Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Let's talk about comedy.

Comedy is a construction in which subjects with particular characteristics are placed in jeopardy which, ultimately, never comes to pass.  The jeopardy is played upon, usually up to the very last scene, to give the impression that it might occur ... for comedic effect.  In some cases, when the jeopardy does "occur," such as in one of the film cuts of Army of Darkness, the jeopardy is played for laughs.

The protagonist of a comedy is usually someone that is incompetent, occasionally due to a lack of intelligence but more commonly from a lack of social intelligence ~ due to being of some other culture, social class or pattern of thinking.  Or planet, as in Third Rock from the Sun.  A good example, taken to a clever extreme, is to bury Brendan Fraser in a time capsule for 35 years in Blast from the Past, so that his "incompetence" can play off the familiar perspective of the remaining cast.  Usually, such a plot is resolved by having the incompetent characters achieve competence through luck in some fashion, or by having it revealed by the third act that the character was actually the most competent ~ or at least empowered ~ of everyone.

In tragedies, incompetence, in whatever form it takes, usually results in death.  When Cinna is murdered by the mob in Act III of Julius Caesar, because his name happens to be the same as one of the villains, his death is nothing less than pathetic (or pathos).  When Juliet is too incompetent to tell a dead Romeo from a live one, she has no chance.  When Patroclus pretends to be Achilles, he ends up being killed by Hector.  In tragedy, incompetence is a death sport.  In comedy, the incompetent is protected by plot armor.

The point of comedy is for us to enjoy the protagonist as a stranger in a strange land, so that mayhem might ensue.  It is possible to turn this on its head.  The Marx Brothers were able to make everyone else feel that they were in a strange land, as the dialogue was controlled by Groucho and Chico.  The Three Stooges are a threat to everyone who comes near.  In all cases, however, the point is to make the observer feel smarter than the people in the film or play, who just don't understand what's happening.  We know, so we enjoy the joke.

Irony occurs when the participants of the comedy act and speak as though they know what is going on, when in fact, they don't.  Seinfeld is a good example; but we're innundated with ironic comedy now, in the form of Archer, Rick and Morty, The Family Guy and so on ... all of whom make the audience feel terrifically expert, in that the characters on the screen are so wonderfully dense.

Ironic comedy used to be marked by having the characters brought to task for their folly; and this explains the final end of Seinfeld, which was lost on most of the audience who had bought into what the cast was saying as "truth."  When they wound up in prison, this was justified by these having been horrible, awful people; but by then, the only audience left were fundamentally horrible, awful people, who did not understand the final scene.  This is a problem with much modern irony.  Audiences don't know the characters are being ironic.

The folly that these ironic characters speak is hubris; the certainty of being right because, well, I'm me.  In tragedy, hubris again usually ends in death.  But not in the pathetic sense of Romeo and Juliet, but in the, Oh Christ, can't-this-guy-just-please-die-now of Richard the III.

Okay.  In D&D, most players are concerned about dying due to incompetence.  They second check everything, they plan, they worry they're going to make the wrong choice ... and because they do their best to control incompetence, it is usually only bad luck, which cannot be accounted for, that brings about death.  (fudging, however, introduces plot armor, so this can't happen)

But hubris is another animal altogether.  There's no sense in arguing, "don't be hubristic," because if you're capable of realizing you might be hubristic, you're not.  Hubris is not merely being conceited or narcissitic; it's the willing disassociation that comes of failing to see this trait in one's self. And then, ultimately, being hoisted upon your own petard.

A petard is a bomb.  To be "hoisted," or "blown up," by your own is the act of conceiving the bomb, building the bomb, putting the bomb under one's own chair, setting the timer and then waiting for it to go off.  See the aforementioned Richard the III.

Players will occasionally invent the idea of being blown up by petards, but they are almost always imagined as a result of the DM's conceptions, and not their own.  Thus, all the focus on incompetence.  "We didn't make this bomb, but if we're not awfully careful diffusing it, the bomb will go off."

The trick to creating tragedy out of a sandbox campaign, where the bombs are mere parts in the hands of the DMs, and constructions in the hands of the players, is to induce, through game play and suggestion, that building the bomb should sound like a good idea to the players.  "Hey, if we take this part, and pour this into that, and shake it up really good, that would be just what we need ... uh oh, why is it ...?"  BOOM.

This isn't easy.  Done right, the players should be able to recognize "this isn't a good idea," but be willing to go with it because it's the best idea they have.  That way, if at some point, someone does have a better idea, there's still a chance of avoiding the bad play.

Of course, a large number of players, not being very bright, will seize on the "not good idea" algorithm and just start killing whatever NPC is talking.  And there is only one answer for players like this:


It is easy to kill an incompetent party.  They read the situation wrong, they act hastily, they use 21st century logic in speaking with 16th century aristocrats and ... well, that sort of thing should go wrong for the player.

It is harder, much harder, to get the competent party deeper and deeper into their own mess, as they keep trying to fix their situation only to find they're making it worse, because they really are hubristic at heart.  They really do think, "This will work!" ... only to find it doesn't, because it wasn't thought through.

The point of tragedy, unlike comedy, isn't to make the audience feel smarter.  It is to make the audience feel dumber.  Because, we hope, the audience will get caught thinking, "Woah, if I had been in Richard's situation, I would have done just what Richard did ..."  [trust me, it did seem rational for a 17th century audience].

I'm sure you can think of a film you've seen, which ended badly, where you realize, if you'd been there, you'd have done no better than the protagonist.  That's the point.  You're meant to empathize. You're meant to feel that you're not really as bright as you think you are.

Once you get players into that mindset, your game is going to get a LOT more meaningful.

Dump the comedy.  And all that that entails.


James said...

I think many players feel DMs go "Aha! The players chose the red door instead of blue, rocks fall and you all die!"

My point is, to run an effective tragedy, the player must see that their decisions caused their downfall.

Joey Bennett said...

Excellent, as always.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I agree strongly with that, James. Which is why consequences cannot be, I opened a door.

Can you imagine the climax of Richard the III being, Richard opened the red door. Of course not. It's idiocy.

But dress it up, slather it with mystery and a lot of other junk, and you can make players, and audiences, "think" it's a clever puzzle. The red pill vs. the blue pill, for example. But the climax of that movie was not, the red pill makes Neo see the truth; the climax was, Neo EMBRACED the truth and risked the consequences.

Of course, Neo was loaded with plot armor, and none of us ever thought he was going to die, which is why it was a cheap adventure fantasy. As DMs, we need to get rid of red vs. blue and move the line to where the characters need to embrace the decision, not just carry it out. Saying, "I open the blue door," that's too easy. Saying, "I'm ready to consciously descend to that lake, which is loaded with much disturbing imagery and disquieting suggestion, knowing that I am making this decision of my own free will," puts the character into the heart of knowing they are constructing their own tragedy.

So they will be fine when it happens.

Ozymandias said...

How do you get players to go along with that risk?

I ask because I've often found my hooks failing to grab the players, not so much because they're too obvious ~ oh look, another random old man on the side of the road who wants to talk to us, yawn ~ but because the players perceive the hook as too dangerous (even when it's not).

For example, a party is exploring an abandoned keep when they notice something odd is the distance, like a low-hanging mist but stationary and in the middle of the day. They leave the keep, reach a road and travel to a nearby town. Along the way (as the journey takes a few days) they observe that the "mist" has progressed, taking up more area than before, having moved generally in the direction of the road and the town.

Clearly, the players' response was, "Nope, eff that!" but they didn't even make mention of it to the people in the area.

Without knowing the specifics of these players (a group long since disbanded), how does one go about presenting opportunity without scaring the players away? (You've touched on this, after a fashion, in other posts; I'm rather hoping you'll offer up more examples.)

Alexis Smolensk said...


My Senex campaign was full of this sort of resistance ... and it bothered me to the point that I eventually just quit running the players. It seemed strange to me; until running online, I had never encountered a party that just didn't want experience. So much that it took three years before anyone became 4th level. And no one in the Senex campaign ever progressed beyond 6th.

Compare that to the present Juvenis campaign, in which the cleric has hit 4th level after about four or five months of running ... about the equivalent of what would be six or seven sessions. Clearly, this is a problem, and one that plainly a lot of DMs have. My error, I think, was in not realizing that this was a problem, but that I confused it with agency ... and so the problem lingered and lingered. For eight years of off-and-on blog play.

I have endlessly re-examined my choices, and I have found a particular error I made in presentation. I would often, as was the case with the last encounter (with a giant lizard), present the danger, and then "wait for the players to engage." They were already in the wilderness; they had already decided to scope out the dungeon. But I as still playing this game of, "threaten and see if they'll keep going." When what I should have been doing was trying to kill them.

If your players just won't engage, I suggest two proposals. The first being, keep bringing your level of engagement down to the point where the players feel safe, and then set up encounters that have a chance of hurting them ~ and then just let loose, and fuck their agency past that point. If necessary, kill them a few times. Get the message across, dying in this game is normal, GET USED TO IT. I think if I had tried this strategy, the players would have ended up not playing the characters they ended with, but someone else, who perhaps would have been more prone to taking risks, seeing risks as inevitable and therefore worth taking.

(cont ...)

Sterling Blake said...


Alexis Smolensk said...

I think I might have lost some of the players; but that, too, would have been healthier. After such a long time, where I wrote hundreds of posts DESCRIBING things, without much return in the way of the players ACTUALLY PLAYING, as they were far too engrossed with "role-playing" and not with advancing their characters, I'm sure I'd be happier now with whomever was still playing in that campaign. As it is, I feel somewhat sick to my heart that I kept presenting for these players, who didn't seem to care.

Which brings me to my second option. If you don't feel you can, in good conscience, twist their arm into participating, sit them down and say, "Look, I'm going to need you to stop dicking around." In the nicest way possible, of course. I tried that. And found myself getting push-back and push-back, as the players kept repeating, "I think we've done fine in this campaign."

If you get this sort of dissonance, I suggest you give up on those players. They're not there to play. Whoever remains will be such better players for the air being let into the room, I don't think you'll regret it.

James said...

I agree with Alexis here. Being a player in a D&D campaign means taking on inherently risky ventures in the hope for loot. This doesn't mean I expect my players to take every hook (and they don't), but if they rejected three or four in a row, I would have a conversation about whether my hooks needed work or their characters needed to be retired.

JB said...

"I'm sure you can think of a film you've seen, which ended badly, where you realize, if you'd been there, you'd have done no better than the protagonist."

I'm having a tough time with this. A lot of times, when I watch tragedies, I feel angry and frustrated that the protagonists didn't make better choices, that if I had been in their shoes, *I* would have done things differently.

Does this mean that the film is bad? Or that I have no empathy? Or that I'm not grokking the medium in the way it's intended? Or what?

I can be detached, and I can be swept up in a drama. But I cannot think of a time where I felt "dumber" from watching a tragedy unfold. Maybe "No Country For Old Men;" does that count as a tragedy?

I feel like I'm missing the point of this post and how to apply it to D&D. Which is unusual and DOES make me feel kind of dumb.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't know what movies or plays you've watched, JB; and I certainly don't want to make suggestions. Perhaps you're just not the sort that can lose yourself in that medium, or perhaps, like me, you're sure there's some way you could have managed it better.

No Country for Old Men is definitely a tragedy, but mostly pathos. The weak link in that movie is the guy going back with the jug of water; it makes movie sense, at best, and totally ruined that film for me right off.

As far as "getting the post" ... I'm reminded from a couple of lyrics from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Every time I look at you I don't understand;
why you let the things you did get so out of hand?
You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned ~
Now why'd you pick such a backward time in such a strange land?
If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation,
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.

Did you mean to die like that was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

For some of us, it's hard to see tragedy as it's meant to be, as we're like Judas here; wanting to know why. Why, how did you get yourself into this shitty situation, why didn't you just get over it, couldn't you have handled it better? Sure, of course, that we would have.

Then, there's that one drama that goes right to the heart; where we see ourselves in someone and realize, "that's me." And we can see precisely how we would doom ourselves.

For me, once, that drama was Owl and the Pussycat, from 1970; the film was Barbra Streisand and George Segal, but it was a play before it was a film. For most people, I think, it wouldn't mean much of anything. But as a struggling, pretentious writer, like Felix is in the play, without much hope, that film cut my younger, uncertain self like a knife. I quoted the play once on the blog.

Too, I have been hungry enough to feel They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the Sydney Pollack film from 1969. A long forgotten film. A brilliant film.

The one that would cut through you, JB, is out there. You've either forgotten it, because it cut too close to the bone, or you haven't seen it yet. Maybe you're not looking for it. I don't know. But I'm talking about catharsis. The moment of clarity that lets you know, you're not all that.

JB said...

Huh. I’ll have to think on that, man.