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I GM for two new-ish players and am new to D&D and GMing as well. My players have just finished the first story arc and, thanks to picking up some clues I dropped in early sessions, are heading for the next big town to stop into an inn and get offered a selection of plot hooks to choose from for the next arc. All's good there, but I'm absolutely quaking in my boots about roleplaying/managing the inn.

As a GM I am stronger on scenery and visceral descriptions, and struggle a bit with coming up with exciting dialog on the fly. I can script things ahead of time, but my players (and I) enjoy a slightly sillier roleplay style and frequently wander off script. I'm worried about my ability to keep track of and accurately roleplay more than one NPC at once. I can't do accents to save my life (not a new problem - I've never had the skill and my attempts to learn have fallen flat) and I really don't want all my characters to have the exact same "voice", or, even worse, to accidentally slip up and give one NPC another's dialog.

I am already planning on generating a list of names and one-liner personalities so if they approach anyone random I have at least a vague something planned, but I'm looking for tips beyond that, especially with stories of personal experience with your methods. I feel like this is system agnostic, but we are playing D&D 5e if that changes your approach any.

TL;DR: What are some (tried and tested) tips for managing an NPC-heavy area like an inn from a roleplaying standpoint?

Also just to clarify because I feel like the comments are getting off-topic; this isn't really a question about managing conversations in-game and whether or not we're doing it "right", but rather how, as a GM, to organize and control NPC interactions with as little stress as possible.

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11 Answers 11

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Most background NPCs are defined by the setting

The right answer is going to vary significantly based on the personality of your party. The party I DM is rather incurious, but I play in a super curious party, so I'll try to address both areas.

The vast majority of people in a city are going to be boring (at least from a PC's point of view). Merchants, day laborers, layabouts--all of these people aren't going to be doing anything particularly complex or interesting. They are likely to be indifferent to the PCs, and so won't sustain long conversations.

You can flesh out these background characters by fleshing out your city. If your city is a mercantile port city, for example, you can make sailors and merchants. If that city deals mostly in, say, rare ocean gems, you can include pirates and mercenaries, as well as jewelers. The roleplay of these characters thus comes from the setting, rather than individually defined NPCS, allowing you to mix and match aspects for individuals.

Have a handful of interesting NPCs

I like to come up with maybe 2-4 NPCs that are actually interesting. Perhaps the PCs might meet a pre-necromancer Vecna, or a contact for a magic items dealer. These characters have some particularly significant backstory and are potentially story hooks. The party is unlikely to actually interact with that many NPCs (how many people actually talk to each other on the streets of NYC?), and these interesting NPCs are a kind of reward for exploring.

Define NPCs by motivation and disposition

Like you, I'm terrible at accents and only passable at actually portraying different characters. I try to vary the way my NPCs talk (smart, dumb, etc.), but it's difficult to do on the fly. The way I keep my NPCs distinct is by significantly varying their dispositions and motivations. Maybe one contact they have to meet is super suspicious of the party, and constantly acts paranoid. Maybe another is obsequious toward the party, because he wants to scam them.

Distinguishing NPCs this way is quick and easy. For example, Archie is a poor merchant looking for his next big break, and sucks up to the PCs, whereas Bart is a surly guard who thinks the PCs are up to no good. Such short bios are easy to make up on the fly, and switching between antagonistic NPCs and nice NPCs is an easy way to help the PCs distinguish between them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Love the idea of defining them by their motivations. Since we play with audio only, this feels like the appropriate comparison to having props. Thanks for the tips! \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Feb 21 '17 at 23:28
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Have lists of unimportant NPCs prepared for different occassions

These lists contain a couple of different NPCs for different places or occassions. Each NPC has a barebone description - name, gender, race, exceptional features, occupation / motivation, a thing or two to say. Whenever your PCs encounter someone, pick one off these lists. Usually, from these barebone features and the surroundings they come into play in, you can come up with enough of a conversation starter to satisfy the PCs. As Icyfire mentioned, they won't particularly care for most people (and vice versa) and will lose interest rather quickly. If not, just improvise ahead from whatever the start of the conversation provides.

For locations that are likely to be visited, have a bit of gossip prepared

This may include small, personal tidbits of information (that may often tie in with the town's story arc), pointers to useful locations/people, plot hooks, red herrings or even just meaningless, random tales from around town. Design these per location, not per NPC, and use them when they seem appropriate (some of these might be more suitable for an artisan to say, others for a guard or a cleric).

Give NPCs quirks to make them recognizable

Making NPCs memorable is not only a question of modulating your voice. Use your hands and body language, too. Someone might tip their hat with every sentence they speak, be overly flirtatious, stroke their beard, scratch their neck, have a phrase they reuse often, have a running nose, spit on the floor, be distracted, clean their monocle, fix their clothes, play with a loose thread of their sleeve, be nervous, ignore the dwarf entirely, look down on all people, yawn a lot, etc. The possibilities of these are endless. Be sure to add them to your lists. Don't be afraid to overdo it: You usually have little "screen time" to make an impression.

Picked up and pieced together from various sources, ranging from official publications to blogs and forums - mostly related to The Dark Eye - and used while GM'ing my own campaigns - all TDE.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for planning bits of local trivia for NPCs to drop, what a great idea! \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Feb 21 '17 at 23:28
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You said you are better with scenery and such than NPCs? Then build your NPCs from their surroundings. Don't think about the people first, think about how they fit into environment. Most NPCs in a campaign are unimportant, there is no need to fully flesh them out. I generally build my "generic" NPCs in the following manner:

What is the inn like? Is there something interesting inside (a dueling ring, the head of a troll mounted over the fireplace, a wide collection of wines)? Than use these to define the NPCs. What kind of people go to an inn, that has a dueling ring? Bored, young and rich nobles for fun. Professional duelists looking for coin. Young ladies looking for excitement. And so on, and so on. After you have the basic place of the NPC in society and environment, just assign an adjective to them in your mind. The innkeeper is "helpful", the cloaked man in the corner is "roaring drunk", the richly dressed young noble asking loudly for the next round is "desperate" etc. Don't try to make full dialog tree for them, and don't make them up beforehand. My players generally enjoy having a chance to play around, and it seems like so do yours. Give them an opportunity for that. If they seem to want something (buy information, get into trouble, get drunk, etc.) the NPCs should play along a bit, if it doesn't cause big changes in your plan.

In my experience most NPCs the players will meet only once won't be remembered in detail, unless they are very-very interesting. So plan the scenery, think about the type of people who would be found there, and use that template to build your NPCs.

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I completely agree with some of the other points (prepare NPCs in advance, give each one a quirk). I'd also add:

Make yourself a cheat sheet with pictures

Grab a bunch of images of suitable character portraits from a Google Image search or similar, then prepare yourself one or more pages with the portraits on. Under each one, make a list of bullet points with vital roleplaying information only (don't concern yourself with statistics). It's up to you if the players ever see this sheet or not (you don't need to show them the portraits, but it could make descriptions a lot easier). The reason you're doing this is you'll start to remember information a lot easier once you've got a face to put the information to.

Before the session starts, read over the sheet at least once. Try saying something like each NPC would. You don't need to remember what they said, or ever use it again -- you can even change your mind when it comes to playing the character.

And most of all, enjoy it. These are YOUR characters, remember. Make ones that you think you'll enjoy showing the players, that you'll enjoy the quirks of. Good luck.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the idea of making characters I'm passionate about! \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Feb 21 '17 at 23:29
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I recently ran a session where the adventurers needed to ask around the town to uncover rumors and to figure out where they needed to go next. This method of dealing with lots of NPCs works well for me, especially when there is an investigative element to the story.

Define a set of interesting NPCs. It's important to have a few memorable or interesting NPCs in your town. For me, these NPCs have a specific location where they can be found, and they often have a backstory that might lead into some plot hook. For instance, a woman standing in the streets crying; the tavern maiden with all the local gossip; or an aide to the mayor who is not happy with the way the town is being run.

Define a grab bag of uninteresting NPC characteristics. Most of the NPCs in the town are not very interesting. For these NPCs, I do not create full characters. I usually find that a pre-prepared list of several names, character descriptions, dispositions, and basic backstories is sufficient. You say that your party tends to get a bit silly, so it could also be useful to also define a set of ridiculous quirks or mannerisms to really give your NPCs some character. When the players approach an NPC, choose a set of these characteristics at random.

Define a set of facts that are useful to the adventurers. These facts will help move the adventurers to their next goal. Order them by importance to the adventurers.

Define a set of lies or false rumors that are not helpful to the adventurers. These rumors might lead the adventurers astray or not bring them any closer to their goals.

Let the party interact with the NPC's. In my case, the adventurers were explicitly told by an NPC that they should ask around to find details related to their quest.

When the party approaches an 'uninteresting' NPC, choose some of your pre-defined characteristics at random: name, description, disposition, and/or backstory. I find it easier if the uninteresting NPC's will not hold much of a conversation unless directly prompted by the adventurers to answer a question. If the adventurers don't have any questions, the NPC gets bored a goes back to what they were doing.

If the players approach one of the 'interesting' NPCs, the NPC would divulge their backstory and maybe a plot hook first, and then may divulge additional information from the facts/rumors/lies tables if pressed further.

Reveal information to the party. As the adventurers talk to the NPC, make a judgement on their relative success at interacting with that NPC. If the adventurers generally got along with the NPC, have the NPC divulge one of the useful facts or rumors, starting with the most important ones. If the party was generally unsuccessful, the NPC will only tell them a rumor which is not useful to them.

This system worked really well for me. It requires some skill by the adventurers to approach the social interactions appropriately, but it also gives you a lot of freedom as the DM to divulge important information easily. For example, in my campaign, as the adventurers were successful in their NPC encounters, they would first learn the location of the place they needed to go. They could then choose to embark immediately, or if they kept talking to NPC's, they would learn about a secret entrance that would save them a lot of trouble later on.

For me, this approach is really manageable when there are a large number of NPCs. The information provided by the NPCs is all coming from one block of facts, so the only part you need to worry about doing on the fly is picking from your grab bag of NPC names, descriptions, dispositions, and backstories.

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If you are worried to mix up the NPCs one way I have experienced is to find some picture for each important NPC (1/3 to 1/2 of the tavern max.), print it out and make notes on the back.

That way you can show the picture to the players when describing the NPC, read your notes and then put it in front of you when playing him or her as a reminder. Or, as an alternative, some hook their TV to their computer and put things they want to show to the players on the TV screen instead of printing them out.

This helps you with not mixing up, your players with visualizing the person and shows them which NPC you prepared more for.

For all other NPCs around have a name and some headwords and improvise from there.

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I'm absolutely quaking in my boots

Okay, hold on and take a step back here.

It's a roleplaying game. It's supposed to be fun for everyone, GM included. So if you're not having fun, if you're really scared of going forward with this, you really should stop, take a deep breath and reconsider.

Because you are the GM. You control the narrative, you control the setting. Don't let the game move into an area that you're not comfortable with.

Why the inn?

Why, exactly, are you moving the players to this inn which you don't feel comfortable running? As far as I can tell, the only reason is to offer the players "a selection of plot hooks to choose from for the next arc".

An inn is not the only way you can offer these up. If you're uncomfortable with the inn because they could start talking to anyone, then take back control by handing out hooks in other ways. It's also quite likely your players will appreciate the variation, instead of following the same trope all the time.

There could be a message board in town. Maybe someone specifically asks for help. Maybe, as new people, they see a connection between two or three posts. Imagine there's three notices about missing cats. In and of itself, not suspicious, but what if they spot the cats all disappeared the same night?

They could stumble upon some sort of physical evidence that something is going wrong. They're new in town, they get lost just a little bit and end up in a spot where people don't come by usually. They spot a pouch on the ground.

They overhear an argument in the street. Someone is accusing another villager of 'borrowing' their ladder and not bringing it back. The other guy swears he didn't take it.

I hope that the examples above have shown you that you have many more options than just having your players sit down and having a conversation. You should work to your own strengths and work around your weaknesses.

You say you're not good at voices. But the whole point of an NPC voice is to help make them memorable. That's really the only goal to keep in mind: if your players remember the NPC 10 sessions later, you've done your job. A voice is one possible piece of the puzzle, but being "the guy who lost his ladder" is just as memorable.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate your answer but this is a weakness I want to work on, rather than avoid. I was equally scared when I started GMing and that's been working out well so far! \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Feb 21 '17 at 13:50
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NPC emergencies can strike at any time; I am terrible with NPC names but there are plenty of random generators like donjon which help me out.

For NPC emergencies I keep several pages of NPCs printed out from a spreadsheet with lists of NPC names in columns plus some other details then some space next to them for scribbled notes.

These npcs very rarely going to be spoken to more than once, so what details do you need? Only a couple of things. Where they were spoken to (a blank column) what they look like and a trait of some kind as they are only a bit part, you can add class and race if you like, everything else can be made up on the fly by extrapolating from their trait and what the players are interested in.

See also this question: How to make large number of NPCs manageable to the GM?

I've written a few random character generators for this sort of thing over the years and can upload/pass it on if needed - but any of the online generators can help you make these lists.

As previously mentioned, trying to individualise voices is going to be doom unless you are a trained voice actor; people won't remember voices (and you won't either most likely) but a dwarf that likes juggling, a elf that hates the color blue, that's more easily remembered as that's what they'll talk about

Here's a short example pulled from one of my NPC files (This was a cyberpunk game)

Albert Walker - - Long blonde hair, grey eyes, 6'2 tall, muscular build. Sociopathic. Nomad (4) - - Has overly protective parents.
Deborah Williams - - Messy cropped grey hair, grey eyes, 5'8 tall, normal build. Righteous and inventive. Fixer (8) - - Has a new crush on someone every week.
Alex Brian - - Scruffy cropped red hair, brown eyes, 5'7 tall, muscular build. Impatient and pensive. Techie (4) - - Loves to touch strangers' hair.
Debby Moore - - Short black hair, brown eyes, 5'8 tall, normal build. Vain. Media (5) - - Hears canned laughter when a joke is made, as if they were in a sitcom.
Jon Wilkins - - Cropped black hair, brown eyes, 5'9 tall, heavy build. Bitter and melancholy. Techie (5) - - Collects vinyl, but has no record player.
Joan Richards - - Cropped auburn hair, brown eyes, 5'10 tall, normal build. Erratic and delusional. Solo (5) - - Pulls on their earlobe when nervous.
Steven Mitchell - - Very long grey hair, brown eyes, 6'1 tall, normal build. Serious and dignified. Fixer (5) - - Can't start their day without checking their horoscope first.

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Announce who is talking and how

I had this problem too, especially because I started roleplaying as a kid, not able to fake anyone's voice except for kid voices. :)

  1. Prepare for roleplaying dialogs, prepare NPCs, but not what they say. You can prepare something like catchphrases, but please, no computer game-esque script!

  2. When someone talks in my games, by default, he talks to me and describes an action, for example, "I attack", "I try to sneak", etc. The same should go with speaking, it is considered an action: "I turn my head to John and say, trying to fake british accent: "Good morning, gentlemen."".

    The same goes to the GM/DM/Storyteller, he describes what is going on and what characters are doing. If I, as a GM, want to announce someone talking, I tell: "The old man sitting in the corner suddenly raises his hand and replies: "Good morning, american!"".

This is a useful technique, but some people think that declaring speech this way may break immersion.

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Not every NPC needs a huge backstory This is an important one. Not every NPC they meet needs to have a complex and exciting background. It is okay for an NPC to "just" be a shopkeeper. It is okay for an NPC to "just" be the wife of the inn keeper. It is okay for an NPC to "just" be a serving wench. The important ones

Each NPC should have ONE trait/Quirk By the same time, them just having a tick, trait, quirk (in my Tyrants of Saggakar, one of the Masters is always sickly and coughing, one always makes the PCs wait for him, and one is always destroying something). Players pick up on them and makes them like or hate these NPCs for it. A cook that constantly wipes his nose with the back of his hand. A bar wench that chews gum with her mouth open.

Keep a Dramatis Personae for you Keep a list for YOU of NPCs of interest with elements that came in the game (if it never came up that the queen served as archmage for 20 years, don't put it here until it becomes important). Limit yourself to what is critical for the campaign/adventure and what was mentioned in the game here.

Keep or have the players keep a Dramatis Personae I like to do this: when a game has a lot of NPCs, I put their names at the top and some very basic notes: "Prince Larome, Male First One, Teenager" and let the players fill out their own notes. This and my own notes form a very good game bible.

Try and avoid scenes where the NPCs talk together too much This helps a lot. When people what to talk, they tend to isolate themselves from others. Having one or two NPC is fine, but one will generally talk, with the other adding flavor or comments. I know many people have a lot of NPC-on-NPC talks, but they bore me to tears.

Whatever you do, try and try again. Eventually you will find something that works for YOU and YOUR STYLE. Remember, it is okay to fail, but do so and learn. You will only get better.

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[…]100% online with voice only[…]

I listen to a lot of audio books. The readers use different accents (won't work for you but still), intonations, and voice modulation to make sure that the main characters have different voices. This jars horribly when a different reader takes over: everyone sounds wrong! You could use the same approach. Characters can have catch phrases that will make sure that everyone knows who is speaking. However, there is no going round adding "said X" every so often so that the players know for sure.

What are some (tried and tested) tips for managing an NPC-heavy area like an inn from a role playing standpoint?

I have used cards, mind maps and wiki for this, with some degree of success. However, all have draw backs. They require you to prepare things well in advance and have access to large amount of table/screen real estate which is not practical in most game sessions.

I now use the method of loci having learnt it from Cicero (not personally) and it works wonders. I can add new NPCs (via my NPC generator or make up one on the fly) to a room, retrieve any of them from rooms I know. After the encounter, I jolt down relevant notes and the rest gets shredded in memory. All it requires is practice.

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