Roleplaying games, like all games, are essentially the gathering together of friends to have fun. Whether you are playing D&D, checkers, cards, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, or even "spin the bottle," you have people interacting with one another in a leisure setting. There will be a light spirit in the air, and that naturally leads to good-natured jesting and teasing, time-honored (or time-worn) in-jokes, and lively, spirited banter. As a DM, should you attempt to regulate the natural humor that flows from the social situation of a bunch of friends having a good time? Yes and no.
WORDS TO THE WISE
Humor is a natural element between friends.When a group of friends gets together for leisure activities, joking, teasing, and humor will likely ensue. Let it, and participate in it, but be aware of the mood at the table and step in if a joke seems to be going too far or if excessive joking around disrupts the game.
Employ humor where it is appropriate.Humor can disrupt the mood of a game. If a particular situation is meant to be frightening or solemn or exciting, don't break the dramatic tension simply for the sake of a joke. There will plenty of time for laughing about it later.
Use caricature.Personalities and situations can and should be larger than life. This is a fantasy game, and the more robust -- and sometimes even outrageous -- the character or situation, the greater the chance for humor.
Good humor depends on relationships. Banter, wordplay, puns, and all manner of jokes become more relevant, real, and funny when shared in the context of an ongoing relationship.
If it's funny once, it's funny a second time!Much humor can be found in repetition, sometimes on purpose (a player or the DM repeating an action with a character) and sometimes organically through the campaign, where one character (or the whole party) just keeps finding herself in the same ridiculous situation again and again. Be careful, however, of overdoing it.
For the most part, the DM is part of the social situation, and your only "responsibility" is to participate and have fun, to give as good as you get. These are your friends, too, and you are hardly above the need or desire for jollity and companionship. So by all means, jump in and have a good time yourself. But, as has been pointed out numerous times in this space, there is a sense in which you take on the role of a manager when it's "your" game, especially if it is played at your home or office. You are the person who should keep at least half an ear open to the flow of conversation and be willing to step in if it seems like a joke is being carried too far or has touched a nerve. Most of this interaction is self-regulating and doesn't really need any attention from you, but it doesn't hurt to keep aware and alert to make sure that everything begins and ends all in good fun. You also need to ensure that the humor does not take over. You are, after all, there to play a game, and players not directly involved in the rehash of the latest episode of The Simpsons or the 650th rendition of scene 14 from Monty Python and the Holy Grail might appreciate the DM stepping in to put the kibosh on excessive joking around (especially if the jokesters are also the players with the loudest voices, as they often are) and keep the game moving.
In speaking of the use of humor in a game, however, we step beyond the incidental humor that occurs between people to explore the designed elements of a campaign that are meant to be funny. It probably goes without saying that you don't want to build your whole campaign around running gags or a single titanic pun. A long-ago letter to Dragon magazine described the near-melee (in real-life terms) that ensued when, at the culmination of a great quest bestowed by Odin himself to find the "roots of stones," the players discovered a pile of rocks that recited cheerleader-type chants ("G-R-A-N-I-T-E! Granite, granite, allllll the WAY, HEY!"). Get it? The "roots" of stones. Like a "rooting section." Uh-huh.
As a DM, resist the temptation to let your sense of humor get in the way of better judgment. Be aware that some parts of the game are better suited for levity than others. There are different kinds of dramatic tension, and to disrupt the fine-tuning of these elements in the interest of turning everything into a slapstick routine just doesn't work. Don't let ill-timed humor cheapen moments where the mood should be one of fear, uncertainty, solemnity, worry, or excitement.
Consider, for example, the movie The Princess Bride, a favorite of many gamers for its one-liners and brilliant wordplay. At times, the humor stops and the tone turns serious for moments of sorrow or romance or triumph. The humor returns shortly, but the poignancy of those serious moments would be obliterated if the humor hadn't receded for a time. Similarly, the AD&DRavenloft setting included rules for fear and horror checks to address situations when players might be joking around or might not be serious about things that within the game would or should shock and terrify their characters. Not all settings require that kind of rules-enforced atmosphere, but your game might, so you should think about when humor is and is not appropriate in the flow of the campaign.
So is there a legitimate and worthwhile way to work humor into the campaign at all? Yes. Humor is certainly a fun and worthy element to incorporate in your game. But how, and when, and with whom? I'm glad you asked!
By and large, the best way to introduce humor into the game is through the NPCs in the campaign, including friendly, ambivalent, and enemy characters. Not every NPC need be a source of comic relief, but supplying your NPCs with personality, with a sense of their motivations and their tastes, their likes and their dislikes, can provide ample fodder for amusing interactions with the PCs. Bear in mind that this is a fantasy world, and that the folk who inhabit it need not all be normal, well-adjusted, well-mannered people. Feel free to play up personality elements, to make some individuals more caricatures than characters, to be larger than life. Memorable NPCs are those who stand out from the crowd in some way.
Don't overdo it -- the very concept of "normal" can lose its meaning if everyone is a freakshow inhabitant. But there is a lot of room to play within the broad boundaries of "normal." Supplying accents and mannerisms to the NPCs (including particular national, regional, local, or cultural traits they may share) can create an amusing picture, especially if they contrast in some way with a creature's appearance (e.g., a dwarven rogue who fancies himself a ballet dancer) or accentuate and even exaggerate a personality trait (e.g., a troll or half-orc with especially atrocious table manners or gas). Some NPCs may just be bizarre, like farm villagers whose cows have all died mysteriously and who have turned for an alternative to "hawg milk" for their calcium requirements. Perhaps they might offer the adventurers a sample of this new culinary concoction, and might even be very insistent about it!
Obviously, some creatures lend themselves better to humorous interaction than others, including humanoid NPCs from whom the party needs something (e.g., temple priests to get a raise dead spell cast, or gate guards to enter a city, or merchants selling/buying magic items or other loot). Some monsters are also more apt to transmit "interact with this one - it's not a random encounter" cues: fey, dragons, many magical/spellcasting monsters, even undead or extraplanar creatures. Leader-types of any variety are also much more likely to inspire conversation than ordinary drones.
If the party is not likely to meet the NPC in a situation where his habits are relevant or noticeable, you really don't need to spend a lot of time creating a fleshed-out personality. If the PCs' interaction with Nameless Orc Guard #32 will most likely consist of "see-kill-loot," they probably don't need to know he suffers from male-orc-pattern baldness and unresolved abandonment issues with his mother. On the other hand, if you have some reasonable expectation that they might converse with Grugnuk the Unhappy Midlife Crisis Orc, then by all means give the NPC some material to work with. I mean, how boring is it when they bother to take the time to talk with a bad guy, and all they get is Standard Bad Guy Rant/Battle Cry #486 ("Grugnuk hate HOOO-mans! DIE, DIE, DIE!")? At least work up some good insults for the bad guys to lob around in combat, if you assume swordplay is inevitable. The same principle applies to barkeeps, merchants, government officials, temple clerics, and other non-hostile priests. If you give them something tangible for a personality, chances are pretty good that many of the party's interactions with that person will end up humorous.
You can also employ humor that builds on the history of characters and particular situations or events that crop up repeatedly. The easiest way to do this is in the context of an ongoing relationship within the campaign in which every time the PCs runs into a certain character, they are in the same type of situation:
Friendly city magistrate: "Oh, you folks again. How is life treating you? Burn down any buildings lately?"
Party that includes fire-specialist wizard: "Why yes, yes we did! We're terribly sorry, but can we re-file our Urban Destruction Permit today?"
The very predictability of a running joke is part of what makes it work. You can see it coming a mile away, but it still brings a warm chuckle or a bemused groan when it hits. Perhaps a vain male NPC is pitching woo at one of the party members, and each time he does another party member plays a prank on the would-be Valentino, messing up his coiffure and sending him off in shame. But he keeps coming back for more.
A running gag can sometimes be embedded in a certain person, such as a particular PC being a regular target of pickpockets in a certain part of town. Be careful to avoid the impression that you are picking on the character, but you can play off her comments and even her growing paranoia: She is so afraid of it happening that she begins to mention it frequently; that mention becomes its own sort of trigger, and sooner or later it happens again. This sort of gag is obviously more fun for the other players than for the player whose character gets "jinxed" in this way, but it can be maddeningly funny even for that player, as long as it is not overdone her character does not suffer any serious repercussions as a result.
Often, this type of running gag invents itself over the course of a campaign. If something - anything -- happens to a character multiple times, that character is apt to acquire a reputation. Maybe a character becomes charmed or confused repeatedly and gets grief from the others for "turning against the party." The gag is furthered by the player of that character insisting that he has no memory of anything that happened and denying that any such thing ever occurred. Maybe one character happens to fall into pits several times because of a run of low skill rolls, unlucky breaks, or who knows? Once a character has a reputation for such-and-such thing (usually a bad thing) happening to them, then each time afterwards that it happens only furthers the joke. Sometimes a character acquires an irrational fear of a certain type of creature (especially if the character has been killed by that creature type and then raised from the dead), with appropriate reactions anytime that type of creature is encountered in the future. These situations will crop up repeatedly throughout the course of a campaign and will provide many opportunities for all players (including the DM) to be in on the joke. Humor that develops organically in the course of the game is always the best because it does not feel forced or artificial.
A DM can set up a humorous situation which can then be milked for laughs repeatedly -- something as simple as a party transported to another world repeatedly being asked by curious locals, "You're not from around here, are you?", to something as elaborate as a disguised party in hostile territory having to go through some humorous bluffing to keep its cover intact. Too much DM-generated humor, however, can start to feel like railroading or make everything feel too similar. To keep a rich and robust texture in your game, you must include humor, especially the friendly camaraderie between players at the table and surrounding the characters and what naturally grows among them in the fantasy world. Just don't try too hard. You cannot force someone to think something is funny, but you can create a situation where humor is at various times a welcome diversion to the game and a wonderful enhancement to it.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 8-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He currently runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He also plays in a biweekly campaign with a 3rd Edition D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 22 years ago.