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Lloyd the Beholder
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

MONDAY NIGHT. The heroes commandeer an illithid nautilus, and Peter Schaefer’s changeling character figures out how to steer the ship by assuming the form of a mind flayer and inserting his tentacles into the pilot’s control station. He convinces the ship’s elder brain to take the vessel deep into enemy waters by first passing through the Far Realm. The DM (that’s me!) has Peter’s character make a handful of Dungeoneering checks to successfully navigate the Far Realm—and he fails spectacularly. As the ship drifts off course, it picks up three stray beholders who sound an awful lot like Kang and Kodos, the aliens from The Simpsons.

These particular beholders are Far Realm “couch potatoes” who’ve never visited the natural world and have never seen creatures like the PCs before. They’re understandably confused and don’t speak a word of Common, but there are enough PCs who know Deep Speech to glean that one of the beholders is named Lloyd. Still, past experience has taught the characters to attack beholders on sight. As battle erupts, out of nowhere the table conversation quickly degenerates into speculation about how beholders go to the bathroom. This, in turn, triggers a seemingly endless series of poop jokes that (excuse the pun) runs throughout the evening, culminating in the final moment when the warlock’s eldritch blast kills poor Lloyd and the beholder lets out a resounding “Crap!” before exploding.

T his week’s column was hell to write because I always have trouble articulating the importance of humor in D&D games. There’s a reason we don’t tend to write funny D&D products, and that’s because we designers and editors know for a fact that players and DMs bring their own humor to the game table, and no one seems to have trouble mining an otherwise straight adventure for comedy gold. In short, D&D players are, by and large, connoisseurs of comedy. Many were raised on Monty Python, for Pete’s sake. I’ve never met a D&D player who was too lofty to appreciate a good fart or poop joke. (That is to say, a good fart joke, as opposed to a good fart.)

I’m the first to admit it: Although my campaign is occasionally lauded for its entwined plots, strange twists, and rocket pace, there are times when it wallows in poop jokes and is more akin to the games I used to run in junior high, which were lewd—and not in a cool Shakespearean way.

This week’s session wasn’t a very accurate snapshot of the Monday night campaign. It’s more like one of those offbeat, funny episodes of The X-Files that pop up once or twice per season. Just as humor can insinuate itself into otherwise serious TV shows, comedy is an integral ingredient in my campaign, and I suspect most other campaigns as well, but it’s more like a spice or seasoning than a main ingredient. I take my D&D campaign seriously in terms of its entertainment value to my players, which is to say, I put a lot of effort into making sure my players come back week after week by creating an immersive experience with lots of action, roleplaying, and surprises. However, it makes for a refreshing change of pace to inject a bit of silliness now and then.

Jeremy Crawford, who plays the party wizard, said it best in jest: “You’ve ruined beholders! We’ll never look at them the same way again!” I place the blame squarely on Peter Schaefer’s shoulders, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. But first, a cautionary note . . .

Humor can spoil a campaign. I’ve seen it happen. It begins when a player decides to name his half-orc paladin “Sir Fartsalot” or when the characters enter a tavern in Waterdeep and see the cast of Cheers sitting at the bar. Sometimes humor takes you OUT of the campaign world, and it’s hard to get players back into it. I remember playing in Monte Cook’s remarkable Ptolus campaign and witnessing rare moments of frustration and disappointment whenever we, the players, cavalierly assigned silly monikers to villains who failed or declined to announce themselves by name. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Monte shaking his head and replying “Yes, fine, whatever” after we decided to “name” one of his carefully crafted NPC villains “Mister Poopiehead.” It’s been my experience that bad names tend to stick, and once the players take to calling your NPC “Mister Poopiehead,” there’s very little you can do but flush Mister Poopiehead down the proverbial toilet and never speak of him again or fling him at the characters and hope they learn to take him seriously.

It’s been my experience that, outside of the weekly dose of playful banter, humor is best used in small, judicious doses and in situations that work within the context of the encounter or scene. My decision to name one of the beholders Lloyd was spontaneous, as was the decision to model his voice and personality after Kang’s. I was running what amounted to a random encounter (in other words, the beholders weren’t crucial to the campaign in any way), I was in a weird mood, and these impromptu (and arguably ill-advised) decisions basically gave my players license to assign the other beholders similarly ludicrous names. Consequently, the party’s journey through the Far Realm took an offbeat yet appropriately surreal turn. The players were a little taken aback at first, but I can’t help but feel that “Lloyd” is a perfectly cromulent beholder name.

My style of DMing changes depending on the group of players I’m with. If you watched me DM a game for Acquisitions Incorporated and then participated in one of my home game sessions, you’d see subtle and not-so-subtle changes in my DM “performance.” I tend to vary my DM style slightly even between my Monday and Wednesday night campaigns, as Peter Schaefer recently experienced when he crossed over from my Monday group to be a special guest star in my Wednesday night game. That’s because I’m playing to a different audience, and different groups of players have different expectations. By comparison, when I run games at conventions, I tend to be a bit more “neutral” as a DM and put a lid on the poop jokes . . . at least until I get to know my players better.

My Monday group is, generally speaking, far less likely to wallow in filth than the Wednesday night group. The running gag is that that Monday group playfully disparages the Wednesday group for being a bunch of uncouth, self-destructive barbarians, whereas the Wednesday group accuses the Monday heroes of solving all their campaign woes by sipping tea and chatting with the baddies. This past Monday session was unusual for a number of reasons, first and foremost because the Monday players were less focused than usual and had “devolved” after a back-to-back weeks of not playing. Peter also imported a little of the Wednesday night group’s uncouth barbarism to the Monday evening proceedings. He was the one who dropped the first poop joke of the evening, as I recall, and he also instigated the fight by attacking the beholders without provocation. That’s not to say I’m blameless. When things started to get really silly, I could’ve told the players to can it. Instead, I added methane to the fire by referring to the lieutenant of an important NPC as his “number two.” The truth is, when I’m feeling jovial, I drop things into the campaign that are deliberately intended to spark a laugh, such as the occasional mock-worthy NPC, laughable accent, and movie quote. But when I tire of the jokes and want to press forward with the campaign, I suddenly turn very serious and ask pointed questions to deflate the ballooning silliness, such as “What do you do?” and “Is your character taking any actions this round?” That’s the queue to settle down and gets the players back on track in a hurry. Good humor has its place and knows it place.

Lessons Learned

My sense of humor is very much in line with my players’ senses of humor, and therefore I can get away with Lloyd the beholder in my game. Lloyd might not strike you as funny or the type of thing your players will find amusing. A good DM plays to his or her audience and gives players queues to help them grasp the intended mood of the game session. If you’re running an intense session, you don’t want it to become a farce by having the villain or monster break wind. However, I’ll just come out and say it: No campaign is too good or too highbrow for a little potty humor now and then. And by “potty humor,” I mean the general silliness that transpires when a bunch of adults sit around a table and act like 11-year-olds, pretending to be cooler and hipper than they really are (or ever will be). As a DM, I invest a lot of time thinking about my campaign and finding ways to keep the game moving forward. Sometimes I forget that my players don’t need multilayered plots and deep, immersive roleplaying opportunities to be entertained. Sometimes they need Lloyd the beholder, and they’ll remember him fondly too!

I’m reminded of the television series Angel, starring David Boreanaz as “the vampire with a soul.” The dark and brooding protagonist gave the show a grim intensity, and yet Angel had all sorts of little comic flourishes to remind viewers that they were being entertained, not tortured. I’ve been in campaigns that were pure torture because the DM scowled at every attempt to inject a little humor into the characters and the situations they faced. This week’s encounter with Lloyd and his beholder buddies was like that final season episode where Angel is transformed into a vampire muppet. I remember thinking “THIS IS THE BEST EPISODE EVER!” while simultaneously acknowledging that it neither defines nor spoils the series as a whole. It works best as a one-off, and it drives home a couple key points:

  • You can punctuate a fairly serious campaign with humorous moments and interludes without ruining it.
  • The DM sets the tone for the game session, and players who are “on their game” will usually follow the DM’s lead.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Imagine there's an encounter in your home campaign that features a room with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. What's the chance that a PC will either swing from it or drop it on someone?
About 25% 30.3%
About 50% 23.7%
About 75% 20.6%
100% 16.3%
0% 9.1%

Which of the following statements best describes you as a player?
I tend to play characters who are about as smart and/or wise as I am. 58.0%
I tend to play characters dumber and/or more reckless than me. 23.9%
I tend to play characters who are smarter and/or wiser than me. 18.1%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #39A

 How do you feel about off-topic humor during your game sessions?  
I don’t like it at all.
It bothers me sometimes, but usually it’s alright.
I’m cool with it in short controlled bursts.
I like it, and it doesn’t seem to adversely affect the game.
I like it, and it pretty much dominates the game.

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #39B

 Hey DMs: How often do you incorporate comedic elements into your game sessions?  
All the time. I run a very light-hearted campaign.
Once in a while, when it’s appropriate for the campaign.
Once in a while, but usually on a whim. It isn’t something I plan in advance.
Rarely. It doesn’t really fit the tone of the campaign.
I don’t need to—there’s enough incidental humor in the game already.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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