Design & Development11/04/2005

Why We Aren’t Funny

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, Dave Noonan examines the role of humor -- past and present -- in D&D.

Warning: Column contains potentially insensitive racial jokes… if you're a goblin.

Humor is pretty rare in D&D products these days—or at least intentional humor. We play it straight in our rulebooks, but many people play D&D as a series of running gags. So why are D&D books so serious when the game can get so goofy?

It wasn't always this way. The earliest editions of D&D are full of oddball monsters, bad puns, inside jokes, and encounters designed not to challenge the PCs but to amuse or embarrass them.

Now we take pride in keeping our humor well hidden. Sufficiently well hidden, in any case, that I feel guilty pointing out examples. Part of the joke is that they're embedded so deeply in the text. Suffice it to say that there's a strangely numbered table in the Dungeon Master's Guide and some unusual alphabetizing in the Expanded Psionics Handbook.

Yeah, I know, jokes about alphabetizing. Hoo boy. Stop it; you're killing me.

We Used To Be Funny

If you can find them, take a look at the old 1st edition core rulebooks. There's bizarre stuff in there. First, you've got the cartoons: A bunch of adventurers donning mouse costumes (ears and all) to sneak past some wererats, with one telling the other: "This had better work!" Another group of adventurers uses a Y-shaped battering ram to entrap a giant snake.

And it isn't just the art. The rules were built to encourage zany play. Check out the crazy side effects of artifact use, or the potion miscibility table. Heck, the array of gender-changing magic alone in the Dungeon Master's Guide is the D&D equivalent of handing clowns a bunch of seltzer sprayers and banana-cream pies.

Miscibility: the ability of two potions to be successfully -- or not as the case may be -- mixed together. From the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide, pg. 119: "The magical mxtures and compounds which comprise potions are not always compatible. You must test the miscibility of potions whenever: 1) two potions are actually intermingled, or 2) a potion is consumed by a creature while another such liquid already consumed is still in effect."

Results ranged from 01%: EXPLOSION!: Internal damage is 6-60 h.p., those within a 5" radius take 1-10 h.p. If mixed externally, all in a 10' radius take 4-24 h.p., no save; to 00%: DISCOVERY!: The admixture of the two potions has caused a special formula which will cause one of the of the two potions only to function, but its effects will be permanent upon the imbiber. (Note that some harmful side effects could well result from this...)

Adventures also had a lot of humor and whimsy in them. Heck, TSR published not one but two adventure modules based on Alice in Wonderland and Beyond the Looking-Glass.

The monsters were goofier back then, too. But goofy monsters deserve their own column—maybe next week—so I won't dwell on them here.

Funny at the Table

The absence of humor in your D&D books is particularly striking when you consider how much humor is happening at your D&D table. Some quick examples should suffice. Stop me if you haven't heard these…

  • "In the middle, on a small hill, you see a gazebo."
  • "I cast… magic missile!"
  • "Am I still unconscious?"

And those are just the D&D jokes that everyone knows. I'm sure you've had situations emerge at your game table that had your friends in stitches.

It's no different for us in R&D, either. Put a bunch of game designers together, and our D&D games have a lot more humor than they have grim, gritty heroism in the face of peril.

Take our playtest of City of the Spider Queen, ably DMed by the adventure's designer, James Wyatt. We'd fought our way through the main part of Castle Maerimydra and reached the bridge to the Undying Temple… only to find it guarded by a 54-HD iron golem. Gulp. This was back in the latter days of 3.0, when a golem's magic immunity was almost total and our many +1 weapons of multiple spectacular carrier effects weren't going to do much good against 50 points of damage reduction.

So Rich Baker's character, an elemental savant named Uhlwe, Spawn of Talos, employed some nonlinear thinking. He disintegrated the bridge at the golem's feet, sending it hurtling through the hole and down almost 300 feet to the cavern floor. Problem solved. On to the Undying Temple.

Only for us, it wasn't that simple. Maybe it was the Guinness. Maybe it was Warren's selection of orange snack foods. But for whatever reason, we couldn't stop laughing at the plight of the iron golem. We imagined it churning its iron legs, Wile E. Coyote style, until it realized it was in midair and thus started falling. We knew the fall wouldn't kill the golem, so we described its self-deprecating monologue as it slowly climbed back through the castle. (It helps if you have a gaming buddy who does a mean Iron Giant imitation.) There are mercenary encampments around the castle, so we were falling out of our chairs describing the iron golem landing on one of those camps. Landing on an unassuming goblin. Landing on a goblin who was sitting in the outhouse… doing a crossword puzzle… trying to think of a five-letter word for "magic construct."

You had to be there, of course. My point is this: a scary encounter turned funny in the blink of an eye—so funny that the game ground to a halt for at least 10 minutes.

In that campaign, I played a dwarven fighter/rogue named Tauroc Wintervein. He was, by and large, a grim tunnel fighter with a hair trigger and a thousand-yard stare. But on some level, he recognized that he needed to be social to his comrades. So he decided to use humor as an icebreaker.

Tauroc understood the value of humor, and he knew the basic form and structure of a joke. But he wasn't actually funny. His "jokes" were just expressions of his grim, take-no-prisoners attitude. Some sample Tauroc jokes:

Tangent Alert!: The other funny thing Tauroc did was deliver these long soliloquies on the deadly prowess of dwarven archers, then express bafflement whenever anyone would talk about elven archery. I was playing with our first, internal-playtest version of Manyshot, which was simply "Nock all the arrows you'd get with a full attack, then fire them all with a single roll at –2." It turns out our drow adversaries didn't have access to internal-playtest Manyshot. With a broken feat in my arsenal, it was pretty easy for Tauroc to show up any elf who dared trade arrows.

And yes, we'd seen Fellowship of the Ring shortly before designing Manyshot. Legolas inspired a lot of good feats.

"Two goblins walked into a bar… and once they were inside, we drove metal spikes into both the front and rear doors. Then we set the bar on fire, covering the windows with crossbows in case the goblins made a break for it."

"Why did the goblin cross the road? Because he was fleeing from a dwarven hammer of justice! He didn't cross the road, actually. We dropped him when he was about halfway across."

"What do you get when you cross a goblin with a mind flayer? An abomination that should be put to the torch, not suffered to live!"

"How many goblins does it take to light a torch? As many as possible, because we'll slaughter everyone within the light radius of the torch, and an additional 60 feet beyond it! In all directions! Such is the might of the dwarves!"

"Knock, knock." "Who's there? "Goblin." "Die, goblin, die! [Cue sound of door being smashed to splinters.]"

Sometimes I think we designers are a little like Tauroc. We understand humor, and we know what it's supposed to look like, but actual funny jokes aren't necessarily forthcoming.

The Nature of Cooperative Humor

So why do we shy away from humor? In short, we worry that it isn't necessarily part of the shared D&D experience, and we don't want to mess up the flow of the game at the table.

The most essential, glorious, wonderful aspect of D&D is this: It's a cooperative game. That cooperation among players—and between players and DM—is what separates D&D (and by extension all tabletop roleplaying games) from almost every other kind of game out there. And for humor to add something to that cooperative experience, the humor has to be cooperative as well. In other words, it only works if everyone at the table is laughing. And it frequently means that everyone at the table has to have a hand in the joke.

Take a second to revisit the tale of the falling iron golem. Now imagine the same situation with a DM who'd labored long and hard to make the iron golem fight a climatic encounter full of action, suspense, and danger. Imagine one player at the table whose character is eager to get into the Undying Temple and avenge his dead brother.

The DM isn't laughing at the bit with the crossword puzzle. And the player is impatiently waiting for actual play to resume so his character can act out his story of vengeance. The entire table isn't cooperating in the humor, so it's not nearly as funny.

When you go to an improv comedy show, the audience has the expectation that it's going to be funny, so they're cooperative spectators—or even participants—in that humor. But we can't rely on that expectation when we write D&D. We aren't in your basement, after all. So we play the straight man and leave the funny parts up to you.

So Tell Us a Joke

We aren't going to publish Complete Slapstick or Knock-Knock Jokes of Eberron anytime soon. We love being the straight man for the jokes at your table, though. So tell us a joke! Email us with the funny anecdotes and jokes that have brought you to tears at the D&D table. In a future column, we'll share the really good ones.

You Craft the Creature: Vote 3

Time once more to continue crafting our creature! First, a look at creature niche results. The votes are in, and this aberration is now also a "mastermind"!

Mastermind/Boss: 34.8%
Mobster: 15.9%
Nutcracker: 13.1%
Class/Strategies: 10.0%
Melee Hurter: 9.0%
Spoiler: 7.7%
Hard Target: 4.8%
Soft Target: 4.7%

What's next? We've determined creature type and niche: a mastermind aberration. But just how challenging should this creature be? This week, we look at challenge rating.

What challenge rating should this creature have?
3 to 5
6 to 8
9 to 11
12 to 14

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter. Did you notice how he got all the way through a humor column without mentioning Monty Python?

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can't talk about yet.


Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at:

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