#7 Relationship Shy

By Shamus Posted Friday Mar 15, 2019

Filed under: DM of the Rings 36 comments

There is a reason you’re supposed to railroad the player characters together via the classic “tavern meeting”: Most players are selfish and unruly and likely to kill each other with their attempts at roleplaying.

Besides, that sort of thing just distracts everyone from the story you’re telling.

 

Shamus Says:

ZOMG RAPEGATE, part two. Of three.

Part of the problem with this arc was that I wrote it as a single comic. I was still using my DM of the Rings approach to humor, which was to write a long absurd conversation. (In fact, I see the exchange between Chuck and Marcus to be a lot like the meeting of Stonergorn and Lego-lass.) Then I would take the conversation and try to divide it into three-panel jokes. This is much worse than just writing a three-panel joke in the first place. I don’t regret the grope jokeEDIT 2019: Twelve years later, I do find myself wishing I could take another swing at this scene. This was pretty extremely upsetting to some people, and that’s not why I make comics., and I’ve always felt it was a perfectly legitimate subject for a strip. But I do regret it not being very funny. In any case, I think there would have been less shock if people had read “both” strips togetherEDIT 2019: This should read “all three strips together”. I’m not sure why I originally said “both” here?.

This one drives home the ambiguity over what was actually going on. People were arguing over whether Ramgar raped or groped. “You don’t need improved stamina to grope”, which I think was said again in the comments to the previous strip.

But here it’s obvious that the actual events aren’t even clear to the players. Chuck had to explain to Marcus what he thought was going on, because all they had done was roll some dice that made Chuck the “winner”. None of it was roleplayed. Chuck was simply griefing Marcus, not trying to weave a story about their characters.

Shawn Says:

I think I pretty well covered everything on Wednesday. See you on Monday, when ZOMGRAPEGATE ‘07 hits it’s grand finale.

EDIT 2019:

For the record: When Shawn and I referred to these three strips as “ZOMGRAPEGATE ‘07”, we weren’t belittling the people who complained. We were making light of the drama, not the people involved with the drama. This was the first major controversy either of us had ever experienced and it was pretty alarming at the time. I’m well aware that we’re not victims here. These three rounds of backlash, while unpleasant, are actually incredibly tame by modern internet standards. The internet can be a savage monster to people who fail at comedy, and we got off easy. The worst that happened is a bunch of people were extremely angry at us in the comments. The vast majority of those people were reasonable about it.

Still, without the shield of internet anonymity, having a large number of people be very suddenly angry at you is quite an experience. “ZOMGRAPEGATE ‘07” was our own attempt at gallows humor when dealing with it.

Also, I’d like to note what a good guy Shawn is. I was the writer and the joke was my idea, so responsibility ultimately landed on my shoulders when this vignette blew up in our faces. Shawn would have been within his rights to throw me under the bus and say, “Don’t blame me, it was HIS idea!” when people got angry. He didn’t, and stood with me. I’ve always appreciated that.

In the comments to the previous strip, lots of people pointed out that it makes no comedic sense. Chuck perpetrates a crime, and… that’s the punchline?! Everyone knows that the proper structure is for a character to say or do something wrong / idiotic / offensive / annoying, and the punchline is where they get punished for it. You get a joke, but you also get the karmic retribution that makes fiction satisfying.

This three-strip vignette was written as a single comic in the style of DMotR, by working backwards from the punchline. The last panel (which we’ll see at the end of #8) requires Marcus to punish Chuck in a cartoonishly over-the-top way. The first section was a setup that would allow Marcus to physically assault Chuck at the table without coming off like a psychopath. For it to work, we have to WANT Marcus to assault him.

But then I cut it into three parts, which leaves us with this odd structure. For two strips in a row, Chuck goes without being rebuked. At this point, the audience doesn’t even have the assurance that he will be punished. For two strips in a row, the bad guy seems to win and the joke is at the expense of Marcus, who has done nothing wrongEr, aside from his ridiculous character, but EVERYONE at the table has a ridiculous character.. This injustice is naturally frustrating to people, and a few half-jokes about the misapplication of rules doesn’t really soften the blow.

The audience has to wait for two more strips to see the result, and by that time Chuck’s comeuppance doesn’t really feel satisfactory because the audience has been stewing for a whole week.

This would be very different if everything was resolved in a single strip. Chuck’s griefing would be ignored or retconned away, rather than taking root in the minds of the audience. People say stupid stuff at the table all the time that doesn’t actually become part of the story. Maybe one player jokes about flipping off the king. Everyone laughs, and makes some jokes about how much emotional damage that should do, and whether or not he’d need to make an opposing fortitude save to avoid crying. Players would maybe even roll some dice and laugh about the result. But then the GM steps in, the game gets back on track, and it’s clear that the king was never actually flipped off.

By taking a single exchange and splitting it into three strips, I lost the ability for the audience to dismiss the exchange as this sort of absurd aside. It was now part of the story as far as they were concerned. On top of that was the lack of justice for Marcus, the weak punchlines, and the fact that readers had way more empathy for the player characters than I ever would have imaginedI cared about Chuck, Casey, Marcus, Josh, and Ivy. But beyond their usefulness to my plot, I had zero empathy for the D&D&D characters and would gladly have burned them all alive for a joke. I thought of them as completely disposable props. I quickly learned that the audience DID think of them as real characters and even empathized with them. Later in the series I’ll talk about some of the adjustments I made in response to this.. It was pretty much a perfect storm of misjudgment.

I get that, for a lot of people, Chuck’s crime was beyond the pale and there’s no level of comedic payoff that can save this exchange. Making all three strips into a single full-page joke wouldn’t fix this. That’s fine. But breaking things up definitely made a bad situation worse. Or rather, if I’d thought about how these three strips would look in isolation, I might have been able to avoid throwing gasoline on the fire.

Part of the problem is that DM of the Rings gave me a massive case of overconfidence. I’d throw together a strip at the last minute, and the whole time I was thinking “Ugh. This isn’t very good. I don’t know how to make this funny, but maybe people will overlook this one.” Then I’d post this sad, un-funny strip to a chorus of, “HILARIOUS!” and “Best one yet!” People would quote the lines to each other and new readers would show up. In the entire run of DM of the Rings, I don’t think there was a single dud. Sure, a few were less funny than the others, but I never had a joke completely bomb to the point where I was met with indifference or silence. Someone was always laughing.

This is it? This is all it takes to write comedy? This isn’t even hard!

And yes, it is pretty easy when you’ve got unlimited page space to work with. I could throw a dozen jokes at the wall, and odds were good that one or two of them would hit the mark. It’s okay for a third of your jokes to whiff if you make a dozen of them in a single strip. But if you only have the space to do 1.5 jokes, you can’t afford to miss. And if you’re messing around with controversial subject matter, then you REALLY can’t afford to miss.

But here in Chainmail Bikini I had to learn that I am not a magical joke machine and it is possible for me to write something that people don’t find funny. In an ideal universe, I’d have learned that lesson before we got to THIS vignette.

 

Footnotes:

[1] EDIT 2019: Twelve years later, I do find myself wishing I could take another swing at this scene. This was pretty extremely upsetting to some people, and that’s not why I make comics.

[2] EDIT 2019: This should read “all three strips together”. I’m not sure why I originally said “both” here?

[3] Er, aside from his ridiculous character, but EVERYONE at the table has a ridiculous character.

[4] I cared about Chuck, Casey, Marcus, Josh, and Ivy. But beyond their usefulness to my plot, I had zero empathy for the D&D&D characters and would gladly have burned them all alive for a joke. I thought of them as completely disposable props. I quickly learned that the audience DID think of them as real characters and even empathized with them. Later in the series I’ll talk about some of the adjustments I made in response to this.



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36 thoughts on “#7 Relationship Shy

  1. unit3000-21 says:

    “I could throw a dozen jokes at the wall, and odds were good that one or two of them would hit the mark. It’s okay for a third of your jokes to whiff if you make a dozen of them in a single strip.”
    Also known as the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker method.

    1. Erik says:

      As one of the contemporaneous reviews of “Airplane” noted, don’t worry if you don’t like one of the jokes – another will be along in a few seconds. :)

  2. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    This new strip makes the previous one less uncomfortable for sure, and I wouldn’t have liked you calling it “ZOMG RAPEGATE” back then. But you obviously learned the right lessons for that snafu, that’s what matters.

    1. Biggus Rickus says:

      Maybe you don’t mean it to come off as such, but this really reads as smug condescension. “You’ve learned the right lessons, so here’s your absolution.”

      1. Gargamel Le Noir says:

        Maybe you don’t mean it to come off as such, but this really reads as smug condescension. “You’ve posted something that be construed as condescending, so there’s your admonishing.”

        Let’s just let each other share our opinions yeah?

        1. Biggus Rickus says:

          I was just hoping you might take away a lesson. Carry on.

          1. BenD says:

            Was teaching something about the finer points of managing how other people “hear” your written voice the purpose of your visit here today?

            It would be naive to assume you were teaching anything else. OP seems to me to have been celebrating Shamus’ growth. You’re reading tone into the written word without much for contextual clues.

            1. BenD says:

              (And to be clear, so am I. I’m just saying in a case like this especially you may as well provide the benefit of the doubt and move on unless your actual purpose is to try to teach something.)

            2. DHW says:

              And OP seems to a lot of people to come off like the leader of a Maoist struggle session “congratulating” his victim on “learning” to love the Party. I guess we all see things differently — crazy world, huh?

              1. Gargamel Le Noir says:

                Yeah, my OP could be interpreted in any number of ways, including me being literally the Hitler of 9/11s. Maybe don’t jump at the worst conclusions?
                I just think that on the internet we’re quick to bash people who fuck up, and very slow to congratulate those who learn from their mistakes and admit it, which takes some courage. If you want to decide that this means I’m trying to belittle Shamus or erase his free will to conform to mine (even though I wasn’t here even there during the actual shitstorm but who cares right?) you go right ahead.

                1. Shamus says:

                  Okay, in this thread I feel like we’ve just agreed to an armistice and now we’re going to start shooting each other over who gets to sign the peace treaty first. :)

                  (Gargamel, this isn’t really directed at you specifically. You’re just the last person in the chain and I wanted to weigh in.)

                  Everyone had their say. I think we’re cool now. Let’s not get in a fight over tone. This was a touchy subject and I think this exchange was the best we could hope for.

                  Thanks everyone.

      2. Syal says:

        Considering there were a bunch of “you haven’t learned anything” comments on the last one, I appreciate Gargamel’s comment here.

  3. Joshua says:

    This explanation makes a little more sense, thanks.

    I said it last time, but I think another of the explanations for the backlash (at least for me) beyond the controversial sexual assault topic was the out of nowhere player dickery. Someone else said it last time, but we haven’t really gotten a chance to know these characters too well, and the assumption is that some of them are the same from DMotR (at least Casey and Chuck, assumed to be Gimli’s player, the most reasonable of the group). Then we go from the light teasing each other to full on player abuse, which is a genre shift to dark comedy without warning.

    1. Hector says:

      /removed

  4. Fon says:

    I’ve always felt it was a perfectly legitimate subject for a strip.

    I do think the act of a player griefing another player who is playing the opposite gender (or just plain griefing, either via pretended molesting/sexual assaulting or not) is something that needs to be ridiculed of. That’s why we try to make them into a joke– by making actions like this the subject of ridicule, we’re trying to discourage people from actually doing it. If anyone saw it online, they’d know that this is a dumb thing to do, and they’d be the laughing stock if they try anything like that.

    So yeah, I do agree that this is a subject worth tackling as a subject of joke/humor/comedy.

    (But I’m not implying this is Shamus’ rationale. This is just my rationale, at least.

    Man, am I the only one who is afraid of accidentally opening a can of worms?)

  5. shoeboxjeddy says:

    I wonder if the right approach on the repost might have been to post all three related strips at once, just to tear the bandaid off really fast and at least have the full intended context out there. In this way, it’s like we’re watching some controversial media for class in order to discuss it… but we’re also preserving the cliffhangers for some reason? To me, this part of the strip hasn’t been entertainment, so I just kinda want it to be over to see what else happened in the comic.

    1. Syal says:

      Wondering that too. Pretty sure I binge-read these the first time, and it came off better. Might have been best to re-release all four Marcus Character Creation episodes at once.

  6. Daimbert says:

    I think the key line to the whole joke is the “an exploration of gender roles in a roleplaying environment” line. Chuck’s not griefing Marcus because he dislikes him or is in general a troll. He’s griefing him because Marcus wants to play as an exceptionally hot chick in utterly improbably sexy armour, and doesn’t want to ADMIT that so he tosses out that as an argument. Chuck’s main point is to show how idiotic that is. But the first strip and the next strip don’t make that clear, and so people treat Chuck like a garden variety nasty trollish player when he really isn’t (as evidenced by the fact that he gives Ivy and pretty much no one else any real issues in the game except for the GM).

    1. Gargamel Le Noir says:

      Chuck could have countered it by throwing a dagger at the exposed skin for example, only for the GM to point out that it fails due to her AC, and him getting frustrated at not being able to stab the perfectly visible skin. Bonus point for the drawing showing his dagger bouncing of thin air before touching the skin!

      1. Linda S says:

        Yeah, when Marcus introduced his ridiculous character concept, I was expecting AC jokes or jokes about saves vs cold damage, which he would totally deserve. And to help him actually explore gender roles in a roleplaying environment, I expected him to get the kind of annoying griefing that Legolas’s player did in DM of the Rings. (“He should have named you ‘Leggo of my ass’ because you’re going to be saying that to me a lot.”) But Chuck’s response was so over-the-top that I immediately went from rolling my eyes at Marcus to sympathizing with him and wanting Chuck booted from the group ASAP. Obviously, this wasn’t the reaction Shamus was going for; it’s just a situation that hits a nerve for a lot of people.

      2. Blue-NINJA'D says:

        Or you could have the dagger fly towards Sapphire’s midriff, then suddenly change direction in midair to hit her bikini instead.

        Chuck: Look! It shifted direction midair! How did that happen?
        Josh: Magnets. …I’ll let you imagine where.
        In the final panel, Sapphire goes red, looks uncomfortable and shifts her bra slightly.

    2. MikeK says:

      Agreed, that was my read as well. Chuck is annoyed because he feels that Marcus is acting in bad faith. Both are playing characters who are physically unlike the players (nothing wrong with that), but Chuck feels that the titular chainmail bikini character was designed with titillation, not roleplaying, in mind.

      Fundamentally, I think the setup is fine. I appreciate that, despite the absurdity of the setup, Marcus feels compelled to do his opposing roll within the gameworld. The root of the issue, in my mind, is not an interpretation of the player-characters as real people. I think the reason this strikes the wrong chord is that it too closely mirrors the real-world dynamics of sexual objectification, i.e. if a girl looks slutty she must be slutty and therefore the large gruff guy feels empowered to force himself on her. In that way, unfortunately, it really is an exploration of gender roles.

  7. Joshua says:

    “In the comments to the previous strip, lots of people pointed out that it makes no comedic sense. Chuck perpetrates a crime, and… that’s the punchline?!”

    The punchline comes off as the horrified look on Josh’s face, who is supposed to be the cynical min-maxer. The inference would be that the audience is supposed to take humor from the players abusing each other in nasty ways (see my comment about the switch to dark comedy above). It goes from the players teasing or annoying each other to full-on griefing, and that’s supposed to be the humor.

    1. Guile says:

      Pretty sure that’s Josh discovering a gamebreaking exploit for HIS ridiculous character. But I can see why people would think that’s the joke when taken in isolation.

      1. tmtvl says:

        You’ve read ahead, haven’t you?

      2. Sartharina says:

        From his facial expression (Train of thought getting cut off, and looking over at his fellow players… then shock) the escalation of the situation (And increasing abstraction to game mechanics/character sheet) was the Comedic Situation. Not so much a ‘punchline’ as a comedic climax, with the humor being drawn from the juxtaposition of the increasing terribleness of the behavior (In my mind, it went from ‘attempted kiss’ to ‘hold’ to ‘ZOMGRAPE’, increasing abstraction of the situation (“I’m Gonna Kiss Her”, “Dice Rolls”, “I have a feat!”), and Bystander Reaction (“Meh” “Huh?” “OMGWTF?!”)

  8. Dreadjaws says:

    Everyone knows that the proper structure is for a character to say or do something wrong / idiotic / offensive / annoying, and the punchline is where they get punished for it. You get a joke, but you also get the karmic retribution that makes fiction satisfying.

    Eeeeeeeeeehhhh… This certainly depends on the kind of humor, doesn’t it? It’s perfectly legitimate for the punchline to be something horrible, provided the right context. Look at the kind of stuff Deadpool or Lobo do, for example. They’re basically griefers in real life (i.e. their respective realities, of course), and the humor of many of their antics relies on them doing awful things to perfectly innocent people and never getting any comeuppance for it.

    Take a look at this strip, for instance. That right there is the whole joke.

    Granted, with this particular subject things aren’t that simple. As you know, sexual assault is a touchy subject. We could argue all day if it should be and the reasoning behind it, but the truth is that it is, so it has to be handled with more care than other attempts at dark humor. Well, obviously you already know that. I don’t know how things really were back then, though. Was this before or after the whole “dickwolves” debate?

    1. evileeyore says:

      “As you know, sexual assault is a touchy subject.”
      That’s what she said!

      Though seriously, yeah, some comedy, particularly gallows humor, the punchline is often the depths of horror that the material has sunk to and yet still treats with light joviality.

  9. BenD says:

    I agree that the content didn’t work because of the crafting. But a successful recraft wouldn’t be in keeping with the comic.

    Together in one batch the strips might be better received because it’s possible to bury something gross in volume of content. But the gross thing is still there.

    Role playing assault is a real thing that two consenting adults can totally do. But one of these adults isn’t consenting. That shouldn’t be played for laughs. And even if you wanted to cross some lines and joke about it anyway, this is not the place and time. Shamus as presented on the internet isn’t a sex-and-relationships writer or an edgy foul-mouthed stand-up comedian. His comics normally haven’t been purposed around poking fun at serious social issues. (Unfortunately, the comments about ‘ZOMGRAPEGATE’ kind of sound like exactly that, which doesn’t really help. Archival truthfulness is valuable but… yikes.)

    If Josh being unwilling in this experience wasn’t supposed to be the laugh part — because the ‘real joke’ is in a later strip — then its presence makes the comic a lot darker. “We’re going to talk about real nasty stuff and sometimes find a joke around the edges for comic relief.” That isn’t, I think, where the strip went.

    So maybe it would have stayed under the radar in one long strip, but… 2019 Shamus is right. It needs work. Possibly omission — not sure how you’d clarify where the joke is (I’m still not sure I see a good place) without falling into real dark humor.

    1. DHW says:

      > His comics normally haven’t been purposed around poking fun at serious social issues. (Unfortunately, the comments about ‘ZOMGRAPEGATE’ kind of sound like exactly that, which doesn’t really help. Archival truthfulness is valuable but… yikes.)

      Maybe this is a useful learning experience for you and the people who were freaking out originally, then, to not make such uncharitable assumptions.

    2. evileeyore says:

      “I agree that the content didn’t work because of the crafting.”
      I disagree. It worked fine then, still works today.

      It’s amusing, even funny. it isn’t what Shamus wanted, so on that score, sure it failed. But as comedy it still landed.

      “And even if you wanted to cross some lines and joke about it anyway, this is not the place and time.”
      Sooo… we’re deciding when and where jokes in an online comedy strip are appropriate? Are we going to censor comedy in night clubs next?

  10. Thomas says:

    I appreciate how insightful your look back is

  11. Kincajou says:

    This strip, in combination with the 2019 comments really makes things so much better for me

  12. Sleeping Dragon says:

    So let’s maybe try something more fun. Since it was brought up in context of Marcus’ character let’s talk about our characters that we should have been punished for. I’ll start.

    It would be back in high-school and my first RPG. We were playing Earthdawn and to be honest never got past the standard fantasy dungeon crawling campaign. It was still awesome. My first character was a bloody blood elf* (the GM allowed it) nethermancer**, much angst was had. On the positive side this character only really existed for several weeks since I was joining a pre-existing group and the GM was getting a bit tired of the current campaign and wanted to have a low level party again, so he made us create new characters. For the record, my second character was an elf (the non-angsty kind) troubadour, which coincided with me coming out to the gaming group, much silliness was had especially seeing that I was the only character in the party with any charisma to speak of.

    *Elves who, as part of their defense against the horror invasion have been subjected to a ritual that makes thorns grow out of their bown and pierce their flesh, this is because most horrors can apparently only gain strength from suffering they have caused themselves, the rationale being to literally make the elven population suffer so much that horrors cannot cause them any more pain.

    **The creepy kind of spellcaster. Undead, causing fear, causing darkness, controlling the bones in your body etc.

    1. Sartharina says:

      Okay. I can definitely play here!

      My very first character in my very first 3.5 campaign – a catfolk (Races of the Wild. That splatbook sold me on 3.5), and an Eberron Campaign. Darrshan Dancing-Cloud. An gay Catfolk Barbarian/Scout going Dervish and Extreme Explorer. He wanted to be an Archeologist-Adventurer (Because Eberron), and paid for his way through Adventurous Archaeology school (Morgrave University) as an exotic dancer in the seedier parts of Sharn. I had him hailing from the Talenta Plains, where his clan had settled among the halflings… Nothing terrible in any of that, except for how I played him. He was definitely a sexual fantasy character for me – His homosexuality was offensively so. Not in a “Camp Queen” sense, but he was somewhat misogynistic (Couldn’t form any sort of relationship with women – they might as well have not existed to him), and… awkward around men. (His boyfriend was another player character – a female changeling who’d adopted the persona of a male student who drank himself to death a few years earlier)… and stupidly aggressive, and I ruined the campaign because I had him turn what apparently a police action against the pirates we hired to take us on adventure into a murderous bloodbath… But I think part of that was on the DM, as well (And my own inexperience). I was new to the system (But had read way too much about it), and had different expectations.

      The other character I regret playing badly to this day was my Gnoll, Dagryl. It was a campaign run by one of the players from that first campaign, and everyone got to play overpowered characters. I followed the advice from Races of the Wild, and played her as very reserved, standoffish, and aggressively against strangers getting too close to her. Unfortunately, there was a Spellscale in the party playing a Bard who tried to be aggressively friendly to everyone, and I think did not make myself clear enough OOC that his attempts to befriend her were scaring her away.

      In the brief attempt at the game, she got mad at him, wandered off alone down a hall, told him to fuck off and leave her alone several times. Saw a treasure chest. Knew it was trapped, didn’t care. Told the spellscale to fuck off, busted the chest open, ate the trap (Poison needle, IIRC. Or an arrow trap), lost about a quarter of her HP to it, told the spellscale to leave her alone, helped herself to the treasure, went back to the main room in the dungeon. Sudden Rat swarm Attack.
      She threw herself into the fight with gusto… but I got in an argument with the DM because I wanted her to go full beastly on the rats, and he was a stickler for 3.5’s by-the-rules book. I didn’t take the feat that allowed me to bite while raging because I didn’t see her as someone who’d use her jaws in combat against similarly-sized foes, so she wasn’t allowed to chow down on the vermin swarm (This campaign also gave me a strong hatred of D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder’s Rulesiness)… After the fight was over, she ate a few of the rats right in front of the party, before going outside to strip down and shower in the storm, and to clean her wounds (And make a Heal Check to fight off the onset of any disease). The spellscale was also injured in that fight, so she offered to check him over as well (She was trained in Heal)… then I was stupid and had her mock him for taking her up on that offer, “pretty much asking to be raped and killed for coming out half-naked alone to a gnoll”… but, she made sure he wasn’t hurt and got him cleaned up and his wounds dressed anyway before going back in. I can’t remember everything that happened after that. There were a few arguments, and eventually, I ended up making a grapple check against the Spellscale with the intent of “Listen here, you little shit. Back the fuck off!”… and the DM quit at that point because he couldn’t take me constantly fighting with the Spellscale, and I refused to try and settle the situation OOC. (And, me ‘stealing’ a huge chunk of the treasure didn’t help)

      I miss that gnoll character. If I could go back and time and play her differently, I would.

  13. Kremling says:

    we weren’t belittling the people who complained

    Well, you weren’t TRYING to do that.

    You definitely, absolutely were doing it. You just weren’t doing it on purpose.

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