How To Roleplay NPC Mannerisms
This article first appeared in Johnn Four‘s Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #693.
Memorable non-player characters are distinct. Whether you created an NPC or it came out of a published adventure, it is up to you as game master to make each quest giver, tavern goer, and orc slaver different from the rest.
The key to creating a believable, distinct cast lies in your performances. This might seem daunting, especially since every other player at the table has only one character to worry about while you have dozens.
The truth is, even the least accomplished actors can create great NPCs by relying on mannerisms. With a little prep and some simple acting tricks I’ll supply you with today, you will play princesses and warlords with equal confidence, and your players will no longer confuse the innkeeper at the Dancing Goat with the bartender at the Ugly Banshee.
Importance of Mannerisms
Mannerisms are qualities that distinguish one character from another. These qualities must be actionable and can be displayed visually or audibly. A soft spot for animals or a short temper are not mannerisms. The way a nearsighted old woman gets close to someone’s face whenever she has a conversation is. The actions of your NPCs are just as important a part of their characterization as their internal thoughts, emotions, and ambitions.
NPCs are remembered in large part because of their mannerisms, not because they have a good heart or a conservative agenda. Yoda would be just one of many weird aliens if he didn’t speak backwards. Players get to know the intimate thoughts of NPCs over time, but mannerisms create first and lasting impressions.
Just like real life, people remember the superficial about others they know only as acquaintances. Giving every NPC one or more distinct mannerisms will help your players draw distinctions between them. If you present one knight as blonde and another as brunette, it is difficult for players to know the difference between them since one actor is playing both characters (unless you bring wigs to your games!). But if you give one knight an accent and the other a stutter, the players will not only instantly be able to tell the knights apart throughout the entire interaction, they will also recognize the duo and remember who is who the next time they come upon the couple if you reintroduce those mannerisms.
Draw Players In
Mannerisms do more for your game than help players distinguish between and remember NPCs. They give your players a better idea of the person before them and hint at backstory, internal thoughts, and hidden emotions. A teen who constantly wrings his hands has a mannerism that indicates he’s a worrywart, even though his words may show a tough exterior.
These little indicators give your players a more subtle, complex view of the NPCs. Ultimately, it creates layered characters who are well-rounded. In turn, those NPCs provide a richer story experience to all involved in the game.
If you want a believable story, NPC mannerisms will help create a diverse world that mimics our own. Think of the people you interact with every day. Their physical and verbal behaviors immediately spring to mind. If you want your NPCs to become real people in the minds of your players, then mannerisms are the answer. No person is a perfect robot who simply recites box text.
The final reason you should be ready to give every NPC distinct mannerisms – fun. Acting is a huge part of role-playing games. It is right there in the name. If you give each NPC a mannerism or two, you will have a better time playing the role and the players will have more fun interacting with the character.
If you are not having a blast playing the NPC, players will know it and become as bored with your performance as you are. Having a few mannerisms to draw on will ease your mind and help you become the NPC.
Mannerisms give you ways of acting that are entertaining to perform and watch.
Types of Mannerisms
There are two main types of mannerisms you can play comfortably at a table: physical and verbal.
Physical – Physicalities and Behaviors
Physicalities are mannerisms that affect the ways NPCs carry themselves. Perfect posture, slumped shoulders, and a cocked head for example. They define the way an NPC moves and sits. They are the first characteristics of any NPC noticed by the players, so set yourself up for success by choosing the right way to sit or stand before you even open your mouth to speak as that person.
Behaviors are physical actions your NPCs take that can be both conscious and unconscious. Facial twitching, nail biting, head scratching, finger-pointing, and more fall under the category of behaviors. Remember to keep these behaviors consistent and don’t give up. If you want mannerisms to do their job and help define the NPC, commitment is key.
Verbal – Accents, Tones, and Speech Patterns
Of all the mannerisms out there, it seems accents are the most intimidating to GMs. It makes sense. Some professional actors work for years on a specific accent and still can’t quite nail the sound. You don’t need to worry the way those actors do.
For one thing, you are doing this for fun. If you do not quite nail the Rs in an Irish brogue, the studio is not going to fire you. Odds are your players will not notice or care. If you’re playing in a fantasy world, no one can even question your accent. So what if your French accent sounds like a combination of German and Italian? Those countries do not exist in the world. What your players are hearing is the accent of a person from Waterdeep!
Tones help define your NPCs’ voices beyond accents. If all dwarves in your world speak with a Scottish brogue, then it will be difficult to tell every dwarf apart. But if the dwarf king has a high, nasally voice while the captain of the guard has a scratchy, gruff voice and the chief alchemist has a deep, soulful voice, then you’ve got some definition between each.
Speech patterns define the rhythms and habits NPCs have while speaking. Using as few words as possible, being extra loquacious, always using a particular turn of phrase, or turning every statement into a question are all examples of speech pattern mannerisms. Just like physical behaviors, commitment to speech patterns is key in using them to help define the NPC.
Inspiration for Mannerism Creation
While you can think about many NPCs and assign them mannerisms during your preparation time, it helps to have a list of mannerisms at your side for those times the players go somewhere unexpected and you find yourself creating on the spot. It even helps to have the same list with you during preparation time so you can remember mannerisms as you create NPCs.
One of the first places to draw inspiration from is fiction. Your favorite movies, television shows, books, comics, and more are full of distinct characters. Ask yourself what specific mannerisms you love about your favorite characters. Copy those mannerisms down in a list.
When drawing from books and comic books in particular, do not be afraid to go back and read your favorite dialogue scenes aloud. As you do, get into it and really become the characters. You will find yourself giving them physicalities you did not picture in your head. That is more you can mine for your game. Add them to the list!
Pull from real life too. The people you see every day at work and your family are some of the best places to pull from because you know them so well. Many people pull from the mannerisms of old teachers and professors, since so much time is spent observing them as they lecture. Celebrities and politicians are a gold mine for unique mannerisms. Go ahead and write all the ones you can think of on your list.
Mix & Match
Once you have your list, remember that you probably do not want to recreate a character who already exists in fiction or real life. It might seem fun to make a real estate mogul who sounds exactly like Donald Trump, but your portrayal could turn your game into a Saturday Night Live sketch.
If your NPC superhero The Terrific Tarantula-Man is exactly like Spidey, the similarities will remind your players they are playing a game in a fictional world and break the immersion.
Mix and match mannerisms to create totally new people.
Imagine an old lady with Professor Xavier’s accent plus Wolverine’s cigar-smoking habit and liberal use of the word “bub,” and you’ve got yourself quite a character!
Let each new mannerism you add to your list inspire others. Maybe you remember your father always runs his fingers through his hair. As you write down this mannerism, it could bring new ones to mind, like people who pull at their arm hair or constantly brush their hair out of their eyes. Add them to the list.
Once you have a full list, you can use it to make a random NPC mannerism table like the one found at the end of this article.
The key to pulling off effective NPC mannerisms is your level of comfort acting them out. The less nervous and more committed you are to the mannerisms, the better you inhabit the entire character. Even if you’re not one of those GMs who did improv in high school, you can be an amazing storyteller who inhabits many different people by taking a breath, telling yourself all you do is for fun, and really going for it.
If you’re not an actor or experienced GM, start small. Assign NPCs mannerisms you feel comfortable playing and only put the same sort on your random table.
Give each NPC just one distinct mannerism to start, so you don’t have to worry about scratching your head and making up nonsense curses at the same time. One mannerism is enough to make a memorable NPC.
If you’re picking a physical mannerism, make sure it is one you can do comfortably for a few minutes without hurting yourself. Remember this is for your own enjoyment as well.
Practice your NPC mannerisms to get comfortable. If you know your PCs are going to meet with someone from your cast and you already assigned that NPC a mannerism, say impromptu lines in that character’s voice as part of your preparation. Try to have the interaction the NPC might have with the characters during the game. If you cannot think of anything to say, grab your favorite book and read a passage aloud as the NPC for practice.
The more specific you can make a mannerism, the better. If the characters meet an old wizard who strokes his long beard, decide exactly how this movement occurs. A raised pinky with a twisting wrist is distinct, memorable, and says a lot about the wizard’s personality. The pinky suggests he’s got a proper upbringing in a noble house while the twisting wrists might give away he’s a bit of a nervous nelly.
If you were to rub your chin a different way each time the PCs meet this wizard, the mannerism is not as effective or fun to play.
[Comment from Johnn: take a selfie while practicing the mannerism to remind yourself how to portray NPC in the future.]
Even if you’re creating an NPC on the spot, take a moment to think about how the character would execute its mannerisms and get specific with your movements, tone of voice, vocal patterns, and posture to really give unique performances.
Commitment is the second most important factor when it comes to NPC mannerisms. If you are comfortable with acting this will come easy, but you can force yourself to commit if you are feeling a little nervous. Go ahead and do that accent full on or pick your nose with gusto in front of your friends. Maintain the mannerism throughout the entire interaction and see what a difference it makes.
Dropping a mannerism partway through an interaction because you are uncomfortable will not do anybody any good. When it comes to NPC mannerisms, if you are going to do it, do it all the way and do not look back until the NPC makes an exit.
Don’t Be Perfect
The most important factor in displaying the mannerisms of your NPCs is fun. If you remind yourself your accents do not need to be perfect, that it is fine to laugh at yourself, and you should relish playing the NPCs, using mannerisms in your games will be some of the most fun you and your players have at the table.
How Matt Mercer Portrays a Maiden
Take a look at this video of Matt Mercer playing an NPC in the Geek & Sundry special, “D&Diesel.” In addition to being the fantastic GM of the web series “Critical Role,” Mercer is also a professional voice actor. He knows how to inhabit any NPC on the spot, even when he is under the pressure of playing with Vin Diesel on camera.
In the clip provided, Mercer plays a distressed maiden. He begins with a quick description of the character and then immediately begins enacting her physical mannerisms before speaking as the maiden. He slumps his shoulders and sticks his head out, leaning forward on the table to give the maiden a round-shouldered, frightened appearance.
Mercer then quickly darts his eyes all around the table, looking each of his players in the eye without moving his head. He does not allow his eyes to focus on any one player, but keeps them moving as he speaks. We know based on posture and the behavior of her eyes the NPC is terrified before she even opens her mouth.
Given Mercer’s career, the characterization and mannerisms become even sharper when he speaks. He has chosen a higher register to indicate the character is a young woman, but to make her distinct from other NPC young ladies and give her a deeper emotional feel, he gives her a breathy voice. She takes her time speaking with huge breaths between each sentence. These verbal mannerisms suggest a meek nature. When those verbal mannerisms are coupled with the physical, the character becomes unique, distinct, and interesting. Mercer throws in a British accent for good measure, medieval feel, and further distinction.
As the woman becomes more scared or confused, her mannerisms become bigger and more erratic. Her eyes dart more, her breathy voice almost sounds like she just ran a mile as she swallows air, her posture becomes even meeker, and her vocal pitch approaches the height of Mercer’s range. Our own real-life mannerisms tend to become more obvious when we are in an excited state because we lose a bit of control, so Mercer does that with his NPCs. Keep that in mind as your NPCs get joyful, terrified, surprised, and angry.
As the clip continues, Mercer reveals this young woman is not quite what she seems. She is a hag eager to sacrifice the player characters to her sister. As her motives change, Mercer keeps the NPC’s original verbal and physical mannerisms, but changes her attitude. This keeps her recognizable, but her new attitude changes the meaning behind the mannerisms.
Her hunched posture suggests her twisted, evil form. The hag’s darting eyes have a crazed wickedness to them. The voice is still high and breathy, but the breathing is more controlled, suggesting seductive evil rather than meek terror. All the mannerisms are still a part of the NPC’s portrayal. The character is the same, but her emotional state has completely changed.
In summary, here are the mannerisms Mercer used to play an elf maiden. You can think of the mannerisms listed below as a sort of stat block. Try creating these for your NPCs.
Maiden Mannerism List
- Slump shoulders
- Stick out neck
- Dart eyes constantly
- High voice
- Breathy voice
- British accent (optional)
If your game is tonight and you need some random mannerisms right now, we’ve got you covered. Use the table below to get started, and ignore or change any of the mannerisms you do not want to play.
Choose or flip a coin to decide if you want to give your NPC a physical or verbal mannerism and then roll on the appropriate table.
If you are an experienced GM who already plays an NPC mannerism comfortably, roll once (or more) on each table.
- has perfect posture
- slumps his/her shoulders
- picks his/her nose
- scratches his/her head
- clears his/her throat often
- blinks more than the normal person
- cannot look anyone in the eye
- is a close talker
- cracks his/her knuckles
- bites his/her nails
- picks at his/her ears
- runs his/her fingers through his/her hair
- inhales deeply before speaking
- rubs his/her chin
- stares without blinking for long periods of time
- breathes heavily
- cannot sit still
- has a face that cannot stop twitching
- belches uncontrollably
- constantly rubs his/her own shoulder
- has a scratchy voice
- has a deep voice
- has a high voice
- uses the phrase over and over
- ends all sentences with a phrase that make them a questions (e.g. “you know?” or “do you follow?”)
- creates nonsense cuss words
- has a smooth, soulful voice
- has a Germanic accent similar to German/Russian
- has a Romance language accent similar to Spanish/Italian/French
- repeats whatever is said to him back before responding
- uses only gender neutral pronouns
- calls everyone by the wrong name
- uses the same nickname for everyone
- has an American Southern accent
- speaks only in short sentences or nods
- uses far more words than necessary
- says “umm” for a long time before speaking
- speaks rapidly
- over-enunciates everything
If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!
June 24, 2016 @ 7:36 pm
Great suggestions! I think this can help those of us who are just player characters, too, as I know many of us need help in the role-playing department, too (me most of all). I’ll be reading this more than once to try to spice up my characters more. They’re pretty bland, for the most part. Bleh. Thanks for the tips.
July 7, 2016 @ 10:56 pm
Reblogged this on dmleviathan.
July 12, 2016 @ 3:26 pm
Good stuff. Been using #MatthewMercer examples for months and it has been a major element in my DMing. One note: you have a duplicate Physical #13 inhales deeply before speaking and Verbal #19 takes a deep breath before saying anything. I changed verbal # 19 to Rapid Talker, and cranked my own chart for use behind the screen.
July 12, 2016 @ 3:28 pm
Hey thanks so much for the compliments and feedback! I appreciate the note!
August 5, 2016 @ 2:40 pm
Thanks for reviving fond, old memories…
December 6, 2016 @ 5:55 pm
Amazing article. It is an extremely useful set of suggestions that can be immensely useful for role-players, fanfiction and fiction writers as well!
December 7, 2016 @ 7:35 am
Thanks for the kind words!
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