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General Worlds of Design: Shooting Magic Missiles from Silly Places

I was attending a college game club for the first time, convening at the odd time of 7:19. I was quite early, having come from another college game club, so I sat down and spread out a couple of games I was seeking to playtest. Not far away a group of guys were talking, and I finally heard enough to recognize they were talking about RPGs and wandered over. It was a discussion to help GMs become better GMs.


The main question amounted to: How do you maintain a serious game and not have it become dominated by silliness? For example, this GM described a game that was going along the way he wanted until one of the players asked if he could shoot his magic missiles from his groin! According to the GM, the game collapsed into silliness after that.

This is a really good question. One possibility is that if the players don’t feel that their characters are seriously threatened, then they can do whatever they feel like. On the other hand, if they do feel that their characters might die, there’s likely to be a lot more focus on playing the game and a lot less on silly questions such as the above. That’s the fundamental formula generalization: the lower the stakes, the less engaged the players, and the higher the potential for silliness.

But there’s a lot more to it. You can run a game without a lot of silliness if you work to find the right players. If you get responsible players who recognize what you want to do and are willing to go along with the game’s plot, they can say funny things and have a good laugh but still focus on the “seriousness” of the situation. The players don’t have to behave like soldiers in combat as long as their characters do. The trick is to differentiate between what the players say and what the characters actually say and do.

In a similar way, if the GM is running a game where he/she is telling a story, the GM needs players who are willing to go along with that, willing to concede some control to the GM. If they indulge in lots of silliness that’s detrimental to the story, the storytellers can very easily lose control – and thereby make the story less effective. When you come down to it, a GM who is telling a story has to work with players to set an expectation about how he/she expects them to behave.

The middle ground where the GM isn’t going for a strong game or going for a strong storytelling session, is where things are likely to get muddled. Perhaps partly because the players themselves aren’t sure how/where things are going.

When a GM is hosting a game, he or she can decide who plays and who doesn’t. We’ve all encountered people who believe that they ought to be able to do whatever they want, including playing in a game when the GM doesn’t want them to. Those types of players aren’t going to fit anyway, so you may as well head off a lot of frustration early by talking to them first before putting the entire group through the hassle.

A GM would be wise to explain ahead of time what kind of campaign he/she has in mind, rather than just recruit “anyone who wants to play Pathfinder” or some other game. It’s just like playing any particular tabletop game, some people aren’t going to like it no matter how good others think the game is, and it saves the potential player time and effort if they find out what the game is about before they play. E.g., if a game can be characterized as “chess-like”, there’s no reason for those who dislike chess-like games to try playing.

While the general formula can make a big difference, in the end it’s about finding players who match the GM’s play style. It’s a matter of, well, being adult, of taking responsibility, of not indulging yourself in a way that will interfere with the game as a whole. It seems simple, but I’ve encountered many, many players who are unwilling to play along, so in the end the GM who wants players to behave a certain way may have to “disinvite” a lot of players out of the game (or not invite them to play in the first place).
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

SMHWorlds

Explorer
I do think being up front about what kind of game you want to run is important. I am not going to run a lark filled campaign for Stormbringer, for instance.

But I think use of the term "no" also helps to cut down on silliness. What we are really talking about here is a degree of verisimilitude And it does have to start with the players buying into the shared, creative space. I almost always so no to crotch Magic Missile because it won't just stop there. But sometimes I let the dice decide. Maybe tonight, silliness wins. And on occasion I let a specific session be silly because that is the players' mood.

Even though players annoy me at times, I can't have the game without them. And I wouldn't want to play with soulless automatons anyway. I also find that silliness erupts when the GM is being too serious. Just as there needs to be separation between character and players, the same holds true between the GM and The World. Keep an emotional buffer there.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
Sometimes your group just has a bad case of the sillies. Sometimes this comes out of nowhere, and sometimes it is feedback on how well you (as a DM) are actually running the game and presenting the material. In both cases it is good to give the sillies their head for a while or you risk alienating your players (or yourself!)

Beware the "serious" and "dark" game-- it is easy to tip over into camp and then turn into a joke. But if it does, don't despair. Roll with it and come back the next time with your A-game. Don't be afraid to ask them to settle down a little and give you another chance to set the tone back to something a bit more serious.
 


CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I have a Class Clown player at my table, he's always looking for ways to diffuse the tension and suspense that I've worked so hard to create. At least once per night I have to say something like "Come on man, read the room" to him to reign in his humor.

I get it; some people use humor to deflect and process tension. So I try not to bust his chops too much. But when I'm trying to describe the creeping horror beneath the town that has been snatching children in the night, we don't need a half-dozen penis jokes. Nobody laughed at the first one.
 

Ace

Adventurer
The key to any good game is making sure your guys are all on the same page and have bought into the core assumptions of what you are running,

This absolutely includes the level of humor.

Also you need to know your players and what they want, if your group is suddenly filled with twee half elves with shoulder dragons, jesters, mountebanks. illusionists and all the assorted silly stereotypes than its probably not time to run the Tomb of Horrors or Ravenloft

On an individual basis, in my experience its best to not invite players to games where they don't fit. The class clown has a place is Buffy, in essential in Toon but shouldn't play in a Hardcore Mercs game or Tekumel

And note I've been the misfit player, happy halflings do not belong in military themed games.

To get there though requires good communication and openness and if you have problems with that, you need to work that first. TTRPG's are first and foremost a social hobby and they require a baseline level of skill which to be honest can be a bit daunting for some.
 

atanakar

Hero
Class Jukebox can be tiresome. The guy who as a song for everything that happens in game and actualy sings it for a few seconds, destroying any serious ambiance the GM is trying to set.
 

houser2112

Explorer
Penis magic missile guy would fit right in with the DM who introduced me to D&D in high school, with his custom magic items like the boner ring (self-explanatory) and wand of pubic error (makes the target's head hair into pubic hair), and Charisma score being inextricably linked with breast size.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A hard-core serious game might be fine for a session or two but after that I'd likely be the one to inject some silly.

I'm there to laugh, entertain, and be entertained; and while the actual Magic Missile example given isn't really to my taste, the ethos behind it largely is.

What's also telling is that the OP remembers this incident how many years later?

Sometimes the amusing events of a campaign are what stand out and are remembered later, long after the serious bits have faded into obscurity. Example: we had one bats-nuts crazy battle (party vs a wandering band of Orcs and a few Trolls) over 35 years ago that still gets talked about today - those who were there remember the event, the characters, and the rough order of what happened but have largely or completely forgotten why we were there at all, where we were going, or even what adventure we were on.
 


jayoungr

Hero
Supporter
One possibility is that if the players don’t feel that their characters are seriously threatened, then they can do whatever they feel like. On the other hand, if they do feel that their characters might die, there’s likely to be a lot more focus on playing the game and a lot less on silly questions such as the above. That’s the fundamental formula generalization: the lower the stakes, the less engaged the players, and the higher the potential for silliness.
I think "high stakes" has just as much potential to backfire, though. If players don't expect to keep their characters long, then they may feel there's no need to be solemn about them; they're just disposable cutouts and it's okay to be silly with them.
 

Hussar

Legend
While the general formula can make a big difference, in the end it’s about finding players who match the GM’s play style. It’s a matter of, well, being adult, of taking responsibility, of not indulging yourself in a way that will interfere with the game as a whole. It seems simple, but I’ve encountered many, many players who are unwilling to play along, so in the end the GM who wants players to behave a certain way may have to “disinvite” a lot of players out of the game (or not invite them to play in the first place).
Quoted for absolute truthiness.
 


MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I'm pretty happy with my current group and level of silliness. I would not want us to take the game too seriously. This is a time to kick back and unwind with some friends. Most of the jokes are players quipping at each other. I could see this not going over well in other groups as some people can't take a joke at their expense and will take umbrage rather than pay it forward.

Tough combats or challenging traps are when we all get the most serious.

I have one player who plays a sarcastic gnome wizard who'll make sarcastic comments to antagonists, but that fits his character and isn't really silly and never disruptive. Also, when he is in, say, an intense negotiation the sarcasm is suppressed--he is a smart gnome wizard.

That said, there are times when players will have their characters do things that cross over into silliness, but it is maybe once in an eight-hour session or two. Enough to be memorable and funny but not frequent enough to become disruptive or annoying.

One example of a regular but not disruptive silly thing one of my players has his character do, which I think adds to the game, is that whenever the party overcomes a trap protecting a treasure chest or room, after the party cleans it out, he'll leave a single copper piece and reset the trap.
 
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I have a Class Clown player at my table, he's always looking for ways to diffuse the tension and suspense that I've worked so hard to create. At least once per night I have to say something like "Come on man, read the room" to him to reign in his humor.

I get it; some people use humor to deflect and process tension. So I try not to bust his chops too much. But when I'm trying to describe the creeping horror beneath the town that has been snatching children in the night, we don't need a half-dozen penis jokes. Nobody laughed at the first one.
While I agree, that could also be how HIS character attempts to cope and deal with most normal situations.

Now if said character was in a situation where he witnessed his fellow female Druid companion,who was captured, and witnessed the moment where said Druid companion exploded all over the room in a crimson goregasm, due to villain's experiment going HORRIBLY wrong at that moment, yeeeeeaaah then that's not a situation to bust the jokes out.
 

Penis magic missile guy would fit right in with the DM who introduced me to D&D in high school, with his custom magic items like the boner ring (self-explanatory) and wand of pubic error (makes the target's head hair into pubic hair), and Charisma score being inextricably linked with breast size.
Also would fit in Black Tokyo too.
 

One example of a regular but not disruptive silly thing one of my players has his character do, which I think adds to the game, is that whenever the party overcomes a trap protecting a treasure chest or room, after the party cleans it out, he'll leave a single copper piece and reset the trap.
That is awesome!

Johnathan
 


jedijon

Explorer
Silly and dark are opposites.

Not so for silly and serious. We’re talking tone here—no reason your players can’t be engaged and also whimsical.

The advice to that GM should be the classic, “what do your players want, and how can you use that to create an experience you also find meaningful?”
 


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