Up on a Tree Stump™
(or) All I Know about D&D™ I Learned From Life
©2009 Robert J. Kuntz
#2: Humor in the Original Campaign
Alastair Clarke explains: "The theory is an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively, it explains that humour occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter." The theory further identifies the importance of pattern recognition in human evolution: "An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings. The humorous reward has encouraged the development of such faculties, leading to the unique perceptual and intellectual abilities of our species."
Humor in the Original Campaign was rife; and quite honestly if it hadn't been, the experiences would not have been as rich as they were, and thus not as memorable as they now truly are. Gary did not pretend that he was not humorous, quite the contrary. Very early on in our friendship he pushed book after book into my hands, urging me to "read them." One such gem was Jack Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld. I will forgo describing it and let those who have not graced themselves with Vance's penetrating wit, and indeed, biting sense of irony and drama that interweaves throughout it all, partake of it, and I do highly recommend doing so.
What is revealed here might seem a dichotomy. Humor, however, never equated as some may assume, to actual ridiculousness. Gary's approach was simply wherever he found humor, he expressed it. This is only indicative of his quick mind, as a quick wit does not otherwise rise above that potential but only equals it. There were too many instances of humor in the Original Campaign to really conclude that all was non-serious, for the stories and other data available point to the contrary even if we side with a "fun and games" view as EGG might have himself expressed. He has been quoted many times as expressing such an ideal, but ultimately this becomes his distilled afterthought and his poignant sense of it all, for the adventuring milieu he spawned so early on was a mix of terror, high adventure, horror; and within that he sprinkled, just as the very best dramas have done, slices of humor.
But, one may then ask, what was the purpose of all this humor? We can go many directions with this and even adopt the point that Mr. Clarke exposes above, that "An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings."
Facet One, Disarming the Opponent: One must remember that EGG's grounding was in table-top and miniature wargames. Imagine a gathering of us nere-do-wells in his basement, squared off against each other on separate sides of a 6 x 10 sand table. Now imagine the interchanges as we, the generals of one side of the table, quipped with the other side's commanders. Provocation? Most definitely! It may well have been the same thing that the Scots and Edwardian Englishmen could have traded squared off as they were, awaiting the outcome of an upcoming battle. A summoning of courage? Most certainly! The superior force responds on all levels of emotional output, and this was no different in our games, whether staged or instinctual, or where-ever such "harmless" chiding bore from. As the battle wore on, as the field changed hands, and as the final victory was in view, the other side crushed and in rout, well, you can imagine that we didn't just sit there wringing our hands and noting it in a perfunctory manner. And although some were calmer in their expressions, EGG was most expressive in victory (especially if it had been a very hard-fought battle hinging on last minute shifts and on the fly changes), so it is not to say that he didn't sound like a Confederate soldier on occasion, perhaps imagining himself pursuing the blue-bellies amidst howls and hoots after the Union's rout at the First Battle of Bull Run!
Now transfer this particular part of his mindset into the D&D game with him as DM. His opponents were the players, we all knew that, and he did too. There wasn't an ordering of political correctness and a false cloud of pretentiousness which I've seen portrayed in modern RPGs. This was a game of strategy and tactics, and that meant, on both sides, that outwitting the opponents involved was now at hand...
Facet Two, Never Reveal Your Hand: EGG was constantly bluffing and had a poker face. I reminded Eric Shook the other day of a tactic EGG and I both used when DMing, in this instance when parties hit a down slant, elevator room or transporter, which secretly moved their PCs (without their in/out-of-game knowledge) to another dungeon level. Well, inevitably at those times EGG and I would create an out-of-game distraction, and I indeed learned this from him while Co-DMing with him on so many occasions, such as: getting up to go to the restroom. Well, this took the focus off of us as DMs, and the party usually took this opportunity to discuss matters of planning and approach and other details in game context. I'd return to such a scene and they'd still be at it, so as I sat down, that is when I'd turn the page to the level they'd been recently transported to, and without them noticing. This tactic merges with DM-craftiness and keeps the upper hand of information in proper control of course; and this was also accomplished through us telling a humorous aside (a joke)--to which the players responded by laughing--and during the uproarious interlude is when we effected our "changes", the level-shifts, etc. DMs have to be magicians, you know.
The poker face comes in handy especially when applying these types of nuanced forms, and certainly helps retain a balanced (neutral) side to the affair, which is indeed the DM's goal to begin with and thus, in our cases, were just part and parcel of the suggested outcome. Styles may differ in attaining these most singular points, of course.
Facet Three, Dispelling Tension: Humor was also used in dispelling tension and thus in informing players in a round-about manner, and thus intuitively, that we may have been in a good mood that day as the DMs. More often this tactic was used with newcomers who we were not going to handle too roughly... at first. This tactic merged with "Disarming the Opponent." When used up front on veteran players they often, if not always, took it as a warning sign instead, and with good reason, as it more often meant to them that we were about to test a new situation or thing upon them, the guinea pigs; and so the more intuitive of the bunch would react with a more guided approach and careful manner, especially if there were veterans mixed with newcomers, the latter having no idea of the "fun and games" ahead. The best players in this regard were Ernie Gygax and my brother, Terry. Ernie especially would pick up on this charade of ours, having for many years understood his father's humor and mind and thus, by transference, my own. Keenly perceptive and eyes rooted to ours, he was always searching for clues in our manner, but more often than not only got in return shrugs and a poker face, accentuated at times by wry smiles...
So, when you hear that humor has no place in a "serious" game, think back. Are the tales of Nehwon at a loss for it? Do L. Sprague DeCamp's or Fletcher Pratt's stories fall to the side and not embrace such? Does Jack Vance not include it in many of his tales? Then too, does the dark side of this in C. A. Smith's tales not rise time and time again to relish it? Where else can we find this form, this dramatic mixing which works so well in a game merged with the fantastic? If certainly within some tale as recounted by Shakespeare,
then I have no qualms at all for being included in such company! Humor can thus be offset, and rightly so, from joking around. This is a serious business outwitting an opponent in a game; and this is made even more notable if you can do it with a smile...