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Tabletop Fooling Machine

April Fools! You know it’s a good holiday if an important part of it is shouting the name at an opportune moment. But who, and what, are the fools, exactly? The fooler, the foolee, the act of fooling, itself? The fools inside us or the fools we fool along the way? April Fools is somehow all of these and so much more. Rather than do a leg-pulling post of disingenuous nonsense (not to be confused with our regular… “genuous” nonsense?) that doesn’t read as well between April 2 and March 31, we thought we’d talk a little about how you can go about bringing some of that April Fools’ spirit into your games. Maybe even the spirit of the original April Fool, Dickens-style? - B
 B: Working out what makes any kind of joke “work” is always going to be tricky, if not impossible (a “fool’s errand,” one might say”, but pranks have the additional complication of needing the prankee to “buy in,” and accept something as presented to them, while also making the reveal accessible to them in some way - if a fool gets fooled, but never finds out, wasn’t the real fool the fool who wasted all their time doing the the fooling? If the fooled “gets” and understands the joke, you can hope for a collective laugh from the shared experience. If not, well… April 1 is also National Edible Book day, not that we’re trying to give irate foolees any ideas! (It’s also National Trombone Player’s Day, should you feel the April Fools theme needs to be performed live.)

All of which is to say that real-life fooling can be a dangerous proposition! But in the context of a tabletop roleplaying game, the risks of physical harm are mostly non-existent. (Prankster GMs should keep their rulebooks close at hand, though, should any pranked players decide to start a retaliatory Edible Book celebration.) But you still run the risk of a prank going the wrong way and irritating or even alienating players. Andy, what do you think makes an in-game prank work, or at least more likely to?

A: Pranking at the tabletop is a tricky thing to consider, whether it's within the gameplay itself or a more “meta” prank. The first thing to tackle is the question of what makes a good prank in general, outside of your tabletop games. While these games are often a chance to do things you couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do in real life, I’d resist the urge to drop an anvil, Looney Tunes-style, on your players' characters (unless you really are playing a Looney Tunes-style game like Toon.) Certainly, in real life, there are a number of ways one can prank that are mean-spirited physically and non-physically. Even something that might seem innocuous, like putting a pie in someone’s face, may have horrifying unintended effects if they aren’t supposed to get pudding in their eye. So what does make a good prank? Something that doesn’t cause permanent damage or shame. An act that's humorous and short lived. Humor is subjective, of course, but finding something the prankee can also find humor in is a good start. But to go from recognizing bad pranks to what makes a good one, what do you think is a good example of an in-game prank, Bugsy?

B: I try not to make Paranoia my go-to example for everything (well… I try to try), but in this case, it’s unavoidable: pranks on the players (and by the players) have been part of the game from the beginning. From experimental devices that operate in far more literal ways than the players expect to booby-trapped weapons to surprise enemies, Spy vs. Spy antics are hard-coded into the game. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep tone in mind: a prank that might be appropriate for a goofier game could be distractedly inappropriate for one that’s more toned-down or played straight. When planning out the bait-and-switch of a potential prank, it’s worth it to consider the best and worst ways players might take it, and weigh that against what you’d like to happen. It can be easy to take the “gag item” approach of only thinking as far as the prank itself and not how it might go over at the table - makers of ice cube flies and whoopie cushions only sell their products on their inherent "jokey"qualities, not how the prankee (and those around them) are going to respond. But no matter how many “great laughs at parties” they sell prospective foolers on (revealing themselves to be probable fools), people are only willing to let themselves be embarrassed around others they feel comfortable with… even on April Fool’s Day. Andy, I know you’ve been pranked with a cursed item or two in games, how did that play out and how did that make you feel as a player versus being a prankmaster GM?

A: I have, in fact, been on the receiving end of a few in-game pranks - some of which were in the form of a cursed item. One of these events actually happened quite recently -  I’ve been blessed with a magic item that's cursed in a number of ways: it's difficult to take off, it makes my character a beacon for the bad guys, there are some roleplaying instructions, it makes my character look silly and the artwork verges on inappropriate. I can certainly find the humor in all those things! Thankfully, it doesn’t cause my character permanent, or even temporary, harm. It offers extra roleplaying opportunities, and that's something to be excited about. The item also provides a few boons to the character, which may be another key to a good in-game prank. You can prank the characters with something that makes them (or their players) look silly, or even cause them some difficulties... if it also has some sort of upside. If you know they’ll appreciate a roleplaying opportunity, this gives the player a chance to be in on the joke. And if the prank incorporates an in-game bonus for their character, a player is much more likely to take it with good nature and aplomb. One idea that might be (mostly) system agnostic: a glowing orb can be seen in the middle of a room the players just opened. One of them touches it. The glow infuses their arm and flashes and dissipates. Then, their arm falls off. On the ground lies a solid gold replica of their arm. And where their arm was? A tiny wiggly appendage, slowly regrowing. They'll look silly, and may have some temporary combat disadvantages  but are rewarded with both in-game currency and humorous role playing opportunities. Any parting foolish thoughts Bugsy?

B: Always take a moment to picture the situation in reverse - how would you feel if someone did your intended prank to you? Does it seem like some context would be necessary for it to work? Then be sure to provide it beforehand. Most of all, don't let any player think that they're being singled out or punished. Like in Andy's example, if there's a negative effect, even a temporary one, make sure they actively did something themselves to bring it about. (Who goes around fondling strange glowing orbs, anyway? I have nightmares about the Sphere of Annihilation from D&D 1st ed. Tomb of Horrors, and I've never even played it! ) Just remember that act of foolery should be forever, for we are all forever fools whether we fool ourselves or not. Also that April 2nd is National Fact-Checking Day for a reason. So, until next time... always fool kindly!

Send comments and questions to or Tweet them @neversaydice2 until that $40 billion foolery finally fools itself out.

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