Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 30, 2012
Do you do voice acting?

When watching other people DM games of Dungeons & Dragons on video, like Rhykker of Dungeons & Drogans, or Chris Perkins on YouTube, I can't help but notice that these DM do something I don't: Voice acting. They make NPCs come alive by speaking in different voices, or with funny accents. And I'm wondering how important that is for a role-playing game.

I simply can't do accents. That is for the simple reason that my current D&D campaign is in French, and French is my third language. I'm far from perfect in French, and the only heavy accent I speak it in is my own. I'd be happy if I was able to speak French without accent, never mind in an assumed one. For similar reasons I don't want to bother with funny voices. So the only thing I do for NPCs is have certain mannerisms, like one guy frequently saying "excellent, excellent!". I also have NPC portraits I put in a little photo holder in front of the DM screen so the players remember who they are talking with.

If you played pen & paper roleplaying games as a DM or player, was voice acting used at the table? How important do you think it is to characterize NPCs?

When I DM'd (GM'd really since I never ran an AD&D campaign) I certainly did do voices. Not accents as such but voice characterization. Neither of the other regular GMs in our group did, though. One of them did a lot of characterization by other means and the third, the one who GM'd the most of the three of us, didn't really do much of either.

It made for very different experiences. I preferred sessions that resembled something an amateur dramatic group might get up to. The best sessions I ever did were mostly improvised and when it worked (which was mostly but not always) everyone was really carried along and immersed. On the other hand, I also loved the more detailed, plot-heavy styles of the other two GMs.

Variety kept the whole thing fresh for the five years we ran the group. Different games, different GM styles, mix it up. I can't imagine running any kind of campaign other than a very straightforwardly rules-based, war gamey style with the DM operating in a language in which he's not entirely fluent, though. Pretty impressive that you can do it at all - voice characterization on top would be expecting way too much!
In my experience giving characters an identifiable voice (which is not limited to accents, but also includes tone, choice of vocabulary, distinct mannerisms or modes of speaking, etc) is useful for three reasons:

First, it is rather convenient in any conversation involving two or more NPCs. If the GM has to announce who he is currently talking as, it tends to bog down the dynamic a lot, especially if NPCs are regularly interacting with each other.

Secondly, it allows you to approach the character from a different angle. Once you decide about how they should sound, you will often find reasons and rationales behind your decisions which will in turn give the character further depth or new distinctive traits you hadn't considered yet.

Last, it is a handy little mindhack in that it encourages more involved roleplaying. Once you assume the voice (and by extension the role) of a character, you are on some level aware that you are no longer passively informing the players of your character's actions, but actively portraiing them; showing instead of telling. Which makes you more likely to actually raise your voice insteand of calmly stating that the character yells angrily.

This is not at all limited to the GM, either -- a lovable rogue, a laconic mercenary, a mysterious sorcerer and an idealistic paladin shouldn't sound exactly alike, even if they are played by the same person.

(YMMV on all of this, obviously.)
I've never DMed, but I definitely do while a player, and I am sure I would as a DM.

That being said, I'm TERRIBLE at voices too, no bones about it. In the end though, even if you sound stupid, I think the variation in tone, word choice, etc, gives players a little something extra to latch on to when remembering NPCs.
I do but that's perhaps the blessing of being born in an English-speaking country - there's never any issue of what language we should play in.

DMing is story-telling and there are many forms of story-telling that don't feature accents (the written word usually doesn't). As long as the players are engaged in the story it doesn't matter.

Even for someone like me who does it it can at times being very unimmersive. If you forget which accent is for which character and do, say, Aragorn with the Gandalf accent it's a hell of an immersion breaker.
Absolutely, DM and players would do voice acting to either add character or embellish details. It made it more fun as well. We never did full costumes but often the DM might throw a hat on for a specific character.

We even added other things as we progressed like serving real foods at feasts and adding stereo sound effects.
I think if you are roleplaying with people who know you well, they will pick up on different inflections and tones within your voice that will denote different npcs.

As negentropic says, players should also be encouraged to voice act. I draw your attention to game designer Terry Philips who originally portrayed Raistlin Majere in the Dragonlance Adventure sessions:

"[we] were just settling in to the game when I turned to my good friend Terry Phillips and asked what his character was doing. Terry spoke...and the world of Krynn was forever changed. His rasping voice, his sarcasm and bitterness all masking an arrogance and power that never needed to be stated suddenly were real. Everyone in the room was both transfixed and terrified. To this day Margaret [Weis] swears that Terry wore the black robes to the party that night."
DMing in your THIRD language? And it's French?


Easy voice qualities: stuttering, lisping, slow/fast, simple speech, intellectual speech, easily distracted, anxious, boastful, shy, flirtatious, psychotic, hallucinating, drunk, depressed, manic, distrustful, overly positive, old lady/man, and many others.

You don't have to change your voice quality or do an accent to make a character unique, just choose something simple and keep it consistent.

For especially important NPC's, I had a few simple costumes like hats or wigs that helped. Especially memorable characters would get a cheer or groan when I put on a particular hat and struck a pose.

We costumed it up, and occasionally played in outdoor settings to set the mood. Once actually in a cave with candles and a huge chest we carried for 1/2 a mile.

Wow, haven't thought about that in a long time.
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I do indeed voice act whilst G/DMing - indeed, it's a substantial part of how I differentiate multiple NPCs. (Particularly important when, as has happened before, the PCs are around 5 or 6 NPCs who are all having an argument.)

But then, I work professionally as a voice director, and I'm not inexperienced as an actor either. So this may be a "have hammer, see nails" issue.

I can't imagine not doing so whilst DMing, though. It adds so much to my characters!

- Hugh Hancock
Have you ever read Chris Perkins' column The DM Experience? If not, definitely check it out. I've picked up so many good DM tips from him.

This article is his own article about using voices to add to your NPCs:

For more tips on creating memorable NPCs, check out 3DNPC from 10/20/11.
In the last month, there was an online indie RPG convention held on Google+ called Indie+ ( that used the Google Hangout system to get people together to play and the On-Live ability to record those games for posterity. I was priviliged to get to run an entire suite of games during the Con. has all of the online play we've done and is the list where any in the future'll get put. One of the things that'll probably jump out at you (beyond the geberal irreverance and edge of insanity) is the consistent use of funny voices not just by me, but by most folk. I'm a semi-pro voice actor, my players range from college students to software engineers, but one of the things you can't avoid is people adopting voices that resonate with the character they're playing.

What I'm saying is that the question is never "do you do voice acting?" because I've never seen a game that doesn't involve it pretty elementally. The question is better put, "is it conscious?"

For me, it truly is. I think about what I want to convey about someone, or the environment, or the observing characters in the cast of my voice. But analysis doesn't necessarily or even actually make things better. If you're thinking about it, odds are you're already mucking it up. Lean back, think about what the character looks like, and just open your mouth.

Characters find their own voices.
When I DM'd back in the day, I certainly used voices. I doubt that it is mandatory. Negentropic set out a great list of reasons it can help that I fully endorse.
I do voices, accents, etc. when I can. Differentiating NPCs is a handy thing so the players don't think they're always talking to the same person. But it's not just the accents, but their manner of speech as well.

The crude, gravelly voiced female mercenary. The jovial yet sarcastic elderly farmer with a slight crack to his voice. The 12 foot half-giant with the booming yet sneering voice. The dwarf cleric who apparently had a completely muddled Scottish/Australian accent (that one was totally an accident, but it stuck much to my players' amusement).
Using silly voices is one of my favorite parts of being a player or a DM. Even if you can't do a passable accent, having a barbarian who doesn't always articulate properly or a creepy old man who always repeats the last word of his sentences (etc) helps to get everyone in the spirit of things.

As a practical matter, I have always found it to be helpful to differentiate between out-of-character chatter and in-character, "yes I am actually saying this to the king," line delivery.
It's simultaneously completely unimportant and incredibly valuable.

It's unimportant because a good DM can clearly differentiate large groups of NPCs with small things like attitude, body language, and speech distinctions, which it sounds like is precisely what you do. Your "Excellent, excellent," which I imagine you doing with particular hand gestures and in a particular posture (leaned forward, perhaps, intimidatingly, or leaned back, very casually, depending on the kind of character we're talking about) is more than enough to bring an NPC to life.

That said, a little voice work can go a long way. My players' current favorite NPC in my Vampire campaign, Lazarus, is partially loved because he's a dottering old man with a confused old man voice. In fact, the time I forgot to do the voice had an impact on them because they didn't realize at first that I was the one who screwed up, not him, and they thought he had been faking his infirmity. That took some straightening out.

So it both matters and doesn't. Voices are one tool inside a huge bag of conveying meaning beyond just what you're saying that includes prosody, kinesics, facial expressions, semantic choices, and so forth. As long as you're hitting a variety of those, it shouldn't make much of a difference.
I always do voices since it helps flesh out the NPCs. Hell I even make animal/monster sounds for the heck of it when they do stuff. :)
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