#47 Getting Shafted

By Shamus Posted Friday Aug 9, 2019

Filed under: DM of the Rings 80 comments

The illusion of trade:

1) Anything the GM wants you to have will always be something you can afford, regardless of how broke you are or much it should cost.
2) The shopkeeper will never buy anything that you are required to own for the purposes of the plot.
3) The shopkeeper will never have anything for sale that the GM doesn’t want you to have. But hey, if you feel the need to trade anyway, knock yourself out.

Shawn Says:

In retrospect the entire Stevegar scene really isn’t all that funny, aside from the visual gag of Stevegar himself. Ah well.

We’re nearing the end here kids. If you have any topics you’d like to see Shamus and I ramble on about in a future Bonus Commentary, ask away. The clock is ticking.

There are 4 more regular CB comics left, and then the text ending, expanded with some all new commentary and maybe a sketch or three, and finally one all new Chainmail Bikini comic strip. Feel the excitement.

Edit 2019: I’ve long since lost my notesIn the old days I wrote in raw text files, which are easily forgotten / misplaced in a computer migration. These days I use Google Docs for everything., but I’m pretty sure the Stevegar gag was supposed to go on for a lot longer. This was a new idea that I couldn’t have done in the context of DMotR. I can’t remember any specific jokes now, but I’m pretty sure this vignette was cut short because the audience got so riled up about this injustice against Chuck.

People reacted VERY strongly to Stevegar. Once again I was caught off-guard by people having empathy for the characters and their plight.

In Loony Toons, Bugs Bunny is usually the invincible god of mischief and Daffy Duck is the recipient of lots of abuse. In general, people don’t see Daffy’s injuries and get angry about the violence and his constant setbacks, because the story is constructed in such a way to make it feel like it’s his fault. He deserves this, and we enjoy seeing him get his comeuppance. Within the story, we see that he’s bringing it on himself and he could make it stop whenever he wanted by simply leaving Bugs alone.

I thought of my characters as a bunch of Daffy Ducks. They’re all dysfunctional and they’re all presumably in this group of their own volition. They’re not chained to the table. They could go home whenever they wanted. For me, their dysfunctional game was just a given of the setting: They’re all here playing this terrible game for the wrong reasons and anything that happens to them is more or less their own fault for showing up.

I figured I could hurl abuse at them for laughs and everyone would see their misfortune as self-inflicted and justified. This didn’t really work. I could have Chuck act like an irritating jackass in one scene, and then a bit later people would feel sorry for him when his character got hijacked. People kept having empathy when I wanted to enjoy the schadenfreude.

But maybe I should have spent some time making the setting more explicit. I could hint that there are other tabletop groups out there, but these players have either been thrown out of those games, or they refuse to play those games because decent people won’t put up with their shenanigans.

  • Perhaps Chuck got a reputation for being a sadistic GM where all of his campaigns ended in a TPK. He’s burned all his bridges with the local tabletop community.
  • Nobody else will let Marcus into the game because he’s always trying to hog the spotlight rather than participate in the story.
  • Josh chooses Casey’s group specifically because Casey is a terrible ref that lets him get away with lots of exploits and rule-bending.
  • Ivy is KINDA an expression of my obsessive meta-gaming story analysis, and I liked the idea that her narrative analysis made her no fun to play with. “This guy seems much too nice. He’s obviously constructed to get us to like him, so either he’s about to die or he’s about to betray us. Therefore we can’t trust him to hold onto the Nega-sword while we explore the dungeon.” The comic didn’t really give her a chance to show it very often because the plot never really developed, but she’s supposed to be the voice of reason that wants to ruin the fun. Shawn’s suggestion that she have an unrequited / unnoticed crush on Josh was also a pretty interesting idea, although that would have taken me out of my comfort zone as a writer.
  • Casey is stuck with these people because they’re the only ones who will tolerate his incompetent storytelling and railroading.

If I’d explicitly shown this stuff and made it clear that there were other, healthy tabletop groups in the world and none of them wanted to play with these misfits and rejects, then it might have made their misadventures seem like justice rather than injustice. Maybe?

I don’t know. I think it’s funny that I ran into the opposite problem that Mass Effect 2 did. In that story, the writer sort of took our empathy for granted and didn’t see a need to earn it. In my story I sort of assumed that nobody in the audience would have empathy and was constantly caught off-guard when they did.

As always, it’s much easier to objectively analyze the work of others than to analyze your own, because you’re often blinded by what you intended to say. This keeps you from seeing what you actually said.



[1] In the old days I wrote in raw text files, which are easily forgotten / misplaced in a computer migration. These days I use Google Docs for everything.

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80 thoughts on “#47 Getting Shafted

  1. Chris says:

    I think in the current year you could repeat the joke but then have a panel where Steve was playing with his phone, then when they were about to move on have him suddenly pay attention and try to shop

  2. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    So you regret not making the characters *less* likeable? I don’t think I’d want to read a webcomic just about a bunch of jerks honestly. In DM of the Ring only the DM was (mostly) unlikeable, and only to the point where having him be the butt of the joke was enjoyable. The other players were immature and rash but ultimately lovable, people I’d imagine enjoying some D&D with. I’d rather have one Daffy (the DM) and a bunch of Bugs than just Daffys.

    1. Shamus says:

      It’s not really about likability. In the MCU, Loki is an evil bastard and people LOVE him, but they don’t feel bad when his schemes backfire and get him into trouble. Same goes for Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies. When he’s evil they accept that “That’s just how he is” and when he’s brought low they’re happy because he deserves it.

      1. Joshua says:

        Those are also villain characters, not protagonists.

        Some people (including myself) have no interest in shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or even Seinfeld because they don’t enjoy watching main characters who are terrible people having terrible things happen to them.

        1. shoeboxjeddy says:

          What’s clever about Seinfeld and Always Sunny is that in most shows, characters catch the “Idiot ball” to progress the plot. In this episode of Friends, Chandler lies about something to hide his true feelings, chaos and humor ensues! In Seinfeld and Sunny, every character is constantly holding zealously to their own version of an Idiot ball and they occasionally catch a “moment of clarity” ball instead. This allows the audience to still have advocates from scene to scene, but avoids the problem that Arrested Development eventually had in that you just want Michael and George Michael to OCCASIONALLY have something nice happen for them, but it’s crucial to the comedy that they be put upon and shit on by the universe. This also allows for great meta humor, like in “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis” where the Gang tries to put together an A team or Scooby Doo gang style arrangement to work a scam, but keep arguing about who fits most accurately into what role and what the roles should actually be. Like Dennis sees himself as the Face AND the leader AND the muscle due to his tremendous ego, but the others variously disagree with each of those.

      2. Thomas says:

        Tom has Jerry. Coyote has the Road Runner. People need to have someone they can root for. There are very few successful stories where _everyone_ unlikeable.

        Even in Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where everyone is horrible, the writers still rely on you empathising with the gang – they just want your empathy to be fluid, switching members from moment to moment.

        1. Asdasd says:

          You’re telling me there are people out there who haven’t rooted for Wile E. and Tom their whole lives?

          1. Lino says:

            I never watched much of Wile. E and the Roadrunner, but I’ve always rooted for Tom – ever since I saw my first Tom and Jerry episode when I was 6 or 7. I guess I’ve always liked me a good underdog (or undercat, as the case may be)!

      3. Syal says:

        The big thing I think here is that Steve is not an established character. It’s okay for Bugs to get revenge on Daffy, but if some never-before-seen character walks up and mallets him in the face, we’re going to take it as more of a heel-face turn on Daffy’s part; we thought he was the bad guy but now here’s this much worse guy to deal with.

        1. Daimbert says:

          There are a couple of shorts where they do just that: have Daffy playing against someone we don’t know and where Daffy becomes the sympathetic character that we root for. Which is also pretty much the premise of the “Duck Dodgers” cartoon (not short), although that flip-flops a bit since Dodgers is often a bit too much a jerk and the other characters — Marvin the Martian most commonly — are too sympathetic on their own and come across as woobies.

          1. RCN says:

            It is funny how “I just want to blow the earth” can become sympathetic in the right setting, IE regarding Marvin the Martian.

      4. Matthew Downie says:

        In any case, I don’t think, “no-one else wanted to play with these misfits and rejects” would have helped, because that makes them either unbearable to spend time with, or pitiful and even more sympathetic.

        One thing that works better is more direct karmic justice.
        “Let’s starve the goblins out instead of having the battle the GM was planning.”

        “Hey, the goblins ate the pigs we were supposed to be rescuing!”
        There, we can feel schadenfreude without remorse, because it’s exactly what ought to have happened.

        1. Lino says:

          But then wouldn’t that make us more sympathetic to the DM? Part of the joke in that strip was that Casey couldn’t deal with the players doing something unexpected – anything that isn’t in his notes is beyond his abilities of reasoning.

      5. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        I think part of why Loki-type villains get away with it (besides pure charisma) is because they have no real victims to sympathize with, which lets us enjoy their villany without getting angry out outraged at them. Their schemes are usually aiming for some vague and grandiose goal for their own ego (conquer the world!), and are practically required to fail by the genre they’re in.
        They don’t actively try to hurt anyone while carrying out their schemes, or obviously hurt people as a by-product of their selfish actions. At most they threaten the heroes or shoot some (suitably faceless and expendable) mook in a comedic fashion.

        And when they are allowed to succeed, it’s because their goals are obviously comedic and harmless. Loki doesn’t seize the throne through impersonation to kill his enemies or exploit his subjects, he does it to build a giant statue to himself and write exaggerated opera’s that stroke his ego. Dr Evil doesn’t conscript an army from civilians to bloodily carve out his own nation, he builds a vulcanoe lair on an abandoned island staffed by mooks of unspecified origins.

        Meanwhile, in these strips there are clear and obvious victims. And they suffer unjustly, which is a thing that people almost universally despise. Add in the fact that they’re in a very realistic and identifiable situation for the audience, and suddenly the villains hijinks are starting to feel very personal and hurtful.

      6. “In the MCU, Loki is an evil bastard and people LOVE him, but they don’t feel bad when his schemes backfire and get him into trouble.”

        *raises hand* Id’ like to see him succeed, hopefully we’ll get to see that in the TV series. (there are so few good “villain” series, Dexter is the last one that comes to mind).

      7. Rack says:

        Evil but likeable doesn’t stop often people empathising with a character, even if they’re the villain. Whenever Loki is really suffering people still feel bad for him. If they’re the protagonist then people will love them throughout almost anything.

    2. Daimbert says:

      I didn’t even find the DM unlikable. The players sabotaged his good story points enough to feel sympathy for him as well. Ultimately, it just came across like the initial premise: a DM wanted to do the Lord of the Rings story with gamers whose playstyle didn’t mesh with that kind of story at all. Despite all the griping, the ending also seems to hint that it wasn’t bad enough that they don’t want to play with that DM anymore.

  3. Philadelphus says:

    People kept having empathy when I wanted to enjoy the schadenfreude.

    I’m feeling a bit of both for you (about you? How do you feel schadenfreude?) regarding this predicament, because, huh, that’s kind of interesting. How do you write characters that people love to hate without it feeling like you’re just kicking someone while they’re down? Maybe balance them with some good qualities so people feel like these are realistic people that would conceivably want to hang around each other, and tolerate each other’s quirks because they do genuinely have some redeeming aspects? Or make it clear that, as much as they get on each others’ nerves, they’re all united by a common love of role-playing (even if they all have different ideas of what that means)? Maybe give them a glimmer of character development now and then, even if they end up learning the wrong lesson or need to conveniently forget it later for the status quo? (Might work better for a comic that’s not intended to run indefinitely, where you could actually have some character arcs plotted ahead of time with definite finishes—and I don’t know if Chainmail Bikini was originally intended to be that or not.) To be fair, I’m not a (fiction) writer and I have no ideahow you’d make any of that apparent, or even if that would work, which is why I read comics rather than write them I suppose.

    1. kincajou says:

      Learning the wrong lessons could be quite good a funny escalation could ensue as a running gag:

      -aha! i use intimidate
      – *sigh* he give you what you want

      -aha! i use intimidate
      – he runs away screaming from your fearsome presence!

      -aha! i tie him up and then use intimidate
      – …
      – *sigh* he gives you what you want

      -aha! i tie him up and then use intimidate
      – He dies of a heart attack

      ( then we have josh use a resurrect potion… escalate to your pleasure!)
      For added bonus you could have the other player’s characters look more and more baffled every time this happens until maybe someone just gets fed up and tries to use “diplomacy” at which point Josh just figures “all i need to do is change skill!”… and a diplomacy arms race ensues

      1. Karma The Alligator says:

        -aha! i tie him up and then use intimidate
        – He dies of a heart attack

        ( then we have josh use a resurrect potion… escalate to your pleasure!)

        Why would he? Now he can loot the corpse and get everything (and apparently they don’t have carry limits).

        1. kincajou says:

          good point, i guess i was thikning this in term of “getting info from a character” so in my mind it made sense (probably because the most egregious example of this i ever encountered irl is a barbarian just using “intimidate” to get his way with NPCs all the time) ;)

          but the point stands! Escalation can be funny and make a good running gag

      2. BlueHorus says:

        ‘I resurrect him and intimidate him some more!’
        ‘He finally screams that he’s got no money!’
        ‘I intimidate him until he doe- wait, no…’
        Ivy: ‘Are you done yet, genius?’

        1. kincajou says:

          hehehe… that’s what i had in mind :)

    2. Asdasd says:

      For a prime example of how to do this well, I recommend {{{warning: the following link is highly NSFW}}} The Anime Club by K.C. Green.

  4. kincajou says:

    A few thoughts come to me with regards to your commentary:

    – I think that part of the reason you never managed to hit the “looney toons” schadenfreude is a variation of the Uncanny valley. When the looney toons undergo all sorts of shenanigans and take everything, i laugh because i know they’ll be alright (daffy gets hit by lightnong? it’s ok in two minutes he’ll be running around chasing someone with a mallet!) and with no long term consequences to the horrible actions i don’t really linger on how mean spirited Bugs Bunny can be, because very rarely does he cause any real harm. Furthermore, these are toons, they don’t look like me (or anyone i know) and don’t behave like me (or anyone i know)… so i don’t really empathise with their pain but laugh at their funny faces. This is also emphasised by the voices, the Looney toons do not express pain or agony but rather mild annoyance or sarcasm.

    In the case of CB, most readers have played tabletop rpgs, that helps us empathise with the players and their characters (and, as we’ve seen in the comments, many of us have lived some of these stories… we’ve ecountered versions of these people). This allows us to beleive that there “are” consequences, consequences that we understqnd and that we know… because these people are living things we’ve lived we identify with them more. which makes the abuse they take go from, “haha” to “oh, dear, i really wouldn’t have liked that if it had happened last friday at my gaming table!”

    I guess if you wanted to go the schadefreude route you would have to dehumanise them more, the players and their jokes. Turn them into ridiculous stereotypes and lean into it completley. This is probably the success of this strip (and josh’s character overall). It’s hilarious that he has EVERYTHING TO SELL, i will be disappointed if the next strip isn’t then josh killing the trader for xp.

    – I think you may have had too many characters, you’re balancing 5 people + 1 dm at any one time, no one is really given time to shine in their silly antics (IMO) and given the space “to do their thing”. Again josh is the one who is most interesting, probably because he’s been doing *something* most of the time. Ivy doesn’t always talk and came late to the party so didn’t have time to play out. Steve… well you took an established character swapped them out for someone we need to learn to know (whilst we’re still learning to work with Ivy).

    – (My last point, following from the previous one.) There is no long term narrative, first we’re going for the pigs… but that’s resolved in 5 minutes, then the village is on fire… but that’ sorted out quickly… then we’re at a swamp?
    I get that casey is supposed to be a terrible DM but if i’m not invested in the ultimate goal of the characters (or a narrative thread amongst the players… like has anything happened around the table beyond “chuck’s gone for food”) i can’t really be invested in their antics. To bring up full frontal nerdity, even when they run catastrophic campaigns, i know where they are going and what they are trying to achieve… i’m curious how their particular hijinks will screw it up this time but every episode i can say “Oooh, we’re getting closer!”. This is something i’ve never gotten from CB.

    in CB the characters cause “one off” chaos and piss about in essentially a sandbox. I don’t really care that they are going to a swamp because i don’t see how their antics will be any different there than here or how that will lead the whole narrative to some sort of conclusion. (Are they aiming to kill DB? i don’t know! I mean i think they didn’t want to at the beginning but then chick did? but now chick is gone? and are they even invested in this?)

    That’s my overly verbose 2c on it all

    1. Karma The Alligator says:

      In the case of CB, most readers have played tabletop rpgs, that helps us empathise with the players and their characters (and, as we’ve seen in the comments, many of us have lived some of these stories… we’ve ecountered versions of these people). This allows us to beleive that there “are” consequences, consequences that we understqnd and that we know… because these people are living things we’ve lived we identify with them more. which makes the abuse they take go from, “haha” to “oh, dear, i really wouldn’t have liked that if it had happened last friday at my gaming table!”

      Exactly what I wanted to say. Anyone who’s played tabletop RPGs probably won’t see characters or players like they would Looney Toons.

      i will be disappointed if the next strip isn’t then josh killing the trader for xp

      And to get all his loot back so he can sell it to the next merchant.

    2. Bookwyrm says:

      When the looney toons undergo all sorts of shenanigans and take everything, i laugh because i know they’ll be alright (daffy gets hit by lightnong? it’s ok in two minutes he’ll be running around chasing someone with a mallet!) and with no long term consequences to the horrible actions

      I think this is a part of the difference between what happened here and Looney Tunes.

      I think another part is that Chuck didn’t directly do anything to deserve the pain he’s about to incur. Quite the opposite, since he actively said he didn’t want Steve taking over his character. Taking the Bugs + Daffy example, the comparable situation is that Daffy is minding his own business (cooking dinner?) and Bugs comes up and nails him with an anvil or whatever. Daffy isn’t getting some kind of comeuppance because he wasn’t doing anything that deserved it at the time.

      1. kincajou says:

        There is certainly something to what you say, thinking back at the loony toons i always remember enjoying more the ones where bugs is “doling out cumuppance” (like the vampire ones or the wizard one) rather than when he decides to have a go at elmer fudd (i seem to remember one in particular where elmer’s only sin was to exist… and yeah elmer is as boring as characters get).

        1. Bookwyrm says:

          I don’t even mind Bugs winning against poor Elmer as long as Elmer is the one starting boop.
          “If you don’t start none, there won’t be none.”

          If Bugs wakes up and decides to harass Elmer that day for laughs, then Bugs is just being a bully.

          1. Lino says:

            Once I saw an interview by the original author of Bugs Bunny, and he said that an integral part of the character is the fact that he never hits first – he’s always just minding his own business until someone tries to harm him, at which point he retaliates. The author said that he deliberately didn’t want for Bugs to come off as a bully.

            1. Asdasd says:

              That reminds me of Harpo Marx, who in the films was a similar sort of ‘trickster spirit’ or whatever, only he picked on people who were minding their own business and absolutely came off as a bully.

            2. Syal says:

              I’ll link the Every Frame A Painting episode where he’s using clips from that interview.

            3. Sartharina says:

              And when Elmer Fudd’s fumbling became too sympathetic, they introduced Yosemite Sam to take over as Bug’s more intelligent and belligerent villain.

    3. Joshua says:

      “In the case of CB, most readers have played tabletop rpgs, that helps us empathise with the players and their characters (and, as we’ve seen in the comments, many of us have lived some of these stories… we’ve ecountered versions of these people). This allows us to beleive that there “are” consequences, consequences that we understqnd and that we know… because these people are living things we’ve lived we identify with them more. which makes the abuse they take go from, “haha” to “oh, dear, i really wouldn’t have liked that if it had happened last friday at my gaming table!””

      I brought it up once or twice at the beginning of this CB series, but this is the reason why I much preferred the first The Gamers movie over The Gamers 2 and 3: The players in the first one were absolute dorks, but you could tell they all were pretty nice guys and therefore laughing at their antics was laughing at the various ways we’ve been just like them in various games. In the sequels, with the exception of Joanna, the players are all either dicks or creepily insane. When I watch their antics, I just think of how quickly I would quit games being around players like that.

  5. Joshua says:

    Apart from the dying farmer who wouldn’t shut up, where was Casey supposed to be a bad DM because no he’s “railroading”? It seems to me he’s constantly (grudgingly) tolerating the PC’s actions and adapting the narrative to the stupid hijinks of the players. If I had to assign a couple traits that make him a bad DM, I’d say that it’s his spinelessness and poor ability to prepare for how his players might respond to his plot, so he’s always having to (badly) improvise.

    1. Matthew Downie says:

      He’s the type to make bad game balance decisions. “Sure, you can have your spear that instantly destroys all undead from another campaign. In this campaign you will be facing a terrifying foe: the undead!”

      He’s also the type to mess up what information he is and isn’t supposed to tell you. “Inside the room is a goblin ambush.” “You return to the inn. Oh, I forgot to mention that the town is on fire and there is an army attacking it. You are now surrounded.”

      1. Joshua says:

        True, but I would say that falls under poor preparation and organization. My point was that I don’t see railroading in this game like I did in DMotR, where the railroading jokes are spot on.

        1. kincajou says:

          Yeah, we haven’t seen any “DM’s pet” npcs or the likes…
          The players in DMotR always came across to me as responding to their ludicrous DM who just wanted to impose their story and didn’t care for the players. Here instead the players are screwing with casey because…
          – he’s not good at improv?
          – he launches in big tirades and has everything planned? (how close to home this strikes, thinking of some of my first DM sessions or some other friends’ ones… you thought you had it all planned but oh god oh god….).

          I never get the feeling casey is trying to force players into his story, so i see his actions as incompetence rather than malice, which makes things done to him horrible rather than schadenfreude

  6. Ancillary says:

    People reacted VERY strongly to Stevegar. Once again I was caught off-guard by people having empathy for the characters and their plight.

    If I’m reading this correctly, you didn’t want the audience to empathize with any character in the story. Perhaps that was a fool’s errand from the beginning, no matter how you set it up with additional justifications.

    If these are the only characters we’re going to encounter over the course of the story, then naturally we’re going to pick the one or two that seem least cartoonish and identify with them regardless. (In this specific example, I think that’s Chuck and Ivy by virtue of them having the least agency in the story, but that’s just my opinion.) It’s all relative; everyone around the table might be terrible compared to some other group of role-players, but we aren’t going to see those people.

    Are there other examples of a story in books, films, TV, or games where the author (a) deliberately tried to make all their characters awful caricatures to the point that empathy is impossible, (b) succeeded, and (c) delivered a narratively satisfying experience? Maybe Spec Ops: The Line? (Caveat: I haven’t played it.)

    1. Kylroy says:

      There’s an entire genre of comedy devoted to horrible people being horrible. It shows up more in British works, but the premiere American examples (as Joshua mentioned upthread) are It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (whose characters are *obviously* horrible) and Seinfeld (where half or more of the audience didn’t realize how awful the characters were until the finale).

      1. Ancillary says:

        I can’t speak to IASIP–haven’t seen it–but doesn’t Seinfeld prove the point? Even with a character (Seinfeld himself) who was designed to be the emphasizable one, show watchers also managed to identify with George and Elayne in spite of their crazy antics.

      2. Thomas says:

        Even with stuff like Yes Minister, Fawlty Towers, The Thick of It, the trick is sometimes you want the characters to win (and sometimes they do).

      3. Michael says:

        It’s not comedy, but all of the characters being unsympathetic was why I couldn’t watch The Sopranos, which gets a lot of mentions as “great TV”.

    2. Matt says:

      Interestingly, the creators of even more extremely unlikeable characters are often dismayed when their creations attract unironic fans. I’m thinking here of Tony Montana, Walter White, Rick Sanchez, and Bojack Horseman. Perhaps compelling writing and a solid, memorable performance can’t help but humanize even the worst type of person.

    3. shoeboxjeddy says:

      Empathy is 100% possible in Spec Ops: The Line, you shouldn’t make such massive assumptions about things you haven’t tried.

      1. Asdasd says:

        Er, massive assumptions? He both said ‘maybe’ and added the caveat that he hadn’t played it. Looks a lot more to me like hazarding a guess than assuming anything.

  7. Matt says:

    Speaking broadly, many tabletop RPG players are nerds and nerds are often reluctant to engage in schadenfreude regarding other nerds. Maybe it’s because they don’t want their own foibles made the subject of mockery, or maybe its some kind of solidarity in the face of criticism from other groups. Many groups I’ve been involved in tolerate the worst behavior or practices of its members and the surest way to get ostracized is to point it out. Of course, that’s probably true of most human “tribes.”

    1. Asdasd says:

      This might be a little off-topic, but your post reminded me of an anime called It’s Not My Fault That I’m Not Popular! It’s a story about a gloomy, nerdy girl who undergoes an unremitting parade of failure and humiliation, usually framed as kind of karmic punishment for holding herself above everyone else, but just as often simply for wanting to fit in. I couldn’t stomach more than a few episodes, but I was really struck with wonder as to who exactly this show was for.

      Was it a ‘laugh with us’ show for otaku who were up for a few (especially sharp) barbs being slung their way? Or was it a ‘laugh at us’ type show, played broadly to mock nerds for the benefit of a mainstream audience? Was it perhaps specifically designed to single out and castigate one nerd subgroup, the female otaku (fujioshi)? Or just an exceedingly black comedy about the universe hating one poor individual, with nerdiness being an incidental trait? I couldn’t suss the angle at all.

      Maybe I was experiencing the same reluctance to engage in shadenfreude you mention as a nerd-in-solidarity. But like I say, it was striking, in as much as I couldn’t imagine anyone else finding the schadenfreude in it either.

      1. Gaius Maximus says:

        I’m not working from a huge sample size, but I got the impression that it was mostly the ‘laugh with us’ type of show, and especially popular among people with a fair degree of self-loathing in their personality.

  8. Kylroy says:

    Agreed that it would have been hard to write as a unrequited crush, but having Ivy the plot-metagamer working with/admiring Josh the rules-metagamer would be entertaining. I imagine the GM has gotten used to Josh annihilating his setpiece combat encounters, but with Ivy’s guidance he’s could be used as a blunt weapon to break the plot – “Look, he’s got +40 stealth and can deal out 200 damage in one round – why bother doing the Bandit King’s fetch quest when Josh can kill him and take his key without being detected?”

  9. Hal says:

    On a different note, you could (today) make a lot of jokes about Josh being a Skyrim player who doesn’t understand the difference between that and a tabletop game. Not just in the minmaxing, kill-everything-that-moves motives, but also in the “sell everything that wasn’t nailed down” motif.

    1. Sartharina says:

      … Have you never played World of Warcraft? The “Sell everything not nailed down” dates back to the 80s.

  10. krellen says:

    Without the background outlined, readers are forced to make up their own backstories, and for a lot of people in our age demographic (which I think matches a lot of Fear the Boot’s user demographic as well), that backstory is going to include playing with people we didn’t necessarily want to because it was the only game in town. That was certainly the assumption I had when CB originally ran.

    Also, playing someone else’s character against their express permission is one of the Cardinal Sins of gaming, and anyone still reading after gropegate were not going to be ones viewing Chuck as deserving of that sin.

  11. CountAccountant says:

    They’re all here playing this terrible game for the wrong reasons and anything that happens to them is more or less their own fault for showing up.

    Anyone who has played a tabletop game has probably played in a bad game. Most GMs and many players are bad before they are good. People continue to play games with their friends and/or gaming buddies for many reasons. I don’t think this situation comes across as the player’s fault.

    It could have been the player’s fault if, for example, the power gamer Josh had gone to the store instead and his character’s replacement player made a good faith effort instead of being willfully negligent. If replacement player didn’t understand Josh’s over-engineered exploits and accidentally ruined everything, then it’s Josh’s fault – his efforts to break the game blew up in his face. We can laugh at that.

    If instead a player leaves, takes reasonable action to prevent the bad thing (“don’t play my character”), and then the bad thing happens anyway, it doesn’t feel like bad things happening to people who deserve it. It feels like someone being victimized, regardless of whether you empathize with the victim or not.

    1. Joshua says:

      Good ideas! That’s the idea of karmic retribution. Appropriate penalty that matches the infraction.

  12. Joshua says:

    One thing also stood out to me: How will Steve selling Chuck’s magical spear work out when it’s clear that Chuck didn’t grant permission in the first place? I mean, obviously we’ll find out in the next couple of strips, but just reviewing this strip there are two things that can happen:

    1. Chuck complains to Casey that he didn’t give permission for Steve to play his character, and Casey appropriately retcons the whole transaction, which also seems in-character for Casey who often rolls over to the player’s demands. This doesn’t lead to a whole lot of humor.

    2. Casey insists that the transaction was legitimate because he didn’t know any better and thus Chuck has to keep the consequences. This is so grossly unfair, it’s the equivalent of the Jerkass Genie DM who says “Well, you didn’t specify in your Wish that you didn’t want to also spontaneously combust, so you get your riches but you’re now on fire and dead”. At that point, there’s no trust between the players and the DM. This leads to the kind of “kick the dog” humor that people were complaining about.

    So, immediately from the premise for the humor, you’re left with a situation that will either be walked back or result in a miscarriage of justice.

  13. Olivier FAURE says:

    For what it’s worth, whenever I watched roadrunner cartoons I kept rooting for the coyote. That poor guy tried so hard :(

    1. kincajou says:

      did anyone ever side with the roadrunner?!

      1. Kyle Haight says:

        The roadrunner was kind of a jerk sometimes. The coyote was a hungry predator doing what came naturally. I get the roadrunner running away, that’s a natural response. But sometimes he seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in the way poor Wile E. got screwed by the laws of physics.

        1. Daimbert says:

          And causing it, by sneaking up behind him and “Beep-beep”ing to get the Coyote to fall into the trap.

          While I cheered for Tweety when I was younger, rewatching when a bit older made me sympathize with Sylvester more because Tweety often went above and beyond what was necessary to keep Sylvester from eating him, and so seemed to be rubbing it in. And often Sylvester was portrayed as STARVING before trying to get Tweety, which generates more sympathy than if he just thought Tweety woudl taste good.

  14. Steve C says:

    re: The illusion of trade
    One of the worst D&D games I ever had the misfortune to play always had shops that always had lots of strange and interesting things we could not afford. It would be off by a factor of 100x too. Remote villages of no consequence would have magical arrows with special effects costing 1000s of gold where the entire party might have had 50 gold between us. The shops would buy stuff for one or two silvers each. An annoying time sink in a terrible campaign.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      That DM does not understand market forces. There is straight up no point in having a product that no-one can afford. Unless you can eat it or use it yourself, you gain nothing by having something sit on your shop’s shelf being unobtainable.

      Besides, if EVERY village has some, why are they worth so much again?

      1. Daimbert says:

        He could have been pulling a technique that is sometimes used in video games: every store sells all the same items because it’s easier to generate one list than multiple lists. This would be more useful in a game that is more open since the DM can’t necessarily predict when the group is going to be in a specific area.

        If the items are unique — which, to be honest, is how I interpreted the comment originally — then if the group can return there later it can be a way to make the world differentiated and give the group a reason to remember what they had and/or come back to earlier villages later.

        1. Steve C says:

          They were all unique items. With no opportunity to return later. At no point did I ever feel I had any agency. This campaign was on rails. I always think about it when Shamus posts these webcomics because it was very much like that. Even if that were not true, I disagree that a DM is unable to predict when a group can return to an area. Even a free flow sandbox DM can make those sorts of predictions.

          1. Daimbert says:

            Even if that were not true, I disagree that a DM is unable to predict when a group can return to an area. Even a free flow sandbox DM can make those sorts of predictions.

            My examples are going to be from video games, but:

            In Knights of the Old Republic, you need to find a Star Map on each of four planets. After the first one — which you are railroaded into going to first — you can visit the remaining three in any order, which means you could go there immediately and so be at your lowest possible level and with the lowest possible money, or at the end where you have the most money and the highest levels. Without making different lists per level or available money, it’d be perfectly reasonable to add some items there that you can’t afford or use yet if you went there early.

            Dragon Age: Origins has the same structure, as you can go to use your old agreements to get help at any one of four places from the start. And outside of one starter village, you can even stop in to any of those places at any time in the game just to buy things, so having items that you can’t buy or use at the moment in a place works well since you can indeed go back later to buy it if you remember.

            And these are games with only a small amount of freedom. If you’re making it a sandbox game and allow the players to visit any place they’ve already visited, then having you show up in a village with unique items that you can’t afford yet would allow for the villages to feel unique and, again, to maybe encourage you to go back there at some point instead of simply forgetting about it once you leave. Dragon Age and KotOR also encourage this by having other planets trigger sidequests that lead you back to places you’ve already been.

  15. Daimbert says:

    I think a big part of the problem was that most of the time their jerky behaviour was against the in-game characters and not against each other. The worst action taken against a player was Chuck’s against Marcus, which many people reacted badly to but that anyone who stayed after that was convinced was Chuck merely trolling Marcus for his concept rather than an attempt to actually hurt Marcus. Beyond that, there’s mostly snarking at the DM and derailing his plans, but that’s something that every game-oriented comic says is standard behaviour for players, including yours.

    Stevegar’s action is directly against Chuck as a player, as he’s trying to turn Chuck’s character into something that Chuck doesn’t want to play despite it being abundantly clear that Chuck doesn’t want to play as that character. That makes it similar to what Chuck did to Marcus without the connotations, but can still be seen as an unacceptable thing for a player to do to another.

  16. Ira says:

    To be honest I think the suggestion here is still missing the point. If the whole group are obviously horrible, then I don’t empathise with any of them, and therefore any attempt at humour will fall flat. A group of annoying people all being annoying to each other is depressing, not funny.

    If we come back to DMotR, because the characters weren’t as caricatured as CB’s, it was easier to empathise with them as needed for different jokes. When the DM completely loses his temper at Legolas shooting Saruman, I laugh in part because I’ve been there. I’ve felt frustrated like that, and fed up with my childish, selfish, impulsive players. At the same time, when the DM starts monologuing in Edoras and the players start goofing off, again, I empathise because I’ve been there and gotten bored during long exposition. Aragorn gets excited over opportunities for power and glory; Legolas wants to do crazy-awesome stuff; Gimli has this wry, jaded amusement. One of the reasons why DMotR is funny is because, in all honesty, the gaming group look like they’re having fun. They get frustrated at each other sometimes, but all the players and even sometimes the DM have moments of genuine joy: when Aragorn gets his sword, when Legolas gets to kill a thousand orcs, when Gimli argues alignment to the DM, when they all get to level up. It might be a caricature of a gaming group, but it’s not so extreme a caricature that it doesn’t seem fun. My group has been like that sometimes. If I were playing in the DMotR game, I’d stay.

    Whereas CB doesn’t have that dynamic. Are the CB players actually enjoying the game? Well, not really? Sometimes Chuck or Ivy seem like it, but it’s very inconsistent. But meanwhile Marcus is bullied, Josh is completely emotionless, and Casey is understandably miserable.

    No one wants to read about a bunch of douches being douches to each other. I think it’s only natural that people started trying to sympathise with the CB characters – Marcus, Chuck, and Ivy being best for this – and why attempts to make them more unsympathetic failed. The more depressing the world, the less joy and laughter we can take from it.

    I remember a similar issue came up in Good Robot? I think the original plan for the story there was that the protagonist robot would unknowingly destroy the last survivors of the human race. I’m going from vague memories here, but I thought that was intended to be hilarious, pretty much everyone’s response to it was that it’s depressing and mean-spirited and not funny, and so it was changed or removed. I wonder if the same… well, maybe ‘problem’ isn’t the right term, but the same misunderstanding?

    That is, maybe Shamus just likes depressing humour, or enjoys comedies about horrible people who fully deserve each other. Sometimes that sort of comedy can work. (In terms of webcomics, 8-Bit Theater mostly hinged on this, although in fairness Fighter, White Mage, and even sometimes Red Mage were sympathetic.) But maybe most of his audience doesn’t like that type of comedy. Or maybe that type of comedy is just a bad fit for the RPG comic. Either way, there seems to be a mismatch.

    1. Ira says:


      Ah, there’s the Good Robot reference. I might have made up the part about a negative response – maybe I’m just projecting how I felt about that story idea.

      Though there are commenters here (https://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=31317) who seem to agree with me that it’s a pretty depressing, de-motivating plot… Hm.

      1. Syal says:

        …man, now it’s bothering me that I didn’t specify my joke comment of “you miss the ending and have to endure 15 minutes of cutscene to try to brute-force your way to it” was from an actual game, specifically Persona 4.

        Now you konw. 3 years late.

      2. DGM says:

        Someone in that thread suggested that the ending should be the Good Robot delivering a pizza to the last humans and then just leaving, its mission complete. That would have worked well, I think.

        1. Ira says:

          Something like that. Now I read through the whole comment thread I feel like the majority response was that it was a poor story or a poor ending for the game. Maybe it is just that Shamus likes dark or misanthropic humour, whereas lots of his readers, myself included, don’t?

  17. Fon says:

    Actually, some of us hate Bugs Bunny precisely because he is untouchable, and some of us like (or at least sympathize with) Daffy Duck precisely because nothing ever goes right for him, even if he deserves it.

    Another example would be Tom and Jerry. I actually feel sorry for Tom, even if Tom is usually the bad guy (though often times he is just doing his job, and sometimes the things Jerry does is just uncalled for). Some might be fine with these because they know those cartoon character won’t really get hurt, but it’s really easy to feel sorry for someone, even if they deserve it.

    To be fair, I didn’t think people would feel sorry for Chuck either, or even had an outrage over this. (I read the comic but didn’t read any comments, so I didn’t even know that people had an outrage over this!) I do think having your invincible (to undead) plot weapon traded away like this is kind of funny too… so I’m not an infallible judge on this either. Still, I’d say it’s best to avoid deliberating creating Daffy Ducks or Toms (from Tom and Jerry). When bad thing happens to someone, we can always end up feeling sorry for them, no matter how much they deserve it. We tend to root for the underdog, even if it’s undeserving, or even if they’re evil/bad guys! (See: Evil minions who never succeed.)

    I think the only way to completely kill any sort of sympathy, is if the person is an irredeemable bad guy, but in that case, we’d have serious, actual contempt for that character, and we probably do NOT want to see that character’s mug often, if at all… but then again, didn’t people REALLY hated Chuck? (Or were they more angry at Shamus as the writer?) … I guess I don’t really get this either.

    1. Fon says:

      Then again, the sympathy I mentioned in my comment is something that builds up over time. I don’t think things have ever went wrong for Chuck, so perhaps people are angry at Steve, instead of feeling sorry for Chuck?

    2. Syal says:

      I think the only way to completely kill any sort of sympathy, is if the person is an irredeemable bad guy,

      But see also A Clockwork Orange, where the whole point is people sympathizing with the irredeemable bad guy because he literally can’t fight back.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        A Clockwork Orange, where the whole point is people sympathizing with the irredeemable bad guy because he literally can’t fight back.

        Was it? Because I never cared about Alex. While I completely agree with the story that he’d been ‘horribly tortured’ rather than ‘reformed’ by what happened to him, I never felt any sympathy because he was just so awful.
        Yeah, now YOU know how it feels to be beaten while you’re helpless, jerk. Suck it.
        But the point about how there are some things government shouldn’t – or literally can’t – do was the point, to me at least.

        We tend to root for the underdog, even if it’s undeserving, or even if they’re evil/bad guys! (See: Evil minions who never succeed.)

        Oh, Skeletor. Why were you so useless? Just once I’d have liked to see you succeed in your plans, even though you were a walking poster boy for Shortsighted, Stupid Evil.
        Though granted, a large part of that was because you were so much more fun than He-Man, who was so boring.

      2. Fon says:

        Seriously? Well, maybe that irredeemable bad guy isn’t evil or hateable enough…? Or perhaps people can sympathize with anyone if that character is helpless enough.

        1. Syal says:

          Or perhaps people can sympathize with anyone if that character is helpless enough.

          That one. The second half of the movie is people getting revenge on him after he’s become physically incapable of violence.

  18. Duoae says:

    Hmm. This is strange. (or maybe I am!) I feel no empathy for Chuck having his character stolen. I think maybe you guys were unlucky in that your fans are actual RPG gamers. They are subconsciously putting themeselves into the characters’ shoes and then responding emotionally to that.

    Given what you expected to happen and what actually happened, and given your explanation as to why you expected things to happen and how they actually happened…. I think it’s a bit different between a God (Loki) or Commander Sheppard (I always forget how it’s spelt) and an actual person/trade that any of us could pick up and adopt.

    Further to that, I tend to find that if there are many people in the same place, given an equal voice, with the same perspective and background then the effect is amplified and people push the single “narrative” opinion. That’s why it’s so much harder to play devil’s advocate (or have a contrary opinion) in a situation where there’s 10+ people compared to 2-5 people.

    It inevitably becomes a pile-on.

  19. Dreadjaws says:

    I’m gonna echo what everyone has mentioned. The comparison to Looney Tunes is not the proper one. These characters are realistic and as such is easier to empathize with them than a cartoon duck, particularly when you know there are not going to be consequences to their actions (hell, even if Daffy is killed, he’ll be alright by the next episode). Plus, the sort of injuries and setbacks Daffy is subjected to are cartoonish and unrealistic, while the ones seen here are entirely relatable.

    More to the point, even in a humorous setting you need something to anchor you. Even in a story in which the protagonists are a bunch of jerks, you need to feel for them once in a while or have other characters to root for. A show like Seinfeld relies on its cast to be comprised of a bunch of jerks, but their issues are relatable and we tend to feel for them. If you’re deliberately looking to make your characters unlikable just for us to feel a sense of accomplishment when things go wrong for them you really need an extra set of characters for us to care about.

    You mention Loki as a character that people love, but here’s the thing(s) about him:
    – Loki is a villain. Villains generally aren’t popular for the same reason as heroes.
    – That aside, he’s a sympathetic character, not an all-around asshole. Note how he’s one of the very few villains in the MCU that people like, and that’s the reason. Other villains are just mean or jerks and people don’t care for them. Meanwhile, Loki has very genuine reasons for his start to darkness yet he does care for his family. We can see him constantly struggle against his very nature because he doesn’t want to just be an evil jerk.

  20. CannonGerbil says:

    “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.” I’m sure you’ve heard this line before. The difference between tragedy and comedy is disconnect. This is why the attempts at mean spirited humour in chainmail bikini doesn’t work the same way it does in loony toons. Most people cannot realistically picture themselves heading out to the woods one of these weekends to help their old pal daffy duck hunt that dastardly rabbit. Most people will not picture themselves hitting up Tom’s place and helping him assemble that newest gizmo of his to help him catch that sneaky mouse. That sort of comedy works in loony toons because most viewers can only relate to the characters involved in very abstract ways.

    However, most of your readers can picture themselves in this situation. Some of them have even experienced something similar themselves. Most of your readers see something of themselves within this party, enough that they share in their joys and get outraged at their injustices. Once that happens, any situation where one of the characters get unfairly dicked over stops being comedic and starts being tragic.

    The reason I bring this up is because none of your proposed changes would fix this problem. Not a single one of them addresses the fundamental core issue of that something like chainmail bikini will relate very closely to most of your audience, and all of the mean spirited humour apart from perhaps the karmically deserved would hit way too close to home for most of them to find funny.

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