Posts Tagged ‘npc’

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This article first appeared in Johnn Four‘s Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #696.

It is time to put on your acting hat. Roleplaying NPC Mannerisms Part I revealed the importance of distinct, specific non-player character mannerisms. When a great game master inhabits an NPC, the character’s physical and verbal mannerisms help set it apart from the rest, reveal motivations, hint at history, and create a richer story.

This article builds upon the first by providing four NPC archetypes with corresponding physical and verbal mannerisms. Use the advice from that first article combined with the archetypes found here to roleplay NPCs to perfection.

How to Use These Archetypes

The descriptions and examples in this article are meant to be used as a base for creating NPCs. If you are a beginner GM or uncomfortable with acting, you can just follow the bullet points given at the end of each archetype and you will play a great character.

If you are an experienced GM who has been playing NPCs for years, use the bullet points but add one or more mannerisms each time you roleplay an NPC of that archetype. Make it a different mannerism each time to set Town Guard #1 apart from Town Guard #2. The players will definitely remember that #1 is a nose picker and #2 stutters.

Accents are always optional, but you are encouraged to give them a shot. Who cares if they are not perfect? You’re doing this for fun. If you do not quite nail the Ks of a Russian accent, no one is going to fire you. No one can even question your accent if you’re playing in a fantasy world. So what if your Spanish accent sounds like a combination of Bulgarian and Australian? Those countries do not exist in the world you create. That is just the accent of a person from Breland! Accents get better with practice, so feel free to go all out.

The most important guideline of all is to have fun with NPC mannerisms. The more you enjoy playing an NPC, the more the players will enjoy interacting with you. If you are having a blast playing your characters, your players will be more enthusiastic about playing theirs. As the GM, you set the tone for the game. If you appear awkward and forced, the entire game will feel that way. So relax – you are among friends and playing a tabletop roleplaying game. That is the best. Enjoy it!

Ancient Evil

Gods, demons, aliens, and other ancient evils often appear in our games. These superpowers should make your players quake with awe and fall to their knees…or at least convince them these are forces to be reckoned with.

Matt Mercer, professional voice actor and the GM of the hit web series Critical Role, did an amazing job playing the shadow demon Orthax. Mercer enters, leans quite far over the screen, and sticks his neck out with his head forward and up. This gives him a strange, unsettling appearance. While he is physically lower than the players, the position of his head suggests utter confidence. This unnatural posture immediately translates to otherworldly. The confidence of his tilted head suggests a powerful being who knows its capabilities.

Then Mercer speaks as Orthax. He brings his voice into a low register, which screams power. He adds a growl to his voice and some heavy breathing at the end of his sentences. These vocal qualities inform the players of the danger Orthax poses and his evil nature. They also give anyone hearing the voice the impression this being is just at the edge of its control. It could snap at any moment and unleash its otherworldly fury on the PCs.

When playing an ancient evil:

  • Lean far forward
  • Stick out your neck and raise your head
  • Speak in a very low register
  • Add a growl and heavy breathing to your voice

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement personnel are police officers, space marines, and town guards. They are in gatehouses, towers, streets, prisons, bars, and more, keeping the peace, taking a bribe, and chasing after thieves. These NPCs are often among the first a party of adventurers meets in a settlement. They provide information and directions.

Roleplaying them can be a pretty uninteresting encounter, but only if you play them as uninteresting people.

Let’s take another look at Matt Mercer. In this clip he’s playing a town guard in episode 1 of Critical Role. He first describes a pair of city watch dwarves observing the PCs. Immediately after describing them, Mercer takes on the physical posture of one guard. He mimes holding a spear comfortably, with a relaxed bent arm, and leans back. The NPC’s posture indicates he is comfortable with his weapon and at ease in his own city. Law enforcement should feel comfortable within the walls of cities where they wield authority.

When he opens his mouth to speak as one of the guards, the real magic begins. He leans back even further to show how relaxed the guard is even when talking to a group of well-armed strangers. His volume is a bit louder than normal, and his voice is steady and confident. It is a clear display of authority without being threatening. After all, the guard has no reason to distrust the adventurers at the moment.

As the guard speaks, he uses big arm movements. Mercer extends his arms fully to point to various landmarks and tilts his head in the opposite direction of his hand to give the impression his arms are even longer than they are. This action is another indicator of the guard being in his comfort zone. He has no fear that the adventurers or anyone else will accost him, so he feels fine leaving his arms wide open.

When playing law enforcement….

  • Lean back in a relaxed posture
  • Use big arm movements
  • Raise the volume of your voice
  • Keep your voice steady

Mercer sets his guard apart from the rest by making him a rather jovial fellow. He cocks his head to the side, indicating interest in the person he is speaking with, and lets the register of his voice get higher when the guard cracks a joke or gets excited. If you want a jovial town guard, add these mannerisms:

  • Tilt your head slightly to one side
  • Raise the register of your voice when you are excited

One final note on this scene. At the beginning of the encounter, Mercer briefly portrays both guards speaking to one another. You can tell them apart become he leans one way and speaks with a high voice before turning around to face the opposite direct and lowering his vocal register to be the other guard. It is simple and genius. A quick turn and a deeper voice make all the difference between the two.

Seducer

Seducers are manipulators who exude sex appeal. They are the kind of people who are attractive to everyone in some way. They are great performers, con artists, politicians, and business people. These NPCs can wrap anyone around their little fingers, and use their good looks and beguiling wit to make others do their dirty work.

We turn to the GM of GMs, Chris Perkins. In this clip from a 2012 Pax Acquisitions Inc. game, Perkins plays a seductress dark elf who convinces the plucky band of adventurers to steal gems for her. We hear her voice before we see any of her physical mannerisms, as she’s sneaking up on the PCs in the dark. It is husky and breathless, vocal qualities scientifically proven to be attractive. She speaks with a sultry lower tone, and to make things extra sexy, Perkins gives her a French accent (which is largely considered one of the world’s most romantic languages).

When she comes out of the shadows, Perkins displays the woman’s physical mannerisms. He tilts his head down slightly and looks up at the person he is talking to, which gives him a submissive air. When he speaks, he picks a specific individual to focus his attention on and keeps constant eye contact while leaning toward that person. This behavior makes a player feel singled out and special. An attractive person empowers them by giving undivided attention.

When playing a seducer….

  • Tilt your head down slightly
  • Focus your attention on each player one at a time
  • Lean toward the focus of your attention and maintain eye contact
  • Lower the tone of your voice
  • Make your voice husky and breathy
  • Use a French accent (optional)

Superior Intellectuals

Haughty wizards, know-it-all telepaths, and pedantic scientists are just a few of the people who fall into the superior intellectual archetype. They are the smartest people in the room and know it. Because of their smarts, these NPCs think themselves above every other living being. Odds are the players will cross paths with someone like as they seek an intelligent being to help them unravel some mystery.

Watch again as Chris Perkins portrays Flabbergast in the latest PAX Acquisitions, Inc. game. Like Mercer, he begins by describing the NPC. Then Perkins sticks out his neck just a bit so the rest his body is led by his head. This indicates he is intellectually focused. He then raises his chin and looks down his nose at the players, signaling Flabbergast’s belief that he is far more intelligent than the group. These physical mannerisms suggest a smart, conceited individual. They are enhanced by the fact that Perkins has chosen to stand. It literally puts him above the players.

Perkins then produces a voice which can only be described as nasally Alan Rickman. The nasal quality sells Flabbergast as an intellectual, and the low tone of voice mixed with disdain and condescension leaves no question that this wizard believes he is the smartest guy in the room.

The superior intellectual keeps his movements small and close. In general, these people are untrusting of others because everyone else is too stupid to do anything right. Perkins keeps his wrists loose and close to his body as he pets a phantom cat, or keeps his hands folded in front of him. These movements suggest the wizard is guarded, untrusting, and physically unimpressive.

When playing superior intellectuals…

  • Lead with your head
  • Tilt your chin up
  • Lower your voice
  • Use a nasally voice with condescension and disdain
  • Use small, weak movements
  • Stand (optional)

Flabbergast’s cat is a nice touch. It demonstrates the wizard prefers the company of animals to people and makes him an instantly distinct and memorable NPC.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

This article first appeared in Johnn Four‘s Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #693.

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Memorable non-player characters are distinct. Whether you created an NPC or it came out of a published adventure, it is up to you as game master to make each quest giver, tavern goer, and orc slaver different from the rest.

The key to creating a believable, distinct cast lies in your performances. This might seem daunting, especially since every other player at the table has only one character to worry about while you have dozens.

The truth is, even the least accomplished actors can create great NPCs by relying on mannerisms. With a little prep and some simple acting tricks I’ll supply you with today, you will play princesses and warlords with equal confidence, and your players will no longer confuse the innkeeper at the Dancing Goat with the bartender at the Ugly Banshee.

Importance of Mannerisms

Mannerisms are qualities that distinguish one character from another. These qualities must be actionable and can be displayed visually or audibly. A soft spot for animals or a short temper are not mannerisms. The way a nearsighted old woman gets close to someone’s face whenever she has a conversation is. The actions of your NPCs are just as important a part of their characterization as their internal thoughts, emotions, and ambitions.

NPCs are remembered in large part because of their mannerisms, not because they have a good heart or a conservative agenda. Yoda would be just one of many weird aliens if he didn’t speak backwards. Players get to know the intimate thoughts of NPCs over time, but mannerisms create first and lasting impressions.

Distinctions

Just like real life, people remember the superficial about others they know only as acquaintances. Giving every NPC one or more distinct mannerisms will help your players draw distinctions between them. If you present one knight as blonde and another as brunette, it is difficult for players to know the difference between them since one actor is playing both characters (unless you bring wigs to your games!). But if you give one knight an accent and the other a stutter, the players will not only instantly be able to tell the knights apart throughout the entire interaction, they will also recognize the duo and remember who is who the next time they come upon the couple if you reintroduce those mannerisms.

Draw Players In

Mannerisms do more for your game than help players distinguish between and remember NPCs. They give your players a better idea of the person before them and hint at backstory, internal thoughts, and hidden emotions. A teen who constantly wrings his hands has a mannerism that indicates he’s a worrywart, even though his words may show a tough exterior.

These little indicators give your players a more subtle, complex view of the NPCs. Ultimately, it creates layered characters who are well-rounded. In turn, those NPCs provide a richer story experience to all involved in the game.

Diversity

If you want a believable story, NPC mannerisms will help create a diverse world that mimics our own. Think of the people you interact with every day. Their physical and verbal behaviors immediately spring to mind. If you want your NPCs to become real people in the minds of your players, then mannerisms are the answer. No person is a perfect robot who simply recites box text.

Fun

The final reason you should be ready to give every NPC distinct mannerisms – fun. Acting is a huge part of role-playing games. It is right there in the name. If you give each NPC a mannerism or two, you will have a better time playing the role and the players will have more fun interacting with the character.

If you are not having a blast playing the NPC, players will know it and become as bored with your performance as you are. Having a few mannerisms to draw on will ease your mind and help you become the NPC.

Mannerisms give you ways of acting that are entertaining to perform and watch.

Types of Mannerisms

There are two main types of mannerisms you can play comfortably at a table: physical and verbal.

Physical – Physicalities and Behaviors

Physicalities are mannerisms that affect the ways NPCs carry themselves. Perfect posture, slumped shoulders, and a cocked head for example. They define the way an NPC moves and sits. They are the first characteristics of any NPC noticed by the players, so set yourself up for success by choosing the right way to sit or stand before you even open your mouth to speak as that person.

Behaviors are physical actions your NPCs take that can be both conscious and unconscious. Facial twitching, nail biting, head scratching, finger-pointing, and more fall under the category of behaviors. Remember to keep these behaviors consistent and don’t give up. If you want mannerisms to do their job and help define the NPC, commitment is key.

Verbal – Accents, Tones, and Speech Patterns

Of all the mannerisms out there, it seems accents are the most intimidating to GMs. It makes sense. Some professional actors work for years on a specific accent and still can’t quite nail the sound. You don’t need to worry the way those actors do.

For one thing, you are doing this for fun. If you do not quite nail the Rs in an Irish brogue, the studio is not going to fire you. Odds are your players will not notice or care. If you’re playing in a fantasy world, no one can even question your accent. So what if your French accent sounds like a combination of German and Italian? Those countries do not exist in the world. What your players are hearing is the accent of a person from Waterdeep!

Tones help define your NPCs’ voices beyond accents. If all dwarves in your world speak with a Scottish brogue, then it will be difficult to tell every dwarf apart. But if the dwarf king has a high, nasally voice while the captain of the guard has a scratchy, gruff voice and the chief alchemist has a deep, soulful voice, then you’ve got some definition between each.

Speech patterns define the rhythms and habits NPCs have while speaking. Using as few words as possible, being extra loquacious, always using a particular turn of phrase, or turning every statement into a question are all examples of speech pattern mannerisms. Just like physical behaviors, commitment to speech patterns is key in using them to help define the NPC.

Inspiration for Mannerism Creation

While you can think about many NPCs and assign them mannerisms during your preparation time, it helps to have a list of mannerisms at your side for those times the players go somewhere unexpected and you find yourself creating on the spot. It even helps to have the same list with you during preparation time so you can remember mannerisms as you create NPCs.

Fiction

One of the first places to draw inspiration from is fiction. Your favorite movies, television shows, books, comics, and more are full of distinct characters. Ask yourself what specific mannerisms you love about your favorite characters. Copy those mannerisms down in a list.

When drawing from books and comic books in particular, do not be afraid to go back and read your favorite dialogue scenes aloud. As you do, get into it and really become the characters. You will find yourself giving them physicalities you did not picture in your head. That is more you can mine for your game. Add them to the list!

Real Life

Pull from real life too. The people you see every day at work and your family are some of the best places to pull from because you know them so well. Many people pull from the mannerisms of old teachers and professors, since so much time is spent observing them as they lecture. Celebrities and politicians are a gold mine for unique mannerisms. Go ahead and write all the ones you can think of on your list.

Mix & Match

Once you have your list, remember that you probably do not want to recreate a character who already exists in fiction or real life. It might seem fun to make a real estate mogul who sounds exactly like Donald Trump, but your portrayal could turn your game into a Saturday Night Live sketch.

If your NPC superhero The Terrific Tarantula-Man is exactly like Spidey, the similarities will remind your players they are playing a game in a fictional world and break the immersion.

Mix and match mannerisms to create totally new people.

Imagine an old lady with Professor Xavier’s accent plus Wolverine’s cigar-smoking habit and liberal use of the word “bub,” and you’ve got yourself quite a character!

Let each new mannerism you add to your list inspire others. Maybe you remember your father always runs his fingers through his hair. As you write down this mannerism, it could bring new ones to mind, like people who pull at their arm hair or constantly brush their hair out of their eyes. Add them to the list.

Once you have a full list, you can use it to make a random NPC mannerism table like the one found at the end of this article.

Playing Mannerisms

The key to pulling off effective NPC mannerisms is your level of comfort acting them out. The less nervous and more committed you are to the mannerisms, the better you inhabit the entire character. Even if you’re not one of those GMs who did improv in high school, you can be an amazing storyteller who inhabits many different people by taking a breath, telling yourself all you do is for fun, and really going for it.

If you’re not an actor or experienced GM, start small. Assign NPCs mannerisms you feel comfortable playing and only put the same sort on your random table.

Give each NPC just one distinct mannerism to start, so you don’t have to worry about scratching your head and making up nonsense curses at the same time. One mannerism is enough to make a memorable NPC.

If you’re picking a physical mannerism, make sure it is one you can do comfortably for a few minutes without hurting yourself. Remember this is for your own enjoyment as well.

Practice

Practice your NPC mannerisms to get comfortable. If you know your PCs are going to meet with someone from your cast and you already assigned that NPC a mannerism, say impromptu lines in that character’s voice as part of your preparation. Try to have the interaction the NPC might have with the characters during the game. If you cannot think of anything to say, grab your favorite book and read a passage aloud as the NPC for practice.

Specificity

The more specific you can make a mannerism, the better. If the characters meet an old wizard who strokes his long beard, decide exactly how this movement occurs. A raised pinky with a twisting wrist is distinct, memorable, and says a lot about the wizard’s personality. The pinky suggests he’s got a proper upbringing in a noble house while the twisting wrists might give away he’s a bit of a nervous nelly.

If you were to rub your chin a different way each time the PCs meet this wizard, the mannerism is not as effective or fun to play.

[Comment from Johnn: take a selfie while practicing the mannerism to remind yourself how to portray NPC in the future.]

Even if you’re creating an NPC on the spot, take a moment to think about how the character would execute its mannerisms and get specific with your movements, tone of voice, vocal patterns, and posture to really give unique performances.

Commitment

Commitment is the second most important factor when it comes to NPC mannerisms. If you are comfortable with acting this will come easy, but you can force yourself to commit if you are feeling a little nervous. Go ahead and do that accent full on or pick your nose with gusto in front of your friends. Maintain the mannerism throughout the entire interaction and see what a difference it makes.

Dropping a mannerism partway through an interaction because you are uncomfortable will not do anybody any good. When it comes to NPC mannerisms, if you are going to do it, do it all the way and do not look back until the NPC makes an exit.

Don’t Be Perfect

The most important factor in displaying the mannerisms of your NPCs is fun. If you remind yourself your accents do not need to be perfect, that it is fine to laugh at yourself, and you should relish playing the NPCs, using mannerisms in your games will be some of the most fun you and your players have at the table.

How Matt Mercer Portrays a Maiden

Take a look at this video of Matt Mercer playing an NPC in the Geek & Sundry special, “D&Diesel.” In addition to being the fantastic GM of the web series “Critical Role,” Mercer is also a professional voice actor. He knows how to inhabit any NPC on the spot, even when he is under the pressure of playing with Vin Diesel on camera.

In the clip provided, Mercer plays a distressed maiden. He begins with a quick description of the character and then immediately begins enacting her physical mannerisms before speaking as the maiden. He slumps his shoulders and sticks his head out, leaning forward on the table to give the maiden a round-shouldered, frightened appearance.

Mercer then quickly darts his eyes all around the table, looking each of his players in the eye without moving his head. He does not allow his eyes to focus on any one player, but keeps them moving as he speaks. We know based on posture and the behavior of her eyes the NPC is terrified before she even opens her mouth.

Given Mercer’s career, the characterization and mannerisms become even sharper when he speaks. He has chosen a higher register to indicate the character is a young woman, but to make her distinct from other NPC young ladies and give her a deeper emotional feel, he gives her a breathy voice. She takes her time speaking with huge breaths between each sentence. These verbal mannerisms suggest a meek nature. When those verbal mannerisms are coupled with the physical, the character becomes unique, distinct, and interesting. Mercer throws in a British accent for good measure, medieval feel, and further distinction.

As the woman becomes more scared or confused, her mannerisms become bigger and more erratic. Her eyes dart more, her breathy voice almost sounds like she just ran a mile as she swallows air, her posture becomes even meeker, and her vocal pitch approaches the height of Mercer’s range. Our own real-life mannerisms tend to become more obvious when we are in an excited state because we lose a bit of control, so Mercer does that with his NPCs. Keep that in mind as your NPCs get joyful, terrified, surprised, and angry.

As the clip continues, Mercer reveals this young woman is not quite what she seems. She is a hag eager to sacrifice the player characters to her sister. As her motives change, Mercer keeps the NPC’s original verbal and physical mannerisms, but changes her attitude. This keeps her recognizable, but her new attitude changes the meaning behind the mannerisms.

Her hunched posture suggests her twisted, evil form. The hag’s darting eyes have a crazed wickedness to them. The voice is still high and breathy, but the breathing is more controlled, suggesting seductive evil rather than meek terror. All the mannerisms are still a part of the NPC’s portrayal. The character is the same, but her emotional state has completely changed.

In summary, here are the mannerisms Mercer used to play an elf maiden. You can think of the mannerisms listed below as a sort of stat block. Try creating these for your NPCs.

Maiden Mannerism List
  • Slump shoulders
  • Stick out neck
  • Dart eyes constantly
  • High voice
  • Breathy voice
  • British accent (optional)

Mannerism Table

If your game is tonight and you need some random mannerisms right now, we’ve got you covered. Use the table below to get started, and ignore or change any of the mannerisms you do not want to play.

Choose or flip a coin to decide if you want to give your NPC a physical or verbal mannerism and then roll on the appropriate table.

If you are an experienced GM who already plays an NPC mannerism comfortably, roll once (or more) on each table.

Physical Mannerisms

The NPC…

  1. has perfect posture
  2. slumps his/her shoulders
  3. picks his/her nose
  4. scratches his/her head
  5. clears his/her throat often
  6. blinks more than the normal person
  7. cannot look anyone in the eye
  8. is a close talker
  9. cracks his/her knuckles
  10. bites his/her nails
  11. picks at his/her ears
  12. runs his/her fingers through his/her hair
  13. inhales deeply before speaking
  14. rubs his/her chin
  15. stares without blinking for long periods of time
  16. breathes heavily
  17. cannot sit still
  18. has a face that cannot stop twitching
  19. belches uncontrollably
  20. constantly rubs his/her own shoulder
Verbal Mannerisms

The NPC…

  1. has a scratchy voice
  2. has a deep voice
  3. has a high voice
  4. uses the phrase over and over
  5. ends all sentences with a phrase that make them a questions (e.g. “you know?” or “do you follow?”)
  6. creates nonsense cuss words
  7. has a smooth, soulful voice
  8. has a Germanic accent similar to German/Russian
  9. has a Romance language accent similar to Spanish/Italian/French
  10. repeats whatever is said to him back before responding
  11. uses only gender neutral pronouns
  12. calls everyone by the wrong name
  13. stutters
  14. uses the same nickname for everyone
  15. has an American Southern accent
  16. speaks only in short sentences or nods
  17. uses far more words than necessary
  18. says “umm” for a long time before speaking
  19. speaks rapidly
  20. over-enunciates everything

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I’ve been running a fifth edition game for almost a year and it’s clear to me that there aren’t enough high challenge rating monsters to provide me with the variety of combat encounters I like to have at my disposal. Yes, bounded accuracy lets me use the old standbys far after the PCs’ level is much higher than the bugbear’s CR. I just need to keep adding bugbears… but combat with a lot of baddies is slow and can become a grind. That’s not the kind of variety I’m looking for.

That’s why I submitted a series of monster articles to EN World EN5ideran online magazine which publishes content for the fifth edition of the world’s most popular tabletop roleplaying game. The first of those articles, “Epic Threats: High Level NPCs,” presents five new NPCs with challenge ratings of 12 and above to add to your game. If all goes well, there might be another article or two presenting some more of these high level threats to add to your game.

I have to say, if you’re playing fifth edition and craving more content, EN5ider is a great place to get it. I’m not just saying that because I’ve now written for them three times. You get one short adventure a month plus another three articles with advice on running chases, new diseasesnew druid circles, creating puzzles, and so much more. You get all that for $2 a month. If you don’t want the adventure, you can still score the articles for $1 a month. That’s less than a bottle of water in most places. The articles are of a great quality and EN World creator, Russ Morrissey, writes several of the best articles. You can grab some sample articles and an adventure for free so check it out.

I also have to give a special shoutout to EN5ider editor, James J. Haeck. He’s brilliant, creative, and a blast to work with. Every letter that man touches becomes better for it and this series of articles would be a lot worse without his input.

I think you should definitely checkout my latest article and all EN5ider has to offer. In fact I’m going to give you a little preview right now. Below is the Master of Nature, an NPC that was cut from the article for space. If you like this NPC, you’ll definitely enjoy the rest of the ones the article has to offer.

Master of Nature

Medium humanoid (any race), any alignment

Armor Class 15 (studded leather, 16 with barkskin)

Hit Points 237 (25d8 + 125)

Speed 30 ft.

STR

DEX

CON

INT

WIS

CHA

12 (+1)

16 (+3)

20 (+5)

14 (+2)

20 (+5)

12 (+1)

Saving Throws Dex +9, Con +11, Wis +11

Damage Resistances acid, cold, fire, lightning, and thunder

Skills Nature +8, Perception +11

Senses passive Perception 21

Languages Druidic plus any three languages

Challenge 18 (20,000 XP)

Elemental Strike. When the master of nature makes a successful weapon attack it can deal an extra 1d12 damage to the target. The damage type is chosen by the master of nature from the following list: acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder. The master of nature can still use this ability when polymorphed by its Exceptional Polymorph trait.

Exceptional Polymorph. The master of nature can use its action to cast the polymorph spell on itself. While polymorphed in this way, the master of nature retains its Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores the master of nature can still use its Spellcasting trait.

Magic WeaponsThe master of nature’s weapon attacks are magical, even when polymorphed by its Exceptional Polymorph trait.

Spellcasting. The master of nature is a 20th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Wisdom (spell save DC 19, +11 to hit with spell attacks). The master of nature has the following druid spells prepared:

Cantrips (at-will): druidcraft, poison spray, produce flame, thorn whip

1st level (4 slots): cure wounds, entangle, speak with animals, thunderwave

2nd level (3 slots): animal messenger, barkskin, flaming sphere

3rd level (3 slots): call lightning, conjure animals, meld into stone, sleet storm

4th level (3 slots): blight, dominate beast, stoneskin, wall of fire

5th level (3 slots): contagion, greater restoration, mass cure wounds, wall of stone

6th level (2 slots): conjure fey, sunbeam

7th level (2 slots): fire storm, regenerate

8th level (1 slot): earthquake

9th level (1 slot): storm of vengeance

Actions

Multiattack. The master of nature makes two attacks.

Scimitar. Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d6 + 3) slashing damage plus 7 (1d12) acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder damage (see Elemental Strike).

Sling. Ranged Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, range 30/120 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d4 + 3) bludgeoning damage plus 7 (1d12) acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder damage (see Elemental Strike).

PDF

Would you like this NPC in a PDF along with all the other fifth edition D&D baddies I’ve designed? Grab them below.

Master of Nature

All Monsters

If you don’t want to grab them now, but decide you want the PDFs at a future date, head on over to the Free Game Resources section of this site where the documents will live along with magic items, backgroundsD&D fifth edition rules modulesspellsadventures, and more created by yours truly.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

We DMs face many challenges. We have to keep track of our campaigns, make maps, improvise, brainstorm, and write adventures for sessions. When the session begins a whole new kind of work starts. Our brains switch from writers to performers. Much like a standup comic, we usually spend more time preparing for the performance than we do actually playing with friends. Yet it is those moments of performance and play the hours of preparation and worldbuilding pays off.

During that performance time DMs inhabit and play NPCs. Goblin bandits, snot-nosed trolls, elf nobles, human peasants, monarchs, and more are part of our one-person shows. We give them ticks, accents, mannerisms, and catchphrases to bring them to life and distinguish them in the minds of players.

Yet there are characters who are more daunting to inhabit than Hamlet’s Cladius. In the arc of many campaigns a DM might have to inhabit archfey, demon princes, primordials, ancient dragons, and gods. Putting on the skin of one of these powerful NPCs can be intimidating. Play it too small and your players will be unimpressed with the mighty being before them. Play it too big and your players will laugh at the over-the-top caricature you’ve created. Unless you play these mighty beings just right, you risk some major NPCs in your game not being taken seriously.

Tiamat – official fifth edition D&D’s most powerful NPC (for now).

Challenges of Playing Powerful NPCs

The daunting task of playing a powerful NPC can be broken down the following ways:

  • They are smarter and less fallible than us. This isn’t a crack about your intellect. The simple fact is these powerful NPCs have the wisdom and knowledge that comes with living a millennia or longer. Their force of personality and confidence are proportionate with their amazing abilities. They can create and destroy with a wave of a hand or single breath. How can a mortal person like DM to the stars Chris Perkins, let alone a plebeian like myself, be expected to inhabit nigh flawless beings and make them believable? My face is nowhere near the level of Selune’s beauty, nor does it match the terror of an ancient red dragon’s visage so it’s all to be about the acting… Right?
  • It’s hard to be scary, impressive, or intimidating. It’s especially difficult to be those things to friends you know well. When the PCs meet Bahamut or the Queen of Winter’s Court, you want the players to know they are before a mighty power, greater than any they ever faced. Of course when I give myself a fake Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady voice and pretend to be The Raven Queen, my players don’t react the way I want them to. They might feel the urge to cry but not from sheer overwhelming power. Rather that urge comes from the endless gales of laughter which have seized their bodies.
  • We put off playing powerful beings. PCs don’t usually meet powerful NPCs until they are higher level at a time when the PCs themselves are approaching godhood. Of course the players are less impressed with these beings. (“You can stop time? So can I, bub.”) Some players might even feel challenged by the fact that a someone, even if that person is a god, is speaking down to them, since most other NPCs rarely do at this point in the game. These players often answer such remarks with their own condescension or jokes, which can really take the wind out of the sails of many a great DM. Waiting a long time to introduce a powerful NPC in the flesh presents another problem. Since they only pop up at higher levels and continue to appear infrequently, DMs don’t have as much experience playing these beings as we do run-of-the-mill villains, henchmen, and patrons. That lack of practice can be harmful to our attempts to play these mighty individuals. To make matters worse, these powerful beings are often talked up over the course of fifteen levels of campaign story before they appear. That means Orcus has hours of expectations, legends, schemes, and battles with henchmen to live up to when he finally meets the PCs for the first time.
  • It’s easy to be cliche. My default for powerful beings used to be a deep voice, turns of phrase about shattering and/or saving the world, and using my DM authority to have the NPC “outsmart” the players at every turn. That meant there wasn’t much difference between Tiamat, Bel Shalor, Acerak, Kord, The Raven Queen, and every other powerful being the PCs met. Boring!

With all these pitfalls, you can see why some DMs (like me) are nervous when they wear the skin of a godly NPC. Well nineteen years of tabletop gaming has given me some tips about playing a powerful being I want to pass on.

Actions Speak Louder

I make television. One of the guiding principles of any producer working in the industry is, “Show. Don’t tell.” Rather than have the dragon boast about how she can fry adventurers to a crisp in a single breath, the PCs should witness her fire in action – melting stone in an instant or reducing a herd of cattle to ash. Gods can stop time and create or destroy matter with a snap of their fingers. Archfey can make a large oak grove spring forth from the ground with a wave of their hands. Before the PCs ever speak to a powerful NPC, set the stage with an awe-inspiring act beyond the capabilities of even level 20 character. Throughout the interaction, remember that these beings are more likely to demonstrate their power than boast about it.

Describe How Others React

Along the lines of showing and not telling, when a powerful NPC first shows up on the scene describe how other NPCs react to the being. Throngs of citizens and soldiers alike flee from the Tarrasque. The land’s mightiest warlord becomes a drooling puppy in the presence of the god of beauty. The way to the demon lord’s throne room is marked by groveling balors. Reactions like this demonstrate the might of these NPC to the players. If you can have a NPC the PCs trust and respect have a big reaction to a powerful being that is great way to impress the players. Imagine the players’ reactions to the strong, just king they have grown to love groveling for mercy at the feet of at the god of death. It’s a lot more moving than the god demanding the PCs kneel before him.

PCs Should Feel the Power

One mistake DMs can make is telling players they feel an emotion. Players can feel like their agency has been stripped away when you tell them, “You see Tiamat rise out of the Nine Hells and you now know true terror.” Unless a PC fails a saving throw against an effect like a calm emotions spell, DMs shouldn’t be providing an emotion for PCs to feel. That being said, I do think it’s fine for a DM to describe a PC’s physical reaction to a situation. The line is thin here, so let me give some examples.

The sheer power of one of these beings could make a person’s stomach churn or the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand. PCs could see an ancient red dragon breath fire a mile away, but feel an overwhelming burst of heat as if it were mere yards from them. Don’t go too far here. The description should be for flavor. PCs might feel their stomachs churn, but don’t make the characters vomit every time they see a demon prince (at least not without a saving throw). Again you want the players to feel the raw power of the presence before their characters, but maintain their own agency.

Introduce Them Early

If it works in your story, introduce a powerful NPC early. Think of all the video games like Skyrim and God of War where the hero meets the big bad and other major powers early in the story. Often the hero is too inexperienced and ill-equipped to take on the baddy or stand up to the gods, so their presence is far more intimidating than an initial meeting later in the game.

Meeting a powerful NPC can make an impression that lasts an entire campaign. If PCs meet the goddess of winter when they’re only level 1 and she freezes and shatters another NPC for insolence, your players will carry that image into every meeting with her thereafter.

Introducing a powerful NPC early in your game is good for you as the DM. It gives you more opportunities to role-play as the being which means you gain practice and confidence with every encounter you wear its skin.

Make Them Memorable

Like any NPC, you want to make the powerful ones memorable. Don’t rely on cliches like speaking with a deep voice and acting threatening or intimidating. Give them unique personalities. Use the NPC personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaw tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to inspire original, creative characters. Maybe the god of the sun in your world is a young boy who is positive and playful, until the subject of the his sister and nemesis, the goddess of death, comes up. Then he turns dark and stormy. His hair changes color, his voice deepens, and his hands become angry, radiant fire. An ancient dragon might actually have a high, flutey voice and constantly talk about his impressive library, which he’s read all of twice. The Queen of Winter’s Court only communicates telepathically and her face always shows the opposite of her emotions. She scowls when she is happy and smiles when she is furious.

Don’t lean too hard on a powerful NPC’s flaws. Most gods, demon princes, archfey, dragons, and others are able to resist any temptation and outsmart any trap a mortal has to offer. These beings have lived a long time and are supremely confident, so save the moments they falter for later in the campaign when the PCs are higher level. If the PCs insight the event which lead the more villainous of these NPCs to fall, so much the better.

Let The Players Drive the Scene

When playing a powerful NPC, my first instinct is for that being to drive the scene. They see the PCs as bugs or pieces in a chess game, so they should take charge, right? Why should they care what the PCs have to say? That attitude can actually be quite boring for the PCs and again, it takes away their agency. Take some pressure off yourself, make the NPC’s introduction, and then allow the PCs to respond to the demands, pleas, or threats of the being. The NPC may be looking to answer any questions, start a fight, grant a quest, or take some other action, but always allow the players a chance to respond and ultimately decide where the scene goes. They’ll often take it to a place that surprises you and in the end they’ll respect that NPC even more.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!


I sit down with Jeff Greiner, Sam Dillon, Liz Theis, and Dave Gibson to talk about the latest Dungeon Master’s Guide previews and a recent Mike Mearls Reddit AMA. This podcast was recorded on November 13, 2014.

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