Friday, February 24, 2012

That's Just Silly

The end of our Tunnels & Trolls campaign got me thinking about silliness in RPGs. I don't mean silliness around the table: all the puns, movie quotes, and out-of-character wisecracks. I'm thinking about silly elements that make their way into the game or act as cornerstones for an adventure or even for an entire campaign.

The silliness I'm interested in is gnomes riding on giant shrews, flail snails, heel-kicking leprechauns, talking dogs, Tom Bombadil, and clockwork owls. It's not just comic relief; it's not necessarily played for laughs at all, though it can be.

T&T embraces this sort of play more than most other RPGs, which is why it came up recently. I have a vague sense that silliness isn't as common as it once was. That feeling has been around since the arrival of Vampire: the Masquerade, with its emphasis on dark emotions and tragedy. Silliness became distinctly uncool after that.

A fine line separates the silly from the fantastical--and a fine string connects them. A flying carpet is silly, but it's also a fantasy standard. We don't see the silliness anymore because it's familiar. The same goes for cat people, walking trees, Baba Yaga's hut, beholders--most of the contents of the Monster Manual would draw snickers or outright guffaws from people who don't play RPGs. (See Jared Hindman's blogs on Stupid D&D Monsters for hilarious examples of this.)

If you want your campaign to step outside the mundane and become fantastical, then you need to step into territory that borders on or even crosses into silliness. That's the price and the risk of jumping away from familiar tropes. Elements that break fantasy's tried-and-true, off-the-shelf stereotypes should be embraced, even if that introduces some silliness into the game.



  1. I don't think the blame belongs with Vampire. People were looking down at Tunnels & Trolls for it's silliness long before that arrived. Or so they say; that was before my time. Plus Malkavian are pretty silly.

    1e has silly art but 2e does not. Maybe that's related.

    1. I'm sure it would be a simplification to blame a decline in silliness on Vampire, but they seem linked in time, anyway. I expect that both have roots in a general desire by people to take their roleplaying more seriously. 2E came about at around that same time and would have been influenced by the same atmosphere.

  2. There is a wide variety here. Dungeonland is a silly experience overall, whereas a snail flail encounter might be a silly bit within a less-silly context.

    Overall, I find humorous situations really work well for new D&D players. I ran D&D Next with a silly story premise around the Caves of Chaos - it was a great way to create a feel-good atmosphere for new players. These also work well as different experiences - it's part of why Gamma World is so good as a quick "in between" campaign for players.

    I don't think that D&D should try to focus on this. We don't really need many ridiculous creatures. You can take most fey and achieve the same effect and till have utility for a wider range of uses. However, for an April Fool's issue... that's a great time for some of these old monsters to come back and haunt us.

    1. I certainly agree that trying to inject humor into D&D usually falls flat and is unnecessary anyway, because players bring their own funny to the table. But how silly can a group of pixies be before they cross the line from whimsy to farce? I'm willing to push whimsy a long way--probably further than some people would be happy with--in pursuit of the fantastic.

  3. Don't listen to him; it's all part of his never-ending campaign to bring back the flumph!

  4. the goofy and weird are some of the best elements in RPGs!

    gaming would not be half as fun without stuff like this: