The Serious Business of Humour

by Marcus L.Rowland

Copyright © Marcus L. Rowland 1998

As soon as role playing games were invented, someone probably tried to write a funny adventure. It's a safe bet that it was dire. With a few exceptions early role-playing humour was notable for stupid names, appalling puns, and a total lack of coherence; think of Piers Anthony's Xanth series but take away any vestige of plot or logic and you'll have the idea. Most were published as adventures for Dungeons and Dragons, though some of the best were written for other games; my favourite from this era was Flying Buffalo's Rat On A Stick, a Tunnels and Trolls adventure where you could kill monsters or set up a fast food franchise and feed them.

Gradually games and scenarios emerged that took their humour from their background, and some have stood the test of time and an increasingly discriminating public. The first and arguably the best emerged in 1984, a year that saw the publication of Paranoia and Toon.

Steve Jackson Games' (SJG's) Toon is probably the closest thing to a "pure" comedy game we're likely to see; as the name implies, it's an RPG where the object is to behave as much as possible like your favourite cartoon characters. Here the humour comes from the anarchic nature of cartoons, and some carefully designed rules (by Greg Costikyan and Warren Spector) that encourage the sort of action seen in them; fast, violent, and with "illogical logic" that lets characters run off cliffs and walk on air until they notice where they are. It's as subtle as a pie in the face, and hugely enjoyable if you're in that sort of mood. Toon is now on its second edition, and is supported by three large supplements.

Paranoia, from West End Games (WEG), takes a superficially different tack, describing a harshly oppressive dystopia ruled by an insane computer where life is cheap and wretched, backstabbing is the norm, and everyone is incessantly told that things are perfect. The humour (by Daniel S. Gelber, Greg Costikyan1 and Eric Goldberg) is slapstick but very black; characters are members of six-clone "families" and scenarios generally kill most or all of the six, usually by the actions of their "friends". Here it's the Kafkaesque2 "logic" of the setting that somehow makes the game immensely funny with the right players. The odd thing about Paranoia is that with minor changes it would work very well as a nightmarish setting for a straight dystopian game along the lines of 1984 or Brave New World. This possibly supports the idea that comedy or tragedy are closely related. But I digress... The Paranoia rules have gone to four editions, with thirty-ish supplements and adventures. Just to confuse things the current version of the rules is marked fifth edition, has been rewritten considerably, and frankly isn't as funny as its predecessors. Get the third instead if you can find it.

Since 1984 there have been a few more humorous RPGs, but none have done as well. Ghostbusters (also WEG, 1987, but actually designed by Chaosium Inc.) had fast simple rules and didn't take itself seriously; it was fun to play but poorly marketed, since WEG gave Paranoia and the Star Wars RPG most of their attention. It was rewritten and relaunched (without Chaosium's help) when the second film premiered, but the changes made play slower and more complicated, a serious flaw for a humorous game. A version of these rules is used for several other WEG products, including a recent Men In Black RPG which works reasonably well but isn't quite as funny as the film. Teenagers From Outer Space (R. Talsorian Games, by Mike Pondsmith, 1988) was a valiant but virtually unsupported effort, based on the idea that aliens take over Earth then send their kids to American schools. Humour is again slapstick and depends heavily on knowledge of the US school scene, so doesn't always work for British readers, but the game has run to three editions and one spin-off game system, has a loyal following, and is great fun if you can get to grips with the Americanisms. A borderline game is Macho Women With Guns (BTRC 1988); borderline because it is primarily a combat system, in which scantily clad and heavily armed women fight each other or a range of (predominantly male) enemies, with RPG elements added almost as an afterthought. The game is deliberately non-PC, and skills like "Run in high heels" and monsters like the dreaded "N*z* H*ll Sm**fs" set the scene very nicely. It was originally published as several volumes, but the 1997 re-release puts everything together and adds some extra scenarios.

Three I prefer to avoid are Tales From The Floating Vagabond (Avalon Hill 1991), about a bar that is linked to odd corners of the multiverse, Ace Agents (Stellar Games 1992), in which an UNCLE-like espionage organisation has to fund itself by selling the rights to films, toys and comics describing its agents' exploits, and Murphy's World (Peregrine 1995), set on a world where everything always goes wrong. Ace Agents has a good premise but executes it with a cumbersome game system, the others just aren't very funny. All strain far too hard for laughs.

Meanwhile in 1986 SJG launched their main RPG, the enormously prolific GURPS 3 which has run to three editions and a hundred and fifty supplements and adventure books in many different genres. Superficially GURPS isn't the best system for humorous adventures; character generation is relatively slow, and many of the dice rolls involve multiple modifiers. In practice most of these complications are unimportant in play, they simply make preparation a little more complex. Most of the supplements have been reasonably serious in tone, although there are several exceptions; GURPS IOU (it stands for Illuminati University; you're not cleared to know what the O means) is decidedly silly, and in some ways reminiscent of Teenagers From Outer Space, GURPS Callahan's Bar is based on Spider Robinson's humorous SF, and GURPS Goblins is a very peculiar parody of Georgian England. There are also humorous aspects to some of the source books and adventures. The latest is GURPS Discworld, by Phil Masters with additional material from John M. Ford and Terry Pratchett.

Many regard Terry Pratchett's Discworld as the perfect humorous fantasy setting. Since The Colour Of Magic appeared in 1984 there have been several attempts at writing Discworld material, usually with Pratchett's approval, but all have been one-off magazine articles and scenarios. Previous attempts to licence the background for a fully-fledged game have fallen apart for one reason or another; for example, a well-known company proposed a contract in the early nineties with small print that would have given them sole rights to all of the Discworld characters. Other attempts have fallen apart for a variety of reasons. But Pratchett started out as a roleplayer and wanted to see a Discworld RPG, if it could be done right, and licensed the setting to SJG a couple of years ago. For various reasons it has taken some time to see the light of day; most notably the original author, Ford, had to back out due to the pressure of other work, although he has contributed some material to the final version.

As I write in late June GURPS Discworld is almost ready for publication; the writing is complete, and the artwork reached SJG this week. It should be in the shops by the time this appears, but these schedules are often optimistic. Meanwhile I've seen proofs of the text only; it's probably safe to assume that the art (by Paul Kidby - see The Pratchett Portfolio, the Guide to Lancre, etc.) is very good, but I can't guarantee it. When complete the book will run to 240 pages including GURPS Lite, a brief version of the rules with some complexities removed, since SJG expect that many purchasers will have no previous experience of RPGs. Experienced roleplayers who already own GURPS material may feel that this is an unnecessary expense, but it probably doesn't add much to the price, and it's an opportunity to lure more people into the hobby4. Additionally, the slight simplifications of GURPS Lite may be more suitable for the genre.

One of the problems of converting the Discworld to an RPG has been the nature of Pratchett's writing. Where most of the previous humorous games have to some extent relied on slapstick, the Discworld comedy is largely contextual, building up to a joke over several paragraphs or pages; there's nothing intrinsically funny in a line like "DARK IN HERE, ISN'T IT?" on its own, but it's hilarious if you know the circumstances. Unfortunately that sort of humour needs much more work; the referee needs to set up the background, and the players need to go along with the gag without pushing it too far too early. Incidentally I suppose it's just possible that someone reading this hasn't read the Discworld books; if you don't know what I'm talking about, run to your nearest bookshop and buy a few. Trust me on this, you won't regret it...

Masters, Ford, and Co. have done an excellent job of explaining how to set up the contextual framework, beginning with the "natural laws" that control events on the Disc. The first of these is Life Force, which means that plants, once-living materials (such as the Luggage) and even "inanimate" objects may have attitudes and personalities that affect the characters; in the stories various non-magical weapons show this very well, seeming to be "eager" to be used and abused. The second is Metaphor and Belief; things that are metaphors in our world have reality on the disc, the obvious examples being Death, Fate, and other anthropomorphic personifications. If enough people believe in something it becomes true; hence the Tooth Fairy, million-to-one shots coming up nine times out of ten (but only if the odds really are exactly a million to one), and most gods. The third law is Narrative Causality; events on the Disc tend to have a certain inevitability, a momentum caused by their adherence to the theme of a well-known story or a common train of events. See Witches Abroad, Wyrd Sisters, Soul Music and Maskerade for examples of this type of plot. Magic and Morphic Resonance also have a big hand in shaping events. Between them these forces and laws and their natural corollaries give the Discworld its distinctive qualities and potential for humour.

Any good worldbook has to use quite a lot of space describing the world and its people; here we tread familiar ground, since various guide books have dealt with this at great length, and in particular there are frequent acknowledged borrowings from the Discworld Companion. Nevertheless there are some useful riffs on these themes; for example, pointing out the inevitable consequences of visiting Hersheba and getting involved with the beautiful queen (volcanic eruptions approximately two hours into the movie), or that anyone from Genua who survived the events of Witches Abroad probably has a phobia about happy endings. Some of these riffs5 have the whiff of authentic Pratchett, but Masters and Ford are also experienced humorous authors6 so it isn't necessarily safe to draw conclusions.

The roster of characters described include the main recurring personalities from novels up to Hogfather; minor characters and those who only appear in one novel are mostly ignored. Wisely, exact statistics for Death and the other anthropomorphic personifications and Gods have been omitted, except in the most general of terms. There is a certain fascination in taking them on, but the practical consequences could be a disaster for a campaign - or generate endless new plots; see Mort, Reaper Man, Neil Gaiman's Sandman and TV's Hercules and Xena for some ideas about the practical consequences of removing these elemental forces, and remember that Narrative Causality ensures that whoever takes them out will probably end up either regretting it or replacing them...

While there's a lot to like in GURPS Discworld, it isn't entirely without flaws. The magic section seems a little long at 48 pages, although this does admittedly include an extensive description of Unseen University. Some sections seem to have been put in at slightly odd points; for example, rules for generating generic rural inns are inexplicably at the end of a section on currency. The currency section itself, and other sections which talk about prices and money, repeatedly have to explain that the Ankh-Morpork Dollar is worth ten dollars, the currency units used in the game rules. This has always been an odd feature of GURPS; it doesn't matter whether the setting is the past or the distant future, or whether the setting's currency is Dubloons or Credits, everything has to be converted to 1990s US dollars so that players will readily understand it. If the currency unit happens to be called a dollar but has a different value the potential for confusion is vast.

The adventure is rather lightweight; although it does take characters to Ankh-Morpork and encourage them to search the city, it's a fairly simple scavenger hunt that may not satisfy experienced players. Another adventure and some campaign ideas are outlined, but very briefly.

Overall this is certainly one to buy, and will undoubtedly be supported by adventures and other add-ons. It's best seen as the basis for designing a campaign; while you won't find one ready-made here, there are plenty of ideas for rolling your own, and tweaking it to fit the interests of referee and players. If you don't already own GURPS this is as good a way to try it as you're likely to find, since you don't need any other material to run it. But if you don't like Pratchett, or have no sense of humour, avoid it like the plague.

Marcus L. Rowland


  1. Who was obviously VERY busy that year
  2. A word that gets used a lot when discussing Paranoia, despite the fact that nobody ever turns into a giant cockroach (eaten by giant cockroaches yes, turned into one no); "oppressive bureaucracy gone mad" is probably about right in this context.
  3. Generic Universal Roleplaying System
  4. Admittedly they'll mostly be Pratchett fans, but nobody's perfect.
  5. Especially the footnotes
  6. Masters' credits include The Skool Rules, an excellent small RPG suggested by the Molesworth books, while Ford wrote the best humorous Star Trek novel, How Much For Just The Planet.