Posts Tagged ‘roleplaying’

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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.

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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!