Main picture: A Handbook of Rome and the Campagna
One of the most common things you'll have to do as a GM is creating and voicing NPCs. In that vein, here's my guide to building, running and developing NPCs of all types, be they walk-on parts or the central villains of a campaign.
The first part of any NPC is the C bit - character. Who are they? What are they? Who do they know? How do they interact with people? And most importantly, why are they appearing in the story now? So that's the first thing we're going to look at. Starting with...
Every NPC fills a role. Those can be one of many things, or even change from one to another, like Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, starting as a mentor, becoming a villain, and finally coming full circle as an ally. However, whilst the role might change over time, in any particular meeting, they're one of a few things. And for the most part, those are...
This is the most common type of NPC that you'll use. The walk-on character exists to add flavour and colour to a story. They fulfil one particular role, appear and then will likely never be mentioned again. These are the servants in the hall, the butler in the house the characters visit one night, the stall merchant in the town they wander through.
They serve a single purpose for a moment, and when it's complete, they're dropped. They're the only group that you can miss fleshing out. They just need enough depth to work, but no more. However, should they be interesting enough, there's a chance they might become...
Victor, who started as a walk-on, and thank the Lords of Tal'Dorei came back again...
Regulars can be anything from occasionally appearing NPCs who turn up every few weeks or months, but are always memorable, to characters who'll be around frequently. These run the gamut from powerful nobles the group work for, to old friends or companions, whom the group regularly turn to for advice, resources or aid. They're never too far away, and have enough depth that you'll want some decent notes on them so you can keep their character consistent.
Our third character of NPC is the guide. These come in two forms - the temporary guide and the permanent one. Think of the former like Gollum (a temporary guide, helping the characters during a specific period), and the latter as Dumbledore (a mentor or guide who'll be present for a long period of time). The former tends to be intensely active with the group, possibly joining with them and following them around. The latter will probably (but not always) be less active, appearing more than a regular character and having a larger role, but probably not actively travelling with the group.
They need decent time spent fleshing out their character before the party meets them. You're going to want to really be able to get under the skin of a guide, to ensure both that you can role-play them effectively, and also have them fulfil their role well.
Our final NPC type is the villain. From minor inconveniences to the ultimate Big Bad the players will take down at the end of a campaign, the villains are the inverse of the Guide in many ways. However, whilst the group will often not encounter them until later in a campaign, and even then their levels of interaction are probably smaller than friendly NPCs, they need just as much work on their backstory and character as a Guide. The most convincing, delicious villains are built on solid foundations of sympathetic motivations and powerful actions.
Which brings us nicely to the next question: what's their personality?
Any NPC, no matter how minor, will have a personality. Sometimes that's big and crazy and memorable, like Victor, but far more often it's someone mundane, like the random barkeep the party meet in random village six. But whether they're a walk-on or the BBEG, or the mentor providing valuable information and aiding at a vital moment, they need to be distinct and believable.
That means you're going to want to have at least a vague idea of the following for them, to ensure you can role play something good.
For me, this encapsulates a lot of basic things about an NPC. What species are they? What's that species default relations to others? What prejudices will they have grown up with? What sex and gender are they? What's their social class and status? Who will they be loyal to, vs who will they wish to betray? What will they be willing to reveal, and what would they keep secret?
As much as that this is the final meeting of two men, it's also a meeting of two cultures, and two idiologies
These are all things that will have a specific spin because you're playing an individual, not simply a cultural archetype, but at the same time, cultural influences will always play a part in these things. Have an understanding of the people that this NPC is a part of, and keep that in mind.
In the case of the random barkeep in random village six, let's give her a name. She's Savannah Herathan, from the village of Naresborough, a small village not far from Nostua, in the country of Aeldshire. Her people are the Rifakkin, who appear in form like bipedal impala, with elegant horns and lithe of form, covered in tawny fur. They have almost few societal rules beyond "do nothing to harm another being". Their economy is based on tourism and a strong financial sector.
This, in the main, is what separates individuals from their cultures. What's their specific backstory? What's happened to them to bring them to this specific place, at this specific time?
In the case of Savannah, let's say she's there because she's a young girl, who's family are old friends with the people who own the pub. She's working while she's back for the summer, waiting to go back to university to study. She wants to become an archaeologist, having found bits of old pots and tiles and the like in her parent's garden.
A few random facts, created off the top of the GMs head, but it means you've now got a basis that you can work off. This is someone with an interest in history. She's working to earn money to pay her way through her studies. She's grown up knowing the pub and the people who work there and the types that travel through. All of a sudden, from a few random facts decided about her history, we've got a world of depth we can mine when the players meet her.
The first two parts give the base for getting into character, with regards to who this person is. This part is where we start to understand how they'll act in the moment. What's their motivation whilst their interacting with the group now? Is Savannah trying to get the group to stay, because they've got a room she wants to rent out for the night? Is she working for an adversary, aiming to get information from them? Maybe she's just bored and lonely, as it's been a slow day and the man who owns the pub is away with his family and has left her in charge. Or perhaps she's fallen out with her partner, and she's upset and volatile, and wanting to vent.
The motivation for the character in that moment gives the how and why for your voicing and interactions with the players.
So, we've got an idea as to what our NPC is, and who they are. Now we need to dig a little further, to understand a little about what they can do, and where their limits are. Because in games, as in life, no man is an island (except for Fred Madagascar).
The first part of an NPC's resources is their status. This is a big thing to me, which is why in Xasine I built it in as something that the players get rewarded with through campaigns. Because your status is society determines a lot. Do the party want to request an audience with the royal family of the land, to ask their help with the issue at hand? Then they're going to need a heck of a lot of political sway to be able to make that happen, or they're going to need to be far enough up the ladder of status to make it so that their request will be taken seriously and allowed.
He may have no money to his name, but in terms of status, even in The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn is about as high up as it gets
An NPC's position in society. their standing with those in power, the favours they can pull in, the respect they command... And just as important, what they can't do, because they aren't high up enough. These are all important parts of creating a believable NPC. It gives a sense of scale of what that person can do.
In the case of Savannah, she's the daughter of a local noble, which gives her some minor pull, but not a lot. However, with her family away for the minute, she's currently able to do slightly more than she normally would, as whilst her Mother is nominally the one with all the status and her deputy is dealing the the day to day issues, Savannah is known as a sensible girl and it's considered likely she may one day have her mother's position. As such, her word still carries weight.
People often confuse wealth and status, and whilst the two can go hand in hand, they more often than not don't. There's plenty of people of high regard and great renown, due to or imparting high status, who don't have a bean to their name. Similarly, there's many a person with great wealth who wouldn't be welcome within the grounds of those with great social standing. The two shouldn't be confused, hence the dedication of a second item to this.
That all being said, having a basic idea of the wealth available to the character gives a hard limit to what they are able to do themselves, before they'd have to call on others. As we know, Savannah hasn't got a lot of money around personally, but with her status as the daughter of a local minor noble, she might be able to call in a favour if needs be, or offer her favour in return for money. Status and wealth - separate, but intertwined.
Ah yes. Where would a character be without the ability to create moments of awesome by throwing fireballs and making it rain lightning?
Whilst this is obviously setting dependent, if magic exists in the system and setting you're running, you're going to want to define what exactly the NPC can do. Are there certain flavours of magic they're specialised in? Are there hard limits on what they can do, either because of skill or personal ability? Are they unable to use magic, and if so, is this rare? Are they so far up the power scale that even the merest hint of their power is vast and destructive?
There's no kill like overkill
A character's skill with magic is as important as any other skills. Which brings us back to reality with the flip side of magic...
Items & Equipment
The mundane, ordinary items of the world are in many ways the alternative to magic. Savannah might not have the power to lay waste to your enemies with the might of vast magic, but if she knows where the keys to the armoury are, and she's therefore got access to half a tonne of black powder, that's going to open up some options too. She might not be able to teleport from point A to point B, but she's got horses, which the players might not have. Even down to the basics of what an NPC is carrying at the time can be useful to reference. Are they armed? Are they carrying money? Maybe there's a book in their hand, or they're carrying a set of glass vials. What a person has on them, and what they can get access to, can give as much flavour and add as much value as any amount of sourcery.
Now we get on to the final part of understanding an NPC - we've looked at who they are, what their motivations are, and what they have access to. The last piece of the puzzle is who they're connected to. Who do they count amongst their friends and allies? Who are their enemies? Who's above and below them?
I'd consider these in both military and societal terms, so I'll use headings that give a sense of both for these, for convenience.
The top of the ladder. The people with whom the buck finally stops. Those with all the power. It's entirely possible your NPC won't know anyone at this level. Equally, it's possible they are this person, if the party have ascended to such heady heights, or have cause to be mingling with those at the highest social stations.
If they're connected to people at this level, that implies a lot about our NPC. It's worth thinking about what kind of benefits those relationships will convey, if they're going to have them. Also, this is generally the level at which you want to consider your Big Bad, if you're running one, because they're going to need...
Taking a step or two down the ladder, we're still looking here at people with great power. If the people at the top give the strategy and direction for a nation/army/evil plan, these are the people tasked with turning that into tactical, day to day plans, and commanding those. They're the ultimate doers, with access to great power, and the ear of the persons at the very top.
Our third level is far more common, and so should probably be more commonly encountered by the players. These people have no real power when it comes to setting the direction of what is going on, but they have a lot of sway when it comes to saying how it's going to happen. They're the people who really implement the tactical orders of the layer above them, making everything happen, or not.
If the NPC is at this level, remember that they'll have access to people with some fairly significant power, and quite possibly people of high social status and wealth, as well as commanding minor resource of their own. So even though they might not be individually powerful, they'll be powerful because of their connections. This is also about as high up as the party will be able to get without an invitation, and even then, it's going to require a really good reason for them to be received.
Our final layer encompasses everyone from the normal people who the party will meet every day. These are the common folk like Savannah and her mother. Normal, everyday people, going about their lives. For the most part, these will be walk-on characters, the bread and butter of your NPC role play. They may have some minor connections, but mostly they're of low social standing, and normal wealth.
Whilst they're the bottom of this particular list, they're undoubtedly the group you need to be best at playing. It's no good having a great voice and character for your villain if everyone else the party meets comes off as flat and dull. Injecting life and vitality into every NPC is one of the hallmarks of good GMing.
Well... Almost 2,800 words down, and finally we get to the meat and potatoes of it all. We've been over how to create your NPC, what you need to think about, and how to start fleshing them out. However, as I alluded to just above, you can do all the prep in the world, but it's not going to matter if you don't know how to voice them well (in more than just doing a good voice). So that's the purpose of this last leg this post. How to role play a great NPC.
The cast of Titansgrave meet Voss...
Most of your NPCs will just get a normal introduction. For example, Savannah, behind the bar, when the group walks in, would probably scan them quickly and say something like:
"Hi there. How can I serve you?"
But not everyone is going to be so mundane. Sometimes, you just need something awesome, like a character seemingly magically walking through a wall. One of the most powerful tools in the GM's toolbox is theatre of mind. Everything can be as ordinary or extraordinary as you want. But how do we use that to our best advantage, when role playing? Well, it all starts with...
Start with describing what your players will see when they notice the NPC. For Savannah, this might be something like:
You see a female Rikaffin, in her late teens or early twenties. Like all her race, she's remarkably pretty, if you can get past the tawny fur and long, elegant horns. She's wearing a long, white dress, tied at the waist with a green belt. You see that she's relaxing against the bar, propped up on her elbows, her chin resting on the backs of her hands, but as you enter and she sees you, she stands up straight and smiles warmly.
A lot of what makes a good description work is not just the physical appearance, but the body language of a character. We get a brief glimpse of what she looks like, but we also see that it's quiet enough in the bar that she's relaxed. She's become bored, propping up her head whilst she waits for someone to come along. When they do though, she doesn't act surly or annoyed; instead she peps up immediately, becoming animated and smiling. She might find the waiting dull, but she's attentive to her job when it actually happens. She doesn't look down on her work, or try to shirk it. We also see a glimpse of why she's been hired, even though she won't be around for long - although she's got a connection to the family that own the pub, she's also probably genuinely decent at the job.
Describing how someone holds themselves, what their facial expressions are, and what they're doing are just as important to an introduction, and to setting the scene for your role play of them as their physical appearance.
The mood of an NPC is just as important to set up as their physicality. Indeed, we should get an indication of their current mental state based on the appearance. In the above example, we can see that Savannah is bored, but genuinely enthusiastic and interested when people come in. So when we say her opening line, we need to convey that. It needs to come across bright and cheery, and honestly helpful.
This will also set the tone for the interaction with the group. A surly NPC will put players on edge, an arrogant one will annoy them, and a happy, amusing one will lighten the tone. You can use these things to create contrast. Consider someone like Benny from Stranger Things.
He's basically a walk-on character. We expect one thing from him, being big and working a diner. But then we get to see more depth in his character. Even in the two minutes of the clip above, we see he's got a strong paternal side. He's caring and kind towards Eleven. He tries to do the best thing he can for her, and to get her help. We see a lot transmitted through both his initial presentation and body language, but also through the mood set by the actor's use of his voice and expression.
And now we reach the crux of the scene setting for the NPC - their inner motor. Every character should have something that drives them, something that motivates their every action. This can generally be summed up in just a few words, no matter how simple or complex it is. For example, consider the following:
- The Terminator in Terminator 2: protect John Connor
- Rocky in Rocky: don't give up
- Ilsa Lund in Casablanca: be true to love
- Aragorn in the LotR trilogy: be righteous in living
- Boromir in the same: protect Gondor, at whatever cost
- Leia Organa in Star Wars: bring about a better future
- Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones: find happiness in love
A strong inner motor gives a touchstone for your acting of an NPC, something to return to if you get stuck as to how they should act. What is that they most want? Something true to that will always be the answer.
The second part of playing a great NPC is how you act them. Now, you could write books on this, so this is just going to be a high level overview. But hopefully these basics should give you enough a guide to help you put together something compelling.
Side note: if you want more depth on this, I'd highly recommend both Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book, and Impro for Storytellers
A great voice makes for an immediate impact
Voices aren't everyone's cup of tea (which incidentally, if you're going to do voices, helps - hot water, lemon and honey). But that being said, they can really help with lending character to a character.
You don't have to go mad, and try to avoid a caricature - you don't want to be too obvious, unless you're going with something really, really daft, like a Victor type NPC. But something that fits with what your NPC is and reflects them can help bring them to life. If they're huge and imposing, go deeper. If they're small, go with a higher pitched voice and maybe speak a little faster. When I was young, I used to impersonate the voices for the cast of the Winnie the Pooh audiobooks, with Stephen Fry and Judi Dench and so on, and Ivor the Engine. This left me with a repertoire of very silly voices to call on, but whether you've practised them before or not, you can start now.
Pick interesting voices and accents, and start to learn to imitate them. I'd strongly suggest checking out the International Dialects of English Archive, known as IDEA for short. It contains people with various local accents speaking the same short piece in their particular accent, followed by some random unscripted text. For example, if you want to hear the accent I grew up around thanks to my grandparents, take a listen to Wales 6.
The second part of acting an NPC is the physicality of your presentation of them. I referenced this in the description part earlier, but you can bring that into your acting too.
A wonderful example of physically getting into character with just acting through the face
For example, if I was running Savannah from earlier, I'd start of slumped with my shoulders hunched a little, showing how she's arched over, then sit up and smile. The way you sit and hold yourself and what you do with your face and your body language alter how you voice your character too. For example, try saying the following lines, firstly looking down and feeling sad, and then upright and proud.
"I couldn't, in all good conscience, bring myself to do it."
Saying it in the first way will bring out a portrayal of regret. The character wishes they'd been strong enough to get past their emotions and do the right thing, despite that it was hard and against their moral code. In the latter, they're proud of their refusal to do the wrong thing, and that they took a stand.
How you hold yourself and physically act the part is just as important as anything else. It's the base framework for displaying the mood of the character.
And finally, the little nuances. If the physicality of your portrayal gives the broad strokes of their body language, the mannerisms are the fine details. What are the specifics that mark out how they move? Are they lanky, in which case they might move in a more spidery, whippy way, and so maybe steeple their fingers or have more jerky, stutter-stop movements? If they're bulky, maybe they'll flex their muscles or hit the top of a table to emphasise a point. If they're slightly mad, they might move too fast, knocking into things and running everywhere, in a slightly manic manner.
The things you can do consistently and constantly in your portrayal give the finer details to your characters, and also help you get back into them if you need to use them again. Make notes on the little things that mark out your larger characters. This is the sort of detail you don't need to get into for walk-on or minor characters, but that you'll definitely want for the larger NPCs.
Thanks for Reading!
Well, that just about covers it. Obviously this isn't a complete, in-depth study of improving, but hopefully you'll find it a useful overview, and of course as always, if you've any thoughts or feedback, feel free to drop in on social media and let me know!