This post was difficult to write, for a number of reasons.
- It’s ironic, but writing about comedy can be distinctly unfunny. Is there anything more humourless than picking apart a joke to explain how it works?
- Comedy is a matter of personal taste. Take my comedy touchstones, for example: films like Monty Python, Airplane!, Anchorman, Four Lions, and In Bruges. Great films: but universally loved? No.
- Roleplaying games are collaborative and unpredictable: in D&D, comedy just happens. You don’t need to force it. So write about it?
- I have really bad RSI thanks to working from home, and I want to be able to sleep tonight without clutching my arm in pain. (If you think that was a contrived attempt at a joke, it wasn’t.)
So, with all this considered, why write about humour in D&D? Because it’s a fundamental part of the game. Having written a few posts recently that are rather academic or serious (eg, this one), I want to take a break and embrace something fun.
This post is meant to spark inspiration and give a few tips about using humour in your games. If I’ve missed something, comment at the end!
Serious fun: why humour matters
To the uninitiated, the D&D rulebooks can seem pretty heavy going or even intimidating. You’ve got acronyms and appendices, tables and diagrams, columns of 9.5-point text, and all that before you get to the polyhedral dice (‘what the heck is a d100?’). The content itself can get pretty dark, too. There’s violence (lots of it), death, evil, horror: often all four. ‘All this for a game?’
Drama teachers often refer to drama as serious fun, and I think this is a useful term for roleplaying games as well. D&D is serious, but it is also fun. The seriousness enables the fun, and the fun offsets the seriousness. In fact, the more serious the game becomes, the more you need humour to dial things back.
Wizards of the Coast have clearly embraced this in 5th edition. Look at this table, for example, from page 104 of the Player’s Handbook:
This is hilarious!
Look at the monsters, too: 5th edition has brought back classics like the flumph, the modron, the flail snail, the almiraj, and the froghemoth, and featured them prominently in published adventures.
Speaking of which, the published adventures are stuffed with comedy. In fact, generally speaking, the darker the theme, the more humour you will find. Thus, Curse of Strahd has Blinksy toys and the crypts of Castle Ravenloft, Tomb of Annihilation has Yellyark and mad monkey fruit, and Descent into Avernus has Lulu the hollyphant and abyssal chickens. Sometimes, D&D needs comedy.
Going too far
As I said in starting, comedy is a matter of personal taste. Few things in life are universally funny, and many things are almost universally unfunny. So, as any successful comedian will tell you: know your audience, and read the room.
It’s important to have a few safety tools in place for when a joke goes south and someone gets hurt. Again: D&D is serious fun. Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming is an excellent (and free) PDF, and the Pathfinder baseline is a great starting point for mature content, too.
There’s another way in which humour can go ‘too far’. What if the comedy starts to derail the campaign? What if playing D&D becomes secondary to piss-takes and wisecracks?
For some people, piss-takes and wisecracks what D&D is all about! A session is an opportunity to hang out and make jokes. But if you feel it’s going too far, then talk to your players. If they want something light-hearted, then perhaps you’re fighting a losing battle by trying to make the campaign more serious. But at the same time, you are meant to be having fun as a DM, too, and your wishes matter just as much as anyone else’s. So if you feel that the game is becoming irrevocably silly, see if there’s a compromise to be had. Ultimately, though, if the rest of the group wants something very different to you, then maybe it’s better to step back for a while. No D&D is better than bad D&D.
For the most part, D&D will be funny without you even trying. Players come up with madcap schemes all the time, and every failed dice roll is an opportunity for bathos. If you feel things are getting a bit serious, though, here are some suggestions for ways to inject a little levity in your game.
Absurd/surreal comedy. This is already a big part of D&D, as, thanks to dice rolls, much of the humour is so unpredictable. Subvert your players’ expectations now and then with something bizarre or incongruous. Descent into Avernus, for example, features a subplot where a night hag asks the players to watch her den while she goes off to visit a spa.
Anachronism. Deliberate historical inconsistency can be great fun. The Monkey Island series does this brilliantly, with vending machines, T-shirts, and fast-talking, arm-waving used
car ship salesmen. Anachronism can also be hilarious in D&D. After all, it’s not like it’s particularly medieval to start with.
Callbacks. If your campaign has been running for a while, throw in an allusion to something that happened ages ago. It’s a nice reminder of how far the players have come.
Caricature. Characters in D&D don’t need to be three-dimensional and psychologically real. NPCs are often little more than cartoons. Embrace this.
Catchphrases. Curse of Strahd has ‘Is No Fun, Is No Blinksy’. I enjoyed throwing this in at unexpected moments.
Lean into failure. By default, D&D only offers three outcomes: success, failure, and critical hits. Many players use ‘fumbles’ (critical misses) to add a bit of humour to combat.
Music. If you have background music in your games, this can be a great source of comedy. For example, ‘Yackety Sax’ (better known as the Benny Hill theme) is fanastic for chase sequences.
Parody and pastiche. Not quite the same thing: parody is generally mocking, whereas pastiche is more celebratory. Both are fun. Try imitating the style of a film, TV series, or video game, and see if the players notice, or model an NPC on a real-life celebrity or historical figure, subtly or more obviously.
Definitely not a Mad Max reference
Randomness. There are lots of funny random tables in 5th edition D&D, like the sorcerer’s wild magic table and the deck of many things. Randomness is great!
Ribaldry. Also known as blue comedy, this includes anything that’s off-colour, risqué, or bawdy, like innuendo. Another one that needs to be used in moderation. Use safety tools to check whether this is something your group is (occasionally) OK with.
Roasting. Insults are funny! Perhaps best between NPCs: insults between players can become personal unintentionally (or, I suppose, intentionally).
Toilet humour. Really? Weeing, pooping, farting? Well, if they’re good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, they’re good enough for you. Once again, though, use this sparingly, and know your audience.
Trick monsters and cursed items. Part of D&D from the very beginning, you don’t want to overuse these, but, deployed sparingly, they’re great. Mimics can be particularly fun.
Look! Trap monsters AND anachronism! Credit: u/not_that_guy_at_work
Voice acting. What are the funniest voices you can do? You don’t have to be Matt Mercer for this, and it’s a great way of making a memorable NPC. A nice trick is to have a voice that is somewhat unexpected. For example, your death knight could speaks with a high-pitched squeak, and your ancient red dragon could have a tickly cough.
Wordplay. In the catacombs beneath Castle Ravenloft, there is a crypt for Sir Klutz Tripalotsky, who ‘fell on his own sword.’ Puns are great. So are spoonerisms, malapropisms, alliteration, and so on.
Why so serious?
I thought I would end with six rules of good comedy (or at least, comedy where D&D is concerned).
- Safety first. Yes, comedy can be cruel, but this is meant to be a fun game. Never lose sight of that.
- Know your audience. Comedy is subjective, and not everyone has the same tastes as you. If in doubt, imagine the game is rated PG.
- Timing is everything. Whether you’re a player or the DM, think about the ‘beats’ of the game and read the room. Don’t ruin a powerful moment with a bad joke, and try not to smother a potentially funny situation with unnecessary seriousness.
- Keep it natural. The motto of the Cambridge Footlights is ars est celare artem: ‘the art is to conceal the art’. Comedy shouldn’t be forced, and some of the best comedy is grounded and natural.
- Start with character. This comes from Brent Forrester, the head writer for The Office (US version). It’s good advice.
- Be warm. Before he wrote the hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey with Ruth Jones, James Corden turned to the great British playwright Alan Bennett for advice. His one tip: ‘be warm’.
Life is short and full of meanness. Cynicism is cheap. Joy is hard. Be warm. Bring a bit of humour to your game.
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