when its settings let players push into material they might have otherwise overlooked. Stories about power in Vampire lend themselves to a different kind of experience than ones in a high fantasy setting. It is a shame that so many of White Wolf’s own examples replace the maturity of the setting in favour of an adolescent fixation on material that will really shock mom and dad. White Wolf games aren’t the only case, though it is easy to see why it might be more prone to this problem if storytellers take their lead from the publisher’s examples.
If the consequences of the maturity trap were just more dull stories, the problem would be solved by players going to find a better gamemaster (GM) to handle things. As it is, there have been enough awkward silences over our collective tabletops to know that the problems don’t just end there. It is not so long ago that a high profile RPG series ended with a GM surprising players with a sexual assault. The series was successful and the GM was a well known and respected figure in tabletop. If any tabletop session did not need to worry about establishing its legitimacy it would be this one and still the GM felt the need not only to impose such a scene on their players, but did so in a public broadcast. Given the established success of the show this stunt imposed the maximum cost (visible on the players faces in the video) for the smallest gain. This may be an extreme example, but it shows that no matter how much external validation there is, there will always be another boundary to cross and no extreme is going to tranquilize the feeling of insecurity.
None of our gaming sessions need to be like this. Dungeon crawls or more casual sessions are perfectly enjoyable ways to spend an afternoon, even they lack a certain gravitas. But what about storytellers who aspire to something more substantial? The proliferation of games with unrelentingly dark themes and safety tools indicates that there is a healthy demand for more complex material. Safety tools seem to be perfectly reasonable best practice to have in place and yet they invite the question as to whether or not an undertaking that runs the risks that require these best practices is worth doing in the first place. An alternative that is severely overlooked, both in terms of printed material as well as campaigns, is comedy. I’m not just talking about table banter or incidental humor, but a sustained effort to use humor to tell the kind of substantial story that is otherwise assumed to be the domain of serious games™.
It is easy to see why comedy is overlooked. Comedy films tend not to get Academy Awards unless they are combined with another genre. However, it is curious that fans of role-playing in particular would miss the opportunities to be found in an underappreciated genre. Role-playing fans are likely to be more story conscious and likely to enjoy science-fiction and fantasy. Comedy suffers from a similar branding issue that science-fiction and fantasy does. Browsing the shelves of the humour section in a bookstore instills about the same lack of confidence in the genre that browsing the shelves of the “books for people who dress up like elves” section (either labeled speculative fiction, sci-fi & fantasy, or some similar label). The titles that achieve a certain threshold of critical acclaim are plucked from these categories and are deposited into the hallowed Literature section. Science-fiction and fantasy fans can recognize the good titles in their genre, regardless of the label, but suffer from a similar bias when outside of their familiar genre. This tendency will be reinforced if we are under the sway of the maturity trap.
Whether or not comedy is respected in its own right, it is clear that serious subjects can be handled with humour. Jonathan Swift’s description of Irish poverty in A Modest Proposal is the benchmark for satire and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb took on nuclear war at a time when everyone was resigned to it being the way things were going to end. Does The Hunt for the Red October have more to say about war than Catch-22 because Tom Clancy plays it with a straight face? Much like science-fiction or fantasy, comedy lets us get across ideas that wouldn’t otherwise be taken up through more conventional means, and we can have a lot of fun doing it. While there may be a dearth of comedy focused role-playing games, the form is flexible enough to incorporate most, if not all, existing settings. If there are any doubts, recall that Paranoia had a Cyberpunk (yes, the same one everyone is looking forward to) crossover, even with Mike Pondsmith’s insistence that Cyberpunk be played at night or on grey days (though I have no idea if the module was any good).
Comedy is difficult to do. Comedy carries a cost for a storyteller since when it doesn’t work the feedback is immediate and unambiguous. People laugh or they don’t. Pushing boundaries in the name of serious storytelling carries less of a cost when it fails since the storyteller can carry the illusion that the players simply didn’t properly appreciate the material. The players who are left to feel the awkwardness or disgust and so lose out twice (there’s only one person laughing in the stream mentioned above). Playing things straight lets a storyteller shift the cost of failure onto the players, while comedy keeps it at the source. But difficulty shouldn’t be an impediment to pursuing humorous stories. Telling a good story is difficult regardless of tone. Either the storyteller wants to be ambitious or they don’t. Right now comedy lets storytellers develop new skills and the appreciation of doing something novel.
Getting funny does not immediately solve all the problems outlined above. We are less likely to fall into the maturity trap by taking on an unappreciated style, but comedy has produced its own controversies with regards to its content. However, the audience will be the group, and pushing into questionable material will seem less natural than when it is already present in source material or experience from other games. The case for comedy isn’t just about mitigating the risks of ambition in storytelling, it’s also a call to simply tell better stories and ones that we need to hear today. We could all use a laugh right now. We should be able to talk about serious things without taking ourselves seriously. Whether we’d like to breathe some life into an established setting with an approach like Men in Black or attack on all fronts like Network, there has never been a better time to use humor to tell stories in role-playing.
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