Obviously, this will work with run-of-the-mill NPCs: badass mercenaries, otherwise boring experts, or just portable boxes of healing. But where this idea really works is when you want an NPC to be liked.
For instance, let’s say you will be using an NPC as a hostage, and you want the group (and by extension, the party) to actually care about this person, make him funny. Give him a few scenes in which to flex his funnybone, and then drop the net over him. If you’re running a modern or sci-fi campaign, let him crack a joke or two during the intense “we’re serious; here’s our proof” phone call. Give him a good one-liner when the heroes do finally show up.
And if you want a conflicted villain, or one that isn’t all-out evil, a sense of humor goes a long way towards humanizing the opposition. If it doesn’t fit the role, make her number one henchman the source of ‘teh funy’. Strive for a sense of loss when Our Heroes finally put down/away the wiseacre.
Great idea, but how do I do that?
Do what comedians do: Write your material in advance. Don’t try to be spontaneously funny, unless you’re naturally good at it. Think of it as game prep, and keep a crib sheet handy whenever that NPC is present.
Come up with probable scenarios, and appropriate one-liners for them. Test them out on your (non-player) friends. These can be scenes that the NPC is in, or situations like getting rescued, helping out unexpectedly, etc.
Steal Acquire your material from movies and other media; we all do it. A good “yippie ki-yay, motherfucker” is always welcome (unless your group already overuses it). Heck, nearly any Bruce Willis movie is good source material.
Envision your players’ characters, and if they’re as radically different a bunch as most parties, you can always use this one: “What is this, the setup for a joke? A Paladin, an Elf, and a large-breasted Dragon walk into a tavern…”
Done right, you’ll have a memorable NPC that the players (and their characters) will appreciate. Even as they blow him or her away.
Have you used humor to good (or ill) effect in your games? Sound off in the comments and let us know!