Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
Listener Andrew M (not to be confused with network member Andrew Marlowe) suggested I elaborate on a comment I made in Know Direction 198, where I said Nickelodeon’s 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was closest in tone to my campaigns, mixing humour and drama and body horror.
Balancing drama and humour can seem like a challenge. After all, aren’t they opposites? Wouldn’t not committing to one over the other lead to failure to do both?
Human psychology is not that one dimensional. The uncomfortable laugh is the best example of our ability (and at a certain level, need) to find humour in something serious, and the best example of an uncomfortable laugh I ever came across was in a Holocaust survivor’s memoires. He talks about the day he arrived at a concentration camp, how someone who had been there for a while met with the new arrivals and told them how he was able to survive so far. The veteran survivor concluded by saying that by listening to his advice, he could see everyone in the group surviving, before reassessing his audience, pointing to our protagonist, and saying “except for you.” Our hero’s reaction to being singled out as the least likely to survive a concentration camp? He burst out laughing. He explained that the only alternative was crying, and upon reflection he believed he survived because he was the kind of person who would sooner laugh than cry in that situation.
CAN IT BE DONE?
On a brighter note, Avengers: Endgame! Spoiler warning again, because that’s still the polite thing to do, but odds are you’ve already seen this, one of the most significant movies of our time. Not only is it the culmination of 11 years of groundbreaking storytelling, it’s a masterpiece of tone shifts, sandwiching a rompish time heist and a dazzling climatic battle featuring dozens of variously powered heroes between scenes of a father’s wife and children effectively dying when his back was turned and a funeral for a cinematic icon, with another funeral somewhere in the middle.
I sincerely meant “on a brighter note” above, but I can understand if it was taken as a joke when the following sums up a lot of reactions I’ve seen to the movie:
That reaction is valid but not universal. True, I teared up at a few points during the movie (EXTRA SPOILER WARNING: I even made myself cry by getting the idea that Stan Lee should join Nick Fury on the porch towards the end of the film), but the reactions to my viewing experience that lingered longer were excitement and amusement. Thor breaking down and telling his mother yes, he is from the future was one of the funniest movie jokes I can remember. Then there were the multiple successive chills I got during the climatic battle.
All this to say, if you need an example of drama and humour blending together, look no further than the number 1 movie at the box office.
If the only Hollywood directs with a track record for billion dollar movies can do it, surely you can too, right? Sarcasm aside, yes, yes you can. You just need to understand the root of the reaction you are trying to get.
The key to how Endgame effortlessly switches between different emotions is because the emotions are sincere. The touching moments and the humour both come from a place we can relate to. Maybe we haven’t had a taco ruined by a spaceship landing, but we can relate to looking forward to eating something that’s ruined somehow right before we get the first bite.
The balance of drama (the in-character world we are engaging with) and humour (the real world reality that this is a game and we are playing) is core to the experience. No matter how elaborate your maps and miniatures are, a good portion of an RPG exists in our heads, and the most engaging game is one where the individual mental games overlap and coexist. That’s what makes pop culture references and jokes about absurd alternate actions so effective. They remind everyone that we may be virtuous heroes on epic adventures, but we’re also a bunch of geeks surrounded by books, dice, and tiny toy monsters.
I’d love to come up with examples for all six of the Infinity Stones but other than good comedic timing and not using your power as a GM to make jokes at your players’ expense, the rest of the stones are a stretch. That’s just the reality of it.
Laughter is not an indication that your players aren’t engaged in the story. Often, it’s the opposite. And the reason we all want an engaging story of high drama and life or death situations is because we find those things fun.