I'm a new GM, working with a few friends in a sci-fi campaign that I wrote using GURPS 4e. I think its going well, but the glaring flaw I've noticed in my work is that I can't come up with good, varied in-character dialogue on the fly. Is this something that just comes with experience? Are there any good tips that I could use to help with this?

I think that my other general GM skills are as good as can be expected, likely due to a long time as a player, so I can improvise combat, roll penalties, etc. fairly well; but when I've got a conversation going on it seems to go like this:

Me: "Sure, we'll fix your ship up, if you do something for us first."

Player: "And how do we know you aren't just going to rip us off when we're done?"

Me: "Uh..., umm..., Crap, I have to come up with something in character for this... Oh, hey, roll detect lies! He's telling the truth."

My problem is mostly with important NPC's with a distinct personality. If they just ask for directions or something I can use some bored civilian that will never show up again and has no conversational 'style' to emulate. It's just hard for me to make non-prepped dialogue for established characters. How could I work to fix this?

  • \$\begingroup\$ As a recommendation for how to give yourself time - try implementing an OOC standard, to allow yourself to come up with appropriate dialogue during a particularly unexpected moment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 1, 2015 at 15:34

4 Answers 4


I'll never claim to be the greatest GM, but here's a few things that I've come up with after a couple of years running a game:

Describe how instead of just saying what

Sometimes all you need to do is give the players the gist of the NPC's message if you add in a description of how they say it. Say something about the nervous tick, the furtive glances, the longing sighs, or the shifting stance. This is more useful for the moment-to-moment info rather than establishing unique characters. This is also a good way to give information earned through those rolls that you ask for.

Use catchphrases

For important NPCs you can help establish their personality in the ears of your players by using terms, sayings or catchphrases unique to them. You can come up with a list ahead of time and just mark down which NPC they belong to as they are used. You can also use recurring questions or subjects of interest to the NPC that they always mention in some fashion.

Practice on characters in popular media

Modeling NPCs after easily recognizable characters will make them easier for your players to understand and remember, and this has the added benefit of giving you material to draw on. As you watch TV or movies with these characters you can practice mimicking their voice and speech style with a guide right in front of you. Funny voices and accents are nice and give a good atmosphere at the gaming table, but most of us can't do them, so don't feel pressured.

  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ +1, When I can't come up with exact words I just describe the informational content of what the person says, as you say. This is also useful when you need to get a lot of information across quickly. You can do this as a player also. "I frantically tell the guard captain about the zombies we saw by the wall." "The guard captain seems alarmed and says he'll get a squad together to check it out." \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Apr 1, 2015 at 3:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note quite related, but you could also have a look at this, maybe it will give some inspiration too: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/46476/… \$\endgroup\$
    – Zaibis
    Apr 1, 2015 at 9:51

I think of this as a two part issue: "How do I work out what NPC expresses with their answer?" and "How does the NPC express themselves in that answer?"

Given that you're only worried about major NPCs, the first part is the easy one: At all times, bear in mind your NPC's motivations, both localised and general. Which is to say, have in mind a rough idea of how he'd honestly answer the questions "what do I want from these adventurers?" and "How do I like to do business?" Then, whenever your players ask a question you didn't expect, you just need think of what your NPC's motives are, and have them give an answer based on that.

Taking your ship repair guy as an example, there's probably nothing in his short-term motives to make him want to stick to his word - but for his long-term goals of running a grey-market ship repair ring, it's very, very important that he keeps his reputation for sticking to deals; There are few things worse for job security than clients with guns who think you're likely to betray them.

As for how your NPC would word it, that's a matter of knowing what their mannerisms and habitual modes of expression are; Again, it's just down to having a firm idea of how your NPCs express themselves in your head.

I don't know enough about your ship repair guy to tell, but I imagine it could run the gamut from "Thir! Are you inthinuating thomething?" to "Becuz I wanna still have a business to run tomorra, and the day afta, see?" to "Well, for one, I'd be scaring away potential repeat custom."

Of course, this gets more complicated if the NPC has a motive for lying to the players - but the same principle applies: Keep in mind their motivations and habits, and come up with the lie they'd tell based on that. (Also, remember that while the best lie jibes with what the listener expects to hear, few people are telepathic enough to pull that off perfectly; Most people will substitute what they'd expect to hear in their listener's position, which often makes their lies easier to spot.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, so instead of writing scripted lines I outline the personality, which is more flexible. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Apr 7, 2015 at 2:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OliverLong Yes, exactly. You can't prepare an answer for each and every possible question that players can come up with. Instead, you need a way of preparing those answers on-the-fly, and for that you need to have a solid understanding the personality doing the answering. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Apr 7, 2015 at 4:02

The Angry DM has a good article about non-combat encounters, generally. Speaking to dialog with NPCs in particular, his advice (which I've started using, to good effect) is to give each NPC a(n):

  • Incentive: why might they help the PCs?
  • Objection: why might they not help the PCs?
  • Alignment (even if the game/system doesn't use alignments; they're more "guidelines", anyway, especially for this purpose - more of a default reaction to a new situation than a philosophical outlook on Life, The Universe, and Everything)
  • Personality: a one-word description (knightly, craven, generous, etc.)
  • Posture: how do they sit/stand (ramrod straight, or slightly slumped? hands in pockets, quietly folded, or thumbs madly twiddling?)
  • Pause: what do they do when the have to pause talking while thinking about how to continue?
  • Pfidget (because the last four are "The 4 Ps"): what do they do while they're listening/pondering?

I have a notecard with those bullet points in ink; when I introduce an NPC who will stick around for more than a scene, I write in the answers. If they become important enough that the PCs are likely to go talk to them again, they get their own card permanently, and I make a new "blank". A whole campaign's worth of recurring characters can then fit in an envelope.

I have found that getting those last 4 in mind has really helped get into character for the various NPCs, which helps me with NPC dialog immensely.

... one of these days, I'm going to write out a couple of tables for The 4 Ps for when the players want to talk to that random goblin instead of just fireballing it ...

  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps call the last one 'ponder' instead, so as to minimize the language alteration? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 7, 2015 at 2:22

As a new DM, this has been a learning process for me as well. Here is how I personally have improved (and am continuing to improve).

Spend longer before the game than you think is necessary. Approaching this like a writer has helped me significantly- make sure you write down the NPC's motivations, recent history, personality, and other details. Anything that may matter should be written down- do they have family in the area? How do they act around their friends? Is that different to how they act around strangers? These kinds of questions help you nail down their personality.

Almost all of this information is for you and you alone; your players will never see it directly.

Part of this process is envisioning what kinds of reactions players will have to an NPC. Consider what kinds of questions or actions they will take with the NPC around and write down how the NPC would react (or what they would say). Writing it down will help you remember later, and if it is a big enough problem you can keep these notes handy during the encounter (I sometimes do).

Make note cards. Particularly for recurring NPCs, make a note card of the most important facts about their personality. Pull the card out for interactions and refer to it if you're struggling. This really helps with brain fog, especially if your game sessions are long or you have any other reason to forget things (a cold, little sleep, etc).

Here is a sample card idea I did last night. It is two sided, one for "details" and one for "aw crap what was this guy doing again?" Details:

Piando: Fighter- Battle Master, dwarf. Kicked out of his clan due to family feud. Stripped of his surname. Works to restore honor to himself and be welcomed back. Stereotypical dwarf. Prefers ale. Usually friendly, open, honest, and lively. He has a very serious side he rarely shows. Will not tell just anyone about his past.

Wears intricately carved plate armor and wields a +2 Maul (named Brownie, which is an inside joke with his fellows) that criticals on 17-20. He has a brown beard he keeps trimmed because he almost died in battle when his opponent grabbed his beard. He regularly shaves the top of his head.

"Aw crap" side:

Piando. Experienced Dwarf fighter. Lawful good. AC 20, +2 Maul (Brownie). Honorable, no accent, friendly.

Hires players to destroy powerful undead and restore his personal honor and hopefully be accepted back into his clan.

{List of powers/abilities Piando can do in combat and PHB page numbers for them}

Know the character. Once all that is done, test yourself. Set a random alarm on your phone with a single hint. "Piando," "Dwarf," "Bald bearded guy" are possible examples. From a simple hint you should be able to recall the character and all important details (basic physical description, any accent or mannerisms, basic personality traits). If you can't remember these when the alarm goes off, you need to review your notes.

My experience has been that once you do this, you'll remember the characters and how they act. For me, this makes surprise questions much easier, as I understand the character enough to just roll with it.


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