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.