It took almost a decade for the first humorous roleplaying game to hit gamestore shelves, and humor RPGs have never been a huge category like fantasy, science-fiction, horror, or superheroes. Nonetheless, there have been dozens of funny RPGs over the years, especially during their initial explosion in the ’80s, with the following being some of the most notable either for their popularity or their milestones.
1. Alma Mater (1982)
Reason: First Humor RPG
Alma Mater, a game of high-school roleplaying, is infamous for its depiction of sex, drugs, and violence in schools, said depiction including over-the-top artwork by Erol Otus. Lost in that is the fact that it was a satire of high-school life, with character types including Average, Brain, Cheerleader, Criminal, Jock, Loser, and Tough. As such, it’s also notable for being the debut of the humor roleplaying category.
2. Paranoia (1984)
Reason: Popular Cult Classic
It’s easy to forget that Paranoia is a humor RPG because it has entirely transcended the category. But, getting randomly killed in six different ways. Getting shot up by your fellow troubleshooters. Being told to pursue missions that require you to take actions that will lead to your own demise? That’s all hilarious. And the best Paranoia adventures played up that humor (though whether the original game gave GMs enough tools to produce funny adventures of their own is a separate question).
Like Alma Mater, Paranoia was designed as satire, usually including dark and sarcastic looks at modern society. Unfortunately as the original designers left, and Paranoia was rebooted in the late ’80s, it turned to simplistic parody, going after popular science-fiction and horror brands. There are different types of humor, some uplifting, some not.
3. Toon (1984)
Reason: First Cartoon RPG
Alma Mater and Paranoia each created humor by detailing funny settings. Toon was something very different: the first generic cartoon roleplaying game. It was somewhat focused on the Looney Tunes style of play, but ultimately could be used to run any sort of cartoon game. Because of the open play required by a cartoon RPG, Toon foreshadowed the indie style of play that would follow (and that would lead to even more humor RPGs), with innovations including “falling down” rather than getting killed and the use of humorous cartoon “shticks”.
4. Ghostbusters (1986)
Reason: First Licensed Humor RPG
West End’s Ghostbusters is a milestone in roleplaying development because the Chaosium-designed game system ultimately led to the development of West End’s d6 game system, and thus their Star Wars RPG (1987). Ghostbusters itself gets somewhat less attention. Like so many of the humor RPGs that preceded it, it has silly sounding characteristics (Brains, Muscles, Moves, and Cool). The other main humor component is probably the Ghost Die, which can cause bad things to happen — and bad things are often fun. Beyond that, it depends on the Ghostbusters setting and its adventures for the funny.
5. Teenagers from Outer Space (1987)
Reason: First Anime-influence Humor RPG
Japanese anime and manga offers pretty rich inspiration for a variety of genres, among them humor. So it’s no surprise that Mike Pondsmith, who’d already debuted the first anime RPG with Mekton (1984), would also produce the first anime-influence humor RPG, Teenagers from Outer Space. It’s another High School game with “Knacks” instead of “Skills” and piles of potentially hilarious alien powers.
6. Tales from the Floating Vagabond (1991)
Reason: Notable Science-Fiction Humor RPG
A bar set in the middle of the universe with transdimensional portals is obviously a great setup for humor. Add in, once more silly skills (like “Target Vomiting”) and cartoonish schticks (like the ability to pull anything out of a trenchcoat) and you have a comedy. Lee Garvin’s game never really got the attention it might have, because Avalon Hill only supported it for a few years, and then Garvin had to fight for most of the rest of his life to get the rights back. Still, with half-a-dozen products overall, it’s one of the better supported funny RPGs on this list.
7. Og: The Roleplaying Game (1995)
Reason: Brilliant Communication Mechanic
Most humor RPGs base their humor upon their background. If there’s a mechanical adjunct, it’s mostly about having silly names for skills or powers. Og is a perfect example of how system matters, because the crux of the game is that there are only 17 (later: 18) cavemen words, and each character only knows a few of them; every communication becomes an excuse for hilarity. After two editions by Aldo Ghiozzi, Robin Laws redesigned the game in the Og: Unearthed Edition (2007), which was a better polished RPG with a bit more focus on continuing play. (One of the problems of humor games is that they’re often relegated to a campaign of just a few sessions, even for a heavier game like Paranoia.)
Wingnut Games, the original producer of Og, is notable for having been mostly a humor publishing house, with other products including StuperPowers! Deluxe (2001), an RPG of useless super powers.
8. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1998)
Reason: First Indie Humor RPG
James Wallis foreshadowed the indie RPG explosion with his “New Style” RPGs of the late ’90s. Like the indies that followed, the New Style RPGs were much more likely to take games in weird new directions, outside the fantasy and science-fiction norms of our field. So, humor RPGs became a real possibility, both in the New Style and in the indies afterward. Which leads us to The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, an RPG about telling stories that becomes quickly hilarious because of the enormous lies and exaggerations that it encourages.
9. Kobolds Ate My Baby! (1999)
Reason: Popular Fantasy Humor RPG
There aren’t a lot of notable humor RPGs that cross over with fantasy. Kobolds Ate My Baby! does so by putting the players in the role of the kobolds, which means that it’s their goal to kidnap and eat babies! Yikes! But this grim premise is presented humorously to make it a popular small-press humor game.
10. Fiasco (2009)
Reason: Best-selling & Groundbreaking Indie RPG
Fiasco is any many ways the epitome of the first generation of narrative-focused indie RPGs. It takes as its inspiration disastrous caper movies such as Fargo (1996) and A Simple Plan (1998) and molds its gameplay to be equally catastrophic. Comedy implicitly follows.
The Stone Age Hall of Fame
In the ’80s, humor games usually fell into the category of “beer & pretzel RPGs”, which were light, simple RPGs that weren’t designed for campaigns. Creeks & Crawdads (1986) and Macho Women with Guns (1988) were both notable beer-and-pretzel RPGs in the era, but have fallen out of favor due to the advent of more sophisticated humor RPGs that could create deep narratives, ongoing campaigns, or both.
The Jetsons House of the Future
Thanks to the continued evolution of the indie category of RPG design and the increased ease of self-publishing, humor RPGs became more popular in the ’10s. Several notables that have appeared in that decades, games that could become Top 10s in the future, including: Goblin Quest (2015), Katanas & Trenchcoats (2015), Honey Heist (2017), Onyx Path’s They Came From … games (2020-Present), and the recently Kickstarter Flabberghasted! RPG (2022?)
The Scrappy-Doo Hall of Shame
Though there are surely humor RPGs that aren’t nearly as funny as their designers think, humor has gone the most horribly wrong in the roleplaying field when designers created supposedly funny supplements for lines where that humor didn’t fit.
WG7: Castle Greyhawk (1988) has gone down in history as perhaps the worst D&D adventure ever, because it pretended to present Gary Gygax’s Castle Greyhawk, but instead parodied everything from Star Trek to Doctor Who. Other humorous Greyhawk adventures such as WG9: Gargoyle (1989) and WG10: Child’s Play (1989) also received scorn, but not at nearly the same level.
Some of the later Paranoia adventures received similar scorn because they traded in complex satire for simple parody of other game systems or media properties. Alice Through the Mirrorshades (1989), Twilightcycle: 2000 (1989), and Vulture Wariors of Dimension X (1990) were a low point, with their parodies of Cyberpunk, Twilight: 2000, and Doctor Who, but West End was back at it several years later with Creatures of the Nightcycle (1997), a World of Darkness parody that almost led to a third edition of the game (but instead ended the line).
Which goes to show comedy is hard; so it’s great that ten humorous RPGs over the decades have shown how the category can excel.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #62 on RPGnet. It was purposefully written for publication in the next generation of books, most likely in one of the humor-related histories in Designers & Dragons: The Lost Histories.