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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  1. Having experienced both ways to identify when a NPC is speaking have to go with voice acting, much more emersion and player interaction. Voice acting is also contagious, having witnessed many players joining in the fun developing their own PC voice:)!

    Great read keep it up!