Clearly Portraying NPCs

It’s Friday night. Into the ancient gnomish outpost (now ruled by a maniacal beholder) the Iskryn group delves, knowing of the brutal ice trolls and sentient soulforged that wait below. Before they are able to descend, a group of the beholder’s minions attacks their fortified resting location, oh no! Alas, they are barely able to fend them off before another squad arrives, led by a distinct soulforged armed with a glowing greatbow and two frosty scimitars. “He’s watched you long enough - Aku, Dani, and Cloud in the Eyes. From afar, he’s witnessed your glorious victories and embarrassing defeats. Now, as you assault one of his lairs, he seeks to speak. You’ll likely want to accept.” The players immediately look to me, asking, “Does he seem sincere? How many soulforged are in his control? Is anyone else coming?” My voice, speaking style, and demeanor all change as I transform from Tamus the soulforged captain to RJ, the dungeon master and deity of this campaign. “First,” I say, “Yes, yes he does seem sincere. You’d better take it to heart because you’re in a difficult, no-good situation...”

The last article I wrote was met with extreme praise, to my satisfaction. Lots of folks resonated with the belief that the world of a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS campaign would feel more alive, connected, and compelling if NPCs held different opinions, told outright lies, and said ‘facts’ that were untrue. However, a few people posed the following question to me:

“How do you get your players to differentiate between you as the dungeon master and you as an NPC in the game?”

This article is the result of answering that query.

Appearances & Voices

The simplest method of distinguishing between you and an NPC speaking is to alter your appearance and voice when you’re portraying an NPC. You could be a spectacular voice actor or you could be me, it matters not! There’s a myriad of ways to affect your voice to make it clear that you’re Torzik the half-orc weapon master and not Natalie the dungeon master. Here’s a brief list to help you out:
  1. Use an accent.
  2. Change your pitch.
  3. Speak slower or faster.
  4. Slur your voice.
  5. Squeeze your nose.
  6. Close part of your mouth.
  7. Repeat a certain phrase.
  8. Wheeze, don’t speak.
Another possible avenue that works well both alone and in tandem with altering your voice is changing your appearance. Most players quickly respond to visual cues: A sinister black dragon mini is pulled out from behind the DM screen - wow! Two handfuls of dice are tossed onto the table when Yeenoghu strikes them with his living flail - oh no! Visual representations can also be used for NPCs. Contorting your face, standing upright, or even harshly closing your eyes can have an extraordinary effect on your portrayal of an NPC and how your players are receiving it. When you’re playing the one-eyed fire giant smith the party needs to reforge an ancient hammer, slam your left eye shut. As you interrogate your group who’s been imprisoned by a maniacal mindflayer, slowly weave around the table, getting uncomfortably close to your players. How does a beholder’s face move? Probably in eccentric, unpredictable ways; show them that as you speak as Zorian the Eye Tyrant.

Your voice, mouth, eyes, nose, cheeks, well, everything you use daily as a person can be used to portray an NPC well. It’s up to you to make it happen.

Telling and Trusting

Lucky for some of you, being able to change your voice and demeanor in the span of a second isn’t at all necessary to convincingly portray an NPC. Alternatively, you can either outright tell your players when you are a certain NPC, or trust that they’ll understand when you’re playing one. If you can’t or refuse to do voices, I’d recommend the former tactic. To let players know you’re not speaking as the dungeon master, say something like:
  1. I’m speaking as Crath, now.
  2. Crath says…
  3. The battle master interrupts you…
  4. Crath shouts…
When you’re playing this way, you’re more of an author than an actor. You may be speaking as these characters: The battle master, the pissed off red dragon, or the sobbing elf, but you are not showing your players how they speak. Instead, you’re telling them. You don’t need to shout; you simply state, “Crath shouts.” There’s no need to use a gravelly voice; instead, you tell your players, “Crath’s voice is deep and gravelly, but unshaken and strong.” Some people prefer this style of NPC portrayal, others do not. Use whatever suits you and your group.

Further Examples

Associating voices with an NPC can be difficult for the DM, as you usually play a huge variety of characters; thus, I recommend you write short descriptors of what they sound like beside an NPC’s notes. Here’s a few examples:
  1. Nastodon. Minotaur forgemaster. deep, cracking voice; snorts often.
  2. Hector. Dwarf merchant and councilor. Bellowing, cheerful voice; Scottish accent.
  3. Boss Vicoutl. Yuan-ti pureblood weapon master. Slight lisp, emphasizes s’s, Southern accent.
  4. Tick. Half-orc looter. Slow, seductive, and deep voice.
  5. Cyclon. Aarakocra druid. Caws at the end of sentences, quite loud.

In Summary

Making it clear that you’re playing as an NPC and not yourself, the dungeon master, is key when attempting to lie outright or mistakenly as an NPC in your world. To do so:
  1. Change your appearance or voice when you’re portraying an NPC.
  2. Not a voice actor and don’t want to try? Don’t worry, simply tell your players that a certain NPC is speaking to them.
  3. Ensure you remember what an NPC sounds like by writing descriptors of their voice in the NPC’s notes.
Until next time, farewell!

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No One Is Omniscient

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It’s Friday night. The Iskryn group has spent the past eight sessions on the hunt for a gnomish artifact, device, prison, or person. Every step of the way, the people they’ve met and discussed this ancient gnomish thing with have had conflicting viewpoints on what it is. Gitro, a human researcher from a powerful mage tower claimed it was a relic of the gnome’s first days in Iskryn. Magus Sint, a halfling archmage and warlock was sure it was an entire prison, trapping the souls of long-dead beasts. And Voros, a red dragonborn knowledge-savant, thought this sought after gnomish thing was an actual gnome that’s somehow survived millennia after his race’s apparent extinction. Slowly, they’re delving deeper into the mystery of this gnomish thing, learning of its deadly history and purpose. Still, though, they’re unsure who to trust.

I have my players in a pickle; who do they trust, and how do they determine if what that character thinks is the truth is the actual truth. Well, as the dungeon master, I know who’s right and who’s wrong, because of course some of them are incorrect. In Dungeons and Dragons, as in real life, no one is omniscient. Using this truth and technique is a great way to make your game and NPCs feel alive. The trick is learning how to do this well.

Anyone can have NPCs tell their own truths. The blacksmith can think the town’s priest is working alongside the goblin tribe harassing traveling townsfolk, while the cleric can believe the same about the blacksmith. Having this scenario work successfully, though, requires finesse on your part. This week, you’re going to learn how to portray conflicting viewpoints convincingly.

Portray a Character, Not a Deity

The first obstacle you’ll have to surpass, especially if you’re playing with newer players, is the fact that you’re portraying a cast of characters. You, the dungeon master, are not in the game. Tales, facts, and opinions you state as a character in the game should not be held as absolute truths by players. You can gently remind players that this is the case, but, eventually, they should understand that your knowledge is not the same pool of knowledge as the blacksmith. Don’t think you’re off the hook, though. You need to remember that you’re playing characters, environments, and monsters and that their knowledge is limited. Sure, sometimes you might give a character a piece of information you didn’t plan on them having when the PCs first interacted with him, but if the world around your group is acutely aware of everything that’s going on and they’re always right, you’re doing something wrong.

Portray a character, not a deity. Embody the blacksmith, become the priest; live inside the character’s minds, not your own.

Give NPCs Reasonable Perspectives

Every NPC should believe what they’re saying for a reason. Most people in your world shouldn’t simply spout information just to enhance your PCs knowledge. Instead, they should make claims and spew facts because they believe in what they’re saying. This is key; if your NPCs aren’t believable, your world and your game will fall into the same trap. The blacksmith needs to have a reason why he thinks the cleric is in cahoots with the goblin tribe. He might have witnessed the goblin’s drinking healing potions similar to the ones the priest makes. Vice versa, maybe the cleric noticed the short swords and metal shields the goblins were wielding had a resemblance to the equipment forged by the blacksmith. Or maybe the blacksmith committed a fault against the cleric long ago, and he’s looking for a way to get back at him, no matter the cost. Even the divine can be corrupted.

The point is, NPCs should hold differing opinions for a reason, not ‘just because.’ If you make two characters at odds for drama and don’t have any substance behind it, the story and enjoyment of everyone at the table will suffer. However, if you manage to do this, create characters that disagree and give the party various pieces of information that contradict AND they’re believable, you’ve succeeded and the game will become far more interesting.

Let's expand on the blacksmith-priest scenario, just to get you started.

The Goblin Problem

The party knows that a goblin tribe has been harassing travelers on the outskirts of town, but recently, they've been targeting specific, empty locations at nighttime, avoiding guards and easily breaking into the locations. People inside the town suspect foul play. This leads to the party perusing town and searching for someone with the motive to work with the goblins. Time to obtain evidence.

First, the party heads to the town's temple, eager to speak to the people's figurehead, Priest Bishop Cardinal. In 'good faith,' he tells the party that the wound's he's healed were caused not by the usual spears and slings used by goblins, but well-made steel blades. In fact, he points out some of the weapons seen being used by the goblins are similar to those made by the resident blacksmith, Vorgaf Woodgash. He seems to hint toward Vorgaf being the goblin conspirator but says nothing outright. He also claims that Vorgaf's left town multiple times in the past two weeks, which does somewhat coincide with the goblin attacks.

Satisfied, let's say the party leaves the temple and heads for Vorgaf's workshop. Assuming they're level-headed and not wholly convinced that Priest Bishop Cardinal is telling the absolute truth, they speak with the blacksmith. Of course, the situation will unfold differently depending on what information the party withholds from the blacksmith. If approached "appropriately," Vorgaf will willingly admit he's heard his weapons are being used by the goblins, but he's unsure how they obtained them. As for leaving town, he won't readily say where he's been going, even that he's left at all, citing that it's none of their concern. 

Truthfully, he's been visiting the grave of his recently killed mother that's a few miles outside of town. On top of all this, he'll recite what he heard from a guard who fought a few of the goblins two days ago: "Ten of 'em, there were. Almost killed one of 'em at the fight's start, but he scurried off and gulped a potion that sewed his wounds right up! Couldn't get another hit on that one; most of 'em got away." The only source of healing potions for leagues around this town is Priest Bishop Cardinal's temple; perhaps Vorgaf knows this, perhaps he doesn't. It's up to you.

Now, who's working with the goblins? One of them? Both of them? A different individual? Perhaps your party decides more information is needed before they accuse a townsfolk of working with the goblins. That's for you to decide.

In Summary

Your world should be living and breathing. As a consequence, the people within it should have differing opinions and viewpoints on issues and quests that concern the party. Remember:
  1. You’re playing a cast of characters and environments. You might be omniscient, but none of them are. Don’t portray them as such.
  2. Ensuring characters the party interacts with entertain opposite or contradicting facts and opinions makes progressing through a campaign more interesting and requires the party to go the extra step when roleplaying. Not everyone can be trusted, be that because they’re lying or believe they’re telling the truth and they’re wrong.
Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to