Right off the bat, I want to say that all DMs are different. Thus, this article may not pertain to you and your DM style necessarily. Even if that’s the case, I hope you can take something away from this post.
Just like players, not all DMs practice the “theatrical” style of playing D&D – that is, they do not go into character and speak as the NPCs, giving them their own life, story, and characterizations. Some DMs – like some players – would rather speak in 3rd person, and describe what the NPC does and says. And that’s fine, really.
But this post isn’t about those DMs – although it could be for them, if they so choose. If you’re a more passive DM, and take the approach I described above, read through this post and see if you are open to the challenge of becoming an active DM, and embodying your NPCs.
Because I truly believe that a good chunk of what makes D&D so enjoyable is performing.
Now, this may just be the actor in me talking. There might be those of you saying, “Uh huh. There’s no way I’m making myself look like a fool by doing funny voices and pretending I’m a sheep herder,” or whatever it is in your campaign. I get that, trust me, I do. That’s the challenge I face, the internal hurdle I have to overcome at every single acting audition I go to.
And what that is – that little voice in your head that tells you, “you’re gonna look stupid,” – is someone else’s voice that you’ve heard in your life at a pivotal moment, and so it’s stuck with you all this time, reminding you of that moment (even if you’ve forgotten about it) every time you go to step out of your shell. And if that’s what you’re experiencing, either at the game table or anywhere else in life, I’m sorry. No one should have to feel that way.
What you should try to learn is to suppress that voice in your head, and let your instincts come through. Performing in D&D is so much fun. Living as these NPCs in the campaign can be so entertaining, and so fulfilling – especially for your players. Don’t believe me? Are you one of those naysayers who think the game is better without these silly indulgences?
Then look no further than Critical Role.
Granted, the above image is from their Halloween episode – they don’t normally dress up to play (but can you imagine Matt having to do costume changes for all the NPCs he plays?).
Matt is also an actor, and a gifted one at that. He creates characters for the table, and inhabits them with seeming ease. He does take notes, and uses other tricks to make sure he remembers who all the different NPCs are, what their personalities are, and what they sound like – which is something even I forget to do sometimes – but the transition from NPC to NPC is nearly seamless as you watch the show. And Critical Role is so much better with the existence of characters like Victor.
So, have I piqued your interest? Are you interested in committing to inhabiting your NPCs as real characters in your campaign world? Note that I’m not going to talk much about creating NPCs, because that topic has been covered by better DMs than I. I’m more focused on committing to those NPCs, and really selling them as people.
For this article, I’m going to use some examples from our current campaign – Curse of Strahd.
Let’s look at Madam Eva. Like – actually. I mean actually look at her.
The good thing about running these book campaigns is that they usually provide you with an image of the NPC you’re to run. That helps to inform you on several things about the character right away. If you’re not running a book campaign, or otherwise do not have images or pictures to inspire you, then still consider the following points.
- What is the NPC’s physical build?
- What are they wearing, and how does this inform their social class, and how does their social class inform their behavior?
- What race and ethnicity are they? Like, do High Elves and Wood Elves sound different?
- What region of the world are they from, and how does that affect them as a person?
- Are their any facial features that would affect their spoken word – like tusks, pincers, or jewelry?
- How do they seem to carry themselves, which can be part of the first bullet point, but has its own distinctions and inner meanings too.
Consider all of those things, and also think about their personality and how that personality fits into all of those physical characteristics. Is this NPC happy with their physicality? Or does their personality clash with it? Luckily, book campaigns can give you a good amount of information regarding personality, and so you can make stronger, more informed decisions.
So, with Madam Eva she seems a typical soothsayer type. She’s a gypsy – a vistani as they’re called in Curse of Strahd – and is very mysterious. She has a long history with Barovia and Strahd in particular. Now, with all of this information, there’s a few directions you can take this character, in terms of performance.
One example is the wise, cryptic, doom-and-gloom, all-seeing card reader. Another could be a totally crazy, cackling witch-type. I, personally, went with a more eccentric, slightly batty version. She knew her stuff, and she knew what she was talking about, but she was a weird lady. Somewhat aloof at times. I feel like someone who “sees all,” as the vistani put it, would be a bit distracted and not always paying full attention to whomever she’s talking with.
Her voice was higher-pitched, and somewhat strained in its placement in my throat. She had the Barovian accent, of course, which I’ve been making out of a blend of eastern European and your typical Russian accents.
Let’s look now at Gadof Blinsky.
He looks like your typical “lovable oaf” type character. He’s large and fun-loving. Heck, he runs a toy shop, how gloomy can this guy be? He’s all too happy to talk about his craft, and his mentor. This guy is just fun. In the campaign book, all of his dialog is typed out phonetically, so you really get the impression of how he sounds. There’s a strong emphasis on the “Y” sounds like you hear in your traditional Russian accents. So, for him, his name might sound like, (with a short G, “guh”) Gee-YA-doff BLEEN-skee. Just say that real fast and you’re close.
I was so excited when my players started heading for Blinsky’s shop. I played him as an excitable fellow, who was happy to receive visitors (that weren’t Izek Strazni – more on that in my “Freakin’ Vallaki” post). I made him kind of child-like in his innocence – I truly believe this guy is a good guy, and he’s happy to be making these toys. Sure, they’re all influenced by the darkness in Barovia, and thus they’re pretty macabre toys, but he can’t help that. That’s what’s in his heart, after all.
And, if you’re so inclined, if you wanted to make him really eccentric, you could have him stop speaking suddenly, look over the adventurers…and say, “Would you like to pet my monkey?”
Then just sit there and watch your players’ reactions.
Because Blinsky, indeed, is in possession of Rictavio’s pet monkey, Piccolo. It makes for an awesome, memorable encounter.
Finally, let’s look at Strahd von Zarovich himself.
UNF. Sorry, but this guy brings back everything that makes vampires so sexy and terrifying at the same time. Jeez Louise. The first word that comes to mind when I think about Strahd is “Decadence.” It’s almost filthy how decadent his lifestyle is. Look at that armor, those clothes – how impeccably dressed he is.
So, this guy lives in opulence. Unfortunately for him, Barovia is ancient, and it’s kind of in shambles. Even his Castle Ravenloft is not in the best of conditions. Therefore, he’s bitter and sullen. He lives for the opportunity to make himself feel better, and he does that usually by making the lives of others a living hell.
For this guy’s voice, I went traditional, Transylvanian vampire. How could I not? A lot of it I derived from Gary Oldman’s outstanding performance as Dracula in the 90’s Coppola film (which I love). That deep-throated, drawn out way of speaking…most of it is low volume, sometimes whispered. But he can fly into a rage, and have a booming, thunderous voice as well. There’s a longing in Oldman’s performance, which I felt fit perfectly with Strahd. The Count longs to be free of Barovia, he longs to be reunited with Tatyana.
Those are some examples of D&D characters, and how I examined them to create memorable NPCs for my players. And, I feel, it worked. Ever since the heroes first met Strahd in person, they’ve feared him. Every time they’ve seen him since, their eyes go wide and they suddenly start planning together and figuring out best- and worst-case-scenarios. This might be because of his stats, but I like to think my portrayal of Strahd and how Strahd affects Barovia played a part in that too.
So, to sum it all up:
- Perform your NPCs for your players. Make them real, living people in the world of the heroes. This will also encourage your players to do the same with their characters.
- Examine the NPCs for clues as to their characterizations and their personalities. Look at all aspects of their life to get a really full view of who they are and how they sound. It’s not just about “funny voices.”
- Draw from other places for inspiration. Actors do this all the time. This can help you make informed decisions about the NPCs and how they behave and sound.
- Write it down! It’s easy to forget these details – even what voice style you used – when you’re running so many NPCs!
- COMMIT. Don’t be afraid of “looking like a fool” at the table. Guess what? You and everyone at that table are pretending you’re in a fantasy world casting spells at goblins. It’s fine.
I hope this helps. If it has, give this article a like at the bottom, and share it on social media! I appreciate it!
Join the discussion in the comments! What has helped you to develop memorable NPCs? Are you hesitant to really go all-out at the table and perform for your players? Tell me why in the comments! What was your favorite NPC that you created or ran? Why?
Until next time – Well Met!