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The Element of Surprise: Whimsy

Written by Expy - Published on March 31, 2010

By Guest Blogger Daniel R. Robichaud

Nothing makes a game session more stale than one too many revisits by the same-old, same-old encounters.  (Fresh campaign, bring on the *yawn* kobolds.)  Though fourth edition monster creation is quite streamlined and rather fun, Dungeon Masters do not need to continually create spiffy new monsters for every encounter.  Sometimes, it is just plain fun to throw a new twist into an old template.  What could be more surprising than a sudden injection of whimsy?

Sure, Dungeons and Dragons styles itself after the great epics of Tolkien, Salvatore, Martin, etcetera.  The art is often heroic and serious.  However, the reality of most gaming sessions is this:  more often than not, the dice roll as badly as they do well, and folks around the table have a laugh or a groan because luck went sour.  (Ha ha, better you than me, man.  Ha ha, better luck next time.)
Players play because they wanna have fun; Dungeon Masters play because they wanna have fun.  Why should laughs show up simply because of luck?  Why not work a laugh or two into the situations, themselves?  An injection of the whimsical can really blow the dust off tried and true (and oft encountered, oft defeated) monster types or combat setting or even non-player characters.  By starting with the expected and then turning things into the ludicrous, players may find themselves reinvigorated with that next encounter, that next skill challenge, that next NPC.

What’s more, whimsy need not be always happy go lucky.  Sometimes it can shift, turning deadly serious in an instant.

Dungeon Masters have to be storytellers.  Sure a game is a collaboration, but the Dungeon Master needs to react to player innovation, needs to present valid challenges, and needs to moderate effectively, keeping the pace going strong.  A good storyteller knows that a laugh at the right time can make drama even more engaging, make sadness even more tragic, and make horror even more chilling.  Of course, throwing in too many laughs can reduce a session to a series of extended jokes–nothing wrong with that, though this can leave players a little unsatisfied.

Here are some ideas and inspirations for whimsical twists for gamers.

Monstrous Flavor Switch

Taking a known creature and giving it a surprising twist can make that creature/NPC memorable.  This can be done outside of the stat-blocks, simply by flavorful adaption, interaction and back story.

Consider this gnoll facelift:

The player characters encounter a pack of gnolls tormenting an elven encampment.  Of course, they are expecting these hyena-folk to be bloodthirsty savages, bent on slaughtering the elves, possibly cooking themselves a pointy eared stew.  Now, what if these gnolls are actually…  Militant vegetarians?

A simple back story explanation could be:  until recently, this pack was held captive in some planar zone, tormented by the promise of being turned into sacrificial fertilizer by a cult of monstrous tree-devils…  After their escape from this servitude, they dedicated themselves to the pacification and eradication of nature, specifically trees.  Their battle cry?  “The only good leaf is a dead leaf!”  They file down their canines to better eat vegetation, they up the amount of leafy greens in their diets, moderated by plenty of proteins (nuts and what have you), and dedicate themselves not to the destruction of the elves (who they might view as stooges of some great Leaf Conspiracy) but to the trees they live in.

Suddenly, the familiar becomes quite strange.  Roleplaying opportunities arise.  A normal situation veers off into whimsical territory.  A weird campaign direction might form–what if there really is a Leaf Conspiracy?

Dungeons and Dragons…  The Musical?

Is your group populated by players who loved that episode of Buffy: The Musical or the nerdcore styling of MC Frontalot?  Why not work this love into the game itself. Have the characters enter into a realm where spontaneous song is the rule.  To encourage player participation, apply +2 or +4 modifiers to actions done to some impromptu song.  This should never be mandatory; the goal for such an activity is Fun, not some megalomaniacal “Perform for my amusement, players, no matter how embarrassed it makes you!” tyranny.  The players well might get into the spirit of things, when the Big Bad starts intoning a Wagnerian-style dirge of “Surprise… You’re dead / I’ll crush your head / Grind bones for bread / A grave, your bed” before every swing…

The Lost Castle of …  Aaaaaaarg

Why not make the quest itself something whimsical.  While the Big Reveal of the final object can certainly be whimsical (Waittaminute, the Tablet of Power is a golden rock with a wand of lightning for a stylus?  You’re kidding, right?), though this can be frustrating to players who enjoy hording Ye Mighty Magic Goods, injecting a little whimsy into the quest itself can bend the entire adventure in just the right way. 

Old School Dungeons and Dragons modules like Dungeonland did this by transplanting the regular dungeon crawl/wilderness exploration action into Alice’s Wonderland.  They DnD’d the Mad Hatter, et. al.  Such a drastic shift can be fun, but whimsy need not be so overblown if your group doesn’t want it to be.  The next time the characters are sent to retrieve ye mighty quest object from monster infested wilds, why not make those wilds an overrun royal zoo dominated by polymorphed critters?  Imagine your players’ surprise when they startle and scatter a pack of grazing juvenile white dragons, only to discover that the hares in the next plot are frost breathing, vicious varmints who attack on sight…

Turning things toward the darker side…

Of course, the landscape itself could be quite whimsical and yet ultimately chilling.  The Feywild is a perfect example of this.  The realm embodies pure lunacy.  Madness might seem comical at first, but at its heart, it is a sickness.  Situations an observer might find funny lose their humor when that observer is forced to learn and play by rules that change at the drop of a hat.  The aforementioned Wonderland inspired modules (which are still floating around the Wizards site in free .pdf copies) often made the Wonderland encounters surprisingly nasty (Ex: A hat that became an assassin’s hood, choking any who put it on).   Then again, plenty of things about Wonderland itself are rather creepy, anyway.  The Walrus and the Carpenter alone are both hilarious caricatures and rather eerie figures, when you pay close attention to the words…

For the Crunchers Out There…

Why not twist a stat block’s flavor or effects?  Instead of a run of the mill ghost, why not have the characters encounter the revenants of a trio of traitorous jesters, figures who performed deadly-funny feats during life, who are now intent on outdoing each other.  The player characters, of course, make for both a wonderful audience and victims at the same time…  A skill challenge Joke-Off may well be called for to escape such opponents.  Active skills should certainly include Endurance, what better way to withstand any literal punchlines?

Instead of kobold slingers throwing glue pots or fire pots, why not give them a fireworks pot–they work similar to firepots, but leave their victim dazed (save ends) by the ooh-ahh color show?  Or how about oily pots, that make a burst one area difficult terrain for the duration of an encounter (suddenly, artillery becomes a controller!), and can be set aflame, burning anyone inside per the effects of alchemical fire?   What if the kobolds have jumbled all their pots together, and are now pulling out random things?  This way, the DM can assemble a list of possibilities and roll a die to randomly determine which is chosen, being surprised as well.

The point is this:  laughs result from something that initially seemed familiar suddenly revealed to be just a little bent.  Use whimsy to kick your encounters from familiar to off the wall memorable, and your players may well love the effort.

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Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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5 Responses to “The Element of Surprise: Whimsy”
  1. kocho says:

    This article is the best I’ve seen in a long time.
    I can think of so many ways to use this, both as a player and a dm.
    I’m still trying to polish the ways to use it as a player, and you already outlined the dm’s abilities with it.
    Thanks for publishing this one guys, it’s great.

  2. Elderon Analas says:

    Expect something new around the corner Kocho. You never know what lurks inside my mind.

  3. TheWhite says:

    Heh me likey the vegetarian gnolls. It is so much easier to just run a game by the books that I sometimes forget that I can do whatever shenanigans I feel like doing. Combine this article with that one from a while back about making minions count and you could have some great encounters.

    How about rats that have to run through some toxic goop to get get to the party, the longer they are in the goop the more they mutate. First rat pops out with one tooth longer than the other, next one has a third eye, next one has an extra paw and a new tail. The longer the encounter takes, the stranger it gets.

  4. The next time your (normally tough) hobgoblin has a player up against a wall, and he misses the player two rounds in a row, have the hobgoblin yell, “You quag shumannn!” and then have the hobgoblin uppercut the player with his elbow (giving him a bloody nose), and then kick the player square in the chest, sending him back up against the wall (all at the very beginning of his turn, without any die rolls). Did anything change for the hobgoblin, mechanically? No. But now the player knows this hobgoblin is pissed and definitely won’t take any prisoners.


  5. Darren says:

    About the Musical side…

    … if my bards ever want to do something, they MUST use songs. Bonuses if it’s cool, even more if the lyrics make coherent sense in the conversation.

    Turns the party joker into a true musical badass.

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