Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Crackers Ain't Wise

“You know, the Philistines have long since discarded the rack and stake as a means of suppressing the opinions they feared: they've discovered a much more deadly weapon of destruction -- the wisecrack.”

― W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

My definition of 'wisecrack' defines it as "a remark intended as a clever joke, especially one which criticizes someone."

The word dates from 1924, sardonically superimposing 'wise' with the mid-15th century Scottish word for 'boast' ... as in, "not what it's cracked up to be."  The word 'crackers' for southerners came from an 18th century, pre-revolution speech by G. Cochrane, of whom I could find no information online apart from his quip:

"I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by 'crackers' ... a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls [sic] on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode."

The term became synonomous with poor white trash by the 19th century, so that by the 20th the combination "wise-crack" could be used as a word for "cheap shot."  Which is what they are.

Wisecracks are fun.  You're only allowed a second or two to get them off for effect, and there's a certain smug charm in having the wit to concoct them and shoot them off with the right tone and volume to really hit home.  Some of the proudest moments of my life come from totally destroying some really annoying prof or political pundit with a masterful cutdown, simply because I hated that bastard or what they stood for so much.

I haven't thrown out every wisecrack as a message of hate; most of them are a moment of humour inserted into some circumstance that was somewhat boring or perhaps condescending.  One place I worked at told us that in order for us to feel 'engaged' in the company's activities, they were going to give us a survey to fill out - but that we shouldn't worry, since it was only going to be ten question.  To which I said, good and loud for everyone to hear, "Gee, I don't know if I can feel engaged with only ten questions."

No, I was not fired.  But it did interject a moment of humor into an otherwise dull and somewhat annoying procedural event.  Such interjections accomplish one task:  derail the speaker and  diminish the importance of what's being said.

Sometimes a wisecrack includes a pun, such as remarking that to restore a magic item's illumination charges requires a cure light wands spell or that it really takes six to make a proper wolf pack.  Such lines get a healthy 'BOO' or groan from the crowds, and another moment of self-importance is happily achieved.

There is a particular kind of personality who is especially given to making wisecracks prodigiously.  It is almost always someone with the kind of snappy wit needed, though not always.  A young person is more likely to be someone who makes the attempt and fails, than someone who is older and almost always hits the mark to some degree.  Many people try to do it, since there seems to be a sort of cultural notariety to be gained ... Jim always has something funny to say; he's great to have at a party.  Some women have the gift and it makes them wildly attractive to some men ... and so other women give it a whirl and turn out to just be hateful.  Film, theatre, criticism, journalism and so on have all done well with the wisecrack, with some personality based entirely upon their perceived ability to do it well (though its often rehearsed).  A wisecracking 'personality' can just as easily become typecast and their career destroyed ... but only because the audience wants more of what they were famous for, and the more rapid-fire the better.

However ... the ordinary at home wisecracker has another personality characteristic that should not be overlooked where it comes to D&D campaigns:  they are in it for the immediate gratification.

A great many potential D&D campaigns have been destroyed by the proliferation of wisecracking.  Note the earlier statement about derailing the speaker.  In D&D, it is presumed that the speaker is not your boss or some corporate flunky; not a politician whose political views make you squirm; not a tight-assed bitch on the train and not a self-important fuckwit giving you orders.  It is somewhat presumed that you're actually there to listen to the DM, because you want to play the game and what he or she has to say is important.

Then why is it that wisecracking is so thoroughly part of the gaming table?

There's no question that it's an aggressive response; S. Maugham considered it so aggressive as to lump it in with the rack and the stake.  It exists to cut down, undermine, parody and humiliate the speaker.  For that purpose, I'm right in there with the retort designed to slap down opponents.

But in the game, it has no place.

Naturally, there are DMs who do nothing but wisecrack their way through a session.  That is the 'session' to them - who can think of the smartest thing, or the most smart things to say in the least amount of time, so that the game becomes a one-upmanship contest until everyone has had a thorough and satisfying evening.  That is, if you like this sort of thing.

If you are a noobie DM, however, or if you're on a quest to create honest drama in your campaign, the wisecrack is worse than repeated, random cold showers.  Just as you attempt to lift the party into a state of concern or anxiety, someone makes a joke about the recent magic item that's been picked up, and the tension is gone.  You describe the massive gate in front of the castle, with its terrifying head - that you've spent an hour working on the description for - and someone compares it to Barney the purple dinosaur and the tension is gone.  Someone has to roll a die to keep from falling into the Pit of Neverfound, and there's a shout of "USE THE FORCE LUKE" before the die is rolled and the tension is gone.

There's a conflict here, between those at your table who are seeking the aforementioned immediate gratification, and those who are seeking something long term.  Long term takes time; it takes effort; it requires concentration, and it requires that a person step out of their comfort zone in order to truly embrace the fantasy of what is going on.

That's the thing about the wisecracker.  Whoever they are, they DON'T want to step out of themselves.  The whole point of wisecracking is to hold up a sign which says, "Pay attention to me!"  It is a handwaving, dancing, fuck you signal that forces people to turn their minds from whatever the hell is going on and point it straight at the present wit.  It is selfish, it is abusive, it is calculated to pump one's own importance.  It is NOT designed for D&D.

What can you do about it?

Almost nothing, short of asking the person to be respectful ... which they probably won't, since the insistence on wisecracking is based on being disrespectful.  The greater the demand for respect, the more tempting it is to throw in a remark.  The greater the tension of the moment, the greater the emotional and verbal response to a really smart crack, and thus the greater the temptation to do it.  However you may try to explain it to the wisecracker, they are caught in a loop.  They KNOW this could be possibly the best remark EVER, given that just about everyone in the room is freaked out to the nth degree.  How can they resist.

You could threaten to drop a -1,000 x.p. bomb on anyone who makes a wisecrack ... but the problem is that often wisecracks ARE funny, and you tend to look like an asshole if you punish someone who's just made everyone at the table laugh.  Everyone is here to have fun, after all, and fun is synonymous with laughter, so ipso facto, why are you fucking Jim just 'cause he's funny?

But if you've been running long enough, you've had this experience:  Jim had to work, and couldn't play.  And Jim's friend, who is the person who especially finds Jim the funniest person ever, can't come because his mother needs someone to help her move boxes for some purpose or other.  Which just leaves Maggie, Dave and Garrett to play.

And holy shit, you just had the best fucking running you've ever, ever had.  The tension was so thick you could build igloos from it.  At one point, Dave's involvement was so high he broke the pencil he was holding - and no one laughed when that happened.

For that one night, you really felt like a DM.  You really felt you had your finger on the pulse of the players, and you really felt you were all right in the game.


aharshDM said...

At cons, Ed Greenwood has been known to institute a policy of "whatsoever comes out of thy mouth, so to is spoken by thy character" within reason, of course.

I've used the rule in my home campaign with great success.Not only on my end of the table, but the players as well.

Steve said...

I'm Steve, and I'm a wise-cracker.

It is a problem. I sometimes get angry at myself over it. I try to be good; but sometimes I'm not.

My wise-cracks get laughs, anyway, so I'm not a complete waste at the table. Just a pain. But I'd like to be a righteous roleplayer.

Alexis said...

I've played that policy too, Harsh. There's one annoying problem with it.

Not everything that comes of out of a player's mouth that is antithetical to the player's character is a wisecrack. Does he play that when a player asks a question on a point of order, it is the character asking? And if not, then where is the dividing line between the request to know something and what the player says?

I think its humorous that you use his name as though I'm supposed to know who the fuck he is. Since I don't go to Cons, and thus I am not part of the incestuous butt-fuck relationships they invoke, your use of "Ed Greenwood" as some great symbol of how a DM should run falls pretty flat.

Guy sounds like a dick.

aharshDM said...

Never met the man (or been to a con for that matter), and can't speak to his dickishness. He wrote forgotten realms, for what it's worth. It wasn't my intent to hold him up as some luminary, just citing sources.

When I implemented the rule, describing your character's actions or asking a question obviously about the game or environment was understood as not being spoken by the character.

I also didn't force the rule on my players, just offered them an xp bonus for abiding by it.

Alexis said...

I gave up the tactic myself because it simply didn't work. Players were prepared to let their characters "take the heat" because in fact the same thing that encouraged them to be a star of the show also discouraged them from considering their characters to be important enough to keep alive.

Ultimately, I found the only real solution was to boot this sort of person out of my world - and accept that was sometimes going to be a loss of a 'friendship.' The overall group dynamic has tended to thrive.

noisms said...

This is an excellent post.

I sometimes wonder if there is something about the act of playing an RPG that makes people feel insecure, which leads them to make more jokes. It's almost a humorous defence to fears about being deemed a geek; as if treating the game in an arch, removed, ironic way somehow makes it less nerdish. I sometimes think that his how my own psychology works, in any event, because I am an inveterate wise-cracker even as the DM.

Scarbrow said...

That's it! You've nailed the very problem that haunts each and every one of my DM'ing sessions.

I simply can't get my players to be respectful and involved... I sometimes manage to hook them for a small while, but in the end, they always return to the wisecracks. Every interesting NPC or location name gets cracked at. Most of my plot points, NPC development, even politics.

I'm hoping for a post under "How to DM" where you explain how to deal with this. Except you already did in this one, didn't you? I suppose that not inviting these players, no matter the friendship, is the only way.

Alexis said...

You have to read your players the riot act; you have to make them understand what you want, and under what conditions you're prepared to go on running the game. If they will not allow you to run the game your way - you must make them understand that you are not a utility.

A theatre will toss the wisecrackers out. A D&D running deserves nothing less.

josh said...

Stricter turn procedures and communication should fix it.