I find it odd that 'play' or 'humour' is often proposed as the opposite of 'seriousness', as in this Ted Talk by Zara Swindells-Grose. I find it as odd as encountering people who cannot seem to remember what childhood was like.
There are no serious people in the world more serious than children. There is no game played more seriously than one that has been played by children. Today, if I were to play R.I.S.K., I would likely be serious about my intentions to win, as would my opponents. It just wouldn't happen that I would provoke Jeremy with a cruel comment upon his having lost Australia, nor would it happen that Jeremy would leap across the board and try to stuff armies up my nose. But this sort of thing happens all the time with children.
We seem to forget that.
I had been thinking about my own seriousness in gaming. In presenting the game as a DM, I build a wall of seriousness between my players and I - because the serious expression on my face, with the intense concentration, builds tension.
There's no question in my mind that this look of seriousness was not an affectation when I started playing. I took the game seriously. I really AM concentrating intensely on all the details and elements of the game as it plays. I'm not saying, then, that I am pretending to look serious. But I am saying that if I had a choice not to look serious, but to look comfortable instead, I'm know I wouldn't take it. Because looking comfortable makes a crappy game for the players.
There is something I see on a DM's face - often a new DM, but not always - that I think truly undermines the potential of the game. This is the nervous grin. Nervous DM's often grin. They feel uncomfortable, they're not in control, and this translates into feeling self-conscious and even ashamed. And as humans, when we're ashamed, we often grin to convey friendliness. In culture, this evokes a returned grin, causing tension to drop. See? We're all friends. We're all grinning.
In presenting a game, the grin conveys that the DM is harmless. This encourages the players to feel empowered and unthreatened . . . and that means that they are far more likely to act out. And as they act out, the grinning DM will likely let them. The grin has already shown the DM's lack of confidence, meaning the DM doesn't feel in control. If the DM tries to get control once the players have begun to act out, the reaction will probably appear fairly hysterical. That is because the DM isn't in control, but he or she is trying to be. Such efforts typically fail.
Having recognized that hysteria is the effect, many DMs have learned from their attempts to control the game that it's impossible, and that the attempt makes things worse. So they stop trying. And the game gets worse and worse, until the players totally ruin it. Whereupon the DM either quits playing, or finds new players and the pattern begins again. Occasionally, a DM grows and learns and realizes the importance of conveying that control from the outset - but this is rare.
This awful tendency to start grinning in a game is something any DM can relate to. I have felt it myself, more so in my youth, but the compulsion would still be there if I were playing with strangers. A DM must overcome this. The game runs on tension as a fuel . . . without tension, there is silliness, and the 'fun' is subject to whomever wishes to 'act out' in the most outwardly cruel.
Children understand this intuitively. When my friend Jeremy leapt across the R.I.S.K. board to find out how many plastic armies would fit into my nose, it wasn't because he had lost Australia. It was because I had made a cruel, unnecessary comment about it - as children often do. Jeremy, also in the way that children do, understood the injustice of his misfortune becoming a source of pleasure for me. This is the sort of pleasure, this schadenfreude, is the sort of behaviour we acquaint with villainy in film . . . but if you haven't got an iron fist on your players during a game, it is rife in your campaign. The most clever receive the most pleasure, because while everyone receives a bit of misfortune, the least clever are less adept at exploiting it. The most clever exploit it wonderfully. But then, this is why Jeremy took the action that seems most efficient when dealing with the most clever. Beat the fuck out of them.
The seriousness I convey makes a tension that drives the players together in their misfortune. IF there is no tension, then Gilbert can afford to dance upon Patricia's misfortune - he hasn't got anything to fear. But if there is this drapery of tension that hangs over the party continuously, then Gilbert intuitively understands that Patricia's misfortune is his own - when she goes down, he will too. That pushes the party together, and suddenly it doesn't seem like a good idea to cut down people who are watching your back.
FEAR is the ultimate party builder. It produces a wall between the party and me, isolating them, making them feel insecure . . . and while it does mean I'm not anyone's best friend during the actual game, they are better friends with each other than they might be if I were lackadaisical. The world, conversely, with all its threats and potentials for things going wrong, is more real.
This also helps me gauge the party's level of comfort as I go forward. If the schadenfreude rises, then I'm relaxing too much. I'm letting my hand off the stick. All I need to do is shake off whatever I'm feeling, sit up straight, concentrate again on the content in front of me and the response from the party is immediate. "What is he up to?" immediately springs to the player's minds - because there is never a moment in the campaign that they're not carefully observing me. They want to succeed and live. Watching me is intrinsic to that program.
I was also going to point out how this means I have more emotional control over the NPCs too. If I approach gaming from the perspective of, we're all just having a good time, then building an emotional importance into an NPC becomes a joke. You can't make the NPC a serious one, because nothing is serious. Thus, the party laughs and makes jokes every time the NPC speaks. Many of you readers out there have experienced this.
BUT, if I am always serious, it is easy to portray an NPC as relaxed, pleasant, friendly and fun. It is a source of general relief for the party if I smile, and they completely buy into that emotion.
Thus I have all the emotions of NPC's in my repetoire. They can be serious, dangerous, puzzling or worrying . . . but they can also be jovial, encouraging, friendly and dumb. This range, all of it coming from my intensity, makes for a better game. It encourages the party to be serious also - which gives THEM the full range of experience.
In our hurry (and here I am thinking of the TED talk linked at the top of this post) to cosmetically improve the lives of people by encouraging them to have 'fun,' we so completely dismiss the wonderful healing power of catharsis. Catharsis receives a lot less recognition than fun; but it is because of catharsis that the happy face in the theatre motif isn't the only one. We attend drama because seriousness is as important for our well-being as enjoyment.
In fact, it makes it possible for us to enjoy anything.