The Appetizer Round
In my last installment, I promised that in this one I'd get to the New Campaign's first adventure. Alright, that turned out to be a modest fib. Before I do that, I want to talk about how to play NPCs.
What I am is a method actor; I put myself into the shoes of damn near every NPC. Part of this is acting like real people do, and not like faceless red shirt existing only to provide unyielding opposition towards the PCs, or speaking like a pompous 50-year-old college professor. If the words in your mouth sound stilted and wrong, it's probably because they're coming off stilted and wrong. Beyond that ...
1) Real people don’t fight to the death en masse; it’s an enduring military truism that a force sustaining 25% casualties will probably break, and a unit sustaining 50% casualties will almost certainly break. Many systems have morale rules ... use them! If they don't, fake it. Let's say a low roll means an individual will surrender or bug out, a high roll means he's holding the line. Add simple modifiers where appropriate -- if the other side's got a Conan-type who's covered in the blood of the NPC's comrades, if the NPC's side has a strong leader rallying the troops, if there's a hereditary enemy involved. It's easy to figure out.
2) Real people don’t stolidly respond “I dunno” to a PC’s questions; most everyone knows something, or think they do, or at the very least will shoot their mouths off to appear that they do. Not even a dumb mook wants you to believe he’s a dumb mook.
3) Give every mook, and I mean every mook, one or two personality traits. “Old Jon” is a stereotypical sailor in a red striped shirt, always with a concertina or a dirty bottle of rum, and is always willing to help newbies learn the ropes. Larghos has an odd cowrie shell charm he claims came from his “mermaid wife” and protects him from drowning. Natyzha abandoned her home and family for the sea due to crushing debt and means never to return. There are user-submitted sites full of lists of folks like that, and automatic NPC generators on the Web that can do that much too. It really helps, it doesn’t take much work, and you can easily recycle the lists. The first time you see a mook go down in a battle, and another screams and runs and flings himself on her body sobbing, well ... the PCs might finish them off anyway, but many of them will pause and reflect.
4) As far as the mechanics go, acting is like any other skill ... you get better by practice. I do a lot of different voices, and it’s to the point where I can voice several different NPCs sequentially and folks can distinguish them easily, but I’ve had a lot of years of practice at it. It’s pitch, intonation, cadence and the use of idiom. Heck, it doesn’t take more to establish a very formal, snooty, upper crust NPC than to use a measured, even tone and decline to use contractions or slang!
5) On the female front ... I speak with a somewhat modulated, quieter voice and employ some body language, but of course my female characters come out as contraltos; I’m not descending to Betty Boopesque caricature. That being said, the problem of most male GMs nervous about portraying women might be not so much that they come off as creepy or whimsical, but that they're convinced they are out of self-consciousness. My advice is not to worry about it.
6) Stick in a viewpoint NPC. I've editorialized about it in this blog post, which pretty much covers it.
And with that out of the way, I seriously will put the dinner on the table next time out. Promise.
The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions