GM Schizophrenia: Tips For Holding Conversations Between Multiple NPCs

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0078

  1. Why Do It At All?
  2. Have A Point, Keep It Short
  3. Move Your Head From Side To Side
  4. Turn From The Waist
  5. Body Language
  6. Use Accents
  7. Use Different Voices
  8. Use Different Sentence Structures
  9. Point To A Fig Or Use Pictures

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Homemade Dungeon Tiles
  2. Track NPCs With An Address Book
  3. Homemade Paper Figurines
  4. Use Plastic Covers & Listo Pencils For Character Sheets

A Brief Word From Johnn

Addiction To Settlers Of Catan

My addiction to this board game is official now. Have you played it before? It’s a great game. I bring it up because I’m finding that playing board games is also helping my GMing.

The strategy and tactics muscles in my brain are working overtime from all my recent Settlers’ games, and I find that I’m employing those same skills to prepare better encounters, stories, and especially, villains.

So, perhaps pull out the ol’ Monopoly board, or make a trip to your local hobby store and pick up a nice game. It might help you be a better game master.

Meta-Game Thanks

Thanks to everyone for writing in with your meta-game definitions and stories. I’ll be doing an issue on the topic sometime in the future. Cheers,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

GM Schizophrenia:Tips For Holding Conversations Between Multiple NPCs

Why Do It At All?

Many GMs wrote in that they do not have conversations between their NPCs. This is perfectly OK–it’s your campaign and you’re the boss! However, if you don’t do this because you’re not sure how or why to do it, hopefully this Tips issue will give you a few ideas to consider.Here are a couple of reasons to have NPC-to-NPC conversations in your sessions and to risk looking insane doing it:

  • Spying. If a character is eavesdropping or listening in on a conversation, it can be more effective and fun to roleplay the discussion, and let the player figure out the clues for herself, rather than just giving a summary and pointing the clues out directly for the PC.
  • Establish relationships. It’s often useful to demonstrate the relationships between your non-player characters by acting them out.For example, suppose you’re running a Cinderella type adventure, and the evil step-mother is being extremely mean to Cinderella. It would be effective for you to scream out orders in a screechy, witch-type voice, and then switch to playing Cinderella and bow your head and feign weeping, versus just saying “you walk in on Cinderella’s mother being mean to the poor girl”.
  • Show, don’t tell. It is often more rewarding for your players when you let them figure things out for themselves than by you telling them straight out. You can use conversation between NPCs to give hints, reveal secrets, and provide clues.
  • Theatrics. Here is your chance to show off those acting classes you took, or to ham it up to a captive audience. Seriously though, your players would enjoy being briefly entertained by your show, especially if it’s important to them in some way.Also, I find that theatrics exercises a completely different part of my brain than administration, tactics, applying game rules, and so on. So, it can be a bit of a break for yourself too.
  • Control. By controlling the conversation briefly, you can get into a rhythm and roleplay your NPCs with greater ease without needing to answer player questions, look up rules, or roll dice. You can also control the outcome so you can get your point(s) across.
  • Cut scenes. We’ve seen this former Readers’ Tip before, where a GM can use cut scenes to provide background details, set-up an encounter, increase tension, and so on. NPC-to-NPC conversations are a great type of cut scene for the players to witness and enjoy.Cut scenes can also help your players play their PCs better. For example, if your NPCs just had a big argument and everyone’s angry, and then the PCs enter, the players could get the impression that the NPCs are angry at them and get offended. This might wreck your story plans. But, a cut scene would show that the NPCs are just angry from their recent fight, and not actually mad at the PCs. And this would help your players roleplay the scene more comfortably.See these issues for more information on cut scenes:
    RPT#50 – Rewards: 6 Ways To Help Your Players Develop Compelling Characters During Play
    RPT#51 – 5 Meta-Game Tips About Rewards
  • Relieve tension. If something’s just happened and there’s a lot of tension in the group that you’d like to relieve, a little comedic multi-NPC conversation might help ease things. For inspiration, watch a 3 Stooges movie or an Abbott & Costello skit.

Have A Point, Keep It Short

Conversation in movies and books get right to the point that the story or director/author is trying to make. You don’t often see the usually boring chit-chat that often fills up everyday conversation:

“Hi Roghan, what’s new?”

“Not much. And you?”

“Not much. Looks like rain.”

“Yeah, maybe a little wind too…”

Try to do the same with your conversations. It might not be 100% realistic, but it will keep your players focused and entertained better.

Also, make sure you have a point for the conversation. Before you begin, decide just what you’d like to accomplish. Then, while you GM and speak back and forth in the different NPC roles, always work towards achieving the point. This will help you keep your conversations on track and shorter, plus reduce the need for scripting.

Move Your Head From Side To Side

An easy way to distinguish which NPC is talking while doing your one-man show is to turn your head to a specific position for each person. Then just switch head positions before speaking. For example, NPC #1 is to the left, while NPC #2 is to the right.

Turn From The Waist

It might also seem natural for you to also turn your whole upper body to establish NPC identities. This gives you a few more possible positions for larger NPC groups. For example, you can look to the left and right for NPCs #1 & #2, then lean back in your chair for NPC #3 and lean forward for NPC #4.

Body Language

Feel free to add hand gestures, wave your arms around, use your eyebrows, and other types of body language to help keep your NPCs separate.In fact, I think this is the best way to roleplay your NPCs. By involving your whole body you quickly establish a unique identity that can last during the whole campaign if the NPC sticks around.It also gives you a mental hook that lets you almost instantly get into the role of the NPC you’re playing.

This becomes important if you have a lot of NPCs in your games.For example, here’s some different kinds of body language you can adopt during play to help everyone figure out which NPC is currently doing the talking:

  • Squish your head down and raise your shoulders so your neck disappears.
  • Raise your eyebrows as high as you can when speaking.
  • Hold your arm across your chest to mimic being in a sling.
  • Pull on your earlobes nervously and move your eyes around as if always looking for danger.
  • Cross your arms, never smile, and crease your brow.

Use Accents

Accents are an excellent way to distinguish NPCs during a private conversation. They can be tough for some of us to pull off well though, but Steve A. wrote in with this great tip:

“It helps to have a ‘code phrase’ to get you into the accent and, as always, practice makes all the difference. I learnt a poem about Suffolk men and their tractors when I was little. I only have to mouth the first syllable and suddenly I’m off, playing the Rustic innkeeper.”

Use Different Voices

Change up the nature of your voice to give an NPC a unique identity. This is different than using an accent, though you can combine this with accents to greatly broaden your repertoire.I have to say that I suck when trying to do accents. Unless I have an NPC who is a Scottish dwarf and says “that ain’t oatmeal” a lot, or a suave English elf who knows a “Miss Moneypenny”, then I’m left with just using different voices.

How about an issue just on voices then? Ideas, tips, and techniques that we can all use to change our voices and create unique NPCs, whether they’re in conversation with each other or the PCs as well?Here’s some examples to get us started:

  • Whisper
  • Slur
  • Screechy, scratchy archetypical witch voice
  • Shout, scream, or just talk loudly
  • Smooth, slow, calm, words-flow-together

Also, here’s a couple of voice technique examples. Try speaking while:

  • Crossing your arms and holding your chest in tightly
  • Squeezing your gut in and force your words out
  • Never closing your mouth completely

Do you have any other suggestions or techniques for creating different voices? Send ’em on in to: [email protected]

Use Different Sentence Structures

Amanda F. wrote in with a great tip about changing up your sentence structure and speaking style to help keep NPCs different. I know that I tend to speak using my normal structure, and I can see how changing it up would be a great, yet simple, technique.

You can have an NPC:

  • Make requests vs. demanding them
  • Never ask questions
  • Always responds with a question
  • Always trails off at the end of the…
  • Speak in fragments
  • Use long, complex sentences with big words
  • Use words incorrectly
  • Never say certain words like “and”
  • Speak like a news reporter
  • Use Short sentences that only contain one thought at a time

Here is an example in action (in no particular order):

  • “The ship arrives tomorrow, and we leave at dawn, so prepare yourselves.”
  • “The ship arrives tomorrow. We leave at dawn. Prepare yourselves.”
  • “You better be ready by the dock at dawn, or else!”
  • “Can you please meet me at dawn tomorrow, that’s when the ship will be arriving. Let me know if you need any help with your preparations.”
  • “The ship arrives tomorrow, can you be ready to leave by dawn?”
  • “The vessel arrives anon and we shall embark on the morrow, so prepare yourselves.”

Point To A Fig Or Use Pictures

Another way to identify which NPC is talking in a multi-NPC conversation is to have photos, pictures, or figurines/icons for each non-player character. As you switch roles you point to, or hold up, the different picture, fig, or photo.

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Check out my other Roleplaying Games web site:

This week’s article: “Why Do You GM?” My thoughts on why I love GMing so much and a request for your opinions…

Tips Request: “NPC Voices”

As mentioned in tip #7, there are many ways we can change our voice to represent different NPCs, and to make NPCs unique and interesting to the players. What are the different voices you’ve come up with during sessions, and how did you make them?

Send your tips to: [email protected]


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Homemade Dungeon Tiles

From Markku

[Johnn: here is Markku’s recipe for making homemade cardboard dungeon tiles for mapping and figs.]

First I designed some nice looking floor tiles with a paint program – there wasn’t any map symbols on them, just rough dungeon tile floor. I made the tiles of 2.5×2.5cm – very much close to one inch as most figurines are designed to be used on that scale.

I used those tiles to cover a whole A4 size of paper and printed that image on a couple of A4-sized self adhesible labels suitable for laser printers. Because I had only a black&white laser printer available, I used very light colors so that I’d get just light gray shades for a nice background pattern.

Then I stuck the labels on 3mm cardboard with smooth, white surfaces, cut the A4’s into a set of floor pieces of different sizes. I used acrylic colors (much like water colors when properly diluted) to give the gray shades a nice tint of color. The edges of the cardboard I colored with dark brown. Then I gave the floor pieces some time to dry and finally laminated the upper surface of the tiles with a thin self-adhesive sheet of plastic and folded the plastic about 1cm to the underside to protect the edges.

I noticed soon that the floor pieces got a bit twisted after the lamination and I believe I didn’t let them dry properly before lamination. I fixed that by letting them dry more under weight.

I have been quite happy with the pieces, although sometimes it seems there’s not enough of them…

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Track NPCs With An Address Book

From Paul R.

I’ve always found that I was forgetting all the information I gave out about each NPC that the party met.

I cured this a couple years ago when I bought an address book, used it to keep track of all the details about an NPC. Every time I introduced a new NPC I would add an entry for that NPC in the address book (under the proper name) and fill in all the details I told the players about that NPC. I would also update this entry regularly with any updates that had occurred with the NPC.

It’s a great mechanism, and since it’s indexed, it’s easy to look up the NPC the next time they are encountered (as a refresher for yourself and your party).

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Homemade Paper Figurines

From Bruce L.

I have been Role Playing for almost 20 years, and I have always used figurines. I currently make my own 2-D paper figures. This started with a cancelled session. I sat down to do some campaign work and ended up working in MS Excel.

While working in Excel, I quickly laid out a template for a 2-D figure. On the front, I scaled some pictures down, and on the back, typed info such as Race, Armor, Weapon, etc., and an ID Number (basically, Elf Archer, Long Bow, #1 through 5; this represents 5 Elven archers with long bows).

At first, I printed in black & white on paper and glued them to a posterboard backing, cut them out, pre-folded them into a tripod, and they were ready for use. Now, I have a 120 compartment tool box (fit for nails, screws, bolts, etc.) filled with full color pics on one side and some info on the back. I generally make 25 of each.

Right now, I reuse pictures as necessary to represent what the PCs are facing, but the impact is the same. My players won’t play without miniatures. I still have an assortment of lead figures (mostly old Ral Partha, Citadel, etc.) that I use for Major Villains, Major NPCS, and the Party. They mix well together. Attention is placed on whom it belongs.

This should be something that any gamer could do with a printer. (Now I print to label sheets instead of using glue, works much faster.)

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Use Plastic Covers & Listo Pencils For Character Sheets

From Sean H.

Hey Johnn, For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been using plastic sheet protectors for my maps and things like the one reader that wrote in Issue #77 but I also use them for the Character Sheets.

Then I make available on the table a couple of Listo pencils [ ] for the players to use. Using this system, they can adjust their hit points, money, xp, etc., constantly without wearing through the paper of their sheets with their erasers. The wax of the Listo pencils just wipes off the sheets with any handy dry napkin, paper-towel, or such device. They should be available at most good office supply stores.