It’s not easy being a GM. Not only do you have to create dozens or hundreds of characters for every one PC, but you have to create adventures and encounters that bring those characters to life in an entertaining way for the benefit of the players – all while refereeing a complex simulation of a reality that never existed. What’s more, where a player has just one character to play, the GM has to flit from one NPC to the next without pause, sometimes assuming the role of several simultaneously.
Where the players have the luxury of walking a mile in their character’s shoes, the GM has only three feet to travel, and yet, because they are the center of attention at the game table, they are expected to be able to roleplay these characters better than the players do – because each NPC should seem just as vibrant, just as deep and complex and fully-rounded, as the PCs do, if not more – even though each NPC has less screen time to show themselves.
So here’s the question: How do you slip into the character of an NPC quickly and successfully? What’s the secret?
Well, I can’t speak for any other GMs, but here’s how I do it…
The Full Treatment
I have three different processes that I employ, depending on how much time I have to get ready for play. The first assumes that I have fifteen-to-thirty minutes the night before, and is employed when I know that a key NPC is going to appear. Subsequent appearances by that NPC tend to require far less such prep, down to only five-to-ten minutes, because most of the decisions have been made. Note that this time is entirely separate from character creation / development. The aim is to abstract the character into a more-easily captured “digest”.
The other two processes are essentially cut-down versions of this full process, or when the NPC is to be the focus of much less attention in the course of the game.
The Night Before: Step 1: Character Synopsis
My character creation process is aimed at producing the game mechanics infrastructure and personality profiles needed to define the character as a unique individual, ready to interact with the game world around them. The process being discussed today assumes that character creation has been completed in advance (even if it has only just finishes) – though my preference is to complete creation at least 24 hours before play so that I have time to clear my mind of the creation process. All I want in “active RAM” is what I need to roleplay the character, everything else is a distraction from running the game, to be recalled only when necessary.
The first of three steps carried out the night before is to read the character’s description and background, initially aiming to establish in short-term memory a summary version of the answers to three questions: Who is the NPC? What is his background? What can he do?
I know that I have completed this step when I can clearly distinguish this NPC in my head from any others of similar expected standing in the next day’s play. That is sometimes as straightforward as reading over the character writeup prepared during the generation process, sometimes requires focusing on the key differences between the characters (which will need to be highlighted during play so that the players can distinguish between the NPCs), and sometimes can even require expanding or extending the background and associated notes – effort that is not budgeted into the thirty minute total because it doesn’t happen all that often.
The Night Before: Step 2: Character Profile
Once I feel I have a handle on these three broad questions, at least in summary, I create a profile synopsis. This is step two of the “night before” process, and involves answering ten specific and (reasonably) simple questions about the NPC. While, in a pinch, I might not take the time to actually write down the answers. failure to do so requires the full process to be repeated before the character’s next appearance. Given the time savings stated earlier (from 15-30 minutes down to 5-10 minutes), it should be clear that if the NPC is expected to make three or more appearances during the entire campaign, it’s worth the effort of writing these answers down, now, because it will save time in the long run.
The ten questions that comprise the character profile are:
- What does the NPC want, overall?
- What does the NPC not want, overall?
- What is the NPC’s motivation -what drives him or her?
- What is the NPC’s base emotional state going to be when he or she is encountered, what mood will he or she be in?
- What makes the NPC angry?
- What other emotional states might be triggered and how?
- What does the NPC want from the current situation?
- What does the NPC want to avoid in the current situation?
- What does the NPC want the PCs to do/not do?
- How does the NPC connect with the scene in which he appears – what’s his plot function?
Not all of these are necessary, all the time; experience lets me cherry-pick the answers that I need to provide, reducing the time required for this step. For example, if I have the character sufficiently defined in my mind, the answers to questions 4, 5, and 6 will follow automatically from that knowledge, just from considering the current circumstances surrounding the character at the time – which leaves me better able to cope if that situation is different from what I expected (often the case when PCs have been involved). And it certainly makes me better able to cope when a PC does or says something unexpected. (“He’s a murderer and a monster, and a suspected mercenary.” “I signal my desire to parley.” “What!?” – the synopsis of a recent real-life example from my superhero campaign). However, the more the NPC is going to recur, the more likely I am to make the effort to complete the whole profile, as an aid to consistency.
Until GMs who are unused to the system get used to it, I recommend giving featured NPCs the whole treatment.
The Night Before: Step 3: The Determinant
When the profile is complete, I turn to the most important step of the entire process, creating or identifying what I call “The Determinant”. This is a single sentence that sums up the entire character profile, and it always gets put in writing. Not the character’s abilities, though they may form part of it; the character’s personality. The key is to define the character specifically, without using clichés. Often it is sufficient to use a stock profile and enunciate the differences between that cardboard cutout and this character.
Another way to look at it: The Determinant is an answer to the question “Who is the character?” – not “What can the character do?” but who are they? What is their personality – in a nutshell.
Prior to play: The Strongest Determinant refresher
Just before play, I will read over The Strongest Determinant again, just to make sure that it’s fresh in my mind. If I expect it to be several hours, game time, before the NPC makes his appearance, I will usually call a break for five minutes and carry out this step during that break; I’ve found that three hours is about the maximum time that it will stay fresh in memory. You may find that your recall is better or worse, and – furthermore – that your abilities will change with practice, with experience, and with circumstances – everything from what you’ve had to eat and drink to how well you slept the night before can have an impact. Again, over time, you learn to judge these factors and adjust your game plans accordingly.
Prior to Play: Finding a voice
The other thing to done before the NPC first enters the game is to find a voice for the character. There are three techniques that I use to achieve this, either singly or in combination:
- The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype
- From a picture
- One Key Phrase
The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype
The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype means selecting one or two characters that you know well and using them as a role model for how the NPC expresses themselves. The key is selecting a role model that fits the Determinant, and it’s done as much by instinct as through any logical process. This isn’t a literal interpretation of the source material; if I choose to channel Bugs Bunny for an NPC, that doesn’t mean that the character will go around saying “What’s up, Doc?”, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean that the character will have a Brooklyn accent. But it does mean that character will be relatively unflappable, will have a somewhat nasty sense of humor, and tend to take whatever comes his way without too much thinking in advance. At the same time, he will only let himself be pushed so far before “Of course you know, This means War!
I have also had some success using archetypes from comics for some characters – “Gremlin” from my original Champions campaign had a very distinctive personality that was a blend of Daffy Duck, Mr Mxyzptlk, and Ambush Bug, with the Duck strain predominant (there was also a tip of the hat to the Cheshire Cat). Nominally a mischief-maker, he was nevertheless more often on the side of the PCs – so long as he could extract humor from the situation.
And one of the most memorable renditions of an NPC that I have ever achieved was blending Dr Zarkov from the Flash Gordon movies with overtones of Doc Brown from the back to the future movies! Whether I wanted to or not, I found myself throwing a far greater physicality into the performance than is usually the case.
I have found that characters from Novels rarely work as well, at least as the dominant character element. The voice you hear in your head is never quite as succinct when you speak aloud, and even less so when the dialogue isn’t verbatim from the source material; the characterization is usually relatively limp and useless.
From a picture
Some images capture so much mood or personality that they can form a touchstone around which the entire expression of characterization can be constructed. The goal is to express the emotion of the image in a way of speaking. This technique can take a bit of practice to get right, and no two uses of it are ever quite the same; some work better than you ever dreamed they would, others seem to fall flat. I find that it often helps if I can find some excuse to show the image to the players within the context of the game – whether it’s a painting on the wall, a news bulletin, an image in a magazine that the NPC (or one of the PCs, or a bystander) is reading, or the scene where events are taking place, or – once – the set for a play that was to be performed that night. The image itself conveys some of the personality of the character, gets the players minds going down the right track.
A less-frequently successful variation is to derive this expression from the mood of a piece of music, but this can occasionally be effective. I’ve found that the Eagle’s “Hotel California” is especially good for a somewhat mysterious Wizard, for example, and some of ELO’s material also works well. The problem is that you can’t play that piece of music, either to yourself or to the players; so you have to somehow abstract it into your head, and use it for the character’s ‘theme’, and that’s a lot harder to do on demand than it sounds.
One Key Phrase
A technique from Babylon-5 can also be useful: Peter Jurasik found that to get into character at the drop of a hat as Londo Mollari, all he had to do was say “Mister Garabaldi” in the faux-Hungarian accent that he chose for the character a couple of times, even just to himself. The trick is finding that magic phrase. You can say it either mentally or sub-vocalize it a time or two. Accents aren’t necessary (they can both help and hinder).
To some extent, it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong – so long as you don’t tell the players who you were trying to channel, so long as you keep using the same foundation, the character will be unique.
One word of warning: Avoid doing impressions of the character/actor that you are using as a foundation. Don’t use catchphrases that they made famous. The idea is not that the NPC is an impersonation of the source character, it is that the NPC’s mode of expression is inspired by the qualities and characteristics of the source character but is an individual in their own right, with their own things to say.
In Play: Getting inside the NPCs head
When the NPC actually enters the game, I use the profile and strongest determinant as a touchstone to restoring that concrete visualization of the NPC and his thought processes in mind. The Determinant is the key to unlocking the profile, and is the behavioral guide if the circumstances have changed from what you expected.
Often, you won’t have a full workup of the character that you need to express in roleplay. I divide characters into three tiers of preparedness: Full, Incomplete, and A-La-Carte. Full characters are what I’ve been discussing so far. A-La-Carte characters are those who drop into the plotline as window dressing to serve a specific function and then leave again. Incomplete characters are somewhere in between these two extremes. Think of them as recurring window dressing, or “temporarily important”; they will be the focus of attention for an important piece of the plot, but won’t matter afterwards.
They are called “incomplete” because you know something about them, but have not wasted time doing full character generation.
In an ideal world, there would be no such thing, and anyone who ever appears in the game with the potential for a recurring appearance would get a full workup. In the real world, it isn’t going to happen.
Before Play: Step 1: Foundations
What do you know about the character to be roleplayed?
If you know them, stats can be your starting point. What single stat has the highest score? What has the lowest? Do you want to play to type, or against type? Is there a character that you know well from a media or literary source that you can use as a model? (Watching part of such a source the night before can be very helpful – it only has to be five or ten minutes long to refresh your recollection).
Another good starting point is to ask yourself what eccentricities the NPC has had the opportunity to indulge in. Because they are points of distinctiveness, they work well for this purpose.
The best techniques are those that actually give you a personality quickly and easily. But one way or another, you need to establish a foundation for the character.
Before Play: Step 2: Answer the Profile Questions
Thirty seconds to a minute should then be spent answering the ten key questions in your head. Don’t use a “question and answer” format; require yourself to state the answers as full sentences, because that associates the purpose of the question with the response. “This character wants to…” “[Name] gets angry when…” You want to be able to remove the questions entirely and have the responses be a self-evident description of the personality.
Thirty-to-sixty seconds is not a lot of time. The answers will be relatively superficial, without a lot of nuance. They will often be the first thing that pops into your head. Nevertheless, do your best to avoid clichés.
Before Play: Step 3: The Determinant
Using the Profile and foundation, produce a Determinant. Time pressure probably means that this will be less-developed than one that you had more time to develop, but that’s all right because the character is going to have less spotlight, anyway.
Before Play: Step 4: Find a voice
The less character development you have done in advance, the more dominant the results of this step will be, so it is just as important to choose carefully. Nevertheless, you don’t want to agonize over it; make a choice and get on with it.
In Play: as above
All told, two minutes before play should be enough to get you ready to play the character the same as you would any more developed NPC. That makes this a very powerful and useful technique. At this point, I should also point you to an earlier article, which couples with this one to make a great one-two punch: By the seat of your pants: the 3 minute (or less) NPC. And no, I haven’t forgotten (again) that I was going to develop a worksheet for this process – but I want to integrate the techniques described in this article into that worksheet.
Post-Play: make notes
If the character was a hit with the players (and survived the experience) you might want to bring him back. The information you have collected can easily be used to reverse-engineer a full description – but only if you get what is needed down on paper while it’s still fresh in your mind. In particular, the character may have evolved in the course of actually roleplaying him – that happens more often than many GMs realize. So it’s important to make notes, especially in terms of the character as he actually was during play, rather than the way he was on paper.
If the character wasn’t so successful, it’s still important to make notes – so that you don’t use the same unsuccessful combination in the future. A moment of introspection on why the character fell flat can also be useful.
A-La-Carte characters are the ones who pop up without warning. “I pop into the nearest bar and ask the bartender about…” While such encounters can often be handwaved, and should be, if playing them out will alter your planned emotional ebb-and-flow (refer Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1 and Part 2), or will slow the adventure down too much, when you have the opportunity, you should roleplay them – if only so that your players can play their characters!
The other time these characters pop up is for combat encounters – which might not seem like an obvious time for roleplay, but is. The NPCs personality should impact their decisions in battle, how hard they will fight, who they will target, and so on. And all that even before considering the possibility of conversations in the course of the battle! Take a look at any combat sequence in the movies: it’s always noteworthy and deliberate when there is no conversation in the course of the fight. That means that you need to be equipped and ready for such conversation – even if the conflict is the result of some random happenstance.
One of the characteristics of these encounters is that there is no time for prep. That means that an even quicker solution is called for – a tall order, given that the last version took only two minutes, but it is what it is. The target this time is thirty seconds or less.
The Starting Point
Start with the only things known about the character, whatever they might be. That could be an occupation, or a couple of stats, or the weapon they are carrying, or where they are being encountered. You will always know something about the character, and that is your foundation. Use no more than five seconds thinking about this, and less is better.
The next step is to pick a model based on a character you know from media. Choose one that has acceptable levels of incongruity with the circumstances. The amount of incongruity you can tolerate depends on how creative you are and how well you can think on your feet. Voldemort as a bartender. Why not? Homer Simpson? Why not? Avoid characters that are hard to play, no matter how iconic they may seem – it takes a lot of effort to channel Jack Sparrow, for example. The one thing to avoid is the obvious answer, because the result will be a cliché – unless that’s what you deliberately want, but it will be forgettable.
Representatives of Ability: an alternative Model
The character, in order to be successful (or just to survive) where they are or what they are doing, presuming them to have been doing it before, must have certain abilities or skills. Pick one, and then think of some other occupation or circumstance where that ability would be useful; then use a representative of that occupation or circumstance as your model. A Brimstone-and-fire lay preacher as a bartender? Why Not? A Used-car salesman? Why not?
Choosing a model by either method should also take less than five seconds.
Half the time or more, the choice of model will give you the Determinant. The rest of the time, take five seconds to answer the question, “What makes the NPC interesting?” – that answer is your Determinant.
The most urgent Profile questions
Using the determinant, skim through the list of Profile Questions – the things you need to know right now. I can’t actually narrow the list for you, because which ones matter will depend on circumstances. But spend no more than fifteen seconds on this step.
One way that you can separate the Model from this interpretation is to choose a Voice that stems from a different source than the obvious. But I only bother with this when the combination of current activity/location and Model are not sufficiently striking.
Go for it!
Make sure that the character, when encountered, is actually doing something and not just waiting passively for the PC to walk in. And make sure that the first thing they say is something memorable.
- The bartender extends his arms and proclaims loudly “Bow ye head, you sinners, and pray for the forgiveness of the Lord!”
- The bartender releases the safety on the crossbow pointed at you and says in an icy calm voice, “I knew you were trouble when I saw you turn down the street, maggot.”
- The bartender polishes the brass on the counter as you enter, and grins ear to ear as he announced, “Ooh, fresh blood! We’re going to have so much fun together… Lock the door boys, we don’t want him to get away”, he adds, addressing the three burly men quaffing vile green beer at one of the tables.
- The bartender looks up from his accounts tally and beams, “Customers! Have I got a bargain for you – the best prices in the city, that’s my promise, or my name’s not Fat Tony! – Have a seat, two-drink minimum, got a special on fermented frog’s ears, or perhaps you’d prefer an ale with optional salted peanuts, today’s lunch special can’t be refused, second to none, Roasted haunch of Mastiff with buttered parsnips – Alba! Two lunch specials!”
See what I mean? These characters have done one thing and said one thing (in the last example, quite a long one thing) and already they have come to life.
There are a number of finishing touches that can be applied. Some of these can wear thin with repeated use, and/or be hard to document, however, so use them sparingly, and only when you need that little extra to complete the character.
Props and Mannerisms
You can use something more than your voice to express the character. Props and Mannerisms work well in light doses, or when taken completely over the top – but once used for one character, they have limited availability for other characters, so choose carefully.
Also bear in mind the difficulty of adjusting or removing a prop repeatedly when roleplaying a conversation between two NPCs. An eye-patch may work wonderfully when playing a Pirate Captain, but it gets tricky when you have to perpetually put it on and take it off throughout a conversation with the first officer.
In general, mannerisms are easier to work with.
Slang and Colloquialisms
Virtually everyone uses slang and colloquialisms at times, and they are always diagnostic of a character’s background, but there is a huge range to select from – for example, take a look at this list of Australian Colloquialisms – it’s Bonza, by Crikey! There are some expressions on this list that I’ve never heard before, and I have lived here all my life; it follows that everyone should employ language just a little differently.
Carefully-selected slang expressions can elevate a character’s portrayal that extra step (and can even be a clue – Drow in my campaigns often misuse such terms, the result of their isolation from contemporary society).
Overlapping Modes Of Address
This is a particularly difficult trick to master. It involves thinking one thing while saying another so that your natural phrasing and accent get muddled to give the impression of a strange accent. It’s common, for example, for there to be a rising inflexion at the end of a question – so if you ask a question in your head at the same time as saying the character’s dialogue, you can place that inflexion at a strange place. This is the equivalent of adding and subtracting punctuation in unexpected places – something that’s easy to do if you’ve written the dialogue in advance, but far trickier to do without a script to follow (and some practice).
A lot of the time, this will just be confusing, or may deliver some unintended statement, but practice improves avoidance of those issues. It’s also VERY easy to overdo.
The Release Mechanism
It’s just as vital to find some release mechanism to get you out of character as it is to have a mechanism for getting into character in the first place. I find that counting silently “one – two – three – four” usually does the trick for me, and that I only have a problem with releasing from “in-character” mode when I am really deeply in character, anyway. But others have more difficulty, especially when they employ techniques for getting into character more effectively – at least for the first few times, until they get used to it. Everyone is different, and needs to find something that works for them. But it needs to be quick.
That’s a wrap!
Improved expression of characterization in roleplay benefits everyone, and everyone should be able to benefit from this technique. Use it, show it to your players, and bring your characters to life!