Monday, March 30, 2009

High Adventure and Low Humor

But if serious purpose is integral to a successfully ongoing campaign, there must be moments of relief as well. Such counterplots can be lesser and different themes within the whole whether some side dungeon or quest, a minor altercation between petty nobles, or whatever. Occasional "pure fun: scenarios can be conducted also. That is, moments of silliness and humor help to contrast with the grinding seriousness of a titanic struggle and relieve participants at the same time. After all, ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game, a pastime for fun and enjoyment. At times the fun aspect must be stressed.
The above quote appears in Gary Gygax's magnum opus, the Dungeon Masters Guide, immediately before sections in which are offered rules conversions between AD&D, Boot Hill, and Gamma World. As a younger person, this section was one of my favorites, precisely because I could still find enjoyment in flinging the PCs, via a cursed scroll, to Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 or having them face off against a band of Knights of Genetic Purity, armed to the teeth with blasters and photon grenades. I'd not yet taken the game too seriously, which was a common malady afflicting some of my older contemporaries in the hobby and one to which I eventually succumbed in turn.

It's a very common story in my experience. Nearly everyone I've ever met in this hobby started off with an expansive understanding of "fantasy," one that could accommodate literally anything their mind could conceive, no matter how outlandish or "silly" it might seem. Then, bit by bit, that understanding contracts, becoming more rigid and codified, with clear boundaries distinguishing what is acceptable and what is not. Gone is the genuine open-mindedness of childhood, replaced by the feigned seriousness of adolescence. Banished along with that open-mindedness are the infinite possibilities that first drew us into the hobby in the first place.

If we're lucky, we eventually grow out of this serious phase and recognize the wisdom in the paragraph quoted above. No, not everything in one's play must be silly or nonsenical, but then neither must everything be deadly serious. As with so many things in life, balance is key. Knowing when to introduce a little levity is one of those skills all good referees acquire, just as all good players learn to enjoy it and introduce some of their own.

My friends and I long ago realized that the most satisfying fantasy campaigns were those that freely mixed high adventure with low humor. Many of the situations that arise in a long-standing fantasy campaign are genuinely absurd, if looked at with a dispassionate eye, and there's absolutely nothing wrong in occasionally allowing that absurdity to step into the foreground. Indeed, we would argue that it's essential that this happen every now and again, to ensure both the freshness of the campaign and to maintain interest in it. Nothing is surer to kill an ongoing campaign than unrelenting seriousness, which is why, even now, I try very hard to remember how I originally approached the game and to use that knowledge to keep the game fun for everyone, most especially myself.

1 comment:

Benoist said...

This echoes what I am going through very, very much.

I started playing RPGs at a very young age, not knowing anything about the "Fantasy genre", its writers and so on. I would discover it later on, in my teenage years, and by then, I would move on to "serious role-playing", among which Vampire: The Masquerade.

I think I've gone full circle on this. I still love D&D, and still love Vampire: tM. I am more aware of the implications of humor and its contrast with horror, but there's something more to it. There's this "expansive understanding of fantasy" you are talking about.

When one tries to make sense of creative arts, one loses something about them. Moocorck was very much in favor of this kind of thinking.

This is why the concept of "old school gaming" is somehow repulsive, I think, when it tries to put, in some people's mouths, boundaries on what would be acceptable to "serious old school gamers out there". That is just not right, and it never was.