One of the biggest problems I have as Game Master, (going on 30+yrs) is in portraying NPC and Monsters in any RPG. Is there a good resource for becoming a better 'actor'?

Instead of just saying... the monster or NPC acts like or says blah, blah, blah... I prefer to act out the part whenever I can. This adds more flavor and bring some fun to the table, but I sometimes feel my NPCs and monsters are a bit similar and frankly boring.

Any help would be appreciated.

Thanks, Chuck

Summarized Answers

WOW! So many great things have been said, I thought I would summarize the data so others could benefit.

Highlights from the answers: (and who said it)

  • Develop a cast of personas/actors to draw from. – Aberrant Hive Mind

  • Graham Walmsley's book Play Unsafe – Jmstar

  • Use 3x5 cards to track NPC notes not just stat numbers or powers: motivation, knowledge, party interaction/standing, physical appearance (can you say plot hooks) - MadMaxjr

  • List three distinct mannerisms for each NPC – Jmstar

  • Pick one thing to focus on that is unique to that persona (physical appearance, body action, held object, verbal distinction). – yhw42

  • Read, watch, study, practice … stewbob; aramis, RMorrisey, MadMaxjr

Here is what I'm doing:

  1. Modifying my note cards as follows - Add motivation, appearance, and body language AND highlighting one thing that will be that persona's signature item.

  2. Read the book Play Unsafe by Walmsley, reviews say it is a must.

  3. Develop a standard cast of characterizations on note cards to use quickly, and practice them so they are fluid. Why didn't I think of this one before?

  4. Get some props to use as trigger points for each persona.

Thanks Group!!


Follow up - year 2.5 since asking the question. I have definitely become a far better NPC handler than I was thanks to this forum. The Whamsley book is a must. I am not a better 'actor' as I had hoped, but I have discovered that I don't need to be. What I needed was clear system to allow me to record and communicate an NPC to the characters quickly and keep them interesting.

Finally I have discovered that following these things has had a side effect. I now have more plot hooks and story options than I know what to do with. What an unexpected benefit.

Once again - Thank You Group!


7 Answers 7


Graham Walmsley's book Play Unsafe is stuffed with great ideas for bringing NPCs to life, as well as really solid advice for working with your friends to make the game more interesting and exciting in general. I highly recommend it.

One trick (which I learned from Graham!) is to list three distinct mannerisms for each NPC, and use these as a guide at the table. Introducing physicality will make them distinct and make it easy for you to think of them as a unique person. For example:

Adèle Le Galloudec Adèle Le Galloudec is a physical and mental wreck. The activities of the cult have broken her and she is adrift in her own sea of delusions. Adèle is unflinchingly obedient to Pamela. To portray Adèle Le Galloudec:

  • Be unsettled and birdlike in your gestures and movement.
  • Breathe through your nose.
  • Maintain intense eye contact.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Everyone should read this book!!! It is short and to the point and absolutely filled with what I need, (and I think every GM needs). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 13, 2010 at 16:40

Develop a cast of personas/actors to draw from. Think about popular actors/actresses. The majority of them are not very versatile, and yet many enjoy watching them in various roles. Often these celebrities personas become so ingrained as who they are that people will watch a movie specifically because of the stars in question. With this in mind you can begin to develop your actors/actresses to cast in various roles in your game.

Begin with a basic personality, vocal characteristics, an interesting trait, anything that identifies that persona as being unique from the others. Now list several roles that the persona would fit in. At this point brainstorm a list of both more roles that you may need to cast personas in for your regular games. Now you can just keep creating and practicing personas until you have enough to fulfill all the roles in your campaign.

Don't expect the personas you create to be very good right off the bat. In fact, most will probably be amateurish, but it will get better over time. Eventually you'll find that some personas fill certain niche roles better than others. Some personas when cast as a specific role may even become memorable, an important and likeable character in their own right.

  • \$\begingroup\$ My party found some of the badly voiced personas to be the most memorable. Is there such a thing as a 'good' goblin voice? ;) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2010 at 15:05
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm thinking maybe I'd do Yoda with a cold... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2010 at 15:38

Pick one characteristic that is unique to your character and mark it on your card, for example:

  • a physicality: the henchman's hunched shoulders
  • an action: the shopkeep who plays with his earlobe
  • a held object: the duke who always is petting his cat
  • a verbal distinction: the knight with a stutter

Whenever you step into this character, take on that unique trait. This is a small reminder for you about who this character is and a piece of information that will inform how this character interacts with the players. Your players might catch it, they might not (after all, it could be how you are wringing your hands under the table). It does not need to be cliche. The barmaid with broad shoulders or a deep voice. A henchmen can have a giant grin. Try your best to maintain that one trait (and keep in mind your plot goals!) and then let the rest of the conversation fill in around it.

These are based on some of my work with long form improv where you take on a character and do acting without a script.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I need to try and remember this advice! I would emphasize ONE thing. Trying to create a full blown persona for even a limited set of NPCs can be overwhelming for all but the best actors. My most successful NPCs have been simple. The party will pick up on the differences and appreciate it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pat Ludwig
    Commented Sep 29, 2010 at 19:09

You have to put yourself in the shoes of the NPC.

What does this NPC know? (If possible, keep a notecard with 3 to 4 plot related notes this NPC knows)

What is this NPCs motivation?

What does this NPC think about the party?

Does this NPC have any unique cultural traits that differ from mainstream society? How will that impact this situation?

You have to adopt the mindset of the character. If you can't do voices, describe to your group any unusual speech mannerisms the character has. Describe the disposition of the character. Are they worried, upset, pleasant, or some other noticeable mood? Give the party any clues you would notice from looking at the person or from engaging them in a short conversation.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I do use a 3x5 card that gives me a thumbnail of who/what the creature is. I can do voices but the real problem is 'acting'. I find myself slipping into a pattern with most of the NPC/monsters and wonder if there is a way to breakout and have more varied selection of character portrayals? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 28, 2010 at 16:52

Read, read, read.

There's tons of good fantasy out there, including stuff outside the D&D universe. All of it can give you a better grasp on the mindset of NPCs and monsters. I especially like some of the Forgotten Realms DragonLance novels told from the perspective of orcs goblins and hobgoblins. The Stonetellers series by Jean Rabe. It really drives home the point that 'orcs are people too', even if you do have to kill them most days. :)

  • \$\begingroup\$ I could definitely stand to up my reading. I'll give that a try. A thought just came to me that maybe I could 'act' out loud the different parts of a character from those readings. Trying to get emotion , point of view and the voicing... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 28, 2010 at 19:39
  1. research
    1. Read. A lot. A variety of different authors. Preferably several genres and definitely several subgenres.
    2. Watch TV and Movies. Again, a variety. Include at least some drama, some nature shows, and some talk.
    3. practice imitating various characters and actors.
    4. make predictions about character choices on shows you're watching or books you're reading. Learn to predict others, and half the chore is done for you.
  2. apply
    1. use the association with specific characters to cue yourself on how the NPC reacts
    2. use the practice mimicking speech patterns and voices to help differentiate various npc's.

I find a good Yoda, Kermit, Han Solo, and Jack Nicholson a good baseline. Adding some ethnics also helps.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1; I'd like to add that real life can sometimes be the best model for your NPCs. This is especially true in a game with a mystery or stealth element, where the players might talk to a lot of "man on the street" characters. People from different parts of the world, or different walks of life, often have very different mannerisms than what you are used to. If something strikes you, make a mental note of it, and think about how you can work it into your RP. \$\endgroup\$
    – RMorrisey
    Commented Sep 29, 2010 at 0:30

Three Questions

I boil mostly down to three things:

  1. What does it want?
  2. How does it get it?
  3. If this was a movie, what does the camera focus on, and what sound do we get?


I know a griffin wants prey, it flies in to snatch it, and if it were a movie, it'd be about how fast and deadly this thing charges down and snatches people. For monsters, specifically, "What makes this scary?" is a good way to look at it.

"Suddenly! From above is a horrifying screech and the shadow passes just before the man behind you is slammed and snatched off his horse, screaming! The griffin tries to take a bite, then drops him upon hard ground for later eating, and circles back towards the caravan..."

I know the corrupt king wants an outlet for his cruelty to relieve his boredom, and gets it by unreasonable demands and his guards... if it were a movie, it would focus on his sardonic smile and bored demeanor.

"After finally being granted an audience, you enter the hall and can feel the tension in the air. The guards are gruff, but nervous. A man lies on the ground, clutching his neck, and blood pooling forth. The king bobs his head as if watching this man die was just a hobby. 'So. You want funding to rid the land of the undead King? A test, then. First heal this man. Then kill him again. ...Oh, come on. If you can't kill the living, how can I know you'll be able to kill the dead? Hurry hurry. Otherwise, I can bring in one of the servant children instead.' He snaps his fingers with impatience and the guards glance at each other nervously."

Steal aspects

Feel free to steal a mannerism, or appearance from a character in your favorite book, movie, comic, etc. I often write notes this way, too, "Captain Liesus - imagine Jack Sparrow as a city guard..." etc.

It gives you something to run with, something fun and shorthand and doesn't require a lot of notes.


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