Some GMs are shy. They’re not comfortable standing up from behind the Screen, or looking up from their notes, or they’re afraid of looking silly. As a result, all their NPCs tend to be samey, with the same voices, the same mannerisms, the same vocabularies—and these are usually the same voices, mannerisms and vocabularies of the GM, or the writer of the module the GM is running.
We’re the GMs. We don’t get to be shy. Do you have stage fright? You’ve got 3 or more people staring at you and hanging off your every word whether or not you’re pretending they’re not there. Don’t want to look silly? Let’s be brutally realistic here: our hobby is playing pretend with dice. We can’t afford that kind of vanity.
One of the best ways to set yourself aside and just be an entertainer is to put yourself in the mindset of the characters you’re playing as if you were a player, not a GM. You will find yourself more readily thinking like your character, and less readily thinking about your own trepidations. The old saying goes, “lose yourself in your character,” and it’s just as true for GMs as it is for actors.
When you lose yourself, though, make sure you also don't lose your sense of propriety. All too common, a GM who loses himself in a role tries to become a comedian, and oftentimes the jokes that get laid forth are entirely inappropriate. Reskinned jokes about other races or genders applied in the context of a game can be very offensive to many gamers, who likely already heard them in their original context. In the game, as in life, "I was just kidding around" is not an acceptable excuse for inappropriate behavior.
But even without such jokes, there's plenty of room for humor in games. One of the most often-used techniques for creating humor is turning the players' expectations upside-down. For example, the players might hear a tremendous thudding coming from down the hall, and see an enormous shadow wavering against the wall. Then, round the corner, comes a small goblin with a lantern hanging from his belt. Then, should the players start speaking with the goblin, they find he speaks in a deep, cultured voice. While this example isn't precisely a rip-roaringly good laugh, it illustrates a distinctly lighter tone than sharp-teethed murder-monkeys bent on total annihilation. And if the situation is particularly tense leading up to the reveal, the sudden release of tension can turn what would’ve been a chortle into a full-on guffaw.
What really sells comedy, though, is facial expressions and body language. Watch the comedy greats—Charlie Chaplin, Johnny Carson, John Belushi, George Carlin, Mitch Hedberg (to name a few examples that one hopes won't be too controversial)—and take an especial note of how they walk, how they use their arms and shoulders and legs to express certain ideas and feelings. Watch their use of their eyes and mouths and listen to their tone of voice. Try repeating some of their finest moments in the exact same way they do to help develop your sense of comedic timing.
Because that's what acting, and bringing your NPCs to life, is ultimately all about: mimicry. What you are doing is displaying the behaviors of a person who is really feeling what you're pretending to feel, really believing what you're pretending to believe. If you want to use these techniques and really act out your NPCs, then you're setting yourself aside entirely and becoming another person.
Or elf, or vampire, or tentacled god from beyond the stars, or archlich-worshipping cybernetic space marine.
These are the same techniques that will bring your characters to life even if you're taking a more dramatic turn with your NPCs. Rather than saying "the Chief looks pissed, and he growls 'what were you thinking?'", look pissed and growl "What were you thinking?" Imagine how you look when you have the feelings your NPCs are displaying, and take on that aspect of yourself.
You know you're being successful when you don't have to tell your players who they're talking to—when you can shift between different characters and the players know who they're talking to by the set of your shoulders, the accent of your voice, the way you hold your facial expression.
Is this hard work? You bet it is! This is the kind of work that takes practice, even if you have a natural talent for it. In the morning when you're waking up, or anytime you're looking in a mirror (preferably alone, because this sort of thing can make people look at you real funny), make faces at yourself. Practice your angry face, your sad face, your passionate face, your regal face, or any other emotion or state you want to be able to convey. Get that muscle memory working for you, so that you can snap yourself into position when you need to. What's important is that you watch yourself do it, so you can be sure that what you're presenting is what you want to display.
And if you run out of actors to mimic, there are always friends and family available whose body language you can mime. Or, for more inspiration, you can go to a local mall or some other gathering place and see how people walk, how they talk, how they routinely express themselves when they're unaware they're being watched. Use your observations of others to inform your own routines—every interaction you have with anyone is an opportunity for you to learn some facet of behavior, an opportunity for you to get one more mannerism for your repertoire.
Another great touch (though one that not everyone can accomplish) is to give your characters different voices. These can take the form of higher- or lower-pitch voices, gravelly voices, old or younger voices, booming voices or softspoken ones, ones with your native accent or ones with a different accent. Having spent time in a foreign country, or having friends with a different accent from your own, are great ways to start developing the kind of alternative vocal patterns you'd like to pull off.
And, like physical mannerisms, these take effort and practice to achieve. Get ready to talk to yourself a lot, practicing cool voices that you've heard and want to reproduce. . .and get ready to listen to recordings of yourself. If you can't stand the sound of your own voice. . .well, this is probably going to be harder for you than learning how to walk, stand or gesture differently. You may decide it's not worth having to listen to yourself. . .many people have an aversion to hearing their own voices, because they sound in reality so different than they do from within their own skulls.
And that's okay. After all, you're a GM. You are a storyteller, a rules-referee, a challenge-maker. . .and we are all of us better at different aspects of the job. But should you give it a good-faith effort? Of course you should. Because you're a GM. That's what we do.
And because it can be so rewarding when done well. By acting out your NPCs, you're increasing the players' emotional connection to those NPCs—being human, we naturally respond to the emotions of those around us. And that can lead you and your players on an amazing journey, unfolding a richness of storytelling you might not have been able to imagine otherwise.
If you have a player who genuinely worries about the well-being of the NPCs. . .when you have a player cry because a beloved NPC has died. . .these are the rewards of adding the role of acting to your toolbox. That is when you know how have touched your players, and when you know you have affected them.
Next time we'll poke our heads into the role of the World-Builder and learn how to avoid some common pitfalls of crafting a place the players can believe are real.