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As a GM, I would like to add comic relief to my sessions.

Comic relief is the inclusion of a humorous character, scene or witty dialogue in an otherwise serious work, often to relieve tension.

What are some strategies and rules of thumb needed to execute this tactic in both prearranged and improvised situations?

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Please let me know if I need to be more specific. I would prefer not to include details of my particular campaign as I'd like this to be as general (i.e. applicable to others) as possible. –  user2525 Sep 13 '12 at 13:55

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I learned most of my lessons on this topic from action and drama films.

I've found that one of the best ways to introduce comic relief in an otherwise tense campaign is to introduce sometimes hilarious events into combat descriptions. For example, let's say one of your party member's gets a critical success on his attack roll and obliterates an enemy. All it takes to add some comic relief then is to throw something like "The guard gives a confused look as the railgun shell comes barreling towards him" or "A growing wet spot appears on his pants as he watches the fireball come closer" to introduce a moment of lessened tension. I particularly like this kind of technique because it doesn't ever distract or detract from the overall mood of the campaign or setting, since combat tends to be a gruesome and serious subject by its nature (and players sense this).

Another great way that I really like is dropping quick one-liners in a tense situation. For example, in a campaign I ran once, my party acquired a spaceship piloted by an NPC. At one point there was some on-board combat, and the party's heavy weapons expert critically failed, making a massive hole in the hull (luckily, they hadn't yet exited the upper atmosphere). The pilot NPC gave the PC an incredulous look and started a slow clap for him, saying, "Way to go, Jim. Way to go." It was a moment of hilarity amidst an otherwise very grim situation, and again, it only added value to the session and atmosphere.

I think there are two keys to successful comedic relief:

  • Don't force it; and,
  • Make it quick

If you force it, the players will sense it, and it will just be awkward and break the mood (which is exactly what you don't want). Also, if you extend the comedy for too long, it takes over the scenario and your campaign suddenly becomes a silly comedy of errors rather than a drama or action-adventure or whatever else.

Basically, small quips inserted artfully are the key to success.

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+1 for reminding me of The Gamers. "It looks lie a can of beef stroganoff exploded" –  CatLord Sep 13 '12 at 15:45
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Another prime example of this done right from Dorkness Rising, only by a player: "Brother Silence: As if killing the bard impresses us." Don't forget that your players can be encouraged to break the tension with a humorous quip as well. –  DampeS8N Sep 13 '12 at 17:56

If we could write consistently funny dialogue to order, we'd be publishing it, not wasting it on a few players. But a couple of rules of thumb are important:

Make sure you separate the comic relief from the serious characters. Sounds obvious, but if the grand vizier sees an opportunity for a great pun just after the Big Fight Scene, when you are looking to relax the tension, the temptation can be huge. Resist it. Even if the party think it's as funny as you do (rare, in my experience), you have just converted the NPC who gives orders and rewards into one of the boys; it can be hard to rebuild respect.

And be sure you know what sort of humour you're looking for. If you want the classic Shakespearian comic relief, with jesters or comic yokels making the players smile during downtime, you probably don't need the characters to join in; if you want quips related to the scene (as James Bond and Indiana Jones are so fond of), you might want to give bonus XP (or whatever) for a witty retort. Either is fine, but it's unwise to mix them.

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+1 for giving bonus XP to players who make a witty retort –  Cat Sep 14 '12 at 16:09

So this doesn't help with writing humor, but this is where I draw the line for comic relief:

Characters should tell jokes. They shouldn't be jokes.

If you have a character whose very existence is comic relief, the game will be impossible to take seriously. See: Jar Jar Binks.

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To be fair, Jar Jar Binks isn't actually funny. He's kind of anti-funny. If he encountered actual humor they would annihilate each other in a massive explosion. –  psr Sep 13 '12 at 17:25
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@psr, agreed, but Jar Jar was what the GM thought would be funny. Instead you have a pathetic joke of a character who everyone would rather just forget. –  valadil Sep 13 '12 at 17:40
    
Sage advice, this. Although you can get very close to a character that is just comic relief if you can bring depth to it. See: every character in the anime "One Piece." –  DampeS8N Sep 13 '12 at 17:58
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To clarify, I said a character whose very existence is comic relief would be impossible to take seriously. A character can have his entire role in this story be comic relief and still be a legit character. –  valadil Sep 13 '12 at 18:53

A good way to do this is to have a few fun NPC's who show up from time to time, occasionally bringing with them a light-hearted type of adventure.

For example, perhaps a married halfling couple prone to bickering who ask their friends (the PCs) for favors now and then that lead to rediculous situations. Or maybe a store owner who isnt quite all 'there'. Or the cleric's absent minded superior.

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I wish I could upvote this more than once! –  user2525 Sep 16 '12 at 15:36

In a word? Gnomes.

The gnomes in my campaign play lots of practical jokes on each other and on the PC's.

Just brainstorm what kinds of silly things they can do before the game and hopefully the PC's will get into the spirit.

In my most recent session, which took place in a gnome village, the PC's were the victim of at least two practical jokes. They finally got into the spirit when they bought fart and love potions at the local joke shop and poured both into the drink of their former employer.

Update:

The D&D player's handbook describes gnomes as pranksters, so they are well-suited to introducing practical jokes to your campaign. If you're not playing D&D, or you don't have gnomes in your campaign, just pick a suitable substitute: a race, village, or sub-culture with a reputation for their sense of humor.

I just finished adding a page to my website with more guidance. It is too long to include here.

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What about games which are not D&D? –  Sardathrion Jul 8 '13 at 8:15
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I think this answer could be useful (for games that include gnomes) if it included an explanation of how gnomes are more suitable for comic relief than other races. (Are they?) –  Ernir Jul 8 '13 at 10:57
    
@Sardathrion, for non-D&D games, the GM may substitute any race or sub-culture with a renowned sense of humor. –  E L Jul 13 '13 at 20:10
    
@Ernir, D&D v.3.5 describes gnomes as ‘inventors and alchemists who love pranks and excel at engineering’. I'm working on a page with more details, which I will link to when I'm done. –  E L Jul 13 '13 at 20:16

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