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Often times when I am running a game, I find that plot points, characters, and setting features require the use of specific wording to be properly explained, develop identifiable characteristics, or remain grounded in reality.

For instance, I recently wrote a character that was a part of a group that did not believe in the singular identity of self. As such, I wanted them to never use first person singular pronouns. When actually attempting to speak as said character, I was rarely able to pull it off consistently and found myself trying to correct myself in my speech often.

This is not an isolated incident either. When my characters are exasperated or surprised, they will use present day Earth-based swears (when the setting is not present day Earth). I also tend to describe every NPC my players encounter with male pronouns, with the exception of those in positions stereotypical for women, making my setting feel unintentionally uninclusive.

To conclude, how can a GM learn to control their use of language and specific wordings to improve their game?

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Unless the literal words are important to moving your game forward, you should summarize the majority of NPC dialogue.

I've been recently dealing with this issue in my games, where the in-game word choices (of NPCs, journals, and such) were interfering with the gameplay. Every NPC has their own accent, opinions, and hidden intents, and when the players wanted to interact with them, we would play out the entire conversation, word for word.

Unfortunately, the problem with this strategy is the DM's verbal skills become a bottleneck on their ability to narrate the world to their players.

First of all, it's exhausting trying to improvise a full conversation while tracking different NPC voices and perspectives. This is especially true when multiple NPCs are involved.

Second, when you the DM are picking all the words that your NPCs say, that means the player characters are socially interacting with you (the DM) and not your NPCs. Whether the NPC is an expert liar, or an experienced diplomat, or simply an intimidating brute, their dialogue will be limited to your own vocabulary, slang, and other verbal habits if you focus on word choice.

Third, and here's the kicker, we as DMs tend to overestimate our ability to communicate the world to our players. By focusing on word choice, rather than emphasizing the intent of the dialogue, we're giving the players a lot of unnecessary detail. And that can confuse your players, and distract them from the speaker's intent. Why did the NPC use this word instead of that one? Why did they say it this way? Or maybe you chose the NPC's words because they are implying something, and none of your players picked it up.

The solution:

The game will become smoother for both you and your players once you focus on the intent of the words and less on the form. Summarize. Get to the point. Most of the time, the formal word choice doesn't matter, and only serves as an obstacle to narration. Don't read out what your NPC says; tell the players what the NPC means to say, and let them figure it out.

If you still want to roleplay as the NPCs, then there is a convenient hybrid approach. Roleplay the first few lines of speech, such as greetings and openers, and then, as the DM, you summarize what the NPC says. Then let the player characters respond. Maybe speak as the NPC a few more times during the conversation. This solution is handy because you get both benefits: you establish the flavor of the NPC by briefly speaking as them, and then you return to the narrator role and have more freedom in communicating to the players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The OP clearly wants word choice to indicate important characteristics of NPCs. This might be because it adds a flavor he wants for the character, or it may be a clue to an important plot point. On the spectrum of "role play or roll play" the OP is asking about how to better use their language and speech while GMing. \$\endgroup\$ – Kieran Mullen Sep 2 '18 at 4:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KieranMullen That is understandable, however that does not mean roleplaying every minor dialogue word-for-word; instead they can describe those characteristics and highlight the aspects that are relevant to the narrative. \$\endgroup\$ – MikeQ Sep 2 '18 at 11:09
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If there is something that I want phrased perfectly (like a rousing speech or a villain's monologue) I'll make notes and sometimes even rehearse. I imagine you could apply the same practices if it's a more generally thing, like a style of speech or an accent.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or another way to put this: acting is hard work, and takes practice. The OP is essentially asking about gaining acting and presentation skills. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater Sep 1 '18 at 17:02
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I like Mike Q's answer (abstraction is often the answer in tabletop games), but since that's a frame challenge I wanted to add another perspective. This is an expansion on TempestLOB's answer, but seemed too large for a comment.

First, for planned NPCs (especially important ones) I like to have a list of important traits about them. Not a character sheet-- that already exists and is used to track mechanical information. It doesn't have to be much-- a note card will do-- and brevity is your friend. The idea is to list information that is important to the character's manner and social behaviors, and then always refer to it before delivering a line of dialogue for that character.

If your note card says:

  • French accent
  • Slow, ponderous demeanor
  • Never uses singular first-person pronouns
  • Never refers to in-game event X
  • Becomes suspicious if in-game event Y is referenced
  • Will always engage resisted [specific skill] checks if possible

Pauses tend to feel longer than they really are to a speaker, so you have time to reference a brief set of information and consider your response before speaking. Checking the card every time the NPC speaks helps to enforce that pause (it reminds you to not just speak extemporaneously) and makes sure that the elements you thought most important for expressing the character are on your mind every time you're called on to speak for that character. It also helps keep your NPC's overall concept in mind, and highlights the elements that were most expressive of that concept when you thought of the character in the first place.

Second, decide on the depth of simulation you want to achieve. More depth = more prep work for you to be able to spontaneously react in-character. There is nothing wrong with NPCs emphasizing things that keep the game moving rather than "normal" conversation patterns. NPCs for whom I don't have a ton of extra detail planned out don't engage in much idle chatter. They are always very focused on a goal, or busy with undisclosed personal business, or dislike something about the PCs, or have some other trait which leads them to cut extra chatter short.

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