Wednesday, March 25, 2009

UP ON A TREE STUMP #2: Humor in the Original Campaign

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...


Guy Fullerton said...

That's fantastic! Concrete DM advice plus a glimpse into the way you played the game! I couldn't ask for more :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying these entries, Rob. Another great one. Thanks for sharing!


Rob Kuntz said...

Thanks one and all (or one and two)...

Lots more on the way from the Wayback Machine...

Benoist said...

Great entry!

Facet Two, particularly the business of distracting the players with a bit of humor or by going to the rest-room made me laugh.

When a DM does this kind of things consciously without giving it away to the players, knowing what he/she's doing, you've probably got a "master" on your hands. That's usually with that kind of DMs, the ones who know the game isn't entirely about what's going on in the game but also what happens around the table, that the best games are played.

That's not the kind of advice you often read in guides to DMing.

Does Facet One mean that Gary had a "DM versus Players" competitive mentality? I'm asking as a sort of preemptive strike against quotes from people who would then conclude that he "had to be an abusive DMs and that's why the old editions suck".

Rob Kuntz said...

The actual thought that someone might summarize my commentary as suggesting that either EGG or myself were abusive DMing actually made me laugh real hard, thanks!

This is where the true division lies between what people perceive through rules and by implementing them on different levels and at different times.

The condensed version is stated:

"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..."

This is to make it utterly clear that this is how we (players and DMs) perceived this. The fairness of DMs is never a question, for in doing so you must honor the neutrality of the station maintained. That's part of the game, just as any other games has rules sets; and we are definitely dealing with many Masters here of not only games design, history, game theory and so forth, but mature adults (wel,, I as on my way with all the guys coaxing/coaching, and at a frenetic pace and speed). We are here talking about some of the best game designers of the time--Gygax, Mike Carr, Arneson, Don Lowry, Mike Reese, Leon Tucker, Jeff Perren, and the list goes on.

So, No, there was no abuse, but the idea that we were still opponents, well, that is consistent in all games, and was no different then. I really do not see where the other line of thought ever entered into the picture, really, as a DM, though not adversarial, still role-plays adversarial NPCs/Monsters (and if good, to their fullest), and that through the conduit of his or her mind, as he or she, fortunately, can't afford a brain transplant, let's say, to that of an ORC, at mid-point of the adventure... Gary being a mighty fine opponent only transferred his toughness into those encounters and they were played smartly and without reserve, just as he had done on the tabletop or sand table :)

Rob Kuntz said...

"Facet Two, particularly the business of distracting the players with a bit of humor or by going to the rest-room made me laugh"

Yep! :) Eric Shook looked at me when I recounted that the other day and said, "Yeahhh. I do remember you going to the bathroom a lot..."

rafael beltrame said...

wow, great post, Rob!
I must ask something else about "His opponents were the players, we all knew that, and he did too."

would you say that Gary didnt played "against" the players, but make the game dificult and challange to the?

maybe a misperception (?) of this is what makes people think that he was a abusive DM, no?

Rob Kuntz said...

Already answered in my response to same above.

Thanks Rafael.

Oh, yes there are abusive people who "pretend" to be DMing, but the rules are quite clear on such instances, so I would say that the point is: not honoring the rules regarding fairness in DMing disqualifies one as capable of handling said station; they are in it for some power trip, or for something else entirely outside of the scope/spirit of the rules as understood and as we DMed these in the play-test period 1972-1973.

Benoist said...

I'm sure the criticism will show up sooner or later on some board. Back at the end of the 80's, when I started playing the game and visited my first local game stores, I remember that there was this attitude that considering the Tomb of Horros as some sort of epitomy of DMing to keep "these pesky players in their place" was something of a "cool" factor, like some inside joke that proved that you were a "real DM".

I never understood that mentality, personally.

I sure wanted to play the Tomb of Horrors (and never did), but I'd have expected the DM to show the kind of challenging qualities you speak of when talking about Lake Geneva, not some kind of ego-trip gone awry.

Rob Kuntz said...

I don't "get" (as Ghanian's say)adversarial DMs, either. Heck. You have all sorts of chances to battle and win and lose as a DM through the advent of endless encounters, no need to make the odds uneven. I guess it has to do with ego, or perhaps insecurity, who knows?

I've experienced flawed DMing in that style and thereafter never again played in that gaming environment; and I suppose that is the best advice, and to let the DM, and other players if there are any, know exactly why you're quitting the game. I must add that many of these "cheated" players have, in my recollection, gone on to be very good, if not only fair-minded, DMs; so there can always be a silver lining to a dark-DM's tale.