by Mike Shea on 28 August 2017
In July 2017, on the DM's Deep Dive I had the privilege to talk to Matt Mercer of Critical Role about bringing NPCs in our D&D games to life. Matt is a professional voice actor and very popular streamer of D&D, with appearances on the Stream of Annihiliation and the WOTC D&D series, Force Gray. Matt also recently released his Tal'Dorei campaign setting with Green Ronin.
Throughout our one-hour discussion, Matt and I discussed numerous topics for bringing NPCs to life. Below are some of the highlights from the talk.
Matt's tip for performing voices is practice. Practice by yourself, while driving, or in the shower. Record yourself doing voicework, listen to it, and adjust it.
Mix voices together. Use characteristics from one voice and mix it with characteristics for another. Matt's higher pitch Zoidberg isn't to be missed.
Study the classics of mythology and Shakespeare to give your games an old-world feel. MacBeth and Othello for example. Read Midsummer Night's Dream to get the feel for the world of the fae.
Matt keeps track of voices by looking it back up on the net (that's great for Matt Mercer!) but he also keeps track of things in a big Word document. Try to do the best you can from memory.
Matt improvises NPCs about 50% of the time. For his improvised NPCs, he builds it out from the root of the NPC and its interaction with the character and the NPC's responses to their discussions.
Matt's prepared NPCs have the advantage of filling in key needs in the story. Not having any prepared NPCs definitely spikes anxiety but can be thrilling in a safe game with trusted players.
Matt prepares more NPCs for more linear travel situations and significantly more in an urban environment—six to ten main NPCs and maybe ten secondary NPCs.
Matt spends between one hour to two hours of preparation per hour of gameplay. Higher level campaigns in a city might take up to three hours per hour of gameplay. It's hard to prepare when the characters can hop entire planes of existence.
When working on your voices, avoid stereotypes. It can be easy to fall into stereotype voices (think every woman is the Monty Python shrieking lady). Avoid alienating layers with sexist or racist stereotypes for voices. Be respectful and mindful of the of various dialects and accents you use.
How you hold yourself can make a huge difference. It's not just about the voice.
To keep your voice healthy, stay hydrated with water. Use hot tea if you have voice strain. There are teas specifically used for keeping your voice in action. Take a break or call off the game if its getting bad.
When NPCs become part of the party they can overshadow the actions of the characters. Find ways they can be useful to the characters in other ways like doing off-screen research or acting as an ambassador. Find a natural exit for them.
Don't worry about screwing up any particular part of the game. DMs should feel free to screw up. It's harder when 10,000 people are watching you play. If you are enjoying it your players will enjoy it. Everyone is there to have a good time. Just roll with it. Be nice to low level characters and new players.
Don't do a stressful voice for a character that's going to be in play a lot. Don't hurt yourself.
Be ready for plot threads to break and use prep time to figure out how to fill in the gaps. Feel free to shift the whole world to make a broken connection work. Find ways to make your inconsistencies true.
Practice cool voices by listening them on Youtube. Record 30 seconds of yourself and then study how it worked. Practice dialects by listening to the International Dialects in English Archive. There are hundreds of accents from all over the world. Again, watch out for stereotypes.
Matt Mercer's hardest voice was a mind flayer named Clarota. The speech on inhale was hard.
When you're running with a large number of players, talk to them about your intent to give them all some screen time. When they see the problem the way you do, they'll be more understanding of how it works out. If you can tie a single background or narrative to a pair of characters, it lets you kill two birds with one stone.
When using milestone experience, feel free to let characters level up on side quests.