There are too many jokes on the internet about how gaming groups start as ‘Lord of the Rings’ and end up as ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ It is possible that every gaming group that ever existed has devolved at some point into the ‘Monty Python’ team. On occasion, it’s only for a session and it’s needed comic relief. However, it can become the only thing your party can reasonably expect to do. If unwelcomed, it can rend your gaming group asunder. This is a multi-part series in addressing this, and a DM of any skill level can expect a real-life struggle in overcoming this.
So your stalwart band of ‘heroes’ (sometimes its villains!) set out to vanquish Galgamort: King of People With No Name, But Wonderful Food, who has stolen all of the salt in the land (your mileage on actual plot may vary). It is time to get on your mounts, but because this is a colder climate, there are no horses; there are only moose to ride. Out of nowhere, someone blurts out, “Mynd you, mØØse bites Kan be pretti nasti.” At that moment, your dramatic tension is broken. The players are chuckling. The next thing you know, the entire party is making ‘Monty Python’ jokes, or taking ‘Army of Darkness’ or ‘Harry Potter’ out of context. You have lost control, and all attempts to bring the party back are futile until it the next break or the session ends.
So how does a ‘Monty Python’ session start? I have found three causes that can make a serious party turn silly. Boredom is one, an out-of-place player is a second, and being too serious is a third. This isn’t a comprehensive list, merely the low-hanging fruit on the tree of distraction.
Gaming sessions are usually longer than an hour, but if your sessions are 3 hours or more, a player or two can easily get dreary-eyed. Too much combat, too much dialogue, too much exposition – you get my point. The player here feels left out and will be thoroughly disinterested in what’s going on.
This happened to me all the time in Robotech sessions. We would all roll characters, which in a Palladium Books game is not an easy feat. I would get my character ready for the major aspect of the day’s mission, and everyone else would want to spend an extra hour developing character. I play Robotech to blow things up in giant robots, with character development to happen once the mission is over.
So I was bored, I sat around in a room, and when it was my turn to declare an action, I would make up ridiculous news headlines, or ‘write’ equally ridiculous emails. Example: “Dear Mabel, Send Rum, Sincerely, Raven Javier.”
How does the GM fix this: Engage the player directly.
This is where the GM absolutely must be asking players, ‘Are you bored?’ Direct is the best approach. Don’t be vague and ask, “Is everything okay?/Are you okay?” because that is a different question. A person can be okay and bored.
Find out what’s going on with the player and get the other players to include that player. Keeping the player in the plot of the world keeps the PCs united, and the gameplay flowing. However, that might not be the only issue, because the problem player could also be an…
Out of Place Player
Some people can’t sing. Some people can’t lie. Worse, some people, no matter how much they want to, won’t fit into a particular RPG. Maybe that problem is contained to specific genres, e.g. your player can only jump into fantasy and the party decided to try a one-time attempt at Omega Virus (or whichever the vice-versa variant of this is).
Maybe your player is a combat-wombat, and you dragged them into a White Wolf setting, where combat is not only minimal, it is discouraged in some circles. I was in a White Wolf group where we played for 14 weeks, and people had confrontations, but no one ever had combat.
The player – completely out of their element – will do anything to make themselves relevant. More immature players might act out, but a more subtle player will crack Twilight jokes, or contribute some overused Army of Darkness references to any applicable situation (goody little two-shoes, anyone?)
How does the GM fix this? This another instance where the GM absolutely must have situational awareness. This is not a situation that newer GMs can detect easily. If your player is out of their element, it takes seeing this phenomenon a few times to spot it coming. If the GM is struggling with this, an experienced player can help to spot it.
Employ your players. Getting even an experienced player over an ‘out of element’ hurdle takes more hand-holding than merely acclimating them to a new system. Does your errant D&D player simply not understand how domain spells work? Is your Warhammer 40K player frustrated with how the Ork’s WAAAAGH! functions? Help them. Get the other players to ease them over.
The party will want to strongly consider playing a different system, or going back to the old one really soon (unless you like the new distractions, in which case change nothing).
Unfortunately, you might be in over your head if someone in your group makes you think…
Why So Serious?
It happens to everyone eventually. The GM, some of the players, or even ALL of the players have taken the game too seriously. The golden ‘spot’ of immersion has been reached, and now surpassed. Players are not waiting out of anticipation; they are waiting out of anxiety. The dial on the drama knob has been turned all the way up to 11.
When that happens, someone who uses comedy as a coping mechanism says something funny (or what they think is funny).
The giggle loop has been achieved. Everything, even if it isn’t normally funny, now is. Cabin pressure has been compromised, and everyone is having laughs, chuckles, and worst of all: yuks.
Experienced GMs have had this happen, not all GMs have succeeded in overcoming this. Part of the problem is that, if a GM tries to lay down ‘the law,’ they regret it. This tactic almost always backfires, especially if you’re the only GM in the group.
Some people in this situation will tough out that game session, only to ragequit the game for a while and not have the courtesy to tell the other players until they are about to show up for the next session. Don’t be that guy. That guy is no fun.
How does the GM fix this? Call a break once the cacophony of laughter dies down. No one will get anywhere anyway once all of the laughing happens. 10-15 minutes should get this out of everyone’s system.
Sadly, this is a stopgap, not a panacea. The laughing fit was a shot across your metaphorical bow; the experience you created was too intense, or someone in the group is too intense (possibly the GM herself)! Intensity is good and can create a gaming experience that your players will continue coming back for. Too much intensity, and players will look for any excuse to break it. Too much intensity for too long equals stress, and not the fun ‘this guy is attacking me with a phaser’ stress, but more of the ‘break out the Celexa, this campaign has given me depression’ stress. Players will seek any way to vent that stress. Beat them to this, and call a break.
While the other players are on break, re-evaluate what was happening right before everyone broke character. Were your players too nervous? That could be a clue. The GM should know the players and how to read them.
Walk away from the giggle loop by dropping the drama. Do this marginally until you see your party get into a flow. Again, your mileage may vary. This is a strategy that is best done over many sessions, adjusting regularly.
You may want to consider pausing this campaign with a one-shot campaign like I suggested previously. Breaking things up like that will minimize the silliness.
Good luck, GMs!