Posted by: Sean | November 6, 2008

The Art of Background Playing

It’s a timeless comedy setup. (Hey, who shut the peanut butter jar so damned tight?) You have one person at the front of a scene, being serious and clear. (Stupid thing! I want me somes P for my J! Open up, damn you!) Meanwhile, in the background you have another person, usually silently, creating a moment of comedy. (SMASH! … OK, how do you get peanut butter out of carpet?) It’s a thing of beauty, seriously.

Aside from overly forced peanut butter gags, it’s a good trope to pull out for drama as well. This is a less common usage, which of course means it can be even more effective. While an obvious argument, fight or other highly visible scene occurs in the foreground, something of tremendous significance occurs almost out of sight. Most commonly, this will then be highlighted only afterwards, leading audiences to remember that scene and realise exactly what was going on.

The fun thing is, you can do this in your role-play, too. It’s trickier, but it can be done despite the lack of a single audience. (As I never tire of saying, in role-play, we are each others audience.)

First up, you can’t use this technique unless you’ve got at least three people in your scene. With two people, there’s really nobody to play with besides the other person, eliminating any “background” to speak of. But if you have three people, you can go to town. Four people or even five can also work in numerous configurations, but three is the easiest to explain. Let’s go through it in steps, for comedy first:

  1. Find a way to abstain yourself from the conversation. You need to get the two other people within the scene to focus on each other rather than you. Normally, just being silent will be enough to pull this off; and in fact most of the time you’ll find yourself in the background and then decide to take a shot at a background gag rather than the other way around. But if your fellow players insist on trying to bring you back into play, you may need to flick up a ‘do you MIND?’ stare, or something similar. Once you’ve been set or set yourself in the background, you’re ready to go.
  2. Set it up. Using primarily emotes (since they’re ‘quieter’ than speech) set up some sequence of events with potentially funny consequences. My personal favourite tactic is to have my character begin experimenting with some device or another (since both of my mains are engineers) in a way that suggests an obvious horrific finish. But you could do all sorts of things: Anything that your character could normally do which might have surprisingly unfortunate consequences work. Have a character who likes to sing? Let them burst loose into song a little ways from the characters talking. We can work with that.
  3. Subvert the action. Set up the tiny disaster that you had ready to go. The engineer’s device explodes in their lap, leading to a /yelled scream and mad dash out of ‘frame’. The singer swallows a bug and /coughs for the next five minutes. When called on the coughing, she responds only in a series of squeaks, yet makes hand gestures showing that no no no, she’s quite alright.
  4. Repeat. If there’s a drinks vendor nearby, try to buy some water to put out your pants/throat. And then get into a silent argument…

It’s an endless trick. In a classic background gag, there shouldn’t be any real consequences to the problem. Your character returns and merely declares, “I need new pants now,” or something similarly deadpan to close the joke.

But what if you want to play it for drama? This is a bit trickier, but it can be done. It’s actually simpler, just more difficult:

  1. Find a way to abstain yourself from the conversation, yet again. The exact same methods apply, just made a bit more dramatic than comedic.
  2. Deliver the event. There’s no setup and payoff here. Just deliver the event. Another player walks up to you and silently hands you a letter (in emote). You read it (in emote) and then slump into a chair. Remember, your goal is to suggest something impossibly important while not drawing attention to it.
  3. Ignore the event. If asked, afterwards, insist it’s of no matter. Bury it. Find any way you can to change the topic. In so doing, you create mystery around the event, and can bring it back out at a later date for major dramatic effect.

It’s a simple trick, but a good one. I’m more fond of using it for comedy, but mainly just because it’s easier. If you have any stories of your own background playing, I’d love to hear about them.


  1. You also may of wanted to mention, combining drama and comedy. For example, the dramatic example you gave could ultimately have a comedic finish down the road. Like say your character over dramatizes things and acts like their world is over upon receiving the letter but eventually when other players get you to share what happen, you reveal it was something of little consequence that turns the situation from worry for your character, to a humorous wtf moment.

    As for examples, I think the possibilities are endless and just how good you can be, is based on your own skill for comedy or drama as well as the tools at your disposal.

    Like take a classic funny event, when your character eats something way too spicy and needs water desperately. Now you could do this normal or take it up a notch, to cartoon proportions. In this you use Smokey’s Lighter to simulate it being so hot it gives you fire breath, and when you run off for water or whatever, you could use Rocket Boots Xtreme to show that your running so fast your making flames. Then find yourself a water source, jump in and come back, asking if anyone has a spare pair of shoes you can borrow as yours are nothing but a smoldering mess now. And to go even further, if you had a water elemental as a mage or had the pet version, you could summon it and ask it to cool you off and just the argument back & forth be comedic until the eventual finish where it try to cool you off but at that point your running so fast; it can’t catch up. So in short, you see a crazy character with flaming breath, running really fast with a fire trail behind them and a water elemental chasing after them all because they ate something spicy lol.

    A more easier one to do would be experimenting like you mentioned before, having your small pet beside you. Then when things go disastrous, you feed it a Papa Hummel’s Old-Fashioned Pet Biscuit and then proceed to be chased by an overgrown pet. Implying that the experiment made it overgrown and even imply you haven’t been feeding it well, hence its chasing after you and trying to eat you. And as you run you can express this by saying, “Ok, I promise to feed you all the muffins you want in the future, just DON’T EAT ME…ahh!”

    All in all, I like this subject for sure obviously! 😀

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