The Gassy Gnoll isn’t much of a comedian. Sure, he can occasionally come up with a witty quote or spontaneously create bad puns like joke grenades (that usually fizzle), but that’s about it. Farting on stage isn’t much of an act, no matter how much movies like Jackass try to make it so. But as we all know, gaming is chock full of comedic gold for a particular audience. And sometimes those gags can make even the most gruesome concepts seem funny.
Many, many, MANY moons ago I went to college and lived on a dorm floor with many other geeks, some of which I still keep in touch with. We had a great time and more than a few nights were exhausted playing 2nd edition D&D. This was long before the edition wars, the rise of Paizo, and the advent of PDF publishing. Everything was done with paper, pencils, and dice. Lots and lots of dice.
One of the campaigns we ran involved a gnomish illusionist/necromancer. I don’t remember the character’s name, but the player was Steve, and he had an odd way of looking at things. His gnome spent time animating any dead folks we either created or caused during our travels through a dungeon. And he would designate a special animated corpse as the lightbearer, casting Continual Light on its head. Though we would eventually deplete our marching army of death, we would send them down halls in front of us to flush out any enemies, set off traps, and generally draw the attention of anything that may have ill intent towards our party. By the end of the night we were often down to just the head of the lightbearer, using it like a bowling ball in front of us.
Though both sick and wrong on so many levels, we got plenty of enjoyment out of our gnomish lord of zombies. And it has made me ponder the ways that others might stand in this gnomish explorer’s shoes to do something similar in more modern editions of D&D like D&D 3.5e/Pathfinder and D&D 4e.
Note that any of these ideas could be used by a GM to lighten the mood or by a player seeking a laugh in a dark situation. I’m not suggesting that EVERY campaign involving undead becomes one pratfall after another, but that they could certainly be used in other ways than the serious among us might suggest.
What are my three main elements of comedic necromancy?
- Failure is Always an Option
- Some NPCs (or PCs) are better off dead (or at least more fun to be around)
- Puddles of Goo are Tough on Your Shoes
When you look at many of the masters of classic comedy such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges, Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, and others, one of the key elements is always pain and failure. I’m a clutz. If I trip and fall on the floor, I often end up laughing at myself as a way to deflect it and make it more bearable. If you watch a Charlie Chaplin movie, his characters always barely succeed at anything he attempts and other people suffer the results. The Three Stooges exaggerated that even further. Ash in Army of Darkness and Evil Dead 2 manages to hurt himself horrifically to defeat the “Deadites” in scene after scene – and yet it’s funny!
Why not use the undead’s lack of serious brain power to good comedic effect in your campaigns? Zombies make perfect lemmings – marching off into space if they think there’s a meal waiting there. Mummies also fall into this category, with a single-minded focus that really can be toyed with.
Some (N)PCs Are More Fun After They’re Dead
Have your PCs ever met an NPC during a campaign and just really disliked them? Why not give them an undead makeover!?
If they were surly, mean, or brutish during life, why not give them a new personality when they die and come back in some form? Demon possession is always a good way to reboot a personality. Maybe you turn them into a wight or even a vampire to reduce them to a feral, snarling beast hungering for blood. Or make them a zombie and lose the personality entirely.
Plus, won’t the PCs feel better knowing that they’re killing an undead version of the unlikeable NPC and not the NPC him or herself?
Puddles of Goo are Tough on Your Shoes
Sometimes old gags are the best. Do your zombies (or other undead) drool or lose body parts? Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if one of the PCs stepped in a puddle of the stuff prior to encountering the beastie? Potential fluids include: blood, saliva, gastric acid, urine, dissolving internal organs such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, and so on.
If you think dog poop is tough to get off your shoes, try stepping in a pile of entrails…
And a few others…
- Though re-animating the dead might be a messy, gory affair, think about how much fun one can have with relatives, friends, acquaintances, or even important historical figures if you brought them back from the dead – even briefly. Finally tell that bully from the 3rd grade just what you think!
- Casting Continual Light on a zombie’s head means someone will always leave the light on for you.
- Zombies are great listeners so long as they’re tied up or chained to a wall… Not much on conversation however.
- Even the most clumsy wizard looks graceful when compared to the dead feet of an animated corpse.
- Why not re-enact major events in history? Raise your own private armies to replay major battles! Haunt castle walls with the skeletons and corpses of fallen heroes in a pinch. Bring back your favorite pet for one more play date in the graveyard!
I’m not a funny gnoll. I know that and accept my limitations. But I don’t go for the whole “undead should be scary and serious all the time” approach. Inject humor occasionally and see where it leads. Don’t force it unless you’re going for “punny” instead of “funny”, but roll with the corpses.
If you need a few inspirational films, check out these: Shaun of the Dead, Army of Darkness and Evil Dead 2, Zombieland, Dead Snow, numerous Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons, Thundercats (Mum-ra has some great one-liners), Michael Jackson’s Thriller, target=”_blank”>Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (not great, but has some fun concepts), and many many more…
Do you have any favorites or tips of your own? Include them in the comments!