I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months talking about things I don’t like to see in D&D. (See Here) So this week, I thought that I would talk about something I love to see in every campaign: Comedy. I find that sometimes players can get too wrapped up in their character, their back story, and in the adventure at hand. Thus, just like many serious movies and television shows, it is important for DMs to work in a few moments of comedy to break up the tension and let the players have a good laugh. Sometimes this is provided by the PCs themselves without any help from the DM (and that’s a good thing) but other times the DM needs to step in and make something a little silly, or unexpected, or down right hilarious happen. And, after a few years of practice, I have found that the easiest way to do this is to introduce a new NPC to the adventure.
While there is nothing wrong with having an NPC show up for the sole purpose of making the players laugh for a while, the NPC doesn’t have to be labelled “Comic Relief”. That is to say that they don’t have to be a one-trick pony. They can have many uses and even switch back and forth from silly to serious. However, once players get a sense that an NPC is comical, they tend to expect that NPC to go on being comical all of the time. (Incidentally, this is a great vehicle for a DM to implant a spy or traitor into the midst of a group and gain their trust quickly.)
To illustrate what I mean, let me give you four examples of NPCs I have used/witnessed in the past that have been used to good effect:
Originally, I introduced Squee the Pirate Goblin to one of my campaigns because a couple of the players were acting like complete asses and I needed to give them a kick in the pants. Thus the party hired a pirate ship to sail them from city A to city B and Squee was the first mate. During the course of the voyage, my mischievous players attempted to pull-off several pranks which were not only foiled by Squee but usually ended up doing more harm to the perpetrators than anyone else (think Wile E. Coyote). This resulted in an improvised assassination attempt on Squee which failed hilariously. Afterwards, Squee and the other pirates left the PCs marooned on an island.
As you can see, what began as just a comical foil character quickly developed into a conduit to maroon the PCs on an island. As the DM, I was planning on the PCs being left on the island from the beginning but was originally going to have the ship sink in a storm and have the PCs wash-up on shore. I believe that what actually happened was the better story and we all had a lot of fun besides.
From time to time a character named Taloon Sargon shows up in my Forgotten Realms Campaigns. He usually presents himself as a simple Half-Elf Bard looking to tag along with the PCs for a short trip. However, in my Faerun he is really a demi-god servant of Mystra and he loves getting the PCs into no end of trouble. In fact, I have often described him to my players, usually after the fact, as my “Q” character from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He is funny, witty, can be temperamental from time-to-time, and almost always wants to challenge the PCs in some way that they don’t expect.
With his demi-god powers, Taloon often sets up riddles or dungeons that the PCs must solve in order to learn something they need to know for the campaign ahead. This makes him not only a comical and mischievous NPC, but one that the players will look back after the fact and say, “he might have been a pain in the ass but I’m glad he helped us out”.
The Gully Wizard
Once upon a time in a Dragonlance campaign, our party came upon a Gully Dwarf who could mysteriously cast many magic spells. In case you don’t know, Gully Dwarfs are often lucky if they have the intelligence god gave a rock and usually have no greater ambitions than picking their next meal out of a garbage heap. But this one was different. This one could string together mostly coherent sentences, he could cast spells that put our party wizard to shame, and he even provided us with some much needed magical transportation. The only drawbacks were the fact that he was naked except for a robe, smelled like week old fish left out in the sun, and carried around a petrified lizard with which he liked to hit people. It was only later that we figured out that the “Gully Wizard” was in fact a normal Gully Dwarf who had just happened upon the dead body of a powerful wizard and had collected his stuff which included several wands, a Robe of Intelligence, and the legendary Staff of Magius!
In this case, I believe it was finding the legendary staff which was the point of the whole encounter. Although, I have to admit that the phrase “stiff lizard, bring you back from life!” has stuck in my head for the seventeen years since I met him.
Tommy & Turkish
(Note: these two NPCs make a lot more sense if you’ve ever watched the movie Snatch written and directed by Guy Ritchie) While traveling along a road, our party encountered two Gnomes driving a wagon. They introduced themselves as Tommy and Turkish and told us that they were traveling merchants. When one of us asked what goods they dealt in they told us, “garden humans”, and then proceeded to pitch to us all of the many fine uses one could have for miniature painted concrete humans with silly hats. It was enough to send all of us players into fits of laughter.
Thankfully, they also decided to hire our party on as wagon guard (only the best for the garden humans) and we had a lot of fun trading jokes on the way to the next town. I also want to mention that several of us did end up purchasing garden humans from the gnomish pair and would later find them very useful as dungeon tools and improvised weapons.
In conclusion, I want to stress that good DMs know when to use comedy and when to get serious. Good DMs also know how to get the most mileage out of even their silliest NPCs such as using them as vehicles to get to new parts of the story/adventure.