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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.

pumpkin-3771100_1280.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

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

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Coroc

Hero
Your magic missile from the groins guy obviously saw "from dusk til dawn" the series. There is one guy making his gun (mounted between his legs in a quite obscene way, along with two revolver drums left and right of the barrel to complete the picture) activate by a sharp movement of his pelvis.

It later turned out in the series, that this guy had an accident in his prime, so his normal biological functionality was impared.

Not that i would point out something for your buddy there ....
 

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Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
I think of my general approach to campaigns these days as "Wheel of Time" if it had been written by Fritz Lieber and adapted into a miniseries by Quentin Tarantino.

Which is to say, epic and dark- yet filled with sarcasm, gallows humor, weirdness and ironic references to numerous D&D, mythological and fantasy tropes. One minute we're trading quips and laughing - and the next minute we're in a battle to the death to save a barony from a dark curse, everyone almost silent as a near-TPK is coming down to a single die roll...

'cause that's just how I roll.

(Generally, would I allow crotch magic missiles? Maybe once. Maybe I'd introduce an NPC who does it. That's called comic relief, and I like lots of that. But a PC who does that every encounter as his schtick? erm… no thanks. Silliness is to relieve the tension. But nothing but silliness derails the whole tone of the campaign.)
 


ad_hoc

Hero
We have the 'take the in game stuff seriously but the out of game stuff can be silly' rule.

Sometimes we get into out of game tangents, chat about our lives, make jokes, etc. But when it comes time to actually make in game decisions it is taken seriously.

There are rare exceptions where a good joke comes up as a natural course of play.

Last session the party were parlaying with a group of Aaracockra and one player said "we certainly didn't mean to run afoul of you" to which the DM replied "are you mocking us?!"

We all had a good laugh. The pun was unintentional and the tone serious which made it work so well as a joke.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
It's worth it to ask the players in advance what kind of game they want too. Come to an agreement across the group; not just GM fiat. With all players (incl GM) having the power of veto or not participating.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
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. . .

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.
I might like to try and run with that - the groin-missile. What kind of reputation will a groin-caster have? I bet other mages would mock him, and women would stay far away. Or, there might be an accuracy penalty for firing from something other than your finger or forehead. (I know, I know. Magic missiles never miss...)

But yes, the point is silliness, and I'm strongly considering referring to all of my future games as "chess-like." It has a nice ring to it. I'm a fan of the GM Time Out, in which players get goofy, and then realize that the GM stopped the game 13 minutes ago and has just been waiting for PCs to get it all out.
 

Coroc

Hero
I might like to try and run with that - the groin-missile. What kind of reputation will a groin-caster have? I bet other mages would mock him, and women would stay far away. Or, there might be an accuracy penalty for firing from something other than your finger or forehead. (I know, I know. Magic missiles never miss...)

But yes, the point is silliness, and I'm strongly considering referring to all of my future games as "chess-like." It has a nice ring to it. I'm a fan of the GM Time Out, in which players get goofy, and then realize that the GM stopped the game 13 minutes ago and has just been waiting for PCs to get it all out.

Luckily the magic missile is weightless and has no re-coil .... ROFLMAO
 




jgsugden

Legend
How has nobody cited Critical Role, yet? Matt Mercer contends with one of the silliest and disruptive players I've ever seen in Sam Riegel. Groin Magic? Yeah, that was 4 years ago. Matt has addressed some of his techniques for keeping the gravitas in the face of such a challenge. I find his techniques work well.

Let them be silly at times. Great tragedies are often ripe with comedy... being lifted up by humor gives you more room to fall when you twist the knife.

Set a mood when you want them to feel the seriousness. Music, lighting, and a few acting techniques (such as knowing how to use pace and silence as tools to escalate tension) help. Don't break the mood when they make that inevitable joke. Smile at their comment, and double down on what you were attempting.

Make sure they care about your NPCs. Allow the NPCs to become their friends. Use their family members in the story. Base some NPCs loosely on people you know your players know and like. Then, when an NPC is hurt or killed, it won't be as funny.
 



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