A framework for humor in RPG design?
I recently learned about the “Benign Violation” theory of humor which some researchers are using as a framework for studying the psychology of humor. The basic idea is that we find something funny when it’s both 1) a violation and 2) benign. So tickling is funny because it’s an attack (a violation) but harmless (benign). Puns are funny because they violate expected usage but in a way that carries no negative consequences. Self-deprecation is funny because it is saying something negative (a violation) but in a way that we can tell isn’t sincere (benign).
It’s an interesting theory because it predicts both what is and what isn’t funny. Tickling by a stranger, for example, isn’t funny because we don’t know if it will be harmless. And self-deprecation isn’t funny if we suspect the person saying it is serious. It suggests that to be funny something needs competing interpretations, one where it’s OK and one where it’s not OK, and they need to be relatively matched in intensity: something that’s a trivial violation in an entirely benign situation isn’t funny, nor is a major violation with a figleaf, at least according to this theory. Intuitively it sounds like a pretty compelling argument to me, and it may be a useful framework for exploring the design of comedic RPGs, a famously fraught endeavor where plenty of games are maligned as “funny to read, not funny to play”, or for keeping unwanted comedy out of dramatic or gritty games.
It seems to me that many classic funny RPG situations map to this theory: The dragon opens its jaws and lunges forward to [rolls to hit] bite you for [rolls damage]… 1 point of damage [laughter ensues]. In the hit/miss framework it’s a violation, but in the damage framework it is benign, so we are amused. One of the most reliable design techniques for comedy RPGs is to have players describe their own character’s failure: since they failed it’s a violation, but since they have control over the situation it’s benign. If a player makes an out-of-character joke it can be funny, and a pretty reliable technique for eliminating that humor is to make it consequential in the fiction by acting as if the character rather than the player said it (i.e. it’s no longer benign). The gold-standard of funny RPGs, InSpectres, seems to fit the pattern, too: it instructs you to play “normal” characters rather than outlandish ones, which would seem to help with interpreting the supernatural events of the scenario as “violations” but the relatively low stakes of the situation make them benign (these supernatural situations are so commonplace in the in-game world that resolving them is a viable franchise business model, and a session is about whether players satisfactorily complete the job to bring in money to keep their business afloat).
While this framework seems appealing at first glance, a deeper analysis is probably warranted. It would be beneficial to go beyond cherry-picking examples that seem consistent with the theory and look at a spectrum of games and see how well the funny/not-funny predictions hold up (analyzing Cthulhu games could be a particularly fruitful way to approach this, given the diversity of approaches in that genre and the fact that they’re sometimes played seriously and sometimes for laughs). Additionally, to be useful as a design tool we’d need to see if we can translate the concepts into game design elements: What counts as a violation? What makes things benign? How do we evaluate the relative intensities? How does wanting games to be “fun” interact with the “funny” that we’d include or exclude when employing this framework? Attempting to use this theory as a prospective guide to designing a new funny (or reliably unfunny) game could also be a fruitful avenue of exploration.