Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Situation: Comedy!

If comedy is tragedy plus time, then you should probably read this later, but if you will insist on reading it right now, then here are some rules for a light and simple comedy story game for around four players.


First things first: what is your story going to be about? You can pretty much pick any premise you like, as long as everyone who is going to play feels confident they know enough about the subject matter to participate in telling a story about it. You could skip over that confident amount of knowledge requirement if you prefer, but recognise that what you are playing is a pastiche or absurdist take on the premise, not a realistic portrayal. For example, a story taking place on an oil rig might be cool, but what do I know about oil rigs except what I've seen in films and TV series? Nothing really, so any story I set on an oil rig is going to be divorced from reality, which is fine so long as I don't fool myself into thinking I've understood oil rigs by telling that story.

You can avoid the whole question of verisimilitude by making up a fictional setting, such as vampire hunters in a nameless Gothic nation or the crew of a space-cruise liner ferrying passengers around the galaxy. Don't go too far in this direction though or you'll lose contact with the character's motivations and end up with meaningless gonzo fare, e.g. if your setting is an art gallery after dark when all the exhibits come to life, it's hard to connect that to average human experiences so the plots will eschew that in favour of randomness and surrealism.

Make sure to pick a setting that will give all the player characters equal spotlight time: avoid making one character the centre around which everybody else's life revolves, who gets the lion's share of the scenes and story as a result. Of course, you can try to create a story with a central character and supporting cast, if you talk about this and everyone agrees to it, but spontaneous narratives have a life of their own and once you begin playing, you might find that your 'central' character isn't as important to the narrative as you thought they would be.


Next, create the main characters who will feature in your comedy: a good hook to use is a family or work relationship, so Mother, Father, Elder Child and Younger Child or Boss, Secretary, Designer and Labourer. Find something that describes the relationships between all the leads before creating each one as a unique individual. Some other types of relationship group are education (Head Teacher, Math Teacher, English Teacher and Gym Teacher), retail (Floor Manager, Cashier, Display Assistant and Trainee), fantasy (Warrior, Wizard, Thief and Cleric), space opera (Captain, Science Officer, Chief Engineer and Security Officer) and so on.

Image result for father tedOnce the core relationship that binds all the leads together has been selected, everyone can start creating their own character, but just stick to their personality and history for now, don't try to define their abilities or skills. Begin with a simple description of their personality or outlook that can be summed up in a couple of words, e.g. "On the verge of total panic", "Blind optimism that everything will be fine", "Condescending cynicism & world-weariness", "Spaced-out New Age hippy", "Ultra-trendy, tech-savvy hipster", etc. Don't forget a physical description, but maybe keep it to three things: three words, three distinctive features, whatever, e.g. "Long, blonde hair; tall; always wears a raincoat" or "Elderly; petite; wears glasses with huge sparkly frames."

Talk to the other players about that concept and how your character relates to theirs: give each relationship a unique but short description like "Adores them and hangs on their every word", "Want's their job", "Tries to impress them", "Constantly feels intimidated by them" and so on. Relationships don't have to be reciprocated, so your character might adore someone who despises or ignores them, but that's good for more laughs!

Round off your character description by giving them a Focus and an Issue: the Focus is what they are most interested in, what they spend the majority of their time pursuing and devoting their energy to. The Issue is an external challenge they face, something they are trying to overcome, fight against or put behind them. The Focus and the Issue might overlap or interact with each other but they shouldn't be two sides of the same coin; for example, Joey Tribbiani of Friends has a Focus of "Get hot dates" but an Issue of "Become a successful actor." Detective Amy Santiago of Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a Focus of "Get everything neatly organised" and an Issue of "Be respected as a detective."


Each lead character will be described by a set of three stats: these are Physical, Mental and Social, which we'll call the 'PMSL' stats for short, because why not? Now, before you even think of doing anything else, you all need to have a talk about the tone and style of the comedy you want to have, because you're going to pick one of those stats that all the leads are really bad at. This universal flaw is the weak stat and it will influence the comedy flavour of your story.
    Image result for spaced
  • Physical: this covers strength, dexterity, nimbleness, endurance and speed; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of slapstick comedy, with prat falls, zany stunts and so on.
  • Mental: this covers knowledge, intelligence, observation, wisdom and education; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of bloopers, mistakes and stupid jokes.
  • Social: this covers romance, etiquette, staff relations, lying and persuasion; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of misunderstandings, misapprehensions and comically awkward social situations.
Whatever the weak stat, all the lead characters are universally bad at it, even if they are meant to be quite good at that thing: the comedy comes from them thinking they are good when they're not or having to do things which the rest of the world expects them to excel at but they know it's much harder than it looks and they normally screw up.

Within each stat there are three sub-stats and each lead will have one outstanding sub-stat under each stat:
  • Under Physical there is Strength, Dexterity and Quickness: everything to do with lifting, pushing, carrying, breaking and general endurance is covered by Strength; all acts of manual dexterity, from changing a fuse to firing a gun at a target, are covered by Dexterity; finally, anything relying on speed, agility and fast reflexes uses Quickness.
  • The Mental sub-stats are Intelligence, Observation and Knowledge: use Intelligence to make deductions and solve problems; Observation covers all your senses but mainly sight and hearing; test your Knowledge to see if you recall the things you have been taught.
  • The sub-stats for Social are Diplomacy, Willpower and Subterfuge: use your Diplomacy to smooth over matters with charm and persuasion; an exercise of authority or intimidation uses Willpower, as does trying to resist temptation; finally, Subterfuge comes into play when you bluff, lie, deceive and conceal the truth.
Just write down the name of each stat in it's own column on a piece of paper, big and bold, then list the three sub-stats under each stat. Mark the weak stat with a cross, then either mark both the other stats with question marks or mark one with a cross and one with a tick.
  • A cross indicates what you are bad at: you will pretty much always fail at this.
  • A question mark indicates what you are average at: you have a chance of succeeding.
  • A tick indicates what you are good at: you'll often do well with this.
You get to choose one sub-stat under each stat that is outstanding, but nothing can be worse than a cross or better than a tick, therefore:
  • If your stat is marked with a cross, you get to mark one sub-stat with a question mark.
  • If your stat is marked with a question mark, you get to mark one sub-stat with a cross or a tick, but only once for each, e.g. if you tick a sub-stat under one question marked stat, you would have to cross a sub-stat under your other question marked stat.
  • If your stat is ticked, you have to mark one sub-stat with a question mark.
Mark the other sub-stats appropriately for completeness, so cross the other two sub-stats under a crossed stat once you have marked one sub-stat with a question mark and so on.

Comedy & Error

Image result for parks and recreationThe engine driving the comedy of this game is the principle of error, i.e. failures and mistakes are funnier than successes and correct answers. Now, I'm not saying you need a GM for this game, but it helps: you can go GMless or GMful if that suits you, but it is useful in a comedy to have a foil who interferes with and complicates the lead characters' lives. In some set-ups, one of the lead characters might be the foil to the others and vice versa, but a common theme of comedy is the perversity of the inanimate and how the world seems to arrange itself to confound the lead characters' best laid plans. So the GM can be that.

Anyway... somehow or other, either through your own comic misadventures or through the machinations of the GM, you'll get to a point where you need to know if your plan succeeds or fails, whether you get what you wanted or make a mess of the whole situation. Resolving tasks or conflicts is quite simple: you toss a coin and check the result against the mark on the sub-stat you are using.
  • If the sub-stat is crossed, you're going to fail regardless: Tails means you make matters even worse, Heads means you only have to deal with the failure, nothing else.
  • If the sub-stat is question marked, you might succeed or fail: Tails means you only have to deal with that failure, nothing else, Heads means you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success.
  • If the sub-stat is ticked, you're going to succeed: Tails means you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success, Heads means you get a straightforward success without complications but no extras either.
Optional Rule: I like knowing where the comedy should be coming from, so having some stats that you know are going to fail makes it easier to plan for the jokes, but if you're playing with people who want at least a chance to succeed, then here's how to give them one. When you toss Heads for a crossed sub-stat, you can either keep that result or gamble and toss again; if you get Heads again, then you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success, as for a question marked sub-stat. If you toss Tails though, you fail and make matters even worse, as if you has tossed Tails the first time: you don't get to toss again if the result is Tails, you're stuck with the worst possible result.

Being Funny

Ooh, that's tricky and I can't do it for you but I can help: the twists that occur on some actions, where matters get worse or success has unforeseen complications, are the seam of comedy potential you should be mining for laughs. Here are some of the sort of complications you can bring into play and how they can affect the narrative:


  • Break something: the door, the furniture, an artwork, some technology. Now, are you going to fix it, hide it, repair it, replace it or runaway and pretend you don't know about it?
  • Get on the wrong side of a door: you're locked in or locked out, whether that's your home, a bank vault, a jail cell or your car. How can you get the door open? Does someone else have a key, how long will it take them to get there and what will they want in return?
  • Lose something: you had it, then dropped it, whether its an engagement ring, a dog, a winning lottery ticket or something else not easily replaceable. Now, how are you going to get it back without letting that important someone know you lost it and letting everyone else know just how much it's really worth?
  • Slip, trip and fall: you can make a fool of yourself in public, get stuck and need rescue, make a mess that needs fast cleaning-up and a thousand other clumsy accidents that you'll have to think your way out of.


  • Forget something: you should have remembered your anniversary, your orders, your shopping list, the place you were supposed to go and the name of the person you're talking to. Now, will you bluff your way through until someone else reminds you, cover up your error or just jump to a conclusion and assume you've got it right?
  • Make an irreversible error: you pressed the wrong key, said the wrong name, gave the money to the wrong person or otherwise cocked things up. Are you going to try and undo things, even though the bureaucracy is impossible, or you'll have to make a complicated explanation of what exactly went wrong? Or will you look for a way around your mistake, say by getting more money or trying to palm off your unwanted purchase onto someone else?
  • Get confused: you mixed up the thing that was to be thrown out with the thing to be kept, or the dish with peanuts in it and the dish without, or your boss' wife and his secretary. Somehow, you've got to extricate yourself from the mess with a cunning plan before things get even worse than they are now and the clock is ticking.
  • Act dumb: you don't know which way is up or what anyone is talking about; now you've opend your mouth and shown your ignorance to everyone! You might not have realised it yet, but everyone is laughing at you and now you're going to be the butt of their jokes as they have fun at your expense.


  • Mistake their intentions: you thought they were asking you out, but they were just inviting you to a meeting; you thought they were talking about a terminal disease but they were actually talking about their holiday or promotion. You've got hold of the wrong end of the stick and until someone sets you right, your plans are going to keep snowballing until they lead to an awkward confrontation.
  • Caught in a lie: you thought you'd be helping out, but now you're stuck with keeping up the pretence, so you have think on your feet every time you slip up in order to maintain your cover. How many more questions will they have and how far will you go to confirm the lie before it becomes too much?
  • Causing a distraction: you were just meant to keep them away from the house for an hour, but things have gotten complicated and it's turned into a weird day out. They want to get away from you, so you have to keep inventing ever wilder reasons why they can't leave yet.
  • A dare too far: you're trying to see how far they'll go with their practival joke or elaborate trickery, but they're seeing how far you'll go; now it's blown up to absurd proportions, with neither side willing to back down and admit defeat. What's your next move in this game of wits and nerve? And what will you lose if you give in now? 

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