Updated: Nov 7
Most DMs are most worried about balancing fight scenes, building a cohesive plot, or making sure their players are interested and invested in the story – all of which are of paramount importance – but it can be just as important to populate your world with interesting, diverse characters. It’s something that you do have to put a bit of planning into – occasionally, I’ll be partway through a game and realize I’m about to introduce an NPC I haven’t really thought through, and I’ll sweat a bit. I realize that, without a trick up my sleeve, the guard on duty is about to be just a blank face, just a role to be filled in this world.
It doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but think about any episodic series you watch. Let’s say there’s a scene where the main character goes to deal with a doctor, or a loan shark, or a Presidential candidate. If all of those actors were doing the exact same performance, it would feel bland and ridiculous. Your job, as a DM, is to make the group forget you’re just one person, instead of an entire cast of characters and worlds.
Okay, if you weren’t nervous about your NPCs a moment ago, you probably are now. Sorry about that. Fortunately, making your NPCs interesting is surprisingly easy, once you break it down to a few tricks.
We’ll get to all of the flashy stuff in a minute, but the first and most important thing to figure out about your character is this: What sort of attitude does your character have? Are they overly serious, or perpetually amused? Are they nervous around strangers, or outgoing and gregarious?
A simple change in attitude can make all the difference. If a bartender is happy to see several strangers wander into their tavern, we can assume a lot about them – they might be a perpetual people-pleaser, or have a youthful energy to them. If they’re maybe too happy to see strangers, you might be able to assume he’s either desperate for company or customers, if not both.
On the other hand, a bitter, impatient bartender who rolls his eyes or sighs when new patrons comes in suggests a very different character. Maybe this is someone who has to keep the bar open, due to financial troubles? Or perhaps they’ve lost all energy, but they don’t know what else to do with their life, so they just keep the bar open, rather than perform any sort of self-examination.
These sort of questions all start to come naturally when you ask the simple question, “What sort of attitude does this person have?” I’ve found it’s much more useful than spending time on physical descriptions, because half of those are immediately forgotten by the players anyway. Give only the physical details your players need – the general way they dress, a sense of their build, any distinguishing scars or tattoos, etc. – but you don’t need to give them so much detail that they can describe the NPC to a police sketch artist.
Instead, focus on how the characters carry themselves, how they enter a room, what they think of the players… That’s going to tell a lot more about your characters than any amount of physical details.
The first technique is just to speak as your characters. This is optional, of course, but it's what separates memorable NPCs from generic ones. If you just say, "The mayor tells you that goblins have been besieging the town, and that they seem to be coming from an old Dwarven mine to the west," well, they won't remember that character.
On the other hand, if the players meet the Mayor, it provides the opportunity to create an interesting/memorable character. Let your players actually play out the scene – this gives them a chance to ask the questions they want to know more about, try to negotiate for more money, potentially get into an argument – it actually allows them to roleplay.
Not everyone can do distinct character voices, and that's okay. Sure, those who have actually studied acting or similar fields might be masters at this, but anyone can still do voices of some sort. Because, once again, you don’t have to perform this role in a movie or a TV show – you just have to paint the picture for your players. And a voice is as much about attitude (see above) as it is about anything else.
For those who remember the ‘90s classic, “Batman: The Animated Series,” you’ll remember that Kevin Conroy had two distinct voices – one for Bruce Wayne, which was lighter and friendlier; and one for Batman, which was obviously lower and more serious. And the truth is, his voice isn’t changing that radically. If you heard the two voices side-by-side, you’d never think they were two different actors. But they are two very different characters.
If you’re a male-presenting DM trying to portray a female character to your group, you don’t have to do a high-pitched impression like you’re a little kid making fun of a Barbie commercial. And vice-versa, female-presenting DMs playing a male NPCs don’t have to do a deep voice just to establish that this character is a man.
Instead, find the character’s voice using two key elements: volume and speed.
A femme fatale character might speak softly, and slowly. However, if you speak with a hard edge, but keep your voice just as slow, your character can come through as much more menacing. Likewise, a fast-talking friendly character who talks just a bit too loud could be an annoying neighbor or a chatty coworker, like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters; on the other hand, a fast-talking character who always seems nervous and keeps his voice low might be a drug addict, or an overworked scientist trying to avoid the wrath of his diabolical employer.
Of course, if you do happen to have a really good impression of Gollum or Mickey Mouse, feel free to use it – just keep in mind that you might have no idea how long you’ll have to do this voice, so make sure it’s not going to destroy your throat. This is actually the reason my dragons and monsters have gotten less gravely and raspy, and more bellowing and Ray Romano-esque.
If I do a spooky, Cumberbatch-as-Smaug voice, I’ve got maybe two minutes before I start to lose my voice. However, if I just speak low but slowly, I can imply that this is a voice that has a lot of mass, and is echoing around the players. I can also say, “The voice is huge, and echoes around you,” and then just whisper. It’s just as creepy, and much easier on your voice. Plus, whispering tends to force your players to lean in and listen, which is literally the oldest trick in storytelling to hook in an audience.
Again, this is one where your group will hopefully forgive you if you screw it up. Assuming you’re not a trained actor, you can probably still do a bad accent. And fortunately, your group probably won’t care. They might give you a hard time if your accent drifts from Scottish to Irish to Russian, but at the end of the day, it likely won’t matter.
Still, before you do an accent, practice it a bit. A few nights ago I spent 30 minutes walking around my room trying to develop the voice of an NPC. I knew what I wanted him to sound like, I just couldn’t figure out the right accent. I considered Russian, Scottish, and whatever version of Scottish Sean Connery seemed to develop, before instead landing on a sort of Italian/Greek accent. It’s not gonna be a good accent, but I know it’s gonna be a good character.
An accent can go a long way to filling in the blanks of a character. Last year I listened to the audiobook for Under the Dome, and “Big Jim” Rennie speaks with a slow Southern accent, almost like molasses. You can practically see his chins as he talks. I used this accent for a repulsive, corpulent Lord that I wanted my characters to hate.
However, when I gave that same accent to his daughter, but took away the deep voice and slow, plodding pace, she ended up sounding more like your classic Southern belle. Once again, this was deliberate – I wanted the players to like her, and to feel sorry for her, and for some reason we associate the Southern belle accent with innocence and naiveté.
Whenever you can, shake up the genders of the characters in your world. This is especially something male DMs tend to have an issue with – if you’re not careful, you will tend to default to making your NPCs male.
That’s not a bad thing, it’s just something that will likely happen unless you actively think about it. After all, most NPCs – soldiers, bartenders, doctors – are based on the archetypes we see around us, specifically in media. And this probably isn’t news to many of you, but women are pretty incredibly under-represented in media. So, unless you really put in the effort, the same might be true of your NPCs.
Anytime my players encounter a group of guards, or when I’m making a list of NPCs to include in a town, I usually like to make about half of them women. This tends to feel more authentic, but it also establishes that gender isn’t a big deal. At one point, our players were dealing with a group of mercenaries, roughly half-and-half male and female. One player, out of character, commented that this was a very “equal opportunity” mercenary group, and he was surprised and impressed by that fact. I think he just appreciated that, even though they were dealing with an evil, demented group of dragon-worshipping lunatics, at least this group didn’t seem to have any hang-ups about women.
This doesn't even factor in the fact that gender is a spectrum, and you should occasionally represent this in your game by including genderfluid characters who shift their presentation, or non-binary characters who don't use male or female descriptors at all. Doing so will help the world feel more real, by representing the complicated nature of the human condition.
Race (aka Ancestry, not Ethnicity)
Now, while gender doesn’t have to be a big deal in your world, you can absolutely use a character’s race (and by that I mean dwarf, elf, human, halfling, etc.) to establish more about them. If your players arrive at a mansion, and a human butler opens the door, that’s not a very remarkable moment. However, if the butler is an elf, that’s curious – why does this elf serve humans? It’s even more interesting if the butler is a Dragonborn, or a half-orc – seriously, what’s the story there? How do people react when a Dragonborn opens the door? How does a half-orc feel about holding a position of servitude?
Just adding variety can make things interesting. Not every city has to be the Mos Eisley spaceport, but even if you’re in a city full of humans, making the mayor a tiefling (someone who looks like a literal devil) makes things very interesting. How do the other people in the town feel about a person with demonic blood being in charge of the town? Is the mayor beloved, feared, or reviled? How did this person get elected?
Now, switch things up – make that tiefling a bartender. How does the town feel about them? Does the bar get a lot of traffic, because the owner is exotic, or is the bar always empty because tieflings make people uncomfortable? How does the tiefling stay in business, if they’re not getting frequent visitors? Why did this tiefling open a bar, if the only customers who come in spend the whole visit gawking at their horns?
Don’t Be Afraid To Swing For The Fences
Occasionally, you just want to bring in a character who is so over-the-top, so cartoonish, that you know you’ll get a reaction. One of my DMs, Daniel Fernandez, once ran a game where we encountered a huge underground colony of giant spiders. We expected pretty standard fair from them – perhaps something along the lines of Aragog in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Instead, all the spiders spoke with high, shrill voices, they all called themselves “Spider,” and they were very friendly; gratingly so. They also had not the best memories, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear the phrase, “Hi, Spider! It’s me, Spider!” over and over again.
They were referred to as the G.I.F.T.S. - the "Giant Intelligent Friendly Talking Spiders."
This was, in my opinion, a stroke of pure genius. These spiders were childlike, almost like Ewoks in their simple nature. In a way, they felt practically harmless. They were also afraid of an army that had moved through their caves and stolen their eggs, and just whimpered to us about how we needed to get the eggs back. They were irritating and shrill, but damn it, they were sympathetic.
And then, when we finally convinced them to charge out and attack the army with us, they were of course very dangerous Giant Spiders that made quick work of their enemies.
If you’re doing your job well, your NPCs will feel seamless, like a part of the world. It’s rare your players will comment on how good your voice was, or how interesting that character’s mannerisms are – more likely, they’ll just react naturally like they would with any character in a TV show. But sometimes, it’s okay to cut loose.
It's so common for DMs to compare themselves to someone like Matt Mercer, a literal professional voice actor. And part of that is because he came on the scene swinging - in the first few episodes of Critical Role, we met Clarota, a mind flayer with a very cool, creepy voice.
But not everybody can do this, and not everybody should try. Because there are other ways to make an NPC memorable.
The truth is, even for longtime DMs, it can be tricky to bring life to every new character you introduce. But you also don’t have to do that much to bring someone to life. A nervous tick, a funny phrase they keep repeating, or even just a big scar running across their face like an “X” – it only takes one or two little details to make a character stick out in the mind.
But also, if you can do that creepy, haunting, telepathic, raspy voice that Matt Mercer used for Clarota, then by all means, find an occasion to do that, too.
Discussion Question: This can be for players or Dungeon Masters – what’s your favorite story about an NPC? I’m particularly fond of those giant spiders named Spider, particularly because our wizard hated them so much. Their voices and attitudes just drove him insane, and he frequently talked about how much he wanted to get away from them (or kill them all). It was great! What about you?