I’m glad it’s not just me. In this episode of the Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice podcast, Messrs Cule and Bell-West talk about how irritating it is when players break out of character for jokes and facetious banter.
Most definitely I’m not against joking at the table. In-character humour is not only essential and lots of fun, it’s pretty much the Turing Test of roleplaying. If you can see things from inside your character enough to crack a joke like him or her, you’re doing it right.
That's like the first Thor movie. All the humour there was great because it came from character. Later the film-makers saw that they’d get more tweetage if all the characters spoke like Joss Whedon was writing their lines – which in many cases he was. What even Joss forgot was that flip, high-school comedy shtick made sense for Buffy and the Scooby gang because they were high-schoolers. Coming from Thor or Captain America it’s just dumb. If it were a roleplaying game not a movie, that would be their players just not bothering.
But what do you do? Michael Cule asks if you should bang on the table. But you have enough on your mind running the game without taking on the role of kindergarten teacher as well, and as Roger Bell-West points out, once the suspension of disbelief is broken it's a bit late to get it back. Maybe instead we need to look at why players might want to break character. It means either they’re bored or else they’re embarrassed by the make-believe and need an escape. Listen to the podcast, it’s all discussed there.
Maybe part of the problem is the trend in modern drama for every character to behave like a teenager with ADHD. And maybe that is caused by the tweetability of 21st century life. People talk all the way through movies, TV shows and roleplaying games now because they’re accustomed to providing the world with a streaming commentary of their entire lives. Sitting still and concentrating on one thing for a chunk of time measured in hours must seem like Swamp Thing waiting for a judgement from the Parliament of Trees. I’m a lot less connected than the average person (you should see my cellphone) which may be why I’m mostly happy to stay in character for the evening.
Incidentally I'm not discussing this because my own players are offenders. We do have a lot of humour in most sessions, but it's almost always in character and we don't, thank goodness, have one of the compulsive comedians Mr Cule describes in his groups. That said, I've noticed that when side discussions spring up between a couple of players, time was they'd be talking about something in the game (very often in character, too) whereas these days it will likely be something they're watching on TV or saw on Facebook. Attention spans are rotting away the world over, or so the anecdotal evidence goes.
Cnut couldn’t stop the tide. All you can do is make your games more engaging so that players don’t feel the need to step out of character and make jokes. Throw in more outrageous surprises, and be less forgiving if players were nattering and missed what just happened. Or you could have NPCs react to all those funny meme references as if the character really said them out loud. A little time with the Inquisition (or your world’s local equivalent) is a surefire cure for compulsive hilarity.
And if that doesn't work, switch to playing boardgames, where there's no suspension of disbelief to break. In which case, here's just the thing.