How to Roleplay Seducers, Ancient Evils, Law Enforcement, and Genius NPCs
From James Introcaso
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #696
Roleplaying NPC Mannerisms Part II
It is time to put on your acting hat. Roleplaying NPC Mannerisms Part I revealed the importance of distinct, specific non-player character mannerisms. When a great game master inhabits an NPC, the character’s physical and verbal mannerisms help set it apart from the rest, reveal motivations, hint at history, and create a richer story.
This article builds upon the first by providing four NPC archetypes with corresponding physical and verbal mannerisms. Use the advice from that first article combined with the archetypes found here to roleplay NPCs to perfection.
How to Use These Archetypes
The descriptions and examples in this article are meant to be used as a base for creating NPCs. If you are a beginner GM or uncomfortable with acting, you can just follow the bullet points given at the end of each archetype and you will play a great character.
If you are an experienced GM who has been playing NPCs for years, use the bullet points but add one or more mannerisms each time you roleplay an NPC of that archetype. Make it a different mannerism each time to set Town Guard #1 apart from Town Guard #2. The players will definitely remember that #1 is a nose picker and #2 stutters.
Accents are always optional, but you are encouraged to give them a shot. Who cares if they are not perfect? You’re doing this for fun. If you do not quite nail the Ks of a Russian accent, no one is going to fire you. No one can even question your accent if you’re playing in a fantasy world. So what if your Spanish accent sounds like a combination of Bulgarian and Australian? Those countries do not exist in the world you create. That is just the accent of a person from Breland! Accents get better with practice, so feel free to go all out.
The most important guideline of all is to have fun with NPC mannerisms. The more you enjoy playing an NPC, the more the players will enjoy interacting with you. If you are having a blast playing your characters, your players will be more enthusiastic about playing theirs. As the GM, you set the tone for the game. If you appear awkward and forced, the entire game will feel that way. So relax – you are among friends and playing a tabletop roleplaying game. That is the best. Enjoy it!
Gods, demons, aliens, and other ancient evils often appear in our games. These superpowers should make your players quake with awe and fall to their knees…or at least convince them these are forces to be reckoned with.
Matt Mercer, professional voice actor and the GM of the hit web series Critical Role, did an amazing job playing the shadow demon Orthax. Mercer enters, leans quite far over the screen, and sticks his neck out with his head forward and up. This gives him a strange, unsettling appearance. While he is physically lower than the players, the position of his head suggests utter confidence. This unnatural posture immediately translates to otherworldly. The confidence of his tilted head suggests a powerful being who knows its capabilities.
Then Mercer speaks as Orthax. He brings his voice into a low register, which screams power. He adds a growl to his voice and some heavy breathing at the end of his sentences. These vocal qualities inform the players of the danger Orthax poses and his evil nature. They also give anyone hearing the voice the impression this being is just at the edge of its control. It could snap at any moment and unleash its otherworldly fury on the PCs.
When playing an ancient evil:
- Lean far forward
- Stick out your neck and raise your head
- Speak in a very low register
- Add a growl and heavy breathing to your voice
Law enforcement personnel are police officers, space marines, and town guards. They are in gatehouses, towers, streets, prisons, bars, and more, keeping the peace, taking a bribe, and chasing after thieves. These NPCs are often among the first a party of adventurers meets in a settlement. They provide information and directions.
Roleplaying them can be a pretty uninteresting encounter, but only if you play them as uninteresting people.
Let’s take another look at Matt Mercer. In this clip he’s playing a town guard in episode 1 of Critical Role. He first describes a pair of city watch dwarves observing the PCs. Immediately after describing them, Mercer takes on the physical posture of one guard. He mimes holding a spear comfortably, with a relaxed bent arm, and leans back. The NPC’s posture indicates he is comfortable with his weapon and at ease in his own city. Law enforcement should feel comfortable within the walls of cities where they wield authority.
When he opens his mouth to speak as one of the guards, the real magic begins. He leans back even further to show how relaxed the guard is even when talking to a group of well-armed strangers. His volume is a bit louder than normal, and his voice is steady and confident. It is a clear display of authority without being threatening. After all, the guard has no reason to distrust the adventurers at the moment.
As the guard speaks, he uses big arm movements. Mercer extends his arms fully to point to various landmarks and tilts his head in the opposite direction of his hand to give the impression his arms are even longer than they are. This action is another indicator of the guard being in his comfort zone. He has no fear that the adventurers or anyone else will accost him, so he feels fine leaving his arms wide open.
When playing law enforcement….
- Lean back in a relaxed posture
- Use big arm movements
- Raise the volume of your voice
- Keep your voice steady
Mercer sets his guard apart from the rest by making him a rather jovial fellow. He cocks his head to the side, indicating interest in the person he is speaking with, and lets the register of his voice get higher when the guard cracks a joke or gets excited. If you want a jovial town guard, add these mannerisms:
- Tilt your head slightly to one side
- Raise the register of your voice when you are excited
One final note on this scene. At the beginning of the encounter, Mercer briefly portrays both guards speaking to one another. You can tell them apart become he leans one way and speaks with a high voice before turning around to face the opposite direct and lowering his vocal register to be the other guard. It is simple and genius. A quick turn and a deeper voice make all the difference between the two.
Seducers are manipulators who exude sex appeal. They are the kind of people who are attractive to everyone in some way. They are great performers, con artists, politicians, and business people. These NPCs can wrap anyone around their little fingers, and use their good looks and beguiling wit to make others do their dirty work.
We turn to the GM of GMs, Chris Perkins. In this clip from a 2012 Pax Acquisitions Inc. game, Perkins plays a seductress dark elf who convinces the plucky band of adventurers to steal gems for her. We hear her voice before we see any of her physical mannerisms, as she’s sneaking up on the PCs in the dark. It is husky and breathless, vocal qualities scientifically proven to be attractive. She speaks with a sultry lower tone, and to make things extra sexy, Perkins gives her a French accent (which is largely considered one of the world’s most romantic languages).
When she comes out of the shadows, Perkins displays the woman’s physical mannerisms. He tilts his head down slightly and looks up at the person he is talking to, which gives him a submissive air. When he speaks, he picks a specific individual to focus his attention on and keeps constant eye contact while leaning toward that person. This behavior makes a player feel singled out and special. An attractive person empowers them by giving undivided attention.
When playing a seducer….
- Tilt your head down slightly
- Focus your attention on each player one at a time
- Lean toward the focus of your attention and maintain eye contact
- Lower the tone of your voice
- Make your voice husky and breathy
- Use a French accent (optional)
Haughty wizards, know-it-all telepaths, and pedantic scientists are just a few of the people who fall into the superior intellectual archetype. They are the smartest people in the room and know it. Because of their smarts, these NPCs think themselves above every other living being. Odds are the players will cross paths with someone like as they seek an intelligent being to help them unravel some mystery.
Watch again as Chris Perkins portrays Flabbergast in the latest PAX Acquisitions, Inc. game. Like Mercer, he begins by describing the NPC. Then Perkins sticks out his neck just a bit so the rest his body is led by his head. This indicates he is intellectually focused. He then raises his chin and looks down his nose at the players, signaling Flabbergast’s belief that he is far more intelligent than the group. These physical mannerisms suggest a smart, conceited individual. They are enhanced by the fact that Perkins has chosen to stand. It literally puts him above the players.
Perkins then produces a voice which can only be described as nasally Alan Rickman. The nasal quality sells Flabbergast as an intellectual, and the low tone of voice mixed with disdain and condescension leaves no question that this wizard believes he is the smartest guy in the room.
The superior intellectual keeps his movements small and close. In general, these people are untrusting of others because everyone else is too stupid to do anything right. Perkins keeps his wrists loose and close to his body as he pets a phantom cat, or keeps his hands folded in front of him. These movements suggest the wizard is guarded, untrusting, and physically unimpressive.
When playing superior intellectuals…
- Lead with your head
- Tilt your chin up
- Lower your voice
- Use a nasally voice with condescension and disdain
- Use small, weak movements
- Stand (optional)
Flabbergast’s cat is a nice touch. It demonstrates the wizard prefers the company of animals to people and makes him an instantly distinct and memorable NPC.
Brief Word From Johnn
I’m Playing Out of the Abyss
One of my players, Colin, has stepped up to GM our group through the D&D 5E module, Out of the Abyss.
We’re taking turns being GM. He’ll run his game, then next time I run Murder Hobos, and so on. This means I’ll be GMing about once a month now.
My character is a third level cleric of Helm. Guiscard Windholme, brother of another player’s PC, Raphael. Mike and I chatted by email about making our PCs family. Raphael is always getting into trouble, and Guiscard is always trying to save him.
Colin is awesome at portraying NPCs. The adventure began with us all as drow prisoners. In our cell were several other prisoners of various races. Colin gave each race a different accent. For the fish guy, he flapped his lips with his finger to make him sound different. Great stuff.
Even the smallest difference in portraying NPCs has big effects on gameplay. It’s worth putting James’ tips this issue into play. Roleplaying mannerisms is fun and makes your games come to life.
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How To Draw NPC Relationship Maps
From Jochen Hartz
In his great Adventure Building Workshop, Johnn suggested a technique he calls “NPC relationship maps.” I immediately saw a big benefit for prepping in my ongoing 13th Age campaign and gave it a try. It became a huge success for prepping and also GMing during the sessions.
How does it work? Let me show you.
First of all, choose a tool for drawing the map. You can go with good old pen & paper or use a digital tool, which is handy when changing the relationship map. Lucidchart is a good weapon of choice. It has a lot of nice features and a very convenient GUI. The basic version of Lucidchart is free but has some restrictions. You can use only 60 objects per document, and they are consumed rather quickly. You can also export into several file formats, so your map is available even when you’re offline.
Gliffy is a good alternative to Lucidchart, but you could also use PowerPoint, Keynote, or any other presentation software. I’m using Lucidchart for this article.
Setting It Up
Before we get to the dirty work, let me give you a brief introduction to the current situation in the storyline. The PCs are staying in Corondio, the largest city of the principality. They’ve become involved in the schemes of the powerful and are trying to solve the murder of the half-elven pawnbroker Elnaril from four suspects.
First, I mapped the victim Elnaril (dotted line) and the four suspects with the shapes on the canvas. In addition to the names, I added each NPC’s role. Elnaril is the pawnbroker, Wigo Artis is an old friend of one of the PCs, Tuvratir is a dwarf on a mission, Conrad Casktoe is a halfling and also a pawnbroker, and Loro Canturza is an underworld boss in Corondio.
After drawing these NPCs, I put a box around them to group them together according to the murder mystery story. This helps me keep track of how the NPCs are linked to each other. On the technical level, I used the container to shift the five guys around en bloc.
Then I drew relationships among the NPCs by connecting the shapes with arrows. Each arrow was labeled with high-level information on that relationship. For example, Wigo Artis owes money to Elnaril and spotted Loro Canturza at the crime scene. Conrad Casktoe knows Elnaril recently got involved with Loro Canturza, who is on the rise as a gaffer in the underworld of Corondio.
You can add several labels to the arrows if you want to store more information on the relationship, and also use the arrows to show who takes the active and the passive parts in the relationship. For instance, Loro is Elnaril’s boss, so the arrow between them points down to Elnaril.
Adding Details & Breadcrumbs
I also added the motive of every suspect. This gives me a two benefits. While prepping, I can check that every suspect has a convincing motive. In the case of Loro, I immediately saw that being Elnaril’s boss was not a motive at all. So I added that Elnaril betrayed Loro, which gives the gaffer a reason to kill him. Wigo Artis owes money to Elnaril, and the dwarf Turvratir is in search of a magic item that belongs to the King of dwarves – the King is not amused. The second benefit came while GMing the session: I had all the information about the motives and connections in one place.
After that I added color to the arrows. This gave me visual hints on what each relationship is based on – gold for items and money, red for strong emotions. Finally, I gave Loro Canturza a hotspot mark – the green rectangle on the screenshot – because he is an important NPC and connects to several storylines in the campaign. You can also add a link to the hotspot mark, either to another page in Lucidchart or to an external resource like a Pinterest image.
Connecting the subplots leads to the broader picture. Another episode of the campaign is about Arusa, the sister of one of the PCs. She is also marked in green. Have a look at the clipping of my NPC map:
When I drew the map I noticed immediately that Arusa did not have enough connections to be the centerpiece of this chapter. So I added a relationship to each NPC in that episode (blue box), not only on the map but in the concept of the storyline. Several questions arose while doing this. Why, for example, is Arusa related to Elois Cambré, and what kind of relationship is this? Filling the gaps in the story ignited my creativity and was a lot of fun, and of course made the story bulletproof.
In the next step, I used the map to establish a triangle among Arusa, Elois, and Vexter, an assassin. Arusa instructed Vexter to kill Argin Augusto, and Elois knows that she did. Now things get interesting, because Elois can use her knowledge to put pressure on Arusa, or the PCs could find out about the assassination by interacting with Elois. Another triangle was added among the assassin Vexter, Elois Cambré, and Loro Canturza. So if the PCs interrogate Vexter, they can find out about Elois’ underworld connection.
Visualising all these connections also helped connect the episodes of the campaign. Loro is one junction between the green and blue box and, as you can see, the red story-box as well. So I know where the PCs can find the breadcrumbs to get around.
Using the map also gave me a useful tool to create hooks to pull the PCs in the storyline. Wigo Artis, for example, is a former companion of one of the PCs. That connection motivated the PC to step into the investigation when Wigo’s mate was a suspect in a murder case. Protecting Arusa from the scheming of Elois Cambré or the chase by Kurdu Bristleblade is another strong hook for the PC who is Arusa’s brother.
Using the NPC relationship map is a handy and fun way to achieve several things. While prepping for a session or your campaign, you can immediately check the authenticity of the relationships between the NPCs and avoid flaws in your prepping more easily. If you’re having trouble following your own map, it could be a sign that you need more or fewer connections.
You can see if establishing triangles would intensify the relationships between the NPCs and generate believable hooks for the PCs to get into your plots. It is a perfect cheat sheet for the social interactions of your adventures.
It also helps in plotting connections between episodes of your campaign, and you know where to store information that can lead the players to the next episode. Let’s say you have three clues driving the story to the next climax. Do you have three arrows pointing that direction? If not, you need to give one or two NPCs more detail.
Storing additional information in the map gives you the opportunity to have everything in one place and access it easily during your session. After drawing the map on my laptop, I printed it out for the session, and it became the main GMing tool for that session and the following ones. I had all the names in one place and could always spot the relations, which would not have been possible with the index cards I usually use. The cards hold more detail and I still use them, but for the overview it is much better to use the NPC map.
Give it a try and let me know what you think!