GM Advice: NPC Voices

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Mar 11, 2009

Filed under: Tabletop Games 60 comments

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.

Warning! Gaming story:

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.

My approach:

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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60 thoughts on “GM Advice: NPC Voices

  1. Joshua says:

    I do all kinds of funny voices. My players seem to appreciate it. For women I don’t do a falsetto, but I sometimes do pitch my voice a shade higher. Mostly I do this to try to make it clear who is speaking, rather than putting on a radio-play.

  2. IncredibleGeek says:

    I love doing voices for characters in my games. I tend to end up using the stereotypical British/Scottish/Irish amalgamations, but it works alright. For women, I avoid a falsetto and just speak a little lighter, and the players deal with it.

    My favorite thing would be coming up with voices for bit characters, though. You make something up on the spot and (rarely) have to do it again.

    And voicing Splug for a Keep on the Shadowfell run was fun. My players kept asking him irrelevant questions just to make me burn my vocal cords trying to keep up the voice.

  3. Claire says:

    It takes real voice talent for men and women to impersonate each other without it instantly becoming comedy.

    Actually, when I transitioned from male to female (hormones do NOTHING to the voice going in that direction, by the way), it only took a couple of days to get a too-good female voice going. On tape/the phone, I sounded fantastic. Face to face, people would jump when a voice that femme (and I don’t mean ridiculous falsetto) came out of a 5’11” body. So, the hard part was/is obtaining a more moderate voice.

    I’m not sure how much the experience of voice training from a transgender perspective applies to voice-acting, though. Personally, I find it painful to go back and forth (as one normally must during transition, since a lot of business must be conducted on the phone convincingly as one’s birth sex.) Like, actual, physical pain in my throat when I shift. Not all trans women share that experience, from what I understand, so you might have an easier time if you actually want to cultivate a feminine voice (or voices) for acting purposes.

    My suggestion, search around on Youtube and elsewhere for voice-training guides targeted at transgendered women. Such resources apparently also exist for transgendered men going the F to M direction, for any interested woman-GMs, but they are less common and less satisfying, since trans men can count on testosterone to expand their larynx and deepen their voice.

    Bottom line: Get a decent audio recorder and practice.

    (Off-topic: Did you somehow change the algorithm for avatar-generation? I am using the same email address, but I used to have a circular blue face sticking out its tongue and looking upward. I changed ISPs, is that it?)

  4. Mike says:

    I got lucky in life and have a wide vocal range, and got bored enough as a kid to start learning how to use it, so I’ve been able to do the voices thing in my campaigns to varying degrees of success. I tend to do it more often with one-off NPCs for adding a little flavor to an otherwise throw-away individual; I just change diction and wording on longer-term NPCs to avoid having to recall the specific tone used for this guy versus that one.

    I almost never try to give voice to females, though – rangey my voice may be, but it starts low, and there’s no fooling anybody. Games that are intended to be Python-esque, on the other hand…anything’s fair at that point.

    IncredibleGeek: One of my fellow GMs in our local group has a similar thing going with a recurring goblinoid NPC he’s created, people request that voice all the time even when he’s not running the game. Since we’re already considered a bit of a tag-team, we’ve more than once utilized each other for providing a second goblinoid voice, and spent a few minutes putting the rest of the table in fits going back and forth over the most inane thing. In summation: A good ‘glorpy’ voice is perhaps one of the best ones to have in your GMing arsenal…if your vocal chords can take it.

  5. Tacoman says:

    I’ve been dealing with this as well. I’ve got a female NPC cleric who is going with the party, but I barely ever have her say anything. When I do, it’s like what you said – “She says it would be best if you to clothes for winter weather.”
    I can do funny voices for male NPCs, but not female ones. I’ve been observing and mocking men my whole life, so it comes easily to me to do an appropriate voice for a him. For women, I have one or two voices – High Falutin’ noble woman and Gruff Bar Maid.
    As a result of that, I really only have two types of female NPCs in my games, unless they are somewhere in between and then they don’t get a voice.

  6. Terran says:

    While fairly new to this, I tend to use my own voice and just “go for it” as far as inflection and tone. I don’t try to sound like a Dwarf or a woman or a Scot, but I *do* try to get the “spirit” of how the character would speak. If a person is boisterous, I’ll be boisterous.

    It helps that I’m the eldest of three brothers (one of my brothers is part of the gaming group) and know how to keep a small group from giggling at me…

    On a mildly related note: Early on I decided *not* to develop idioms, slang, and so on for our world. I felt that, since our PC’s would be as familiar with their world as we are with ours, it was more important to capture that familiarity. They would have a word that means “drat” and they would use that word as unselfconsciously as we use our own languages, so, when the GM (as an NPC) says “drat” the NPC is actually saying whatever that word is in the game world.

    So, yeah…stuff and things.

  7. Al Shiney says:

    Lately I’ve been GM’ing more Call of Cthulhu than fantasy settings, so Google has definitely been my friend when it came to finding suitable pictures. My last game was set in Ireland (after a two week vacation there, I had lots of great in-person knowledge) and involved several generations of three related families. It was a time consuming process to write histories for people dating back to the mid 1800’s, but was absolutely necessary to the plot.

    For those who were still alive and interacting with the PCs, Google pictures were necessary to put a face with a name. I did my best to add an Irish brogue to the older NPCs, but they inevitably bordered on Pythonesque territory at times. Woman’s voices were the hardest to do and I did the same thing Shamus did … usually narrated their responses instead of roleplaying them.

    It was a great deal of fun, at least for me, juggling all those personas over the course of a dozen or so sessions. I had to give an ancestral road map to the PCs however, as well as pictures and names so they knew to whom I was referring or who was speaking.

    For me, getting the point across comes down more to vocal inflections and physical mannerisms … the tone and harshness of how something is said, combined with the body language … rather than a dialect or pitch change. The only exceptions to this for me are that older males tend to have a gruff, gravelly voice when I portray them, younger males speak faster and say less, and children give either monosyllabic responses if they don’t know the PC or go off on a stream of consciousness run if they feel comfortable with them, the pitch of their voice rising all the way.

    In short, I enjoy voicing NPCs in CofC, mostly because I don’t have to worry about all those “thee’s” and “thou’s”. :-)

  8. Bryan says:

    As a GM, I’ve tried to do female voices in the past, but the resulting Monty Python pantemime is far too distracting for the players. Now I tend to narrate them, or ask my sister to do the sexy voices for me.

    I am able to do male voices, but as you say, Dwarves tend to sound scottish and halflings tend to sound Irish. Elves sound british, snooty and somewhat effeminate. While this will occasionally get some laughs, my group is pretty used to this now and accept it.

    When I play (as a player, not a GM) a character I tend to use my normal speaking voice. It’s easier in the long run.
    I’ve found that using the same altered voice over a long time weakens my voice, making it hard to talk.

  9. Oleyo says:

    Good topic. I find that I come down near to where you stand but a bit different.

    I try to give a bit of flavor and accent to my characters but it is usually very subtle for the reasons of difficulty you mention above, unless I am making an NPC which is obviously for comic relief or a buffoon, then I ham it up.

    For women, I speak in the first person the same as other NPC’s, and, as you do, I maintain a fairly normal voice, perhaps a bit softer and touch higher.

    In addition, I try to inject narrative style dialog descriptions to help the players see the character and not me. For example, I might say “She glares at you coldly and says ‘blah, blah, blah *witty remark here*’ where the witty remark is in first person. Of coarse I am also going to do a cold glare as I speak, which helps the voice.

    I actually do this trick with all characters and find the mix of First person dialog, narrative description (2nd person? I’m not a writer), and subtle voice alteration (not outlandish) seems to work well for me.

  10. Aergoth says:

    I actually appear to imitate Chris Perkins (who does the dming in the most recent D&D Podcast with Penny Arcade) for several of my characters. My only problem is with female characters (except the Tiefling warlock) in which case I use the “She says” way out, rather than making an ass out of myself.

  11. Thank you for sharing, Claire. I have a friend who is transgendered and I never realized that her voice was not affected by the hormone treatments.

    As a tall woman (bio female), my voice is naturally a bit deeper than most. But my attempts to do a male NPC voice at the gaming table have sounded just as ridiculous as the guys with their falsettos.

    My GM always narrates any female characters in his campaign. It makes the female characters less interesting, but it’s better than having no female characters at all! (Which I’ve experienced with previous GMs).


  12. lebkin says:

    I am horrible at voices, so I tend to narrate more of what the NPCs say rather than speaking as them. When I do want a special character, I look for fun and interesting word choices. Even if my voice is the same, the difference can be quite noticeable: “My fine fellows, I am joyful that you might take upon this quest for me.” has a different feel than the simple “Thank you for agreeing to help.”

  13. rbtroj says:

    As it happens, I have been a professional voice actor for close to 20 years, with credits in all variety of media.

    Having said that, I tend to keep the characterizations VERY low-key when it’s my turn to run a session. Mostly because my friends have come to expect a performance from me and I always feel that’s a distraction from the game.

    I also play it down because I have a baritone voice and there’s just no way for me to voice a female character without it becoming tragically comic. Like Shamus, I also turn to description when it comes to the dialogue of female characters.

  14. mneme says:

    I tend to do more meter and pattern than voice — though I’ll certainly use a lighter (and if appropriate, more sultry) voice for female characters. My falsetto is actually quite good, but that’s for singing, not speaking.

  15. ThatGuy4.2 says:

    I steer clear of accents, my natural accent tends to drown everything else anyway. Most of my voice work is done through inflection and speaking cadence. Using different vocabulary is another easy way to distinguish characters without straining your vocal chords.

    It’s also important to remember that half of voice acting is “acting”. You don’t have to shoot for an Oscar, but involving signature facial expressions and gestures is a sure fire way to make memorable characters (most of how we process the world is visually based). Players quickly learn that bug eyes, flared nostrils, and a slight underbite means they’re talking to Relway the dock worker (even before I start talking). Isem the noble has heavy lidded eyes and a tendency to gesture at the players instead of actually looking at them when talking.

    Practicing in front of a mirror really helps, once you get past the strangeness of it all.

    As a side note, I’ve used Microsoft One Note to compile NPC bios, pictures (both of the character and of me acting the character), and audio voice files. Having it all in one place helps keep your NPCs from becoming too similar to one another or too different from your past performances.

  16. This is actually one area where I find that online chat gaming reigns supreme–characters are themselves and there’s no inappropriate poor voice stand in to get between you and what you “hear” from the text. In the last game I was in, I played two characters and tried to use their names to delineate who said what, but sometimes I forgot. The GM said it didn’t matter, he could always tell who was speaking.

    As for gaming, I’m blessed or cursed with a mid-range, exceptionally ordinary voice, so I can voice men, women, kobolds, dwarves, dragons, what-have-you all with about equal facility. Sometimes when I’m talking on the phone, people call me “sir”. I can’t do really super-deep masculine voices, but I don’t have to. My players get the hint.

    I find that voice is such a minor means of characterization in the GM’s arsenal anyway–you can get a LOT of mileage out of describing behaviors while someone is talking (or acting them out) rather than using voices.

    And if you take the position that you are going to be nervous about acting like an ass in front of your friends, you shouldn’t be gaming at all.

  17. chabuhi says:

    @ThatGuy4.2 OMG yes!! I’m a complete OneNote junkie and I can’t believe I’ve never put it into service for any of my RPG stuff! Thank you!

    If anyone has concerns regarding my whereabouts for the next several days would you all be kind enough to tell them to follow the sound of my laptop fans?

  18. Ragnos says:

    I have a rather deep voice, so when forced to speak the lines of a woman I just use my regular voice. For men I try to convey some of their personality (nervousness, stubborness, etc.) and sometimes accents, but never anything extravagant.

    What I DO have a problem with is making up descriptions on the fly, but that’s something else altogether.

  19. Cybermancer says:

    When I game, I use a combination of methods. Body language is huge. Props are nice. For example, I get out my pipe for some old-men characters. How I use syntax and what I say are also important.

    I use accents, often by accident. I can’t do a Dwarf without a (horrible) Scottish accent. I’ve tried, I just can’t do it.

    I don’t get hung up on talking in a female characters voice. I speak pretty much the same as I would for a male. And if she happens to be a female dwarf, it’ll be with a Scottish accent and she may absent mindedly stroke her beard.

    I think I also rely on stereo types much more than I mean to as a tool to help the players imagine the characters.

  20. Strigoi says:

    I had a GM that used voices when we played D and D or Star wars. It made the expierence a lot more enjoyable. Instead of him saying “You hear a voice behind you say ‘Hey whats up’ and when you turn its bill” He would say “You hear a voice behind you…” and thats when he would use the person accent he created so we suddenly knew who it was.

  21. Hal says:

    I wish I could remember the details here, but I recall an episode of Fear the Boot where they talked about a book that gave quick and dirty advice for learning to do accents. Kind of an everyman’s guide to acting.

    Unfortunately, I can recall neither the episode number nor the title of the book. Any help here?

    (As for my experience in game, my attempts to do accents end up getting laughed down mercilessly. I now say that my gnome/halfling characters have undergone puberty 5 times, explaining their uncharacteristically deep voices.)

  22. Arson55 says:

    I tend to differentiate characters by speech pattern and word choice as much as voice. I used to use different voices for different characters, but that’s disappeared the last few times because, as much as I don’t care for it, my players prefer dungeon crawls with only so much plot as needed to get them from one to the other. There are fewer female characters now as well that I’m not running plot heavy games.

  23. John Lopez says:

    I was lucky and have a huge tonal range, and can parrot a huge range of sounds instinctively (both voices, sound effects and musical snippets). When I read a book aloud, I pretty much can’t help giving every character a distinct voice. Women are a bit harder, but not all that much, and I steer clear of “Pepper Pot” Monty Python female voices.

    Because of this, our NPCs tend to be individually voiced. The only trouble is keeping the *same* voice after extended time away from the table: for this reason I tend to have pictures of someone famous attached to each character… and that person is the “base” voice, perhaps with some notes on any variations that have developed.

    All this is great for gaming, but more awkward if I don’t check myself during a business meeting :)

  24. Jeremiah says:

    I’m not a big fan of doing, or hearing, a bunch of different voices. I feel that vocal/non-vocal mannerisms go a lot farther when it comes to making an NPC memorable. I’m not gonna think back to that NPC with the weird accent as much as I’ll think back to that NPC that cussed like a sailor.

    If the GM says I’m talking to a barmaid with a husky voice or a guard captain with a deep baritone, I can fill in the rest.

    And, really, when it comes down to it, I’m more concerned with what they say rather than how they say it.

  25. Terran says:

    @ #15 ThatGuy4.2 stated,
    “It's also important to remember that half of voice acting is “acting”. You don't have to shoot for an Oscar, but involving signature facial expressions and gestures is a sure fire way to make memorable characters (most of how we process the world is visually based). Players quickly learn that bug eyes, flared nostrils, and a slight underbite means they're talking to Relway the dock worker (even before I start talking). Isem the noble has heavy lidded eyes and a tendency to gesture at the players instead of actually looking at them when talking.”

    So, yeah,I do that too. Y’know, what he said…more or less.

  26. rbtroj says:

    “Talking Funny For Money” is an excellent character voice book by Pamela Lewis (and priced right).

  27. Liz says:

    I don’t GM much, but once upon a time I attempted to have a male character in a game. I’d done it with online games and had been told I was VERY convincing as a male, so I figured, why not? I found out “why not” very quickly: No one — neither the GM nor any of the other players — could remember that my character was male. After a half-dozen sessions, my GM gave up and ran my character into a “random” bit of wild magic that changed him into a female just so they wouldn’t have to listen to me bitching anymore.

  28. Mari says:

    As has been mentioned, don’t just voice the NPCs, ACT them. Of course, that’s easy for me to say since I have a dramatic bent anyway, but put it on the line and risk feeling silly and give that NPC character. Don’t be afraid of (minor) props either. Maybe that foppish nobleman filling in for the mayor fiddled with a paperweight when he held meetings in his office. Maybe the dwarf overlord (erm, foreman) wore a viking helmet or jingled his keys during lulls in the conversation. Not every character has to have a nervous habit or a prop or something but it does help differentiate them when they recur.

    Also, when voicing women there are some things to keep in mind: 1) dropping a few decibels is much more effective than rising a few octaves but don’t whisper. I’ve very, very rarely heard a man pull off sounding feminine by whispering. He usually winds up sounding more like Christian Bale’s Batman. 2) Not every woman has a high-pitched voice anyway (some of us like myself speak and sing better in male roles than female when performing and for the record, yes, I was born a woman) so if you speak on the higher end of the male spectrum you shouldn’t need to pitch into a falsetto to pull off being a girl 3) one of the easiest ways to adopt a female tenor to the voice is to adopt a southern (read: Georgia/Alabama/deep south) accent. It won’t work if you do it for every character but if you have a seriously recurring female NPC like Tacoman’s NPC cleric that actually adventures with the party it’s a good technique to save your vocal chords.

    As you can see, I’m a big fan of adding character to NPCs through the use of voice. Word choice, speech patterns, you name it, can add.

    I’m not afraid to be silly with it if the situation dictates. My players had a blast with a campaign I once ran featuring a female sorceress kobold NPC. She was hammy because it fit. Her voice was screechy (I went falsetto with it to the point that it hurt and I ran short of breath when speaking very long) and she tended to speak very rapidly, almost in a stream-of-consciousness diatribe. Those players still remember her and occasionally ask to go back to her demesne to see how she’s doing. Even though I played her with a lot of comedic value, there was enough else in our plot that the whole game didn’t become silly. You meet people in real life that give you fits of the giggles without somehow forgetting forever your responsibilities as a productive adult, so why can’t your adventurers do the same if there’s sufficient immersion?

  29. mneme says:

    Liz: if the other players can’t remember your character is male, it’s probably them, not you. In a large group or in a LARP without costuming, it can be a problem — otherwise, a little imagination goes a long way, even (especially) without silly voices.

  30. Sam says:

    Of the three campaigns I’ve played in, none of the GMs used anything but their own voice, perhaps for fear of being ridiculed by the players. On the other hand, I’d bet that if/when I ever get a campaign of my own up and running, I’d probably use different voices. I tend to think I’m halfway decent at different accents/dialects/impressions, so I’d use those when I feel it would be necessary. All I need is a plot and some players…

  31. Cain G, says:

    I’ve always been pretty good at faking accents and putting on different kinds of voices, but naturally it’s harder to do voices of the opposite gender.

  32. Kojiro says:

    I have never GMed a campaign as of yet, but I am pretty sure that any voices I try would sound silly. I have a very deep voice and (despite having lived in California all my life) a moderately British accent, and it’s hard to sound “good” when using other voices with that as the default.

  33. Octal says:

    Liz: If they have that much trouble remembering your character’s male, maybe a fake beard or something would remind them? Or some other prop–maybe a picture of your character that you put on a card and fold so it’s standing up and in people’s field of vision when they look at you.

  34. DmL says:

    You could always get a cheap audigy card and use the built real-time DSP. Might take some practice to shape your voice right, but there’s no falsetto and you can even do children’s voices. (alternately, you can buy a $200 VST from yamaha and it’ll even take care of the voice shape for you.)

  35. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    Yes, All of my GM’s use voices at the table or they make an attempt to. This all brings up something i have pondered over for years and would like to see what your readers think of it. My proposal is this. A multiple DM run game. One DM to write the tale and think of characters. Another DM who is good at voice work to play those characters at the table, And another DM still to set up dungeons and prepare battles. I think this could be alot of fun for players. They get to play before a council of GM’s, each one with their own expertise.

  36. Hawk says:

    I’ve found deep Slavic/pseudo-Russian accents to be great for Underdark-dwelling characters. A bit of a Boston/New England can be fun, as can a relaxed Carribean accent.

    Another of my more memorable NPCs spoke with a horrible lisp. A personal favorite was a grey dwarf animal collector who was modeled on Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter, complete with bad Aussie accent and “Crikey!” exclamations (plus a tendency to want to hare off to capture things way beyond the party’s ability).

    Then there are the speech patterns — whether Yoda-like object-subject-verb-modifier, simply dropping all articles, or the NPC speaking of/to him/herself in the third person, constantly.

    It definitely helps if you add facial gestures, and some body acting. I’ve gotten down on my knees, eyes just level with the tabletop, to act out a short NPC who has a particularly meek disposition, for example.

    But even if you don’t play with voices, or the other acting bits, consider just a repeated catch phrase that the NPC uses often — it’s an easy way to establish a character. Like fire from a troll’s butt, it’s instantly memorable.

  37. vdgmprgrmr says:

    Wow, tales from trans-gender folks was totally unexpected, but I guess that such people would be pretty knowledgeable on the various subjects of gender-changing, especially the voice aspect.

    The way I do voice is usually race dependent. For gnomes I do a squeaky, falsetto, small-sounding voice. For dwarves I do a slurred, rushing, “R”-foregoing voice, such as: “W-dya lawk ta bah some dwawven wawaxez!?”

    Elves and humans, though, tend to have more normal voices. (My setting only has humans, elves, dwarves, and gnomes, but I assume halflings would be similar to the gnomes, and orcish characters would probably have a dialect similar but distinguishable from dwarves’.)

    I usually don’t try to go across the gender bridge, though. If I ever need to, I’ll just use my normal voice and add flavor relating to the character. For example, a seductress may have a Russian-sounding accent, or a queen may have a commanding voice. I may use a slightly higher tone, but I try to make sure I don’t get comical, which usually means it’s still obvious that my voice is male.

  38. kat says:

    I think I have the easy end of things, since a woman doing a man’s voice doesn’t sound half as dumb as the other way around. (I think. Of course, I can’t really hear myself, so I don’t *know*….)

    I don’t really conciously do voices for my NPCs, but I know I talk differently when I’m doing their dialog. A lot of it is pacing rather than voice. I tend to have a vague sense of who uses slang and who uses dictionary words, who talks slowly and diliberately and who natters, who deals out adjectives like coins from a miser’s fist and who revels in wordplay. As I get more into character I’ll start doing a lot of body language as well, and I suppose eventually my voice changes around, too. But it’s not concious — I’m just slipping.

    Occasionally I look really, really dumb, which my players will generally tip me off to (via the stifled giggling if nothing else). But it mostly seems to work.

  39. Patrick J McGraw says:

    I’m another one gifted with great vocal range, so I always do character voices. Since I’m also good at impressions, I often use the technique of “casting” particular NPCs. (I think every campaign I’ve run has had NPCs “played” by Tony Jay, Roddy McDowell, and Christopher Lee.)

    For women, I’ve found that there’s no need to bother with a falsetto – which just sounds like a man speaking in falsetto, anyway. The key for me is, again, vocal impression. The most important female NPC in my current Ravenloft game is me doing my best Mira Furlan impression, and even if the voice is a bit too deep the character still comes across.

  40. Ravens_cry says:

    I have never GM’d, though when it comes to my characters I do try to give them a different voice. A jolly half orc cleric had a deep guttural voice, which a fellow player described as German. A naive eleven druid had a foppish British accent. In a World of Darkness campaign, the character was based around the voice,a faith healer with a big voice based on Billy Graham.

  41. John Callaghan says:

    I always make an effort to do the voices. I do all the monsters as well. Interaction and conversation with NPCs is a major part of roleplaying as far as I’m concerned, so it’s worth the effort to make it rewarding. And it’s more fun for me when GMing. I’m a tremendous ham!

    The other parts of roleplaying are, of course, being weird and being hilarious.

    Now and again, I’ll play a PC who requires a change of voice too but that’s rarer. I tend to alternate between male and female PCs, by the way.

    I once played silent screen original vamp Theda Bara in an LRP, which required dragging up. A friend gave me some good advice for the voice, which was to talk *lower* rather than raising the pitch of my voice. It did the trick. Probably wouldn’t work as well if you’re already a baritone.

    I feel like a heel and a pedant for mentioning this, but… Some people have mentioned “British” accents, presumably meaning “English”. The Scottish accent is also a British accent, Scotland being in Britain. Sorry, sorry, sorry. (Of course, I do realise that England is in Britain too…)

  42. Plasma says:

    I haven’t DM’d any in-person games, only online, so it’s not exactly the same thing, but like Ravens_cry, I do the accents for characters that I play. The most notable voices:

    I once played a huge minotaur named Fluffy Bunny. For this voice, I did a throat-hurting (it didn’t help that the game was at the DM’s chain-smoking mother’s house) gravelly deep not-quite-shouting voice. I’m a little glad that campaign didn’t last very long, but Fluffy Bunny was at least good for the lulz, as they say.

    For a recent d20 modern game, I was considering playing a stereotypical Indian (as in, from India) surgeon, but realized that I would feel compelled to do the accent, and I can’t do a good Indian accent (or at least, I can’t do it without the urge to spam the phrase “Thank you, come again”), so instead I went with a third-generation American of German descent, and just use my own accent.

    For a 3.5e D&D game, my character is a half-orc with 12 intelligence who was raised among humans, so Common is his native language and he can speak it quite well. However, he found that a reasonably articulate half-orc confused people and threw all kinds of wrenches into their worldviews, so he eventually determined that he would be treated better if he acted like people expected him to act. So he (and I) adopted an orcish accent. Since it’s not his native accent, it’s fine if I slip up, because that can reasonably just be him slipping up (I occasionally do that deliberately, too, slipping incongruously long words into his speech). One of my favourite incidental things about that character is that when he goes into a barbarian rage, he goes back to his native accent. Which is to say, under normal circumstances he will declare “Ludgeblatt smash puny thingies!”, whereas if he is in the midst of a barbarian rage, his declarations are more along the lines of “I intend to tear out your spine through your urethra, and then stuff it back down your throat. I anticipate it will be very painful for you.” He only took his first level in Barbarian after the most recent session (his other levels are in Fighter), so I haven’t gotten to do this yet, but I anticipate it will be very enjoyable.

    Occasionally I will do phoenetic accents online, as well, but not very often, as it is very distracting. I only do it if the character’s accent is actually thick enough that it would interfere with the characters’ comprehension, so I feel free to interfere with the player’s comprehension with unorthodox text.

  43. Sandrinnad says:

    mostly I chicken out on really going for the voices and do it mostly third person. I do try to do a little dialogue when they first meet the character though, just to sort of get any peculiarities of dialect/tone/movement out there and (hopefully) make them more memorable.

  44. Telas says:

    What works for me:

    Use only a little inflection. Accents go farther than you think, and you don’t have to think as much when you are using a small inflection. In other words, you can focus on what you’re saying instead of how you’re saying it. I usually speak more slowly or hurried, or get a very slight accent.

    Use mannerisms. Nobles take a haughty stance and look down on you, even if you’re taller. Shopkeepers have half-lidded eyes that they keep an eye on shoppers with. Elves are graceful. Dwarves quaff instead of drink. Etc..

    Also, walk around the room. Whole body mannerisms and how you do your ‘business’ says a lot. (‘Business’ is whatever an actor is doing, cleaning dishes, loading a gun, etc.) And in an RPG setting, standing over your players is a good way to intimidate them. ;)

    Use props. A hat, necklace, scarf, hankey, wand, dagger (fake, please), etc. will go a long way.

    Use dramatic pauses to think about your next statement. Pauses are very powerful when you have everyone’s attention. They’re also not used much these days, probably because someone will think you’re done talking, and start talking over your statement…

  45. squishydish says:

    Most of my groups didn’t pay much attention to gender, although there were some dialect efforts (and action-movie soundtracks for mood setting). The worst voice acting I’ve ever heard was a book on tape read by a woman who used her own pitch for narration and men’s dialogue, and a high squeaky voice for the female dialogue. The main character sounded like a tween, which made her romance pretty squicky.

  46. Sho says:

    I’ve never been very good at voices. In the current game I’m running, there are two NPCs in the party–one talking sword and one female human. The sword has a bit of a “tally ho” sort of distinguished attitude that goes with a more-vibrant-than-normal voice but neither of them has any special accent to speak of, and when there are other NPCs around I tend to get a bit awkward about using any one voice to distinguish who’s talking, and I often say “x says” and speak in their voice, or narrate. I do have issues with being self-conscious and whatnot, which is why I try to keep things low-key and normally it’s just a very slight difference from my regular speaking voice. Although, occasionally I pull a pseudo-Russian accent, which for some reason is fairly easy for me, maybe some pseudo-British (although my pseudo-cockney is inconsistent). Generally I speak a tiny bit higher and softer for females.

    I’m a bit better with speaking habits than voices themselves, but I haven’t gone into that much because I usually forget the finer points at the table (from the self-consciousness) and often slip directly into horrible parody of what I was originally trying to pull off (for personality as well as just voices). Really though, shyness notwithstanding, I should be doing a better job than I am–I’m a decent singer/speaker (as long as no one is listening, ever) and I studied Linguistics (which while not having much to do with speaking habits, helped draw my attention to it).

    Oh yes, and Romance is right out. It is kind of creepy to begin with, and the lack of voice distinguishment makes it worse. Which is a shame, because that aspect would be interesting. Instead I go the some-animes route of never mentioning anything like that ever. I feel less awkward. It works out fine anyway.

  47. Zaxares says:

    I usually tend to change my pacing and tone when speaking in different character’s voices, and also adopt mannerisms. If I’m playing some spineless goblin captive the players are interrogating about how many goblins are in the cave below, I wring my hands, smile ingratiatingly and speak a little faster and maybe whine a little. When I’m playing the big bad archvillain, I sit up straighter, sneer, and use a deep, forceful tone that lets the players know this guy means business. I used to use props when I was a younger DM, but they just got to be too much hassle after a while and now I just leave them out.

    For female characters, I try to make my voice a bit softer, but don’t take it any further than that. (I have a female NPC cleric travelling with my party, so I HAVE to let her speak up on occasion, otherwise the players will just think she’s some walking healbot. :P)

  48. Her Geek says:

    Pretty much Telas summed it up for me. I’ve never been much for doing accents, but I would always change the inflection/timbre of the voice of the NPC in question.

    The only time that I really put forth an effort at an accent was when I was running a Space:1889 game, and all of the Canal Martians ended up sounding like they were of Middle Eastern descent.

    Great topic, Seamus!

  49. Dan says:

    I think of really good audio book narrators. My favorites are those who rely on markers and inflection for their characters, as opposed to strongly distinguished characterization.

    I use one word markers for most of my NPCs, and just focus on that for voice. Such as:

    Barman – dismissive
    Mayor – baffled
    Guard – thoughtful
    Sorceress – reserved
    Prisoner – ashamed

    If I just focus on those markers, I pick up a fairly consistent and unique cadence for each. It is subtle, but works for me.

  50. Slycne says:

    The groups I have GMed have always been more action and gaming oriented, with story only being the vessel in which they get to encounter new things. Couple that with my pretty horrible vocal range and this leads me to be narrating for most of my NPCs. I gets the points across at least for those kinds of players. I have always been interested in trying to run a campaign with players that are more tuned into the story.

  51. Mrs. Peel says:

    Hey, I think Tacoman is my DM. *waves* In which case, I will say, yes, he does excellent NPC voices. I never really noticed that they’re mostly male, though (or that poor NPC Cleric Girl hardly gets any lines. That might explain why everyone keeps forgetting she’s with us).

    Recently, in our campaign, the dwarf rogue had fallen into a well and been hauled out by my paladin, with some help from the other two PCs. The following conversation ensued:

    Druid: Is there a bucket [in the well]?
    DM: Yes. It’s a fully-functioning well. The townspeople get their water from it.
    Me: Yeah, but now it tastes like dwarf.

  52. ifriit says:

    Oh dear, this all reminds me of the most, erm, “memorable” time I played D&D. This was back in the 2.0 days, and the GM had allowed one of the players to go nuts, rampaging through book after book to create his ideal character. I had gone with a slightly less imaginative route, playing a neutral human ranger, but this player wanted to be as close to a Serra Angel (yes, the Magic card) as possible. He found a race of winged elves and took a fighter class with some specialized knight kit, and played his simultaneously British and female character. He was inches away from doing the Python pepperpot voice, and he was deeply offended that I would start giggling every time he opened his mouth.

  53. I tend to do three things:

    (1) Pacing of the speech
    (2) Word choice
    (3) Body posture and facial characterization

    Unless you’re an incredibly gifted mimic, trying to do more than that is probably a waste of time.

  54. sineWAVE says:

    I’ve made the mistake of playing a seductress in one campaign I’m in (I’m male). I’ve just given up on the voice, but trying to seduce NPCs played by the (gay) GM gets ermmm… Interesting. And distinctly silly.

  55. Tim Wolfe says:

    You say “making an ass of myself” as if it were a bad thing.

    When I GM, I pretty much figure it’s par for the course. That said, I totally take Terran’s approach to voices (comment 6). Get the personality, and the players will fill in the rest.

    I also completely second Terran’s approach to language generally: assume that it is all translated, rather than have players stumble over terms their characters would never think twice about. If they meet someone totally alien to them (new culture and language) throwing in some confusing terms does help the players feel a little out of it, though.

  56. Terran says:

    “If they meet someone totally alien to them (new culture and language) throwing in some confusing terms does help the players feel a little out of it, though.”

    To that end, as well as in the interests of adding flavor, I’ll shamelessly scavenge from other languages for helpful words. I use them sparingly, just for “spice”. Obscure but easy words seem to be best. Hungarian is a favorite target of mine.
    An easy example: The adventurers reach country “X”. They meet NPC “Y” who tells them about a local political conflict between Ut Korvin and Ut Hallasz…
    All that *really* meant was “Mr.” Korvin and “Mr.” Hallasz, but it could be inferred that “Ut” is some sort of political title or some-such.
    It was easy, and it tells the players/PC’s that they’re not in Kansas anymore and that there is a living culture behind these NPC’s.
    Another benefit is that when looking for words and phrases, I’ll sometimes find a nice (real) cultural tidbit to add as far a local customs go. Say the PC’s reach yet another country/culture. Here it’s impolite *not* to stoop and kiss the hand of a lady. But will the PC’s find that weird and smarmy? Who knows?

  57. Dirk Gently says:

    I almost always use indirect speech for my NPCs, so instead of me saying, “Forsooth! Your troubles are your own and not the problem of this principality,” I just say, “The Prince eyes you coldly for a moment and explains that it really isn’t his problem,” or even, “The Prince is unmoved by your entreaty and dismisses you.” It makes it harder to immerse the players at first, but once they adjust to it you don’t ever really have to worry about breaking character.

    Sometimes if it’s a situation where there’s to be actual back-and-forth dialog I’ll narrate the NPC’s response verbatim as if I were reading it aloud from a book. So: “The Prince replies, ‘Your troubles are your own and not the problem of this principality.’ He gestures for the guards to escort you out.” This way, again, I don’t have to worry about voices or breaking character, so I can change the tone of my voice to express mood and emotion. My players, who are more or less accustomed to how my voice changes when I’m bored, annoyed, angry, or excited, can pick up on this naturally and not have to worry about how much of of the voice acting is me doing a character and how much is me expressing that character’s feelings.

  58. RTBones says:

    Havent gamed regularly in a while. I am typically bad at accents, unless they happen to be outrageous and silly or stereotypical (i.e. the town guardsman who talks like he is a drill instructor, the aristocratic mage who “could not be bothered with common riffraff”, the shopkeeper who is afraid of his own shadow, the evangelical priest, etc) As a GM, I usually combined narrating dialog and being a goofball. Usually, somewhere in the adventure, there was also some normally inanimate object that had personality. I should add that I have a bit of a dry sense of humor – which simply means that the more the group I gamed with groaned, the more it encouraged me to be silly.

    A brief gaming story to illustrate: the party is exploring the ruins of a mansion. The previous owner was known locally to be more than a bit of an eccentric. A mage by trade, he also had more than a touch of OCD, but had been loved for playing an organ-like instrument at a local temple. Going through the shell of the upper level, the party found many many keys with nothing that they went to. As they worked their way down, they found bits and pieces of the mage’s history, which seemed to indicate both that the mage had been a good organ player and that he had possessed something of enormous value that he “adored.” Just when the party was about to give up, they found an animated door that refused to tell them how to unlock it, other than they needed “the right key.” The door would talk in the most annoying voice it could, going from high and squeaky to deep and bassey. They tried their collection of keys, and all they got was another variation of “that is NOT the RIGHT KEY!” They traipsed up and down the ruins looking for more keys (which, it seemed, they could now no longer find because they were looking for them.) It took a while, but eventually, a bored party member (a bard) started playing the pipes while they tried to figure out what to do while camped in front of the door – at which point, the door said, “that is NOT the RIGHT KEY!” — the bard character then started playing scales on the pipes in different keys until he hit on key of B-flat, at which point the door shouted “THAT is the RIGHT KEY! ISNT IT ADORABLE?” as the door proceeded to open…to a room with an enormous pipe organ, which, when a certain tune (they found some sheet music early that they had mostly ignored) was played on it in the key of B-flat, opened a secret door to a room with some treasure, and information that was another adventure hook.

  59. DMGalesburg says:

    I sometimes play with a GM named Loren, who is the most spectacular GM I’ve ever met. He does character voices, and he goes all out–but unlike the rest of us, he has the advantage of having worked in musical theatre, broadcasting, and speech teams since forever. From gruff barbarian men to a weak priest to a foxy woman, he’s done it all–he even does demon voices.

    Unfortunately, we can’t all be Loren. Another guy I know only does the normal voices himself, and then narrates the rest (The halfling breathes creepily as he tells you the drug lord you’re looking for can be found in the basement of the Greasy Goblin Inn.)

    When I GM, I try to do the character voices to the best of my ability. I’m a girl, but somehow it’s easier for me to do varied and odd male voices than non-standard women. I’m great at dragons and other monsters–I can imitate Gollum or Stitch (from Lilo and Stitch) no problem. But for some reason, when it comes to babes or ice queens, I just can’t do anything but use my normal voice.

  60. Roninsoul7 says:

    I am able to make a passable femme voice, so I tend to use that. For those not so lucky, I usually suggest they stick with their own voice and let the players imagination fill the gap. Tabletop gaming is 90% imagination anyways, so even if your voice is wrong, getting the conversation out right will still keep the story rolling. Another tactic to use is to ask a female friend or partner to narrate that part of the story for you, though it may give away that something crucial is coming when she is suddenly speaking instead of you. Any way you handle it, the important part is to make sure that the information you want conveyed is, since without it the game just grinds to a halt.

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