RPT# 172 – Talking The Talk: NPC Speech Patterns
A (Very) Brief Word From Johnn
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— The Wicked Witch of the West.
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by Dariel R. A. Quiogue
How we talk is part of our personality. How we talk tells volumes about us: our nationality, religion, education, and more. Every person, every culture, has their own recognizable speech patterns. Applied to our favorite hobby, this can help us roleplay characters of diverse origins and backgrounds with greater realism and color, which in turn helps our imaginary worlds come to brighter life.
Who’s that man swearing colorfully, his mighty oaths larded with nautical references? The pirate! Who’s that old woman with the high-pitched singsong patter? The fishwife. She’s from a village of the Gudari people so her accent is different from ours. And that knight who just called upon Saint Illusia must be from Caer Paraffyn, where the saint is most popular… See the possibilities?
Designing unique or evocative speech patterns for your NPCs takes just a little work. Mainly, it’s a matter of reading widely and being observant. Check out Lord of the Rings and see how the orcs talk. There’s no mistaking their innate nastiness. Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series points out some of the uniquenesses of Martian biology and culture through the way the Barsoomians swear (“by the [egg]shell of my first ancestor!”).
Observe the people you meet. People at work, on the street, and especially people of other nationalities or cultures. Try to figure out what makes their speech patterns distinctive and you’ll start assembling the raw material you need.
There are four distinguishing speech pattern elements that I notice most often: intonation, grammar and pronunciation, common expressions and phrases, and gestures.
Without paying attention to the words themselves, you can often tell a lot about a person just by the way their speech sounds. This is usually an indication of a person’s ethnic or cultural origin.
How might a person sound? Some possible styles of intonation, and what I usually associate with them, include:
- Singsong (rising and falling in pitch): sounds foreign, humorous.
- Harsh (lots of hard k’s and kh’s): sounds aggressive; can you say Klingon?
- Low, guttural (sounds made from back of throat): sounds bestial, primitive.
- Sonorous (low and slow): sounds dignified.
- Birdlike, trilling (fast, high-pitched): sounds hurried.
- Melodious: sounds like singing or cooing.
For instance, girls from Iloilo, here in the Philippines, are supposed to attract swains more readily because their regional accent makes them sound so affectionate!
- Grammar and Pronunciation
How a person pronounces words and puts sentences together can reveal much about them–usually about their education, and by extension what tier of society they’re from. It’s a common writer’s device to portray street and rural folk by having them speak with twisted or broken grammar, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, to portray high society folk by having them speak in a more formal and precise manner.
Some possible grammatical and pronunciation styles and what I tend to associate them with include:
- Precise and formal: suggests education, wealth, and status.
- Curt and clipped: suggests authority, sternness, or meanness.
- Flowery: suggests foppishness, flightiness, or pompousness.
- Broken and rough: suggests lack of education and breeding, rural, or nautical origin.
- Broken and halting: suggests a foreigner trying to speak an unfamiliar language.
- Lisping: suggests effeminacy or decadence.
“And if yuz got a drop o’ drink on yer lordly person, Mithraik’s yer man fer life, sir!”
Did you think “pirate?” If you did, you’re right. This rough seafarer is from the pages of Allan Cole and Chris Bunch’s novel “Kingdoms of the Night”.
- Common Expressions
There are some words and phrases we use very frequently, especially when we’re startled, frightened, angry, or mean to insult someone. Interestingly, the ways someone cusses, and what one cusses by, form part of his speech signature. The same goes with our choice of words when we try to compare something with something else, or try to express an idea with examples.
For example, a hunter might describe something moving fast as “fleet as a frightened deer,” while a sailor might describe the same as “swifter’n a hungry shark.” Elements that often go into such signature expressions include:
- Names of gods, saints, devils, etc.
- Familiar objects, creatures, and natural phenomena.
- Allusions to events from mythology.
- Allusions to historical figures and events.
- Allusions to historical or mythical objects and artifacts.
- Comparisons to objects or animals held unclean, stupid, evil, etc.
“By the bells of Beng Kishi!”
– from Alan Burt Aker’s Kregen novels.
– usually the last thing a desperate villain says to
Conan the Cimmerian before Conan splits his skull…
Lastly, the non-vocal part of speech is part of the pattern and can sometimes be as telling and interesting as the speech itself. Gestures may come from the character’s cultural heritage, or may be a personal expression of some private, important concern.
For example, Indians have very expressive hands. Their hands are in constant motion while talking. In Raymond Feist’s novel “Daughter of the Empire”, the character Papewaio has a habit of scratching a chin scar when he’s worried.
Depending where you’re from, you will probably have a repertoire of gestures you commonly use that your friends are familiar with. To convey the idea that a different character is talking, you could try to come up with a suite of gestures different from your norm. Consider the following ideas:
- Expressionless and stiff; highly appropriate for an Oriental Adventures daimyo!
- Head wagging for “yes,” nodding for “no”.
- Substituting hand gestures for nodding and head shaking.
- Fast, flowery hand gestures.
- Deliberate, stately gestures.
- Clenched-fist gestures to suggest aggressiveness or authority.
- Baring teeth in a snarl.
- Different forms of greeting gestures.
Star Trek and Star Wars provide many good examples of how the alienness of different races are brought out through gesture and posture. The monkeylike Ferengi, the introspective Vulcans, and the rough and warlike Klingons all display their natures clearly through their body language.
* * *[For additional NPC parley tips, check out:
- How One GM Starts Campaigns
From: Troy Fisher
This is how I start my campaigns. “Your characters find themselves sitting in the same inn, a couple of locals are at the bar, the fat bartender seems interested in the local paper that he is reading.”
I’ve got the newspaper typed out with interesting stories leading to adventure. I’ve got fully fleshed out NPCs with backgrounds and plot hooks. In the campaign I am currently running, the players have followed five different plot hooks only barely past the beginning. They are doing whatever they want.
It works splendidly. How many times have I heard them say, “Well this is where we want to go,” and myself replying, “Okay, smoke break, DMs on the porch, players elsewhere,” so I could quickly come up with an adventure for them. This method however does take a lot more planning and thinking, and being able to improv a whole lot better then a linear plot.
- Use Player Created Prophecies
From: Ivan E.
After looking over the last two weeks and the prophecy angle, I wanted to let you know what I did in a game that ended about 4 years ago. I set the game world as a very low magic world. The leaders of the land outlawed magic. In fact, being caught reading or owning a book would get you in worlds of trouble.
I had all 8 PCs make magic users. They were to be the prophesied ones that would overthrow the evil Kings. When each player was creating their character they were also told to create 10 prophecies each. The prophecy could relate to their character, or another character, or the group of characters. They were informed of the Evil Kings and the fact there was prophecy of the Kings being overthrown.
Once this was done, I created 20 prophecies myself and took the 80 the players had created. Then proceeded to make them come true over the next few years of the game. The players had a great time as they saw prophecies come true that they had a hand in creating and the combined input from all 9 of us allowed for an interesting time by everyone. This also allowed me to sprinkle them into old ruins, books, and scrolls over the course of the game.
My one problem was when the players started to feel unstoppable as the prophecies declared them to be a success before they ever started a task. One solution to this was to have a prophecy, written literally on stone, change as they were reading it by an event taking place at that very moment. The moment they realized their future was not preordained, I was able to replace the lost sense of danger in the campaign.
This was just one way I have used prophecies over the years and I thought to share it with you and your readers.
- Two Pronged EXP Rewards
From: M. Joseph Young, Valdron Inc.
Mike P had an interesting idea for improving rewards systems in issue #166, Readers’ Tip #1. I want to address an often overlooked aspect to rewards. They often have two prongs; if you only address one, you create an incoherent rewards system.
Let me illustrate this by looking at the experience points system in Dungeons & Dragons. I use D&D because most gamers have some familiarity with the game, and also because, whatever its faults, it has a coherent rewards system. It is focused on what it wants to do, and does not confuse that with other issues.
In D&D, you gain experience points for killing monsters and getting treasure. That is one prong of the system. Then those experience points are used to make you better at killing monsters and getting treasure.
The second prong is improving roleplaying action. Nearly all “fixes” of the D&D system are aimed at improving roleplaying action, so they give rewards for good roleplay–a respectable goal and a not unreasonable method. If you use good descriptions, provide humor, increase drama, or otherwise contribute to the vividness of the game, you get rewarded with points. The player is rewarded for putting the focus of the game where the referee wants it.
But what do these points do? They make him better at killing monsters and getting treasure–putting the focus where the referee doesn’t want it.
I’ve discussed this in more detail in Game Ideas Unlimited: Rewards, at Gaming Outpost (http://www.gamingoutpost.com/) (publication date April 4, 2003). There’s also more on the subject in some of my forum posts at The Forge (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/), although you would have to do a search (look for posts with the user name M. J. Young and the word ‘reward’).
It is possible to design a rewards system that encourages desired play styles, but I think you have to step out of the mindset that says the only way to reward a player is to make his character more powerful. Instead, start thinking about what everyone is enjoying in the game and how you can encourage more of that.
Mike’s poker chips idea is quite good; it only needs to address the benefit side of the equation differently to really bring out the kind of play desired. Perhaps you might allow players to spend those chips to gain control of the narration so they can build funnier, greater, and more dramatic moments in the game. That takes a little more thought about game theory and function, but can make for fabulous game experiences once you’ve got it right.
- Tolkien Languages URL
From: Brett T.
This covers a startling array of Middle Earth languages and I found it a wonderful resource:
- The Monarch Should Be Leveled
From: David Paddock
I’ve been a GM for three years now and through some problematic discussions and controversy with my players, above all else I have learned one thing: if you have an elusive, continuous NPC, do not make him omnipotent. This has caused a good deal of annoyance to my team so I bring this to you at my expense.
Having a recurring semi-friendly NPC is useful and keeps your PCs attentive to the idea that they’re being watched– a very effective benefit, let me assure you. However, an omnipotent or omniscient character frustrates PCs from the thought that they have no influence over the NPC. Keep them smart, but not all-knowing. A shadowy NPC who doesn’t know everything is a very interesting person for both you and your PCs.
If you’ve already let an omnipotent NPC into your campaign, however, you can recover by making a quest out of the situation. Perhaps he was part of a prophecy that made him strong, but now the prophecy is being corrupted by some outside force. The PCs have to find out what’s causing it. Of course, this might not be possible unless your PCs are of a high-ish level.
Lastly, make sure that NPC doesn’t lead the party. The party should always have at least two choices of action, regardless of the situation. It is best to have exactly two on big decisions, as this raises tension for fear of doing the wrong thing. If you feel that the PCs don’t take their decisions seriously, have one alternative turn into disaster.
An effective consequence is the elimination of a very significant place, item, or person all because of something they did without a second thought. This will give the PCs an urge to make up for their folly. This will also give you something to remind them of if they suffer during the adventure: “YOU chose to go there, not me”. Being able to tell the PCs that something is their fault is one of the most fulfilling jobs of the GM; it means that, for one time in your campaign, something that went wrong WASN’T your fault.
- General GMing Tips
An inexperienced GM is not a bad GM; interested players can make up for even the most inexperienced GMs. A game will often, however, be a complete failure with bad GMing. So, here are some tips for experienced and novice GMs, as well as for players.
Read it all then forget it, then run your game your way. Keep on trying, run bad games till you start running good games. Don’t give up. Remember to learn from your mistakes.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, Friedrich Nietzsche
- Rule 1: Action And Success
- A good plot has story and action.
- Players who like to roleplay: let them.
- Players who like rolling dice: let them. (But don’t overdo it.)
- Provide players with both roleplaying encounters and hack- and-slash encounters. Even if they are playing pacifist nuns they’ll still want to slay some orks, or at least run away from them.
- Give the players the option to get into combat at least once a session. This gives them a chance to try out a character’s skills and makes spending all that XP worthwhile. If they manage to avoid it, let them, and reward them for thinking things through. Make it challenging and worth their while.
I try to have each player achieve at least one thing per session. If the game has gone nowhere, the players have missed every lead, and every plan they made has failed, give them something. It may be unrelated, but give them a high point for the game. Maybe it will inspire them or give them ideas for the next session.
- Rule 2: Everything Is The GM’s Fault – Unless It’s The Players’
If your players don’t pick up on a clue here and there, that’s fine. But if they miss everything, chances are you are either not describing the scene clearly enough or your plot doesn’t make sense. If no-one is getting what is going on, take a look at what information you’ve given them.
Odds are they’ve missed it because:
- You didn’t emphasize it in a way they would notice.
- It doesn’t make sense to them the way it does to you.
- If your clues are not important to the character, they will quite rightly ignore them.
- Your players are clueless–but it’s your job to make the game fun for them.
Smart players can miss even the most obvious clues. If you can’t make your clues easy to solve, go out-of-character and point blank tell the player that there is something that they need to figure out, and where to look.
GM: You know something is wrong here but you can’t put your finger on it.
The player will then go back and check everything till they find even the smallest clue.
Another method is to flash to a scene that none of the players could have seen and describe what is happening. Later on, as the game evolves and the players can see the effect of that scene, they will know what clue to look for. Movies use this expository technique all the time to fill the audience in on what is happening elsewhere.
GM: Somewhere in a nearby village a young woman is being chased out of town. She has the marks of the plague, the people are screaming at her and throwing rotten food and stones at her. Terrified, she stumbles, half alive, following the river north.
As opposed to:
GM: The group is entering town for the festival; one of you notices a clothed lump near the river.
PC: So what.
- Rule 3: Players, Be Good To Your GM
The GM shouldn’t abuse the players; in return they should show respect and not abuse the GM. It’s quite hard to run a world–ask any major deity! A player is only running one character, while the GM is running 30+ simultaneously, and trying to drop hints on which way to go, continue the story, meld everything together, adjudicate dice rolls, remain fair, and settle temper tantrums.
- Don’t fluster your GM by intimidating him.
- Don’t manipulate the GM. Let your characters manipulate the game world.
- It is poor behaviour to shout down your GM.
- It’s poor form to ‘guilt’ or manipulate your GM into giving you something.
- Don’t monopolise your GM’s time; there are other players.
These are all examples of cheating. It shouldn’t be you vs. the GM, it should be your character vs. the GM’s world.
Eg. I take my sword and slay the dragon, or else you’re not getting a lift home.
Eg. I do this then I do that then I do this then I do that, no that’s not what happens I do it differently than that then I do this…
- Pay attention to your GM. Give them every chance to run their game. When they talk shut up and listen. They have spent a lot of time developing the game to entertain you; you just showed up.
- Don’t distract the other players if you have to talk rubbish, do it after the game.
If the GM is useless, grin and bear it–give them every chance to get it right. If you’re half as good a player as you think you are, help the GM out. Ask questions. Make suggestions. Try your hardest to make the game work.
- Rule 4: Frustration Bad; Plot Good; Never Stall The PCs
It’s guaranteed that, no matter how many possible outcomes you plan for, the players will find the one you didn’t think of.
- Don’t write too much. The PCs won’t go that way.
- If you have a brilliant idea, lead the PCs there. Eg: “You notice dragon droppings heading down the corridor to the right.”
But if the PCs turn left instead, move the dragon! “To the right a bit further down there are more dragon droppings.”
- If the PCs don’t notice your brilliant idea, have the brilliant idea notice them.
Eg. “Somewhere in the depths of the cavern a dragon awakes and smells something then smiles. Even though you have turned around and are leaving the caves you hear something coming.”
- Do not stall the PCs until they stumble across your clues. Chances are the players haven’t understood the significance, as they have not read your notes the way you have. If they don’t get it give more and better clues.
GM: You notice brown smelly blobs on the floor of the cavern.
PC: Yuk. I’m leaving because it’s smelly and I don’t understand what the significance of those blobs is.
GM: You arrive home and wait for the rest of eternity. And nothing happens.
GM: You notice brown smelly blobs on the floor of the cavern.
PC: Yuk. I’m leaving because it’s smelly and I don’t understand what the significance of those blobs is.
GM: On the way out you remember the smell–a merchant was selling it and he reckoned it was dragon droppings.
Notice in the first example that the PC has no idea what is going on, and even hints to the GM that he needs a clue. In the second example, the GM realises he has no story without the players meeting the dragon, so he gave them a ‘free’ clue to keep them interested. The players realise they are hunting a dragon. If they’re good, they’ll realize that they can even sell the droppings. How hard can it be to steal some droppings?
If the players aren’t going where they are supposed to go, don’t stall them until they find the right answer–give them something to work with, give them more clues, give more hints. If you notice your players are bored and disinterested in your game, give them some obvious clues. The plot might seem clear to you, but remember you already knew the answer before you came up with the clues.
If your players are stuck and the game is going nowhere you don’t have a plot. Or, at least, not one the players can follow. Give some hints about the existing plots or make a new one up; you can never have enough plots. Generate as many loose ends as possible.
- Rule 5: Don’t Roleplay Downtime
Downtime covers actions that are assumed or boring or useless. If the PCs are waiting for something, fast forward to the good bit.
GM: After waiting three days you realise that the clue you missed earlier actually was important, it meant that…
As opposed to:
GM: You’re still waiting?
PCs: We’re still waiting.
GM: OK, you’re still waiting.
PCs: Yep, we’re still waiting.
- Rule 6: Share The Story Evenly
GMs should regularly switch focus from one player to the next, allocating equal chance to each player to have an action. Don’t concentrate on one player too long, unless it’s important to the story. If a player is taking too long to finish a scene, switch to the other players quickly then switch back; this might give the stuck player time to think out a quick solution. It also is a great plot device, adds pace to the story, and can create a ‘cliffhanger’ effect.
PC1: I get up, I walk to the door, I open it carefully, I walk through, I walk along…
GM: What are the rest of you doing?
PC2: I check the mailbox for the magic widget.
In this case, PC1 missed out but at least the other players don’t hate him.
- Rule 7: Stay Consistent And Real
When a story is told, there is some suspension of disbelief. The audience lets itself be fooled for the sake of the story. With roleplaying, the players are fully immersed in the story so their ‘suspension of disbelief’ is already pushed pretty far. When things stop making sense it takes a lot of GM storytelling to patch it up again.
Nothing is worse than your GM telling you that you can’t do that ‘just because’. This means that what you want to do is rational, but that the GM’s plan isn’t working. If the players figure out a different way around things and it’s logical, let it happen.
GM: You push the major bad guy out the top window of the wizard’s tower. He falls 2000 feet and lands on the spiked fence at the bottom. He gets up, dusts himself of and runs away, so you can’t kill him.
PC: WHAT???? [Yes, I’ve had something similar happen to me.]
GM: As you push the wizard out the window he smugly smiles to himself muttering an incantation, as he falls from your reach he transforms to bird and soars away.
PC: I shoot him with my megadeath ray.
GM: Uh… The bird incinerates like a burnt TV dinner and plummets to the ground. Behind you, in the meantime, the Wizard’s apprentice has grabbed the Magic Widget. You’re still recovering from the recoil and flash of your weapon, when he accidentally activates it and is teleported away.
The GM is better off conceding defeat and finding another plot than to stall the story until the players do it the GM’s way. If there is some special reason that reality is bent give the players a clue why.
- Rule 8: Be Able To Wing It
I repeat: players never do what you want them to. You’re a roleplayer–improvise, adapt, overcome.
If you have something brilliant, engineer it to fit the story: move it, bend it, reuse it, throw it out.
GM: You enter the cavern and the dragon sleeps atop a pile of treasure, the room smells of brimstone, the dragon’s scales glisten more brightly than the gold it sleeps on. The light of your torch wakes it. It rises up to its full height.
PC: Hey! We don’t have a torch, we’re using the night vision goggles we just bought!
GM: Umm… [scraps three pages of description and encounter notes, realising that he had written them before the PCs had that brilliant idea.]
If you make a mistake, let it hold rather than frustrate the player with ‘oh it wakes up any way’, which makes the players’ actions irrelevant to your story. Also, don’t thwart good ideas by cheating the players. There’s always a chance to thwart them rationally later on.
GM: Ok, the dragon doesn’t wake because of the torch light, it wakes because you’ve tripped the motion sensor in the cave and an alarm goes off.
This is dumb and annoying.
GM: The dragon stays asleep.
PC: OK I start my chainsaw.
GM: Right… Can you spell Stealth Check?
GM: The dragon wakes up, rising up to its full height. It grins at your puny chainsaw.
PC: We run away!
- Rule 9: Player And Character Knowledge
The player is participating in a fantasy fictional world where everything is strange and unusual. The players don’t know the local customs, the lay of the land, etc. The character will have different knowledge than the player does. If the player wants to do something that is dumb, and it’s likely that the character would know better, give the player a hint. Don’t punish the player because you didn’t explain your world well enough.
PC: I try to sell the stolen goods at a pawnshop.
GM: Your character realises that in this city they check ID and serial numbers before buying goods.
Punishing the player for not knowing minor details should be avoided. It’s the failing of the GM by not explaining everything to the player first. Of course, explaining every facet of a world to the players is impossible, so give facts out freely when situations come up, and warn players if they do something out of character. At the very least, allow the player to make rolls on the appropriate skill or stat to figure it out.
- Rule 1: Action And Success