Tabletop Highlight: Subverting Expectations to Comedic Effect

One of my favorite things to do in more limber storytelling formats is to find a way to set and then subvert expectations. If you read my flash fiction, you’ve seen me do it tons of times. What you don’t know is that subverting expectations is my favorite way to create comedic situations in my Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. It is difficult to create humor without some about of subverted expectation because most humor is derived from an unexpected outcome to a pose situation. For example, the joke “Three men are walking down the street. Two of them walk into a bar but the third one ducks.” takes the format of a “walks into a bar” joke and spins it on its head, subverting the expectation that the punchline was going to involve a situation inside a drinking establishment. Of course, explaining a joke removes the humor, so the above joke is no longer the bit of supreme wit it was before I started this post, but it illustrates the quick payoff most jokes depend on. If you wait too long for the punchline, it is a lot more difficult to make the joke stick the landing.

In Dungeons and Dragons, though, the Dungeon Master has a little more leeway. For instance, in a comedic game I read a couple of weeks ago, the players were selected to participate in some kind of game by forces beyond their ken. As a result, they were pushed through a portal into a different world where they were given a problem to solve. In this case, they stepped out of a preparation room and into a Dr. Seuss world and were immediately approached by the Lorax who requested their aid in defending a grove of trees. Since all of the players knew the Dr. Seuss story, they immediately leapt to the yellow-mustachioed creature’s aid. They charged right up to the giant machine ripping up trees and woodland creatures as it belched smoke into the sky and accosted the man operating it.

As it turns out, he was just some guy doing his job. When the found out that the manager was in his operations booth off at the edge of what turned out to be a surprisingly rectangular forest, they went to discuss the problem with him, all the while animals continued to run into the now-idling machine. There, they found out that the company the manager represented owned the land and had specifically grown these trees to be harvested along with helping environmental groups restore the natural forests they had previously destroyed following the Lorax’s successful campaign to raise public awareness of the environmental impact of the loss of all those natural habitats. Unfortunately, this was the point when the party decided that the smoke was still a probably and started attacking the machine and its poor operator. If they’d continued seeking a peaceful solution, they’d have discovered that the smoke was actually beneficial to the environment given that the atmosphere of this strange planet in an alternate universe had a different chemical makeup than the atmosphere of earth. Instead, they attacked the poor operator, nearly killing him, and then actually killed the Earth Elemental cop who came to arrest them. After stealing a stun baton from one of the security officers and grabbing the badge the Earth Elemental dropped, they declared victory and then assisted the Lorax and his guerrilla army chase the rest of the company off the property before stepping through a door to their next waiting room.

Not only was this story itself a subversion of expectation (you should have seen their faces when I described the Lorax and his guerrilla fighters appearing from amongst the trees right after the Earth Elemental crumbled into rubble and a copper badge), but it’s part of a broader effort on my part to set the stage for future encounters in this “shiggles” campaign. I take something fairly simple and clear-cut, flip it on its head, and let them find out how far astray their assumptions have led them. After this, they’re generally a little more on-guard and I can actually break out the big guns. In a previous shiggles campaign, I had their characters wind up in a room that looked strikingly like the one they were in and, after the first remarks about how dumb it was that I was going that meta subsided, revealed that they’d actually stepped onto the elemental plane of Generic Suburban Houses that all contractors of pre-developed neighborhoods summon their houses fun. After that, they visited Carpenter’s Hell, and wound up accidentally stepping into a Harry Potter book before visiting a Faerie’s Demesne which was actually from a book none of them had read so no one got the reference.

The whole point of subverting their expectations constantly was to get them to abandon them completely so they would live entirely in the moment. If you can get your players to exist in that mental space, it is easier to keep them involved in the story you’re telling and the jokes you’re setting up. They stop worrying about what they should do or how they should behave and simply act, littering the campaign with easy places for you to insert humor or for it to arise naturally out of the group dynamic as they go about whatever little tasks you’ve given them. You need to keep subverting their expectations in order to maintain that mood, constantly flipping the script on them so they never feel like they’ve figured you out. If you stop or let things go too long, or maintain a joke for too long, then you step away from the comedy and back toward the drama of Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, my last “shiggles” campaign had a character all of the players loved, called Blornth the Tuba Player. Because they literally abandoned everything they were doing to follow him around, my ability to subvert expectations was pretty much limited to having Blornth do ridiculous stuff and that started to get stale quickly. I’m certain that, if the campaign had continued for much longer, they’d have all gotten sick of him and we wouldn’t be sharing memes about tuba players and musician gods while lamenting the end of the last campaign.

Comedy, like wisdom, needs to change and grow in order to stay fresh. If you stick with one thing for too long, it grows stale. So throw a curveball at them and, as soon as they think they’ve got you figured out, throw in a fastball just to watch them doubt themselves while trying to figure out were the trick is. It’ll be funny for everyone, especially you.

My Second Favorite Cop Show

While my friend and I were watching Pysch a couple of weeks ago, we got to talking about our mutual love for comedy, cop shows, and comedic cop shows. While we both obviously rated Psych as our favorite, we were both surprised to learn that our second favorite cop show was Castle. Me, because I want to be Richard Castle (a rich, eccentric millionaire writer with a nice apartment and the fortitude to not only write books but help the police solve crimes every week while pretending he’s doing research) and him because he’s like a broke, slightly funnier, and much less involved in crime solving version of Richard Castle. The distinction is probably the smallest one I’ll ever make, but we argued about it for half an hour, so it is clearly important to both of us.

It was interesting to see that we were basically in agreement on pretty much every point of the show. The only difference was our experiences with it. He watched it as it came out on TV and I purchased the DVDs. I’ve also made it further into the series he has, but that’s mostly because I had the DVDs and could watch on demand. Both of us eventually stopped before the end because the series started falling into that hole that long-running shows sometimes fall into, where more and more incredible things have to happen in order to keep the show new and relevant. He has no plans to continue watching it but I own the DVDs for every season and plan to get around to it at some point. We both enjoyed the earlier seasons more, when it was mostly protagonists flirting, hints at larger plot arcs, and the standard human stuff that goes on in everyday life.

 

The characters are great and Nathan Fillion is excellent in this show. I’ll admit that I’m a little biased because I’m a bit of a fan of his, but I think his style of acting fits the series very well, able to go from light-hearted comedic relief to intensely serious as the situation calls, all before wrapping it up with a touching little moment at the end with Castle’s mother, daughter, or his current love interest. In a single episode. The writing of the individual episodes manages it well, too. Despite the wide variety of emotions at play in a lot of the episodes, there is never a moment were it feels rushed or unduly chaotic. As I said, the writing runs into problems as the show goes on, but they do remarkably well for something that obviously hadn’t planned on running for as long as it did.

The extended cast is a lot of fun. Richard Castle’s mother and daughter provide excellent contrasts, allowing him to be the more serious one at times with his mother and the more playful one with his daughter. The three of them do an excellent job playing off of each other as they interchangeably help each other, give each other advice, and rein each other in. The other characters, mostly people from the police side of the show, help keep the show balanced by providing the main drama for each episode without completely losing touch with the more emotional side of the show.

The other protagonist, Detective Beckett, does an amazing job of calling Castle on his bullshit, keeping the police focused on their jobs rather than on Castle’s antics, and upstaging Castle almost every time he thinks he’s come out ahead. Unlike a lot of cop shows where the outsider protagonist constantly almost shames the police, Beckett proves herself easily Castle’s equal and much more likely his superior when it comes to investigation. There are a lot of times where he mostly just follows her around to flirt, make jokes, and accidentally stumble into a tense situation (or firefight) that she rescues him from. It is a refreshing change of pace when the damsel in distress is the male protagonist. He rescues her a couple of times, but it is mostly him tagging along and leaning on her. Beckett provides most of the plot arcs for the show and Castle’s are often just an accessory to hers. I enjoy the dynamic a little more than Psych’s where Shawn is constantly stealing the spotlight and setting up the story arcs. It feels a lot more realistic in Castle.

Eventually, though, the show loses the thread of its earlier seasons and starts trying to top itself, despite the fact that they more or less resolve the long-running character arcs and stories by season 5. They could have wrapped everything up neatly at that point, but they kept it going and things started to get a little messy. The plots started to get kind of convoluted, the season arcs felt like they were made simply to keep the show going, and the characters started throwing controversy into their personal lives just to give themselves plots for the season.

I feel like I encounter that a lot in TV shows these days. If a show does well for a few seasons, the network decides to milk it for all its worth. Scrubs Season 8 would have been great if they had just basically started the show over, letting all the old characters go except for a few who wanted to stick around and making it the start of something new instead of an attempt to continue something that almost everyone had left. The worst offender in my book is How I Met Your Mother. They had a nice, tight little plot that they wound up extending when they were given more seasons. That was fine, but continuing to extend it forever got very frustrating, since they wound up dancing around potentially ending the show at the end of the current season for a couple (or more) years.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for a fun cop show that’s good for a watch, check out Castle. You’ll enjoy it, have a good time, and chances are good that you’ll like it well enough to watch all of it. I’m just really bad at finishing things if I wind up stopping them. I suggest taking your time and trying to be consistent rather than binging it like I did.