Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Two Things I Don't Write: Hope & Humor

I get the feeling that this is going to be one of those polarizing sorts of posts. My first several versions of it, I feel, came off as very preachy, which was not anything I ever try to do. I took a few steps back and thought about what I was trying to accomplish with this post, realizing that I was more talking about what I do and why I do it rather than why I think anyone else should do stuff.

I'll go ahead and make the polarizing remark that I do not write either hope or humor, and I think my games are better for it.

Humor

Humor and rpgs go hand in hand. We play rpgs for fun and a strong part of that fun is hanging out with your pals, bullshitting and telling jokes. We wear our comedic allegiances (sometimes literally) on our sleeves, looking for any opportunity to work in a quip from Monty Python, Strong Bad or Metalocalypse and all is right with the world. Over the months and years of a campaign, arcane and convoluted in-jokes grow organically out of play and happenstance. That's how it is, and it's how it should be. I'm not suggesting taking humor out of the game, but rather that I don't bother writing it into the game. Writing jokes into the game, I feel, is unnecessary since the players are going to introduce more (and often better!) jokes merely in the process of play! Every time I try to deliberately inject a note of humor into my writing, I feel like I'm sliding down that slippery slope that made Castle Greyhawk (the module as published by TSR, not the beloved megadungeon) possible. Is that joke good enough? Will people get it? How many jokes can I sneak in before things get all "the Star Trek crew in a bar in a dungeon" stupid? I've written one joke into a session in the past six months, and it's one that I'm particularly fond of: I named a talking Sleestak Jeremy during a playtest of material for Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad #2. (If you get the joke and can explain it and aren't one of my players in that game, hit up the comments!) 
This is not humor

I'm sure that people will point to that previous sentence as proof against my statement that I don't write humor. They might think themselves justified in disbelief by a lot of the stuff that I write in the Metal Gods zine (particularly the Secrets of the Serpent Moon adventure tool kit and its aforementioned sleestaks) but they're wrong. The elements that others might point to in my writing as humorous, I instead point to as absurd. Sure, absurd things can be funny, but they're not really designed to just be funny. If anything, I tend to the absurd less to force a laugh and far, far more to force a sense of disconnection between the player's experience and his expectations of the game. For me, absurdity isn't a feather that I'm tickling you with, but a crowbar or a wrecking sledge. The dissonance makes people think, and that thinking, I feel, makes for better and more meaningful games. 

To be fair, I think that every good DM I know has a tool that works for them the same way absurdity works for me. I use plenty of other devices as well, but I don't use humor. It's not that I don't like humor or that I think that absurdism can't be funny (or wouldn't be funny), it's just that I typically don't use absurd elements in a game for the purpose of cracking a joke. Even in RPGs that are designed to be humorous, like Paranoia (new edition currently on Kickstarter!), I find that writing in jokes tends to be something akin to a comedy jackhammer what with how hard it tends to beat the players about the head. I'd far rather encourage levity to occur naturally through the course of play. 

I get a bit hung up on humor in my games and how I'm not using it effectively. Instead of beating my head against the same rock over and over, I've found that it's far better if I just don't do it and instead play to my strengths. Enter absurdity. 

Hope

This one isn't going to be nearly as obvious. I don't write hope. That's not to say that I only ever write unending gloom, irrevocable doom and inescapable ruin. It is to say, however, that I'd rather my players find their own solutions to gloom, doom and ruin. I think this concept is more ephemeral than the humor aversion and so takes a little more explanation, but is just as full of personal bias as the humor deal. 

What I call "writing hope" actually covers quite a bit, and it's sort of hard for me to tie it down to specifics. Hope is the good king with a beautiful daughter that your character might win the hand of. Hope is the kindly wizard with a plan to save the world from the ravening hordes of awfulbadfuckery. Hope is the friendly high cleric who is tolerant of your strange and heretical religion, the good-natured master of the thieves guild who's always been like a father to your thief (until he dies) and the jaunty pirate captain who tries to only ever take hostages. 

This is not hope
Every time I read TSR stuff from the 2e era (even non-2e stuff like the later BECMI adventures and pretty much every issue of Dungeon, sadly), I'm really bummed out by the levels of "hope" that heaped up in those joints. TSR may have had a mandate that "good must always win" on the books, but these adventures make it clear that not only must good win, but that it should and that there's no real reason to think it might not. "The good" is, to me, a clear parallel to "hope" and I've found that it's inclusion in a game pretty much robs the players of agency: if they seek to pursue "the good/hope," here's what they've got to do, who they've got to listen to, the quest they need to undertake and so on. Having competing visions of "the good/hope" is one way around the problem, but, for me, a half-hearted one that feels tacked on and wishy-washy. 

What it took me far too long (and far too many railroads and near-railroads) to discover is that, at least in the games I run, if players are the originators of the solutions to the great dooms and ruins that loom the campaign's future, they are more invested in it. If the "hope" of a campaign is a secret that the players quested to uncover or a king that they put on the throne (possibly one of the PCs), a high priest that they convinced to be tolerant of heretics and so on, then the players have a lot more ownership of those different sorts of hope and therefore a much higher level of buy in to the campaign that begins and ends with the players. 

The "don't write hope" discovery was an immense one for me, personally, and, honestly, one I'm still exploring. I don't have to write the answers to the world's great woes, just the woes themselves. When the players seek to combat a terrible blight, well, let's see how they want to do it. Let them make their own hope. They'll appreciate it more.