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General Comic Relief Villains

Fauchard1520

Explorer
Dark Helmet from Spaceballs. Jesse and James from Pokemon. Some of the sillier incarnations of the Joker. There are plenty of comic antagonists in fiction, but I've never tried to use them in a game. I guess I worry that they might ruin the tone of heroic fantasy, breaking down the barrier between the players' pop culture references and the internal logic of the game world.

So here's my question to the board: Have you ever used a less-than-serious villain in a game? Did the tone shift work, or did you find yourself pining for more serious forms of villainy?

(comic for illustrative purposes)
 

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humble minion

Adventurer
I've often used comic villains, but never used ONLY comic villains. The incestuous hillbilly gungan darksider in a Star Wars game, the hilariously arrogant nobleman rival in Savage Tide (and his creepily servile minion). A couple of change-of-pace one shot villains in a superhero game (but comic relief is basically genre-standard there, after all). They've generally been very very well received (better than my actual villainish villains, often). You can really go hammy with your portrayal of them (goofy voices and all) even if that's not your normal GMing style, and it'll fit in really well and can be really memorable. And if you're running a campaign where the main antagonists are distant, humourless, or inhumanly horrifying, then a comic relief guy is a good way of actually bantering with the PCs, needling their emotional weaknesses/hypocrisies/divisions/etc. Sauron is a great bad guy, but Gollum makes it personal.

I've never tried to have a comedy relief villain as the actual main antagonist though. A main antagonist - unless in an entirely comic campaign - has to be either hated or feared, and comic reliefs are generally neither (though they're frequently despised). They work perfectly well as sidekicks to the main bad guy, or sidequest bad guys as a change of pace, or long-running rival-types who never quite get to full 'I try to cut his head off!' enemy status. Or as additional encumbrances when the PCs are trying to accomplish some other arduous task - a dangerous journey, or some difficult politicking or whatever.

Things to watch out for - the longer your comic relief villain lasts, the more effective he is. If the PCs kill him in their first encounter he'll just be gone, even if he got a couple of quips off before biting the big one. Think of a reason they can't kill him. Give him a reason for wanting to talk to them or interact with them too, because that's where the comedy is.
 

jgsugden

Legend
All the time. However, my comedy is usually a set up for tragedy and my tragedy often ends in comedy.

My kobolds and goblins are often a bit silly, but in a dark humor way. They'll rip the flesh from your bones, but they fumble over each other in their own respective socially awkward ways.

Ogres and Ettins are often played up as silly levels of dumb. I encourage players to outsmart these enemies with openings for them to trick the big lugs into disaster.

Many Devils (as well as Glabrezu) channel used car salesmen. They're there to give you the deal you never knew you needed, and all it will cost is the soul you've never even held in your hands.

PCs seem to enjoy nothing more than taking a mega bad guy and giving him an embarrassing end. One of the things I do before a session is come up with a few setup lines that give players fairly obvious (in my mind) set ups for zingers to throw at the bad guy. These often take the bad guy they feared down a few pegs to make them feel like they've turned the tide and have control of a battle.

I have one recurring bad guy - a Rakshasa - that has a decidedly twisted sense of humor. He leaves jokes for the friends and family of his loved ones, and the method he uses to kill his targets is the punch line. The angrier he is, the less funny the joke (is supposed to be). For example, the first time they encountered him, the Rakshasa had left a message for a noble asking how a (Panda-like creature) that found a bamboo plant was like the Rakshasa? Then the PCs discovered a grisly scene where the Rakhsasa had feasted on the heart of the noble's son and then fired a poisoned bow into the heart of the princess the son was to have wed. The age old answer: "He eats shoots & leaves / he eats, shoots and leaves". After they'd killed the Rakshasa a couple times, it murdered the betrothed of one of the PCs (who was recently made 'king') - "How is your lady like your people? They're both your fault." That was followed by a few Earthquake spells that killed hundreds.
 

I definitely have had some silly/bumbling/too darn weird villains. It generally works out well, as long as you don't overdo it. It's a matter of matching the tone of the game. I don't want my current campaign to be all grimdark, so I introduce light-hearted elements to lighten the mood. So for villains we've had Scape (an Alliumite from the Creature Codex - essentially a garlicfolk race), and Triivaz, a foppish purple four-armed concierge at a vacation resort who orchestrated the murder of a longstanding guest because he was insufferably arrogant and didn't tip. Sure, there've also been vampires and shadow-magic wielding crime lords, but I work very hard to modulate the tone.
 

Voranzovin

Villager
I've started doing this almost exclusively, actually, to fit with the arch tone that I've been trying to give my campaigns. "Heroic fantasy" never entirely worked for me because PCs are almost universally goofballs. Leaning into it by going for dry, cheerfully dark comedy is working much better.

I recently ran a heavily-reconfigured Tomb of Annihilation. Accordingly, discussion that follows is behind a spoiler cut.

I treated both Ras Nsi and Acererak as comedy villains. Ras I played as vain, lazy, and incompetent (after all, he's been hanging out in Omu for an awfully long time without accomplishing much of anything). When he first encountered the PCs, he announced himself as the Serpent that Poisons your Dreams with Fear and suggested that they cower before his legendary presence. He was shocked when he discovered that the PCs, who had not been paying all that much attention to local legends in Port Nyanzaru, had no idea who he was, and never quite recovered his momentum.

Also, he sounded exactly like Cobra Commander, or at least my best attempt to sound like Cobra Commander.

I tried to play Acererak as a much more serious threat, but added a bunch of comic elements to him as well. He instigated the entire campaign, not by creating the Soulmonger, but by starting a rumor that there was a powerful and dangerous artifact hidden in Omu and then hiring multiple adventuring parties through intermediaries to go find the lost city and retrieve it. In fact, there was no such artifact in the Tomb of the Nine Gods. He just wanted to watch a bunch of adventuring parties fight each other across Chult for the privilege to go get his nonexistant mguffin for his own amusement, and so he could ask any of them who made it to the tomb (whether they were dead or alive at the time) for notes on their experiences of his death traps. Basically, the entire campaign existed so that Acererak could collect user data.

He was real smug about it too. I think that gave the PCs an extra charge when they finally took him down.
 

Eltab

Hero
You could create a villain who takes all the old Rodney Dangerfield "I don't get no respect" lines and inflicts those acts on other people, but thinks it is hilariously funny.

Darth Sidious would not have been the same ominous presence if his alter ego were Jar Jar Binks.
 

Legatus_Legionis

< BLAH HA Ha ha >
I don't do it that often.

IIRC, the ruins of castle greyhawk was full of such comedy elements.

Mostly, I have serious villians.

...
Darth Sidious would not have been the same ominous presence if his alter ego were Jar Jar Binks.
But according to some fan theories, it was Darth Jar Jar who manipulated Palpaltine to meet Darth Plagueis.
It was Jar Jar who put the motion to give Palpaltine emergency powers (leading to him becoming emperor), etc.
 

I occasionally use a comical villain and when I do it usually ends up being a gnome. I had the PCs in my last campaign go up against a fearsome lich antagonist, "the Darklord Drago von Mordak," who wasn't quite as fearsome once they found out in life he had been a gnome wizard named Toofles Pigwilligan. And in that same campaign, I had an evil gnome baker/wizard named Pogo Snuffmuffin take out the PCs' entire adventuring guild by turning everyone to stone. I've also used the ghost of a jester-like figure called the Prime Fool and he was actually not a gnome.

But while I do tend to have comical elements in many of my adventures (the PCs in my current campaign had to fight off swarms of bunnies in one early adventure dealing with a lovesick druid and a more recent excursion into Gamma World brought them into contact with a group of mutant humans who worshiped Santa Claus), most of my villains skew towards the serious side.

Johnathan
 


Iry

Hero
I used a barbarian named Nolo. The villains kept using him as a henchman because he was so cheap, but when they start explaining their evil plan... He would fly into a rage and charge the party screaming "Monologue!"

Not only was this a joke about monologues, it was also a joke about characters rushing in like Leeroy Jenkins.

The party eventually killed him and chopped up his body to avoid a Disney death.. but many months later they encountered a necromancer with his death knight guardian. :cool:
 

Fauchard1520

Explorer
"Heroic fantasy" never entirely worked for me because PCs are almost universally goofballs.
That's the issue in a nutshell. It seems like you can either let them get it out of their system and then steer the campaign towards a more serious tone (see also slappy), or you can just join the fun and go the Xykon route. Weighing the pros and cons of the approaches is where I'm at right now.
 

Blackrat

He Who Lurks Beyond The Veil
Speaking of gungans, I had a gungan assassin/bounty hunter as an adversary in SW game once. He was very much the bumbling idiot that everyone expected him to be. Except when it came time to roll init. He gave the team a fight for their lives, dual wielding lightsaber-nunchucks and leaping around the battlefield 😂
 

Me and a friend were co-DMing a 2E game in the 90s where every so often we'd randomly insert an aged rock star into the game for comic relief. They'd be transported from earth and left momentarily dazed and confused, (no pun intended) by their surroundings. The two that come to mind specifically was Ronnie James Dio getting his head lopped off by a Natural 20, and the PCs putting Glen Frey in shackles and enslaving him making him tend the fields of their farm. The running joke for years was that Keith Richards was the Lich-God behind the entire multiverse.
 

I also recall I once used a "comic relief" villain in a Champions superhero adventure. It was a solo campaign - my son was playing an Iron Man type of armored superhero named Jetstar - and I had him fight a party clown (who made balloon animals) who had recently been struck by lightning and gained super speed as a result. Taking the supervillain name "Velocilaughter" he engaged in a reign of mischief, secure in the belief nobody was quick enough to stop him. Sure enough, when Jetstar first engaged him in battle he had his combat armor defaced by Velocilaughter with spray paint (a graphic image of male genitalia and some crude language) in a matter of mere seconds. Jetstar eventually lured Velocilaughter into the men's room of a downtown bar where the super-fast clown didn't have enough room to maneuver, thereby negating the effects of his superspeed and allowing Jetstar to take him down with a series of well-placed energy blasts.

Johnathan
 

Eltab

Hero
Sure enough, when Jetstar first engaged him in battle he had his combat armor defaced by Velocilaughter with spray paint (a graphic image of male genitalia and some crude language) in a matter of mere seconds. Jetstar eventually lured Velocilaughter into the men's room of a downtown bar where the super-fast clown didn't have enough room to maneuver, thereby negating the effects of his superspeed and allowing Jetstar to take him down with a series of well-placed energy blasts.
Did he give the villain a swirly after defeating him and before calling the cops?
 

TarragonVix

Villager
My campaigns were always serious so the one time I tried a funny villan, it paid off big time. I put the group though a tense, scary dungeon crawl featuring lots of deadly traps & undead. I scared the hell out of them. They met a ghoul who told the adventures his master was the most horrible necromancer in the realms. It told the group they will rather die than encounter him. When they met the necromancer, I didn't make him a stereotypical powerful evil mastermind. I made him an short, overweight, scared bumbling idiot. I played him WAY over the top with his megalomania and evil mustache twirling zeal. He declared in his high pitch & cracking voice "You will rue the day you crossed THE MIGHTY TANG!" The ghouls with him face palmed and said "help us! He's horrible." My group couldn't quit laughing. Yeah, it helps if you know me & that's not my usual thing. The best part was they didn't kill him. They captured & interrogated him then sent him to jail. I got to bring him back often for a while. He was a blast to play. Almost 20 years later, all my friend's can remember about my campaigns were how scary & tense I could make them. And The Mighty Tang!
 

Fauchard1520

Explorer
Almost 20 years later, all my friend's can remember about my campaigns were how scary & tense I could make them. And The Mighty Tang!
I think the concept of dynamics is interesting here. You set a baseline and then break it for additional effect. That might be the key in making the comedy work: it's exceptional when it does come up, so it doesn't have a chance to become played-out.
 

Have you ever used a less-than-serious villain in a game? Did the tone shift work, or did you find yourself pining for more serious forms of villainy?
Sorta. I don't use comic relief for primary villains. It doesn't fit the tone. But, that doesn't mean that I won't spice things up. For example, in a recent adaptation of the classic "Savage Tide" campaign path, the lair of the leader of a gang had in it (pre-written in the adventure, kudos authors) her collection of spicy pirate romance novels (I made up some titles) and sexy lingerie. It added an additional layer, albeit somewhat goofy, to the campaign. But, it had a purpose, and I'm of the same mindset: use comical if it makes the world make more sense.

In her case, it did. The party was chasing the guild leader's lover, who had killed his family and stolen his inheritance with help of the gang. But why would this vicious gang leader tolerate this fop? Well, through the adventure, they come to find he "swept her off her feet," much in the nature of her books. Despite all her viciousness, she's got a soft spot for the character and he fit the mold. So, this "less than serious" material of finding her romance novels and sexy silk gowns ties into why things played out the way they did. And, in the end, this makes this bad guy even more despicable. He's not elite, he's not a skilled warrior or wizard. He's simply skilled at reading and manipulating people.
 

Fauchard1520

Explorer
So, this "less than serious" material of finding her romance novels and sexy silk gowns ties into why things played out the way they did. And, in the end, this makes this bad guy even more despicable. He's not elite, he's not a skilled warrior or wizard. He's simply skilled at reading and manipulating people.
Well now you've got me curious. What became of the gang leader? Did her comic overtones make her a redeemable villain, or did she get tossed onto the dead bad guy pile with the rest of 'em?
 

Well now you've got me curious. What became of the gang leader? Did her comic overtones make her a redeemable villain, or did she get tossed onto the dead bad guy pile with the rest of 'em?
SPOILER FOR SAVAGE TIDE

Covid put our game on hold, but currently she's alive and out for revenge after the party wiped out her guild, took her books, and looted her treasury (returning most of it to the people from which she stole). They're on a months-long ship ride to the Isle of Dread, and she's covertly on the ship, trying to sabotage and kill them, which isn't easy when you're talking a tightly packed caravel, even with magic. The party knows someone is out to get them and assumes it's a passenger. Alas, her comic relief part is over, though I have no idea what will happen if they catch her (and it's likely only a matter of time).

Now that we mention the guild, the biggest laugh was finding the guild's kobold cook, whose name was "Churtle." One of my players immediately began laughing when the cowardly kobold said its name. Apparently, and I didn't know it at the time, "churtle" is a slang word for vomit. I presume the author had a clever sense of humor to slip that in there. That's the kind of subtle comic relief I look for.
 

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