Dungeons and Dragons is the world’s most popular role-playing game, so it’s a safe bet that roleplay will be a fairly central part to playing, especially as the Dungeon Master (or DM)! While you can still have a great time without a lot of roleplay, it certainly adds a lot of value to your table if you can work up a halfway decent voice and presence for Non-Player Characters (NPCs) in your games. You create the tone and feel of the world for your players, after all.
I’ve been a perma-DM since I was young, and it’s taken me many hours of practice to get to a place where I feel confident creating distinct and interesting characters who show up in the stories I tell with my friends. With that in mind, here’s a few things I’ve picked up in my time behind the screen that might give you a quick boost to bringing all the supporting players in your adventures to life at the table.
Watch and learn from the pros
Dungeons and Dragons is in a golden age - there are more live play shows now than ever before. Personally I am a huge fan of Critical Role - a live play video-podcast featuring the world’s leading DM Matt Mercer. There are also a tonne of great DnD podcasts out there. These are amazing sources of inspiration both for your NPCs and for creative ways to roleplay. Lots of them are hosted and played by professional voice actors or comedians who make a living off of their acting skills. Watch and admire their performances and try to find ways to emulate that in your own game. The more you watch the more examples you will collect to use on your own table. Remember that they got to where they are with years of practice and feedback - so don’t expect to be Matt Mercer level talented straight away - you have to grind and put the time in. Some other notable Dungeon Masters I take inspiration from are: Matt Colville and his ‘Running the Game" series, Kat from Dames and Dragons (podcast) and Joe Mangiello.
By this, I mean rather than create a generic ‘evil wizard’ voice and mannerism for your character, actually try and do an impression of a character or person from another piece of work that you like. It’ll help you a lot to maintain a role that doesn’t flit around or come up empty if blindsided, and will help you to get inside the character more easily by using something you’re already familiar with. Don’t worry about being recognised either; players usually like it when they notice where you’re taking it from, and there is nothing new under the sun anyway. It doesn’t have to be congruous to the classic character type, either - an evil wizard might have a drawling cowboy accent, while a city guard could sound like Ru Paul. Playing ‘against type’ with your impressions will help keep your NPCs fresh and interesting - just remember to keep notes on them in case they come back later in the tale! A really useful thing to keep on each NPC is a lexicon - what sort of words or sayings might they use regularly? Jump on an online thesaurus and look up the basic words for ‘good’, ‘bad’ ‘best’ and ‘worst’ to start with and create a list of synonyms that have the right voice. Add some sayings or idioms you think they might use, that you’ve borrowed from other media. Have this up while you’re ‘being them’ for ease of reference.
Take your time and enjoy the act of acting:
You don’t always need to ‘cut to the chase’ in interactions with your players.While the game is certainly primarily about how the players respond and behave in the world you create, remind yourself that *you *are the arbiter of that reality for them and that rushing your part of making the game just means you’ll drop the depth and immersion of the experience for them in the long run. While it’s tempting to blurt the info they need up front or simply explain the quest they have to pursue in order to get them to their next decision or action, that’s not actually how people work! Great NPCs are not just quest droppers or exposition machines, they easily become more than that if you let them.
I don’t mean physically, but in the sense that you shouldn’t be afraid to roleplay hard and lose yourself in the character you’re playing. For one, this will encourage your players to roleplay more themselves as you create a context of support, comfort with being silly and getting involved in RP; building a virtuous cycle where everyone has more fun. You can also subtly add to this cycle by responding to their in-character moments with your own; "Indubitably Argon! That is the best way to seduce a dragon!" If you’re always feeling slightly silly, you’re at about the right level. Our subconscious self-consciousness can sometimes get the better of us: remember; everyone’s favourite part of a pizza is the cheese, so don’t be afraid to lay it on whenever you can.
Know your NPC:
The best way to make rounded NPCs is to flesh them out broadly by having notes about them that explain to you a few basic things. (You don’t need detailed write-ups!) This will make them believable and useful for your players.
- Purpose - Are they here to impart quests, provide equipment, give exposition or anything else you need them for? They might have more than one purpose at different points in the campaign.
- Personality - What are they like? Are they usually grumpy, have they suffered great tragedy? Are their motivations wholesome or nefarious? How big is their perspective on the world they live in, and also on the adventure the players are involved in? Using the Ideal/Bond/Flaw system in the Player’s Handbook can be a useful tool to develop this.
- Potency - How powerful or influential is this person in the world they inhabit? Can they take actions outside of the direct relationship with the NPCs? What other relationships might they have that the PCs can use/exploit/avoid as it goes on? A merchant that hates them might tarnish their reputation among other vendors in a city, or guards may always be on the lookout for them if they’re known to cause trouble. A mighty wizard or noble would be able to rally external forces against them in far off corners of the realm. Relationships matter!
These are by no means exhaustive tips on being a role-playing DM, but I hope they offer you some quick and dirty ways to improve your RP at home without needing to triple your prep time. Dungeons and Dragons can get serious, but first and foremost it is a game full of silly adventures, whacky scenarios and a cast of quirky characters: if you are having fun with it, your players undoubtedly will too.
If you’ve got any great tips from the table you’d like to share with your fellow Dengeoneers, send us a message on social media you can find us on;