Right before all of the Halloween craziness of this year occurred, my buddy decided to run a Halloween themed game instead of having the weekly Kilt and Beer night (yes, there is a weekly Kilt and Beer night). Not having been a player in a long time, I said sure why not. We only had a few hours, so knew it would be short and crammed with stuff, but it sounded like a hell of a fun idea. The game went great and I attribute a lot of that to one brilliant thing that my buddy did with the game. Being a game based off of the plot for a movie called Horror Express, my buddy overacted the NPCs in such a way that paid total tribute to the B-movie, Schlock horror style of cinema from which the game was spawned. The more I thought about that aspect of the game, the more I realized how brilliant an idea it was and how all NPCs should be “overacted” in some way. By overacting, I don’t necessarily mean making them cartoon like caricatures, but more the choice to emphasize specific important elements and make those larger than life. Here are five reasons that I’m hoping convince you of the strength of this idea.
1. The Subtle Details Are Going To Be Forgotten Anyways
Ok GMs, let’s face it. No matter how much nuance we cram into our NPCs, or how much detail we write down on index cards that we give out to our players, the little details of the NPCs are always going to be forgotten. The vague general sense of the major thing that NPC represents is what is going to be front and center. The arch-dukes sense of evil is what is going to be remembered, not the small plot point that he was casually seen speaking with a hooded man as the PCs entered the throne room to speak with the king. If this is emphasized and overacted, the detail has more of a chance of sticking. Remember, the players are always looking at your game world from a slightly different angle.
Our brains are god damned amazing, but they are also weird. Our images of others is never a complete image. Think about any person you’ve ever met. The biggest and brightest things, their most obvious physical and personality traits are what comes to mind first. In some cases, especially for people you’ve just met, the idea of the person is more like a fuzzy image with some things defined. If we think about our NPCs in this way, we want to present the most relevant details about the NPC to the players so that their brains, working in the natural way, will have the information they need.
3.Makes Them Memorable
In the game that inspired this article, my buddy acted out the strange monk’s odd behavior and weird voice. We definitely picked up on this and noticed him. He also acted out the irate and angry behavior of the “refined doctor” and the pompous boasting and loud nature of the nobleman who was the beneficiary for the expedition. I remember these things about his game incredibly clearly, despite it only having been a 3 hour game that occurred over a week ago. Grabbing these couple of elements about the NPCs distinguished them from one another and helped us keep the decently large cast of NPCs (7 important NPCs on the train we were riding on)distinct during the short game. If you want more proof, just look at this little montage from “The Gamers”. (p.s. You should totally go check out their new web series called Journey Quest.)
4. Overacting The NPCs Encourages Interaction With Them
The loud guy across the room is a whole lot easier to talk to than the quiet one sitting in the corner. By being loud and noticed, a person breaks the personal space barrier around themselves and encourages people to communicate with them in some way, even if that way is only watching them intently. Kids at theme parks are more drawn to the larger than life full suited mascots than they are the more realistic looking character actors. Overacting your PCs and making them larger than life makes them much easier to engage with roleplaying. It also breaks a little of the tension for players who are less prone to roleplay or get “in character”. If they see you doing it, they are going to feel less silly when they pull out the crazy actions and character accents.
5.Prep Is Easier
Knowing that you are going to overact an NPC makes it much easier to create them. You only have to focus on the elements that you are going to be over-representing. Focusing on big elements during NPC creation also tends to help you flesh out the little details that you may keep in your mind about them. Knowing the NPC is an occult NUT can spark your mind into thinking of all the ways that they express that. Even on the fly, when someone asks how the person is dressed, keeping those one or two defining factors up front makes them easier to build off of on the fly. “How is he dressed? Umm . . (Wait a minute, he is an occult nutjob and I want the PCs to figure out that whatever he is telling them is bullshit.) You see a pentagram tattoo on his hands, but not the kind that looks like it came from an old researched book. No, more like the one that comes from a removable tattoo from Hot Topic."
So, there are lots of reasons to “overact” your NPCs. Do you think the tactic is valid? Do you usually play your NPCs over the top or try to keep them more realistic? Do you think it kills the realism to overact the NPCs?
I also recommend watching the Chris Perkins videos, this bloke DMs PROFESSIONALLY and I love to watch him do his NPCs…among other things.
Like the character Rad in the Penny Arcade PvP game.
Excellent points, John! If you want to make something memorable it is better to focus on one or two aspects and to put all of your energy into those things, then to try and develop a plethora of aspects.
Good job here. I got hooked on the stew by Benson’s last post, and that got me examining how I run my game. I used to be very good at portraying NPCs, but alas I think I’ve been slipping here.
Your pointers have been added to the list of things I’m considering in my quest for better GMing.
I love to overact my NPCs, especially those that will become recurring characters. The danger here is that there are only so many ways to overact your NPCs, so you have to use it sparingly. If every bartender is loud and boisterous and every merchant is a shifty eyed rat boy, then your players will soon lose interest in it. Shake it up, that’s the key.
@Katana_Geldar – I hadn’t heard of him before, but I might have to go check those out. DMing “professionally” is always such an odd thought to me. The Gaming experience is so often improved by the personal connections and the ability of the GM to roll with things that go on at the table, so it always seems to me that tackling GMing with a professional attitude would detract from the game. Now, to be fair, the definition of professional is up for grabs here since it can mean getting paid to do it, or doing it in that strict and rigid way. I’m going to have to check out the videos and see how he does it. Got some links?
@Harald – Thanks. I think there are a lot of GMing skills that we fall into and out of throughout our GMing careers. I fondly look back on my first days of running games and remember the big stories I wrote. I’ve so abandoned that in my recent roles as a GM, but the games always come out good and usually get remembered and talked about. Still, revisiting old skills and ways of doing things is always a good way to stretch your GMing muscles.
@evil – Very true, if you only overact a single trait in all characters of the type, then it will get boring. But one bartender can get overacted loud and boisterous while the next one can be overacted as untrustworthy and moneygrubbing, and the next one can be overacted with her boredom and distaste for her job showing. It becomes the key thing about them and the thing you most emphasize.
@John Arcadian – Got some links?
Wizards of the Coast website (warning: I haven’t actually watched these videos yet)
PAX Celebrity Game (I found this game both entertaining to watch and educational as a DM)
There’s also a related blog post about tips extracted from videos of Chris Perkins’ DMing.
(Got to get this over and done with). The nobleman was a benefactor, I assume (one who provides the benefits) rather than the beneficiary (one who receives benefits).
Excellent advice. There’s a temptation when you’re getting started as a GM to make your characters subtle/realistic in some way. As you point out, that makes them forgettable/backdrop. My mate does different kinds of voices for all of his characters. It’s been almost a year since the particular campaign, but I can still hear the voice of that one skeezy employer we had. I don’t remember anything about him (he may not have been our employer, now that I remember it). But I remember the voice, and I remember hating him after a while. If I heard that voice again, I’d want my rapier.
Another way to make any character memorable is to have them have a game effect on the players. Any game effect. A character can give the party a free length of rope, or discounts on room and board. They’ll remember that, and always be grateful for the rope; and money-grubbing players will ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS go to the inn that’s 2sp cheaper per night, even when they’re weighed down with the contents of a dragon’s hoard.
Alternatively, take another page out of my friend’s book. We bought some food from a street vendor. After consumption, we were all required to take fortitude tests. Now, I think we all passed. I’m not even sure whether there would have been any consequences for failure (my friend refuses to reveal these things, even after the session). But I still remember that that fish-guy sold us some dodgy kebabs that made me slightly queasy.