A problem: I love writing lots of interesting and varied characters in a tabletop campaign, but I’m not always thrilled with the result when it comes time for me to give voice to those characters. No matter how interesting, imposing, sexy, grotesque, or adorable the NPCs are, the players are still looking at me during the conversation.
Character voices are tricky. Do you do the faux-British thing and risk sounding like Monty Python? (Unless you are British. But then what accent do you use?) Do you just use your own voice, passing up the chance to make memorable characters? Do you try different accents for different races, like Scottish for Dwarves, Irish for Halflings, or Emo for Elves? What about when it comes time to voice the other gender? What about a sexy person of the other gender? It takes real voice talent for men and women to impersonate each other without it instantly becoming comedy.
I had a town once where the mayor – a wise and world-weary planner – had vanished. Leadership fell on the shoulders of a spineless, clueless, inexperienced, and mildly effeminate nobleman. This was a mining town. There were a small number of Dwarves who oversaw the digging. They led a handful of Halflings (it’s a long story) who did the actual manual labor. The rest of the town functions – smithing, farming, crafting, and trading – were done by the human population. There was lots of friction between the groups, and the old leader had just the right touch to keep everyone working together.
The new leader was too dense to know what needed to be done, and too spineless to tell people things they didn’t want to hear. He would say anything to appease whoever came to him with problems, but he never really did anything but try to make people happy so that they would go away and leave him alone. He was quite fussy with his own grooming, and took great care to keep his fancy clothes clean – which was sort of at odds with his job leading a bunch of miners. He had a snooty voice and his personality was a blend of cowardice and arrogance that was sure to offend nearly everyone.
Great character. The kind of guy you just want to punch in the face, but know you can’t, because that will cause more problems than it solves. I had fun writing him, but when the moment came I realized I wasn’t so crazy about playing him. I did my best foppish nobleman voice and in the end I had to spend a lot of time at the table making an ass of myself. Hopefully I did him justice. (The players mentioned him a couple of years later when we were taking about the campaign, which is probably a good sign.)
As the early days of videogames taught us, voice acting isn’t nearly as easy as it seems. The average nerd is not going to be able to give Sir Ian McKellen a run for his money, much less voice the population of Middle-Earth from Barliman Butterbur to the Witch-king of Angmar. No matter how masterful your writing is, it’s your face and your voice that drags the character off the page and inserts him into the game world.
If I have a character planned ahead of time, I try to Google around and find a suitable picture for them. I play right beside my computer, so it’s easy enough to bring up the picture when the time comes, which gives the players a face to go with the name.
I tend to do voices for men. “Oh, feeling plucky, are you? Well then, you best take a good torch or two with you. Tales say it’s not fond of fire.” On the other hand, I tend to narrate interactions with women. “She tells you that the grue is afraid of light and suggests you take a torch with you.”
If I have to speak in-character for a woman, I simply use my unaltered speaking voice and let the players fill in the rest. (When I enacted Queen Alidia, I just tried to be slow and severe. I suppose I was aiming for the Christopher Lee end of the spectrum, but for all I know it just sounded addled. I’m sure I didn’t sound anything like a woman.) Attempting to adopt a falsetto voice and acting out a woman character is an express trip to Monty Python purgatory – a twisted world of comedic snickering and mockery at the DM’s expense.
This means the men end up being more vibrant and more fun to play, which in turn leads to me using a lot more men than women, which always bothers me a bit.
Do you (or your GM) do voices at the table? How do you handle it and how well does it work?
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