Dungeons & Dragons is an RPG, a role-playing game. That goes beyond just rolling your dice to see if you kill something or not. You take the role of an individual from your imagination and you play as they would act.
You know. Role-playing.
Role-playing is important, because it is the primary action your players interact with your world and vice-versa. It is how you convey information, as well as intrigue.
Your players may not be the most out-going and role-playing bunch. In fact, they may be a bit reserved, not use voices, and respond sparsely. This is fine! They may just be quiet by nature or they may not feel pulled into your world.
That is where your role-playing, as a DM, comes into play. I would argue that the DM’s role-playing is almost more important than that of the players’. When you role-play, no matter how simply or extravagantly, you are opening avenues for your players to flourish in.
How Much Is Enough
Role-playing is everybody’s forte, so you shouldn’t expect A-List acting from your players. However, that doesn’t exempt you from any attempt. As a dungeon master, you are expected to convey a degree of role-playing.
Role-playing requires a degree of energy, improvisational abilities, and a quick wit about you. You will be expected to react accordingly to your players’ actions and words spoken to a particular NPC. So, the more invested in your NPCs you are, and the more unique they are, the more believable they become.
If you aren’t comfortable with doing voices and personalities, that is completely fine; you don’t need to have a background in voice or stage acting in order to role-play well. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable to speak in your own, natural voice, when portraying a character. However, you should be mindful in conveying the proper attitude, emotion, and relevant information to your players, via the NPC.
In some cases, you can narrate in the 3rd Person:
“Dreward the Druid looks at the party in fascination. He just can’t believe how you guys defeated the gelatinous cube with such ease! Such finesse! In a gravely voice, he mumbles how thankful he is for saving his daughter and offers you a reward in exchange.”
Now, unless you were cripplingly afraid of reciting dialogue to your group of friends (in which case, you may want to reconsider being a Dungeon Master until you are comfortable doing so), I would avoid doing this technique extensively. I do, however, employ this fashion in narration when it hits hour five in our session and my throat starts to hurt from the various voices and accents I’ve been doing for five hours straight. This method is a decent safety-net for those sorts of situations.
“Advanced” NPC Voicing and Role-Playing
Now, I say “advanced” in quotation marks to mean putting more than the minimal effort to make unique voices. Frankly speaking, if you can do your normal voice and one extra accent, then you are doing very well for yourself!
If you are like me and love to do voices, no matter how bad, good, or goofy, then have at it, my friend! It will not only be more fun for you, but enjoyable and immersive (no matter how bad they are) for your players. Hell, you’ll even get some good laughs along the way.
As stated, any amount of variation will add depth and immersion to your game sessions. You don’t need a degree in voice acting. Even using your normal accent with different pitches and tones will be good enough for varying your chracters.
When you do different voices, you are giving each of your NPCs their own voice, their own identity. In doing this, they become unique and stand-out to your players, making them easier to remember, especially if said NPC is important. Whether it be doing thirteen exotic accents, or four voices that are just higher toned, lower pitched, or gravely variations of your own voice.
In speaking of accents, if you can pull off three accents, such as classing Arthurian-styled British, flat “American”, and a southern accent, then you have more than enough for your NPC arsenal. With those three accents in addition to changing the tone and pitch of your own voice, then you can easily fill an entire campaign with fun characters and voices.
Start adding additional accents, such as an Irish or Scottish accent for Dwarves or even a slick eastern European accent for a degree of “exotic” nature for a special NPC.
As for “advanced” role-playing, this goes beyond simply responding to your players. Be sure to delve into your character’s head and really feel for your NPC. How would they act if they saw a player steal from an orphan? How would they react if your players insult their looks or intelligence? Violently? Meekly? BE your non-player characters. Stick to your characters’ convictions; do not betray their beliefs.
Practice Makes Perfect
Practice, practice, practice! While you may call me crazy (and, sir or madam, you are very right to do so), I will practice my NPCs’ voices, accents, and personalities whenever I have me-time, throughout the day.
You’ll hear me ranting in my dragonborn king’s voice on my porcelain throne, have a conversation as a dwarvish blacksmith in my car, or be a smooth talking tiefling with an eastern european accent, trying to swindle a player, in my shower.
Ok, that last one sounded strange. But, pay no attention, dungeon master! Forward!
The lesson is the same: practice makes perfect. Though, I am far from perfect in my performance, I definitely notice my own improvement. And while in the privacy and comfort of my car, on my commute from work, I can practice comfortably by myself.
If I find a new accent from an audiobook or podcast I’m listening to, I will passively imitate it when that voice comes up. Then, I will rewind whatever I’m consuming and dissect each letter and annunciation of the accent. That way, I will be able to apply that for sentences, words, and inflections that the content did not say. Even though my accents aren’t spot on or perfect, I still have a blast doing them.
Role-playing is expected in a role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons. Your players deserve a little immersion and a performance from you. But, you aren’t required to do so your entire session and can get away with a 3rd person narrative technique. However, if you practice, practice, practice, you will be able to spout off a payload of different personalities from tiefling smooth-talker to a rough-necked dwarf.
So, go ahead and talk to yourself in your car, on your way home from work. Talk to your rearview mirror, and practice your Beholder’s believable personality, running one of their dungeons. Or practice the gravely voice of angry and vengeful dragons.