GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week we talked about rewriting adventures midstream because of spoilers, and this week we cover creating a range of NPC voices
Watching shows like Vampire the Masquerade: L.A. by Night sometimes make our home games seem… bland. Chances are we are lacking a crew of amazingly talented voice actors and theater people. Even with amazing role-players at the table, the kind who can fully immerse themselves, players get off easy. They only have to worry about roleplaying one character. Storytellers need to act out, narrate, and engage in witty repartee from a variety of NPC’s—often without any warning.
Often, this leads to some poor unfortunate soul butchering every known accent on the planet. Every dwarf becomes Scottish or Irish, humans find themselves hailing from eastern Europe, and near every vampire is inexplicably British (there’s a story there). Don’t deny yourself the amazing storyteller tool if you’re one of the talented folks who can pull off accents. If you’re mono-linguistic bloke who can’t mimic anyone well, just let that dream die my friends. There are better ways to improve your range of NPC voices without being a walking trope machine.
Save Random Business Cards
Inspiration for NPC’s can come from a variety of movie and television sources, but chances are your friends have also seen those same pop culture references. While that makes it easy to establish a quick connection, not every dwarf in the world can be Gimli. I’ve found collecting business cards and saving them for NPC’s is a veritable gold mine of voices and personalities. Each card contains a name, a title, some little logo, and perhaps even a memory associated with it.
When your party runs into a random soldier and strikes up a conversation, slide a card out behind your screen. A sun logo for the company might make them a follower of a sun god, change the name to fit your campaign, and use any location given to determine the NPC’s personal house. Perhaps this soldier follows the sun goddess because he lives in a rather run down area of the empire where gnomes throw their trash out and the once blue ponds; are now a slimy green and covered with alchemical concoctions. Having such a quick method to generate NPC’s that have depth to them will reflect in the manner you roleplay them.
Use Your Hands
Since not everyone can use saucy accents, we’ve to find other ways for NPC diversity. Gestures, posture, sitting or standing, leaning in or lounging back are all ways to achieve exactly that. Your voice, tone, and mannerisms will all change naturally by physically changing your posture and it’s a trick many actors all use. Hugging yourself while talking softly can portray vulnerability while pulling your shoulder blades together and speaking with volume portrays confidence. Making eye contact with players, or fixing on the wall behind them (as strange as that sounds) can quickly identify if that NPC is actually interested in engagement.
There are smaller mannerisms or ticks, you can assign to each repeat NPC. Perhaps the local guardsman always taps his fingers on the table when he speaks, or the grand arch wizard always has something stuck in his teeth. These little physical quirks can seem eccentric or downright humourous, but they will leave an impact on your players. Small quirks also equate to physical memory for us storytellers! When you have quirks for your NPC’s you naturally jog your body and voice into the various roles—allowing you to shift between NPC’s easier and have variety at the table.
NPC’s without conflict are often bland NPC’s. Nobody exists in a vacuum, and while some gamers espouse themselves as masters of the logical—emotions rule us all. Before your next game session, write down the 7 Dwarves (Sleepy, Happy, Grumpy… etc) or the 7 Deadly Sins (Wrath, Gluttony, etc) and use these as a framework for conflict. When that character is interacting with the players, imagine what life event caused their condition. When your tire blows out on an expressway and you’ve had a shitty day, that will impact your attitude, and the same should be said for the NPCs. Hilariously, I’ve had players sometimes remember the conflicted event, rather than the NPC’s name. “That one shopkeeper… the one whose horse broke their leg.”
Conflict can also be externally facing to the players themselves. Wide and eccentric emotions, irrational, or heartfelt can all be brought down upon the characters with little-to-no-explanation. One moment they are at a tavern gathering information, and the next thing the bartender is sobbing on their shoulder about forlorn love. Checking into an inn can be mundane, or a precocious seer knows that the players bring bad news and death with them—and openly calls them out on it. Taking a conflicted emotion or condition is even more important for recurring NPCs as their lives need to change and alter as the characters campaign.
What tricks do you use for NPC variety? Let us know what worked for you in the comments below!
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Image Credits: Hugo Cardenas, Critical Role
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.