May 10, 2011

NPC Voice

We’ve all read about techniques for using NPC voices in our games, but I think we can kick it up a notch. I’m not talking about the typical accents or speech impediments such as lisps or stuttering. These are all about the sounds. Rather I am talking about the way in which an NPC uses his words. There are unique ways for an NPC to use words; here are 10 examples of how a DM can change up an NPCs speech patterns…

One Word: The NPC can only speak one word. Perhaps this is because of some type of trauma, development issues or foreignness. Here it becomes about using the word with different inflections to get a statement across. In a Feng Shui game the party befriended a large brute of a man, Hugo, who could only speak his name. I was able to convey fear, stress, joy, sadness all by how I said the word. It makes for a harder time for the GM, but you’ll find the players pay closer attention. As a readily seen example, take a look at the “Dude” Bud Lite commercials (and no, Bud Lite is not paying me for a product placement). By only using one word he is still able to convey complete statements.

Mute: At first glance this seems to fall outside what we are talking about in this article, but it still applies. Here the GM has to either use gestures or descriptions of the NPCs gestures and movements. Again you will find the players paying closer attention to what is going on and they will better retain any information they may gather.

Single Word: The NPC has a full vocabulary but chooses to only speak in one word sentences. Rarely does this sort of NPC initiate a conversation and usually only speaks when first spoken to, thus it is easier to respond with only one word.

Third Person: The NPC takes about himself in the third person. This could indicate a severe case of self-assurance or an improper grasp of the language. Either way it is memorable.

Noises: The NPC does not speak with words but rather with noises. When he is excited he will screech, when frightened he will moan, etc.

Animal Noises: The NPC only responds in a particular animal noise, such as a dog, cat, bird. Often these NPCs have a nickname as appropriate, such as the “Bird-Man”.

Pause: This person always pauses before the last word of his sentence. At first this will make the players think he is putting a greater emphasis on the word to highlight, until they realize it is only a vagary of speech. As an alternative to this, you can have the NPC pause in mid-sentence, but this is harder to do when you are talking off the top of your head.

False Emotion: This is when the NPC always speaks in a voice that conveys emotion, such as sadness, whining, happiness. The NPC is not in fact experiencing that emotion but it is just their way of speech. My wife once had one of her NPCs always speak in a whiny voice. After several months of this we (the characters) told the NPC to stop whining. He said he wasn’t whining, so we asked him to whine for us. He started whining like a whipped dog and sounded even whinier than before.

Out of Breathe: The easiest way to do this is to take a deep breathe every few words in a sentence; 3 breathes per sentence is good. This is good to use when running an over-weight or weak NPC. The players may forget your description of the NPC being weak, but they won’t forget his voice.

Catch Phrase: The NPC starts every sentence the same way. “I’ve heard…”, “I say…”, “Well…”

Your voice is the greatest tool you have at the table. Players don’t see a room, they hear you describe it. Same for your NPCs. You can describe them but it is their imagination that fills in the gaps. When you describe an NPC the visualization is done by the players.

For example, if you were to describe an NPC as “The man is wearing a dark blue overcoat with red trim, at his belt hangs a rapier which looks well worn. He also is wearing a wide brimmed hat with a long feather attached.” This does a good of conjuring into mind a swashbuckler of some sort, but the finer details are inherently provided by the players. Does the NPC have hair hanging out from underneath his hat? Is it in a ponytail? Is it blonde? What style hilt does the sword have? None of these questions are usually relevant to an adventure (and if it was, likely the DM would have provided the detail) but all players fill in the gaps to better visualize the NPC. Most descriptions paint a vague, utilitarian picture for the players, just enough to give them a picture so they can play with it. It is the voice that brings the NPC to life and makes him memorable, because it is the closest to the source of the description, a voice.

Having a regular “voice” for a repeating NPC makes them more memorable, and also more real. Every time they meet the NPC, if there is something unique about the way they speak, it reinforces that NPC in the minds of your players. I heartily recommend finding a unique way of speaking for your NPCs, especially those the party will have prolonged contact with. This is especially true with hirelings and companions.

Voice can also be used to give clues within an adventure. For example, a town may be beset by cultists that gain power at night when they turn into ravaging beasts. One side effect of this ability is that the cultists always talk as if they are out of breathe. This can be used as a clue as to who within the town may be one of these cultists.

So, in conclusion, I recommend taking a look (or ear) at how your NPCs speak. Branch out from the typical voices and think about how they use their words. Can you think of any other ways an NPC can speak with his word choices?
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