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How can I get my PCs to not cause a single or small handful of characters to become the butt of a joke when that humor could easily decrease their survival rate and/or quality of life? I'm not interested in making them take the entire game seriously, nor the whole plot, and not even every character. Just some obvious ones like the constable with a hair trigger or the irate wizard with a short fuse.

I'd like solutions that help prevent this instead of ones that mete out consequences as that's my default and it appears to result in hurt feelings. Note that I'm not interested in overall campaign or mood settings nor am I interested in warning the PCs out-of-game that "this sheriff will put them in the barracks should his scalp be violated by any of their knuckles." I want in-game ways to discourage this.

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"I want in-game ways to discourage this." -- Is it an in-game problem? i.e., is it the nature of the PCs to make jokes out of things, or is it just what the players like to do? –  starwed Feb 10 '13 at 20:09
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The problem with in-game solutions to out-of-game problems is that the players can as easily smell metagaming as the GM can (and there are more of them to "roll Sense Motive"), and if it is an out-of-game problem, this can make them resentful of the not-so-invisible hand and resort to doubling down to resist it. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 10 '13 at 21:08
    
@Starwed The players. No matter what class, monk paladin sorceror bard, some PCs just do this relentlessly and it really detracts from immersion. –  LitheOhm Feb 10 '13 at 21:13
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Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3548/… –  mxyzplk Feb 11 '13 at 4:08
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If your players are having a hard time determining what sorts of actions may be taken with NPCs, it's your job as a GM to provide better characterization for the NPCs. Not knowing that the sheriff is built like a mountain troll and has the temperament of an angry hornet would provide enough leeway for the players to make mistakes out of ignorance, such as trying to pants the fellow that could as easily decapitate them as shake their hand. –  zzzzBov Feb 11 '13 at 15:30

4 Answers 4

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Warn them in-game.

Have the PCs overhear chilling stories in a bar about what happened to those who made fun of the sheriff. Have them encounter a man with half of his face badly burnt, and have this burnt man tell them he should never have made that joke about that wizard. Reinforce these stories by showing these unfunny people take a joke very, very badly: have the sheriff shoot or whip or stab through the hand with a dagger a funny guy right in front of their eyes; have the wizard's crow familiar pick the eye of a joker in front of them. (Also, (re)watch some Tarantino, and (re)read some GRR Martin or Stephen King, for inspiration.)

If even that's not enough, have the evil NPCs punish some innocent people - whom the PCs have grown somewhat close to, preferably - for some jokes made by different people, before the PCs themselves would dare risk such a joke.

Also, you may want to have the NPCs make fun of themselves, of their most "laughable" features publicly - in an inn, at a reception, etc - and then punish all those who laughed.

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+1 I've tried the first tactic but not the other two. –  LitheOhm Feb 10 '13 at 21:17
    
I would think this would actually encourage them... –  Lohoris Aug 29 at 21:28

The problem with in-game solutions to out-of-game problems is that the players can as easily catch the whiff of metagaming as the GM can (and there are more of them to "roll Sense Motive"), whether it's actually metagaming or not. If it is an out-of-game problem, them detecting subterfuge by the GM to bring them back in line can make them resentful of the not-so-invisible hand and resort to doubling down to resist it.

Whether in-game solutions technically count as metagaming or not, players who are "resisting the yoke" of the GM by undermining their serious NPCs (it always seems to be the serious, dangerous NPCs) will see it as metagaming. In other non-gaming contexts, the players might call trying to change their behaviour with subtle manipulations "passive aggressive".

Fortunately, you can find out if your group is stuck in this dynamic easily enough: telegraph that the NPC is extra-dangerous in-game and see how they react. If they just redouble the jokes, they're engaging in a power struggle with you and an out-of-game conversation about the group becomes the only functional means of moving forward.

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+1 I didn't consider the metagame implications on my end. So if it results in a power struggle then it really is an out-of-game chat, good point. –  LitheOhm Feb 11 '13 at 6:16

Ask them if it is what their characters would actually do.

You don't have to be heavy handed with this, or warn them of the consequences out of game, but it can often clarify things. Players love to make jokes, and presumably you don't want to take that way from them. By reminding them of the line between player and character, you might help restrict this to at least out of game jokes.

If you want to remove the latter, then I'm doubtful an in-game solution will ever work!

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+1 an "are you sure" approach might work. I'm not trying to take away out-of-game jokes. Those are fine. My PCs have been known to literally noogie the constable with the "what's he gonna do about it, anyway?" mentality. –  LitheOhm Feb 10 '13 at 21:19
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@LitheOhm The "are you sure" approach is not really in-game (which you asked for), imo, but it might work indeed. (I thought you've already tried that.) –  OpaCitiZen Feb 10 '13 at 21:26
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This is what I do. It implicitly says to the players that there will be in game consequences and forces them to consider whether the laugh is worth the pain. Sometimes they still do the stupid, but at least they're bought into it... –  C. Ross Feb 10 '13 at 21:53
    
It sounds like your players play their characters as patronizing... jerks. If they actually play as jerks, characters they meet in game should all treat them as such. All of the social aspects of the game should be very difficult for them as they alienate the NPCs around them. –  PeterL Feb 11 '13 at 16:42

I often have problems with players settling down, when they are inclined to make jokes and mess around a lot before the game begins and for a few minutes after it starts. I was able to stop it after I started saying, after I felt the players should be serious, "In-character as of now".

Basically, anything the player says is said by the character (within reason - a player needing the bathroom doesn't mean the character goes in the middle of the street), and the NPCs around will react appropriately. After one or two rather awkward moments and losing a deal with a mage that would have got them a bit of cash, they quieted down a lot.

As long as you are fair and consistent, you shouldn't have too many problems with this approach - and if the players decide to noogie the town sheriff in-character, he'll probably to it back and then have them run out of town!

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Every time I've seen a GM use the "everything the player says is said by the character" rule it was a GM in constant power struggle with the players and was not fun. –  psr Feb 11 '13 at 18:09

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