ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: COMEDY AND TRAGEDY IN GAMING

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The other night, I had a chance to watch a live performance; it was a group of actors and impersonators that specialize in political satire. I did care not for it, but I will not mention the name, as the performers themselves were very talented and hard working, and I don’t want my bad review to reflect on the actors in any way.

My girlfriend (scratch that- as of this week, my fiancee) asked me why I did not enjoy all of it.*  “You like Colbert Report and Daily Show,” she said, “why not this?” It took a bit of analyzing, but I finally put my finger on why this particular show didn’t appeal to me:

*It didn’t really matter what answers I gave her; she still accused me of being an old fart.

1. Most of the jokes avoided the issues of philosophies of the characters. They went into Huckabee being religious, and the fact that politicians lie, but didn’t seem to go any further than skin deep; Trump has funny hair, Obama has big ears, Hilary has a vacant stare; the democrats distract, the republicans are crazy, etc. At best, this is light frivolousness; at worst, this is superficial muckracking.

2. It was bi-partisan in nature, doing its best to rib on both the left and the right; given the fact that they are in DC, this can be seen as a savvy move, as they are less likely to alienate half of their audience. However, I couldn’t help but feel like one almost canceled out the other. It didn’t feel like a cry from the moderate middle against the extremes, or a call for compromise; it just seemed to devoid of any legs, drifting aimlessly from one borrowed viewpoint to another without committing to anything.

In contrast, the Daily Show often takes intense issues and philosophies and boils them to their core; more often than not, you’re not laughing at the people being lampooned as much as the ideals. It some instances, the Daily Show follows the old movie adage, “show, don’t tell” – you don’t say that someone’s a hypocrite, you show a story about WHY they’re a hypocrite. The audience learns about an issue they never knew, or an important figure they were ignorant of.

On the Colbert Report, the opposite was the case; Colbert’s cold-hearted host character would often be forced to change his rigid views to match a forever progressive world; his struggle to learn and adapt, filled with tears and revelation, made the new events fresh and humanistic.

In the aforementioned live comedy show, most of the characters just walked onto the stage, did a few jokes, and left, like a bad stand-up routine; nothing changed, no one made any real human connection. However, there were a few exceptions; one of my favorite pieces involved President Barack Obama lamenting about getting pulled into war with Syria, and finding solace from a commiserating George W Bush, who was also pulled into the Middle East. They were transformed from thin caricatures to real people that shared a bond.


 

With this in mind, I would like to propose a tweaked definition of

Cret_Comedy_and_Tragedy

Why so serious?

comedy and tragedy, based around this concept:

1. Comedy – in which the characters learn to be better people.

2. Tragedy – in which the characters are given the opportunity to learn to become better people, but do not.


 

COMEDY BREAKDOWN

By this definition, a comedy is about flawed individuals who fib, fumble and fail to get what they want, and generally learn the life lessons necessary to become better human beings. The liar turns honest. The overly righteous person learns to relax. The stuttering lover learns courage.

An old benchmark for “is it a Shakespearean comedy?” is, “did someone get married at the end?” With this model, that still works; isn’t marriage about two individuals learning to be a functional union?

Bad Comedy

Bad comedy, we can surmise, is the opposite:

A badly written comedy is one in which none of the characters learn to be better people.

If a comedy is 100% custard pies and meaningless car crashes, you don’t have a story (at least, not one worth telling). If the heroes don’t improve and/or the villains aren’t taught a lesson, the experience was a frilly waste of time.

That’s not to say that EVERY character needs to learn. There are plenty of Jack Sparrows and supporting characters that stumble around, making sure others get their better future; and like Jack Sparrow, many of them do have their own brief moments of improvement and enlightenment (even if they are conveniently forgotten when the sequel roles around.) In the cases of the Marx Brothers’ films, the clowns make up 70% of the movie, but even they help the lovers get together and rattle the villain’s brains. For a classic example, in Moliere’s The Misanthrope, the title character and his on-again/off-again betrothed come close to amending their ways, but don’t; their best friends, however, learn, grow and get married.

TRAGEDY BREAKDOWN

Just like a comedy is about people learning, a strong tragedy is about about people failing to learn. Othello fails to learn that he should trust his wife more than his old war buddy; Hamlet fails to learn that bloodshed only leads to further bloodshed; Juliet fails to learn that the cute bad boy really won’t change, etc.

A good tragedy is all about the little brass ring of hope and enlightenment, and watching the characters reach for it; but it is just out of reach, or more painful still, they pull their hand back at the last moment.

Bad Tragedy

Thus, here is my take on a poorly written tragedy:

A badly written tragedy is one in which the characters are never given the opportunity to learn.

Just as a bad comedy contains a lot of whimsy with no change, a bad tragedy doesn’t give the character a chance to change; if there is no brass ring or lesson to learn, then there’s no missed opportunity for redemption; rather, the characters are being railroaded towards disaster without any real choice or control.* They aren’t characters making tragic decisions, they’re just cardboard stand-ins that the author couldn’t bother to give any life; alternatively, they are decent human beings who are have bad things happen to them for seemingly no reason (I haven’t seen it, but I’ve been told the Michael Keaton film “Birdman” was guilty of this).

*I suppose the lesson the characters could learn is, “life is like being railroaded towards disaster without any real choice or control,” but that’s a pretty ham-handed way of showing it. Macbeth, for example, toys with the themes of fate and destiny, but still gives the characters the ability to affect their fates (or at the very least, the illusion of choice).

I’m not a fan of many modern tragedies, in that many of them don’t seem offer any chance of redemption. It’s like watching a bunch of kids hanging on to a playground roundabout that’s going faster and faster; there’s no mystery about what will happen next, the kids will all fly off. In a good comedy, the audience is curious about what clever tricks will be employed to bring the plot line to a satisfactory conclusion; in a bad tragedy, the only unknown factors are when and in which order the characters will fly off to their doom, and that’s not quite enough to engage me as an audience member.

WAIT, WHAT ABOUT SATIRE?

Satire is slightly different, in that it is a comedy in which the main characters MAY learn, but are not required to; in this way, the plot line may more closely parallel a tragedy*. Rather, it the audience that learns the lesson. However, like the Daily Show, some of the best satires have an ordinary, Everyman character (like John Stewart) who can react to the craziness and arrogance around him, and who can learn (or pretend to learn) alongside us.

*For example, Chekhov considered many of his tragic plays, like the Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya, “comedies,” despite the fact that they are, well, NOT FUNNY**. They really are about foolish people who bring about doom; in this sense, they are satires about a dying way of life, with a clear message for the audience to pick up upon.

**Maybe they’re funny by Russian standards.


 

GET ON WITH THE GAMING THING!

What is this literary rant doing on a gaming blog? A few things:

1. When crafting any story or campaign, it’s a good idea to know how to craft a story.

2. Several games have popped up in the last year that focus upon storytelling, particularly about tragedies. Such examples include in Fiasco by Jason Morningstar, A Tragedy in Five Acts by Michelle Lyons-McFarland, and The Play’s the Thing by Mark Truman. I haven’t had the pleasure of playing any of the three, but I hope to before this time next year.

3. For your one shot games, I propose a simple thing you can tack on at the end. I give you:


 

THE EPILOGUE!

I’ve run several one-shot games before at gaming conventions, and at the end of the long drawn out fight with the baddie, I always felt bad whenever I dropped the suspension of disbelief like a fire-curtain and said, “That was it! Thanks for playing! Bye!”

I now propose the following: after any one-shot game, hand each player a blank post-card. The players will take a minute or two to write down what happens to their character after the story is done. Their fate might be as dramatic as “turning a new leaf,” or “to walk the earth like Caine”; it might be as simple as “taking a nap” or “getting shawarma.” After the players have written them, have them share if they like. If you want, the GM can even write one for a villain or major NPC.

Why do this?: It eases the players back to the outside world (in that they are thinking of their character from the outside), but ends on a powerful note; they have full control over the character’s fate. Did they learn? Did they fail to learn? Did they gain what they sought, or are they saving that nugget for another day?

More importantly, it turns the random rolls of the dice into a full story, with a solid end.


On that note, readers, I want to wish you a Happy New Year. Until next year, GAME ON!

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Monster Showcase – The Exquisite Corpse

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THE BACKSTORY

For this week’s Monster showcase, I wanted a monster that brought out one of Fate’s strengths: the written word. With Fate Core, words are more than a way of communicating information and categorizing one stat from another, they are the bricks and mortars upon which the game is founded.

I present you a comedy/supernatural monster, “The Exquisite Corpse.” It is named, of course, after the French surrealist party game from the 1920’s (also known as Consequences). In the game, players write down a word on a piece of paper, hide it, and pass the paper to the next player. This is continued until a complete but nonsensical sentence is formed. For example, one of the earliest recorded sentences, which gave the game its name, was “the exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.”

THE CREATURE

Description: The exquisite corpse is an unusual undead being, consisting of several body parts stitched together dunstan creepyand reanimated through science or sorcery. It is a built for beauty rather than brute strength, and each part in the monster’s composition was carefully selected. If the handsome parts don’t quite match, this can result in a gait that is more jaunty than shambling.

High Concept: Miss-matched Charming Reanimat

  • +4  – Rapport
  • +3 – Fight, Physique
  • +2 – Provoke, Will, Notice
  • +1 – Deceive, Athletics, Contacts

Stress: 4 Physical, 3 Mental

Say What?: The Exquisite Corpse is a master of double-talk, providing pedantic answers or promises that, upon reflection, mean nothing. When others try to pry out answers and promises out of the corpse (with Provoke or Empathy), it may oppose with Rapport instead of Will; if the Corpse successfully resists, the inquisitor will mistakenly believe they have found the answer they were looking for until the end of the scene.

THE SET-UP

The Exquisite Corpse starts with only a High Concept, but will have other aspects added on to it. These additional aspects are written by the players in a random fashion. The framework for each aspect is:

The Exquisite corpse _adverb_ _verb_ the _adjective_ _noun_.

Assign each of the missing words (adverb, verb, adjective, noun) to a different player, and have them write it down where others can’t see.


If you’re looking for something to write your game notes on, why not try the Fate Accompli erasable note-cards? The Kickstarter’s fully-funded, and hitting stretch-goal after stretch-goal. It ends on August 20th, so make sure you check it out now!

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After players have written their assigned words, compile them together. Depending on the number of players, it might be best to write four or five sentences, and pick the best three; look for sentences that tell you something about the corpse’s motivations and weaknesses. Here are a few samples (I promise, these are completely random):

The Exquisite corpse tensely instructs the sudden quilt
Interpretation: he is an informed figure that takes his jobs and his hobbies very seriously.

The Exquisite corpse widely tests the frantic peace
Interpretation: she is a troll, who loves to disrupt the status quo and to sabotage negotiations for everyone; or perhaps she is contracting you to disrupt a treaty.

The Exquisite corpse easily visits the robust toad – Interpretation: the corpse is a speedy individual, who knows where to find the toads you need as a potion ingredient.

The Exquisite corpse wetly covers the complete throat – Interpretation: the corpse is not a vampire, but is still obsessed with necking.

The Exquisite corpse swiftly punishes the stiff grade – Interpretation: I don’t know what this means, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.

WHAT LIES BEYOND

After you have an idea of what the character is like, you may want to drop the randomness. However, there’s nothing to say that you can’t continue on in the adventure this same way. For example, the term “Exquisite Corpse” is sometimes used with Round Robin stories: one author will start a composition, but leave it unfinished, passing it on to the next. The later writers are allowed to read what has come before. For example, you can try this set-up:

The exquisite corpse sits down at your table and flashes you a mossy grin. “I have a job for you… well, it’s a three part job, but I think you can handle it. First, you will need …”

Each player must:

  1. Finish the previous sentence.
  2. Add a complete sentence of their own.
  3. Start a third sentence, but leave it unfinished.

WHY DO THIS?

I feel that players want to play. As I’ve theorized in the “Can You Picture That?” blog a few months ago, anything that is playful and creative gets players to flex their muscles, and to get them in the frame of mind that this is a story that they are creating, not reacting to. I have yet to try this specific style myself, but am anxious to (I suspect it might be a fun side adventure in the latest Fate World setting, “Nest.”) If you try it out, tell us what you think!

Until next time, folks, keep on rollin’!