In Character

The D&D games I’ve most enjoyed are those where the Dungeon Master and players act in character. A Dungeon Master can go to great lengths to create an intricate plot and flesh out his or her world, yet ultimately, the visceral pleasure I get from a game depends on the level of immersion, and the immersion depends on the willingness of players and DM to step in to the personas of their characters.

When I first started playing D&D, back when the Internet was still young, I had few examples of what it was like to run a game. No Chris Perkins podcasts. No YouTube. My group had to figure out everything from the book. We didn’t have James Wyatt’s fantastic Dungeon Master’s Guide, and we didn’t even have the benefit of having someone’s older brother teach us. Instead, we stumbled through the Player’s Handbook and tried to form a game based on how we thought D&D was supposed to be.

That first year was one of blissful ignorance, and yet despite having a DM focused on the complexity of the plot and campaign world, I felt something was missing. I realize now, looking back, that this intuition was correct. What we were missing was character. Oh sure, we were all playing characters, but they were more mechanical constructs than flesh and blood. We hadn’t invested emotion into the characters, because we were caught up in saying “My character checks for tracks” instead of “I check for tracks.”

Now, I realize that talking in character isn’t for everyone. However, I really do believe it takes the game to another level. Every time I start a new campaign, I try to include a few experienced players and a few players who are newcomers to D&D. The new players can watch the experienced players talking in character. The effect is subtle, and the new players probably aren’t even conscious of it, but after a few sessions, “My character attacks the orc” becomes “I attack the orc.” As a DM, that’s one of the most satisfying moments in a campaign, because once that wall between character and player falls down, the game gains an emotional immediacy that isn’t normally present.

As a Dungeon Master, I no longer think twice about talking in the first person when taking on the persona of a nonplayer character, a monster, or a villain. The year I played in Chris Perkins game was very educational. Chris is a creative guy, and his world is vivid and exciting. And yet it wasn’t these traits that struck me about Chris’s game. The thing that makes Chris’s game so much fun to play in is the way he engages you through character. Chris switches between NPCs with the ease that a person puts on and takes off hats. His ability to maintain dozens of different affectations and voices, and keep a straight face through it all, is the quality I most admire in his games. When he acts in character, you can’t help but to be drawn in to roleplaying your character.

Being a Dungeon Master of Chris’s caliber takes years of practice and tough lessons (although rumors persist that he was sent from a dying alien world to bring D&D awesomeness to earth). However, here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned from his game (and my own game), to help encourage you and your players to get in character.

  • DM Tip: Know your NPC’s race, gender, and name in advance. For important NPCs, you’ll probably always know this information, but even for unimportant NPCs, it’s a good idea to keep a list. Consider having a list of random names, races, and associated genders, which you can draw from on the fly. If you’re sneaky, when the players see you consulting your notes, they’ll think the NPC existed all along—they won’t realize you made him or her up on the fly.
  • DM Tip: Jot down at least a single sentence of background for each NPC the players are likely to interact with. If you have some small piece of information you can drop, like what happened to the character’s family, or where he or she came from, your players will assume the NPC is a fully fleshed out character, and they’ll feel more immersed.
  • DM Tip: Establish accents. Do all your drow speak in French accents? How about halflings? My halflings have an Irish accent. Figure out what accents you’re good at, and use those for your most commonly used races. It’s okay if they’re grossly stereotyped accents (Russian, anyone?), because your players will probably just enjoy the extra detail you’ve put in to roleplaying the characters. Check out Dragon Age for inspiration.
  • DM Tip: Encourage players to think in character. I realize that advice is vague, but it covers a lot of ground. I’ve discovered a few tricks for helping players along. First, don’t let them off without a background. Either incentivize backgrounds through something like my Fun Point system, or don’t let them into the campaign without a background that’s at least a couple hundred words. If that’s too Draconian for you, try sending your D&D group a weekly character question. I just started doing this. Prior to each session, I send the players a question like “What’s your character’s greatest fear?” or “What’s your character’s favorite food?” Sometimes, their answers play into an upcoming session (for example, if they’re fighting an id fiend in Dark Sun…), and other times, it’s just an opportunity for them to get in the mindset of their characters and to share qualities of their characters with the rest of the group. I use fun points to encourage them, but some groups might not require incentive.
  • Player Tip: Pick an accent or voice affectation you can do reliably. Also, know what the rest of the group is doing. If you’re using a Scottish accent, and another player is using an English accent, and another is using an Irish accent, you’re going to end up with UK accent stew. If you want to add variety but don’t want to use an established accent, you can always raise or lower your voice. My character in Rodney Thompson’s game was an 80-year-old wizard whose voice constantly cracked.
  • Player and DM Tip: Practice keeping a straight face, especially if your character is going to lie. If you’re like me and have a hard time keeping a straight face when lying, figure out the lie before a roleplaying scene starts. Anticipate what your antagonist might say, and jot down a few quick lies you can use. If you’re a DM, and you pull this off, it won’t even occur to the players to make an Insight or Sense Motive check.
  • Player and DM Tip: If you’re crap at accents, pick a single common word that your character speaks differently. Does your character say “ye” instead of “you.” Does your character always speak in the royal “we” rather than “I.”  Does he or she make everything a question by adding “right?” to the end.
  • Player and DM Tip: Pick a single defining physical trait and a single mannerism for your characters. You can have others, but pick one that you always show off or describe first. Players have to keep a lot of characters straight (including their own and the other player characters), so distilling characters down into a single trait and mannerism is helpful.

What are your tips for getting into character?

Categories: D&D

10 thoughts on “In Character

  1. Some good tips there. It also encourages DMs (like writers) to listen to people in everyday speech to try and pick out mannerisms. For example, I had a real estate agent that always added “my buddy” to the end of every sentence, so that was easy to lift and use as a defining NPC trait. I might not have been listening for it had I not been a DM though.

  2. Accents all the way, for me.

    You mention Chris Perkins, and I agree that he’s awesome, but what made those podcasts awesome was the mix of in character & out of character talk, the empowerment Wil, Jerry, Mike, & Scott felt to narrate & describe things. Immersion is fine except when it discourages players from taking what control of the story they’re allowed.

    1. I agree completely. I’m not trying to discourage table-talk (trust me, if you’d seen my Dark Sun game…). I’m just speaking to what happens when the table-talk ends.

  3. While this runs a little contrary to the article, in my experience with my table talking in the third person actually is a bigger boon for my players.

    as about half of my table is what I would call “RP shy” speaking in the third person has really helped them get into character.

    1. That’s a good point. I don’t usually press new players to act in (first person) character. What I do is press them to tell me what that character is thinking. When they go up to use that power… did they toss aside the mugs of ale on the tables alongside? Did they leap over the table? Did they snort or swear? Did they apologize sheepishly for they pain they are about to inflict? The more that I can get them to add color, the more they are thinking like their PC. I usually notice that a few sessions after this they will being to say “I” and slowly but surely do more in first person.

      As Greg said, having a mix of players really helps show the way. I used to travel a lot and visit different Living Greyhawk player communities. It was fun to sit down at a table of strangers and introduce myself in-character (playing someone like Weary Fox, my ancient Flan monk) and see the reactions. Very often one other person would be pleased and begin to act in character as well. For me, that becomes a much more enjoyable game.

  4. I’m a big fan of immersion myself. If I weren’t looking for true role-playing, I’d just play the D&D Minis Skirmish game, which I did for a long time, or video games, as I currently do (Dragon Age).

    I don’t have a lot of advice, but the one thing I do is overact. When I do accents, I concentrate on exaggerating them. When I speak loudly, I really project my voice. If my character is doing something shifty, I hunch my shoulders, squint my eyes, and speak very low.

    It’s actually amusing when I play a boisterous character at a public play event. I played a halfling bard at a con last year and there was a couple at the table with us. The man had never played 4E, and the woman had never played D&D. I was outlandish when I spoke, and the first time I did the girl was a bit shocked. It loosened up the table though. It seems to me that people will be more apt to take the risk of acting if they see someone who is willing to go all out.

    Let’s face it, many of our bretheren are introverts. It’s not that they necessarily want to be, but rather, they fear exposing themselves to embarassment. If you have the mental fortitude to be the one willing to take that leap without fear of risk, it goes a long way to helping others at least move the edge of the cliff.

  5. Back in my day… When I first started playing D&D aged ca 12 around 1985, immersion came naturally, our characters were not complex but we certainly spoke in-character. I remember the one guy who said “My character does…” rather than “I do…” being mercilessly mocked as some kind of weirdo.

    Today I have a bit of a problem in that I find players who absolutely won’t speak in character really painful to be around. I don’t like playing with them, or DMing for them. They’re often the same players who refuse to describe their power use in combat, and seem to just want to roll dice and be told the outcome. I’ve tolerated it in my current campaign but I really don’t want any non-RPing RPers in my next game.

  6. One technique I use as a DM is using a voice effects procesor through a P.A. System we have set up around the room. I have a card that tells me which effect is best used for what type of creature. Anything from Elves, to Kobolds, to Giants and Ogers. As well as an effect for spirits, and mechanical beasts. You often have to speak slower than normal and reall enusiate with some of the more complicated voice effects, but so far it’s been pretty cool. I use the effect which sounds like Alvin (from Alvin and the chipmunks) for tiny fey like creatures too. That usually gets a smile goin on peoples faces. But the MONSTER2 setting is always reserved for Dragons and Demons! That always gets a reaction too!

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