5 Tips On How To Roleplay NPCs If You Are Uncomfortable

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0544

A Brief Word From Johnn

Riddleport Heats Up

My pirate city campaign draws closer to its finale. We’ve played a few sessions since my last report in this newsletter, and the plot steadily marches on wards.

Riddleport is divided into several districts, each with its own crime lord. It seems several monster factions have been setting up base over the past while, one faction or so per district.

Now the PCs know why this has been happening.

A dead god’s heart was locked beneath the PC’s inn 100 years ago. That leaves a slot open in the divine order, and soon a new god will ascend from mortals. All factions have a single champion who vies to be the one picked for godhood.

Caught up in all this, because their inn is the focus of attention with a divine heart magically stowed in the basement, and because the group’s paladin has a stake in the game, the PCs are now on the offensive.

First, they crippled the dragon spawn faction in an arena battle and then a heated street battle.

Next, they freed the paladin’s god who was trapped in a githyanki’s Silver Sword.

Upon release, Ragathiel, the winged god of vengeance, unleashed holy hell upon the githyanki faction. The gith were already weakened from several battles with the PCs, and only a few survived the god’s attack.

Two sessions ago, the Order of Cyphers was decimated when the city’s mysterious stone arch at the harbour entrance lit up and started spinning. The arch is a kilometer in diameter, and it slaughtered most of the city’s mages who had gathered to study it when it first started to glow.

Now the PCs are after the drow. Ordered by their crime lord to get him the Book of Battle for his wedding present, the PCs paid a visit to the dark elves’ rumoured HQ – a nunneryin a nearby district.

Turns out the nuns were murdered by the dark elves and the drow laid a trap for the PCs by stocking the building with all kinds of strange and terrible creatures.

The group cleared out the nunnery and allied with two undead nuns – one a devourer and the other an unknown but special creature. Together, they entered a hole in the floor to take the battle to the drow underground.

That’s how last session ended. With the mysteries about the heart and factions revealed, and the arch now in motion, there’s a sense in Riddleport that a divine decision about who the new god will be is imminent.

Next game is scheduled in a couple of weeks. Should be fun!

5 Tips On How To Roleplay NPCs If You Are Uncomfortable

RPT reader Alex B. wrote in with this request a little while ago:

The key difficulty for me is roleplaying NPCs. I’m even having difficulty just havinga conversation between NPCs and the PCs. Instead, I tend to a summarize what they say.

Thanks for the request, Alex. Roleplaying is tricky, especially if you are a rusty or new GM.

Think of roleplaying NPCs in encounters like scenes from yourf avourite TV show. It’s just people talking, actors saying their lines.

I think the toughest things about learning to roleplay NPCs are:

  1. Figuring out what to say
  2. Getting over the discomfort

Roleplaying is a bit like acting and public speaking mashed together!

If you are an introvert like me, you have a rich realm of words and ideas in your head. But when it comes time to express those, there’s some hesitation or you get a bit tongue-tied.

Here are a few tips to help. I welcome tips from RPT readers as well!

Read Screenplays

Plays are all dialogue. Reading some great works will help train your brain to think in terms of characters speaking in scenes.

I read a lot of fantasy books, which are great for GM inspiration. But most of them have limited dialogue spread out over hundreds of pages.

A screenplay condenses things for you so it’s NPCs talking all the time.

I recommend Shakespeare. His dialogue is difficult and advanced compared to most other playwrights.

When you want to build muscles, lift heavier weights. That way, the lighter weights will feel like nothing afterwards.

For example, in school we passed heavy medicine balls to each other before playing baseball. After hefting those suckers around, the bat and ball felt light as feathers.

This also works in speed reading. Force yourself to read as fast as possible for a few pages. Do not worry about comprehension. Just lough through the words.

When you slow down to read normally, you’ve “stretched” your eyes and brain a bit, and your regular reading speed will be faster for that sitting.

In this way, reading difficult screenplays will make the simpler dialogue of your NPCs much easier to conjure up.

Mimic TV And Movies

Reading lines of dialogue gives you great ideas for how characters speak to each other in scenes.

However, GMing NPCs is a verbal activity. Just reading and thinking will not get you all the practice you need.

So pick a recording of your favorite TV show or movie. Queue it up and practice speaking out loud with the characters in the show.

The easiest way to do this is, armed with the pause button:

  1. Queue up a scene in the show.
  2. Pick one character in the scene.
  3. Each time after that character speaks, pause the show.
  4. Out loud, respond to the character. Just react.

Repeat. Unpause the show and let the other characters speak.

Each time your chosen character says something, pause the show and respond out loud.

This is a great exercise for several reasons.

  1. You can relax and just react. Let your halo’d character kick off each exchange.
  2. You are speaking out loud, which is critical learning for roleplaying NPCs better. You are working your verbal brain muscles.
  3. It’s a safe environment. You might feel uncomfortable at first, but no one is around, so you can work at it and get over the discomfort in private before next game.
  4. You are forced to react to whatever the character offers you, just like during the game. The character might say something uninspired or difficult to react to. That’s perfect! Stretch those creative + verbal muscles.

Another way you might do this is through audio books. Pause when your chosen character speaks and respond out loud.

You can find free and legal audio books here: LibriVox.

You might also try practicing with real gameplay recordings:
RPGMP3: Dungeon ON
Role Playing Public Radio

Give Each NPC A Great Mannerism

Avoid creating NPCs tough to roleplay while you are learning the ropes. Make it easy on yourself by choosing simple and fun NPC mannerisms.

At first, pick things fun to YOU. Worry more about gaming realistic NPCs compelling to your players as you get experience later.

Here are some model ideas to imitate:

  • Most irritating person you know
  • Craziest movie character
  • Your favorite villain
  • Your favorite villain minion
  • The weirdest relative you have
  • The strangest teacher you’d had

Here are some specific trait ideas:

  • Raspy voice
  • Twitches
  • Stutters
  • One eye (wear an eye patch or keep one eye closed)
  • Arm in a cast (create a sling for yourself)
  • Answers everything with a question
  • Insane and sputters nonsense
  • Has favorite expression (Spoon!)

More resources:

40 Quirk Examples — 6 More Ways To Use E-Mail To Help Your Game — RPT#39

1,000 NPC Traits

The Mother Of All Character Questionnaires

Think “I”

Avoid roleplaying NPCs in the third person. This was part of the tip request, so you are already aware of this tip.

But to make it clear to you, when roleplaying NPCs, you wantto be in the first person – “I”.

Everything you say in the role of the NPC should be from the NPC’s point of view.

Pretend you are that NPC when speaking.

Better yet, pretend the NPC is you. You would not refer to yourself in third person when talking with people in real life, right?

Johnn: “Johnn Four thinks you should get milk.”

Wife: “Wife thinks Johnn Four should stick that dice up his….”

Yeah, speaking about yourself in third person never goes well.

So too it is with your NPCs. Only speak using the word “I” and only speak from the first person perspective.

In addition, always address players by their character names when roleplaying. An NPC would never address a character by the player’s name. That breaks sense of disbelief.

If you have trouble remembering who’s who, create a cheat sheet Post-It on your screen or beside you on the table.

I go to Toastmasters and each meeting there’s an “Ah

This person counts how many times you use pause words, like ah, um and so.

Implement this role in your group, but instead of pause words, have them point out second and third person roleplaying.

Each time you speak in third person when roleplaying an NPC, the “I Counter” makes a note.

Figure out how you want this to work:

  • Do you want to be interrupted as soon as you do it (great for breaking the habit fast)?
  • Or would you prefer a quick debrief after each encounter or session (so it remains top of mind for you ongoing)?
  • Do any other players want help this way, or should the I Counter just monitor you?

Here’s a related tip: give the I Counter role to a player who has trouble paying attention.

One thing I learned about being Ah Counter at Toastmasters is you’ve got to pay attention. Letting your thoughts wander means you miss all the instances of people using the pause words. Then you feel bad when you’re report comes up short.

So give this role to a player who could use practice listening to the GM better. 🙂

Use Custom Props

Sometimes you feel awkward roleplaying NPCs.

Or you think your players might be uncomfortable because they are not sure if it’s you the GM talking, or the NPC talking, at any given time.

Solve this easily with a hat. Put the hat on when you are roleplaying an NPC.

This clearly indicates to everyone you’re roleplaying, and that awkward moment evaporates.

If the hat idea works for you, build up a collection of props to help you roleplay many different NPCs.

For example, toys and Halloween props give you swords, wands and masks. These help you roleplay specific NPCs quite well.

Build up your props chest to get into character fast and roleplay distinct NPCs comfortably.

Even experienced GMs can find props add more life to their NPCs and encourage you to roleplay even more.

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If you are uncomfortable roleplaying NPCs, and these tips did not hit the sweet spot for you, drop me a note.

Let me know about what’s making you uncomfortable, or give me some more details about why you think you’re uncomfortable.

Armed with this information, I can offer you more specific tips.

Also, if you have some tips about roleplaying NPCs better, drop me an email. Thanks!

Getting To Know New Players And New Characters

From Mike Bourke and Johnn Four

James S. wrote Mike and I an email with this request:

That time is coming again, the start of a new campaign! I am in a new city, with new friends, most of whom I have not roleplayed with much in the past, although I would describe them as “mature gamers”.

We met through Games Workshop, which they have all been into for a long time (like me), and they play a lot of board games. They seem to me like they’d make great roleplayers, so I am gradually reeling them in….

I am planning to run Monte Cook’s Ptolus, which I have had for a while now, waiting for the right group to spring it on. I’ve read it through a couple of times and am now going through with a fine tooth comb making notes. It’s a massive campaign setting, but it really excites me, so is not the chore it could be.

Which questionnaire do you use for your group when starting a new campaign? How well is it received? I know that Mike Bourke writes a 20 page dossier for each character he roleplays, but most of my players in the past have taken a half-arsed approach to questionnaires, or else I end up with four people with amnesia.

I use them myself when writing up a character, as I find it helps the creative juices flow so I come to the table with a fully rounded concept, and then it’s easier to roleplay.

Telling other people this never seems to help. I guess players don’t like homework? Maybe I should explain just how much homework I have to do! I usually offer a 1 attribute award to completed questionnaires, but still never seem happy with the results.

I was looking at “The Mother of All Character Questionnaires” which I think is spot on. But very long! Have you managed to get players to complete it?


Comments from Mike:

Actually, James, the few times I have tried questionnaires they haven’t worked out for me. So yes, I write that 20-page (or more) dossier, but it’s all in response to three questions:

  • Who is he/she
  • How did he/she get that way?
  • Why?

Often, it seems like a paragraph or two is enough to answer those questions when I start, but every time you answer it, the third question – why? – adds new paragraphs.

Before a completely satisfactory answer has evolved, one that covers all the plot holes and ticks all the boxes, I sometimes have to go back several generations (detailing the lives of people who influenced the character’s parents before he/she was even born).

Once (special circumstances) I had to go back prior to the big bang (cyclic universe) as the character was in part a leftover of the previous space time.

Be that as it may, it then gets handed to the GM with a red pen. Anything he doesn’t like, or that doesn’t make sense to him, or that doesn’t fit his view of world history, gets crossed out and a note added as to why.

Anything he especially likes (as in, “I can get an adventure/encounter out of that”) gets a tick to say “leave this unchanged”.

I then go back through the background, replacing and repairing and finding new ways to plug the gaping holes that have just appeared.

Both drafts (marked-up and revised) get handed back to the GM for approval, so he can see what I’ve done to replace what he crossed out. I use consistent headings and subheadings to help the comparison.

This time, I give him a blue pen.

He has the choice of ticking the changes, or reverting to the original, or drafting a replacement section himself.

The plot holes get filled a third time, and the final version becomes the character bible. I summarize the resulting character in bullet form with cross-references to relevant paragraphs (numbered).

If I get time, I’ll also do draft character sheets for any important NPCs and give them to the GM with a copy of the final background (and a copy of my character, obviously).

So it’s a relatively straightforward exercise in creative writing. I use a similar process with my players when I’mthe GM.

Now, as to the question of rewards:

My superhero game system is a point-based construction system that assumes characters get a certain number of points.

The actual base number of points they get is low, but they get bonus starting xp for every idea I can use (saves me from coming up with them) and lose points for every unanswered plot hole (makes more work for me).

There’s an optional system that lets players start out with a rough idea of their character and assemble the jigsaw as they play for players who like to work that way.

With fantasy games like D&D and Pathfinder, I do something similar with starting cash and equipment. These characters generally need to be less defined than a superhero does, anyway.

For each idea I can use, they get another item of starting equipment, up to the maximum of 1 step above the normal starting equipment for their character level. For each plot hole, they lose a piece (my choice as to which).

It generally results in characters that don’t have all the magical gear they would like to have for their level, but that often have one goodie that normally wouldn’t be available to them. The rest have to be filled during play.

The benefit of this approach is the items they choose and that I then take off them give me items for equipment lists for NPCs and for treasure caches i.e. in-game rewards.

I don’t generally hold players to quite the same standards I use, but most of them have learned from my technique and seen the benefits of it, so they follow the example. 😉

Comments from Johnn:

Hi James, congrats on finding a new group!

I agree with Mike. I’d also add a couple of points.

Consider running a one-shot first. This helps everyone get to know each other with little campaign pressure to get things right.

In my opinion, it’s more important to know the players than the characters during the honeymoon stage of a new group.

Plan a one-shot session with at least one hour debrief time to get feedback and discuss what your new players want from your games, and vice versa.

Next, plan a character creation session. I don’t like these much because I prefer to get on with the game, but for a new group I make an exception. It’s amazing how many questions come up during PC creation, so you might as well do it as a group in person.

You can also use this session to develop character details face to face. Rather than a form to fill out, you pick a few key questions and sprinkle them throughout the character creation session, hitting players between tasks or when it looks like they need a short break from the books.

Armed with this info, you can tweak your Ptolus campaign before it starts, in session #3.

Finally, a word of caution. New group, new players, new environment. A massive city like Ptolus might create fast derailment of your plans. It takes awhile to build up a group’s social contract, so you won’t be sure if you have lawful or chaotic players, and they might split up and do the unexpected.

I would start your campaign in a tight crucible. This helps everyone stay focused, learn about their PCs and get into character, and learn about the world.

Use the crucible to introduce the PCs and the plot. Then, when you set them free into the giant sandbox of a city,there should be more group unity.

For example, I once started the PCs as slaves. The goal obsession one was to escape and survive. An NPC lead them to Greyhawk City, where the real campaign plot started.

The group hung tightly together in that first session, learned each other’s roles and personalities, and the campaign did quite well after that.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Campaign Report: Aquatic Adventures Are Tough To GM

From Jerry from Bayside

(re: RPT#543 – How To Make Your Aquatic Adventures Not Suck Like A Giant Whirlpool)

I ran an 3.5 D&D island adventure a few years ago. I was new to the group and they were looking for someone new to run and something new to play.

I had had this idea to use existing maps of the South Sea Islands so as not to have to reinvent the map wheel – seemed simple enough to do – yay for National Geo graphics mags and maps.

There was a D&D book – Storm wracked (still available from Amazon) that provided a lot of useful info – races, ships,boats, weapons, magic – one of the good supplements to come out – different stuff and good ideas.

I collected some other books – Ships of the Goblinoids fromFRP – got that in a download from RPGNow – plus other nautical books and adventures.

I was trying to learn how to do ship combat, ship movement,ship to ship, monster vs. ships, monsters in the water – anything that would make the game play within the rules of 3.5 and still allow for creativity.

I also used the 3.5 Tome of Horrors – the players hated that because I used the templates to create monsters they couldn’t look up.

I created a kelp monster that could fly – pretty nasty – but, all within the rules of the templates provided. Plus they had the sea lions – which was fun for a sunken treasure adventure.

There are a lot of aquatic versions of land based monsters – little used because no one in their right land-based mind would ever venture underwater to fight – armour? arrows?magic?

Things went along swimmingly (haha) until the mage gained some levels, then it was all over.

Instead of my envisioned battles of pirates swinging from ship to ship with cutlasses and belaying pins, I got fireballs at hundreds of yards (or whatever the range is).

Sailing ships are too slow to outrun a couple of fireballs,making corsairs into flambe meatballs and frigates into fritters.

They didn’t even care about treasure – it was too much trouble for the effort.

My story lines went up in a puff of smoke. It doesn’t do any good to leave a treasure map on the tongue of a dead dwarven thief if he is at the bottom of the ocean!

Aquatic adventures are quite the challenge. But, for the jaded players, they can provide something new and different – you just need the right group. Consider limiting magic?

The other part of my island adventuring that flopped was the need for ships at all. Teleporting was all they needed to get from adventure to adventure.

One thing I thought of for creating a 3D battle map set up: 3D Tic Tac Toe games. When I was a kid – years ago – someone brought out a 3D Tic-Tac-Toe game. Now Tic-Tac-Toe probably isn’t at the top of everyone’s must-have game list, but, as I remember, it was pretty cool – to a kid of the ’50s.

The 3D board consisted of 3 squares of plexiglass with the traditional grids on each of the 3 levels. The levels of plexiglass were separated by long, narrow, bolt stock and pieces of rigid plastic tubing – made to be able to take it apart for storage.

The idea was to be able to score a Tic-Tac-Toe with a placement of a chip in any square on any level. I never played the game, but I imagine an X placed over an O in the level above cancelled out O below – not sure, but there’s the 3D challenge.

You could create larger clear plastic sheets with grids for stack able battle maps. The problem is the distance between the sheets couldn’t really be to scale (1 inch isn’t a lot of room to get your hands between to move miniatures), but a convention could be agreed upon.

[Comment from Johnn: Great comment on the 3D Tic Tac Toe board, Jerry. Have you seen Combat Tiers? I think it’ll bring back memories for you. 🙂 http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt544cm3dminis ]
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A Good Aquatic Campaign Product

From Josh

Cerulean Seas Campaign Setting: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt544cerulean

“Does your game lack depth? Under a lot of pressure to try something new? Creative springs running a bit dry?

Then it is time to make a splash with the Cerulean Seas Campaign Setting and Undersea Source book. Aquatic adventure awaits in three dimensions with this unique underwater world.

This tome is filled to the brim with useful material for any game: a dozen new races, a triad of new classes and prestige classes, scores of new feats and spells, solutions for 3D combat, ninety new monsters, card stock minis and so much more!

All beautifully color-illustrated by Alluria Publishing’s talented design team. Take the plunge!”

[Comment from Johnn: I see it’s on sale for 50% off right now too. Thanks for the link, Josh.]
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Aquatic Inspiration

From Aeolius

Great Books And Movies

You might also try to find a copy of “Ocean: The World’s Last Wilderness Revealed.” http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt544amazonocean

I have found this book to be an invaluable reference for my own undersea campaign.

It goes without saying that watching the Discovery/BBC “Blue Planet” series will also be inspirational. iTunes: The Blue Planet.

Also, if you have a local Aquarium or Science Center, or even a pet store that sells saltwater fish and corals, spend time watching the fish, invertebrates, live rock and other sea life.

Play Up The Unique Underwater Environment

There are those who think of undersea games as simply involving shipwrecks and coral reefs. They might enjoy sub aqueous analogs to more traditional terrains.

  • Envision fields of sea grass, vast deserts of bleached corals, or perhaps an urchin barren.
  • Imagine a forest of towering kelp or jungle of free- floating Sargasso seaweed.
  • Perhaps a bramble of writhing serpent stars or a mountainous submerged seamount would be more to their liking.
  • For the adventurous, there are hydro thermal vents or cold seeps to explore.

Create Foam Board Terrain

Another alternative for terrain can be found at your local pet store:


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Online RP With Skype?

From Izzy Sanders

I have always been a proponent of tabletop roleplay, choosing to steer clear of forum games. The closest I’ve ever been to internet roleplay interactions was during a game where a player joined in via video link.

However, I have been asked by a group of friends to run a game via Skype, and I realise I don’t know where to begin running a game via the internet.

Should I let them roll their own dice, or should I do it myself? Should I use voice chat, or will that become a mass of voices over voices? If I use the instant message function, then how should I go about that?

In short. I really need some 21st century digital GM tips.


Reply from Johnn:

Hi Izzy!

First off, it depends on your game system and GMing style:

  1. Freeform
  2. Tactical with minis and battle maps

If #2, you’ll want some Virtual Tabletop software.

Here’s a great virtual tabletop software (VTT) list: Links & Resources.

In either case, you want text chat at minimum. Audio is a bonus, video is cream on the cake.

Go ahead and try Skype – I have not used it for gaming. Sounds fun!

You might also check out Google+ Hangout. Hangout lets multiple people join at anytime (when Yax and I tried Skype, all group members had to join at once – drop-ins were not allowed).

Hangout also lets you show your computer to others. This is perfect for maps and illustrations and other gaming uses.

More about Google+ Hangout: Start a video call.

For dice rolls, there’s a perfect solution if you’re not using Virtual Tabletop Software: an online dice roller.

And the best is one that emails out the results. This keeps everything honest and you get a history.

Try these:

Secure Dice

Dice Roller

And here are some somewhat related tips that might help. Some are for Play by Email (PbEM) but can still help you be organized and drive the action along:

Maintaining An Online Game

Online (Forum) Role Playing: Online (Forum) Role Playing — RPT#279

Stress-Free Gaming and Time and Character Advancement in PbEM

Tips For Setting Up PbEMs & PBPs

10 PBEM Etiquette Tips For Beginner Players

Comparing Play By Email (PBeM) With Other RPGs — RPT#83

Guide to PBP / PbEM

Roleplaying Tips Weekly Supplemental #10
“Subscribers’ Online Games”