In this section we'll drill down to the more targeted advice you can bring to bear in running the game. But before we dive in, let's talk a little bit about mental health and gamemastery.
But First, a PSA
The work that goes into gamemastery—not only the prep, but the execution—can be mentally exhausting, even if you follow all the tips for prepping the game that cut down on that work or reduce it to a paint-by-the-numbers exercise. That exhaustion comes from the fact that there's only so much of a wellspring in each of us to do creative work, and that wellspring needs to be replenished from time to time if you intend to continually produce engaging content for your players over the months and years.
So—once in awhile—take a break. Skip a week or a month of games. Go watch a movie full of nostalgia, re-read a book that inspires you, play a video game that excites you, or god forbid—go outside into the real world and see the forest for the trees.
Your games will be better for it.
If the idea of doing improv sounds scary to you, here’s exciting news: Roleplaying games are not improv games, although they use techniques from improv at their core.
Consent & Expectation
One of the ways our social fears are allayed by roleplaying games is session zero, and all the work that goes into it. You can think of session zero as getting yourself an enthusiastic audience before you even step on the stage. Knowing you have that level of buy-in from every member of your audience (your players) is incredibly empowering. And because session zero is also an act of setting expectations, it's not like you're going to be thrown curveballs by the audience when you start a back and forth with them.
Roleplaying games have special diegetic mechanics, unlike improv games, that model character action rather than the fiction itself. In many ways, this takes the onus off you to improvise how the world responds to the things you or your players do, because you end up doing what the rules prescribe, or what would logically follow given the simulation at hand. In OSR+, the rules also support us when we have to rule on choices players make that aren't diegetic (interpreting narrative advantage from fate points, for example). Either way, we can build confidence by looking to the rules to justify the outcomes of our improvisation.
A big part of the improv component of running the game is running NPCs.
Start with Dialog Tags
One of the ways to bridge the gap between only being comfortable with reciting prepared statements and being able to fully speak as NPCs without anything is by using dialog tags. These are simple, short, one- or two-sentence statements you know you want your NPCs to say, because they communicate an adventure hook or embody the personality of the NPC succinctly.
It isn't hard to work dialog tags into natural conversation, especially if the NPC is positioned to deliver certain information in the scene. For example, one of the dialog tags in the “new player session” we run called The Faht Bottom Inn is delivered by an assassin named Jane Graybreaker: "Intelligence itself is currency, no doubt." She appears in a floating scene, where she's caught rummaging through the PCs belongings when they return to their room in the inn. The line originally sat among a handful of similar lines that captured her enterprising, self-assured personality: "I plan to leave the same way that I came: on an airship of my choosing."
Dialog tags are little reminders as to who your NPCs are at their core. When at a loss as to how to respond to players, look to your tags to remind yourself what they were about, even if you ultimately don’t deliver the line.
Transition to Talking Points
Once you get the hang of peppering a conversation with dialog tags, you can graduate to talking points. These are broad, one-line reminders of the sort of subject matter the NPC is interested in, mixed together with information related to adventure hooks they possess. For example, here are the talking points of the Barmaid Lala in Monsters in Merovia, who can be positioned as the secret antagonist of the adventure. Unbeknownst to the PCs in that case, she is a hundred-year-old necromancer who has been poisoning the town's food supply and turning people into ghouls.
What the PCs don't know:
- Lala is pretending to have taken over the tavern from her mother after the Dread Lords destroyed their homeland, but she is her mother.
- She's killed Elder Aidan (her husband) and staged his disappearance.
- She wants to frame Faolagan for Aidan’s murder and the rise of the ghouls.
These are all facts outlined in the adventure's overview, but when you need to run Lala for your players, all you need to keep top of mind are her talking points, to drive the conversation forward.
Voice Acting Shortcuts
Keeping all the details about an NPC straight is hard enough, especially when those details need to get tucked away somewhere in your brain so you can recall that character at will when the fiction demands. But what about remembering how they speak and act? Sometimes all it takes is giving yourself a cue to re-embody that character.
If you're not good at doing funny voices, you might focus on mastering a manner of speaking unique to the NPC.
For example, a creepy psychic named Luther from A Quest of Queens has a half-burned face like Two-Face from Batman, but he's otherwise your pretty, stereotypical-looking Tolkien elf in that game. What makes him creepy isn't in how he looks, but in how he speaks: slowly, deliberately, in a monotone voice, often referring to PCs by their name, in the uncomfortable sort of way a car salesman speaks when he's trying to close a deal. Slipping into Luther's persona requires the GM to slow down and react to the PCs threats or skepticism with a disinterested iciness that makes them angry and disturbed.
Start with Wants & Needs
A shortcut to running an NPC is simply knowing what the NPC wants:
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.Kurt Vonnegut, Preface to Bagombo Snuff Box
Work backwards from what they want or need, to what they're doing to get it, to what they would know in the course of trying. This also will inform your decisions about how they engage with the PCs.
The barmaid Lala, above, wants revenge against the Dread Lords. To get revenge, she needs power. To get power, she's been raising a ghoul army. Everything spirals out from there.
Making NPCs Memorable
NPCs have very little air time to make an impression. After all, a game of OSR+ is about the PCs and narrative fulfillment, not the NPCs' backstories, and the players will only care about the NPCs insofar as they serve a purpose (or get in the way of) the PCs' goals. So you've got to get across a sense of the NPC as quickly and concisely as possible. NPCs don't need detailed inner lives, especially if the table is only ever going to be exposed to surface details. Consider the following ways you can characterize an NPC in broad strokes:
- Give them distinct mannerisms. A flamboyant merchant might gesticulate wildly, especially when he's trying to distract the PCs from the truth. A grizzled commander might walk with a limp and hide a grimace when he sits, signifying his experience and unwillingness to show weakness.
- Focus on a single visual cue when introducing them. A single visual cue like a distinctive scar or a conspicuous possession is better to lead with than eye or hair color or race or physical build because those details don't tell us anything about their inner lives.
- Make them do something revealing of their character. If the dying king, despite being on his death bed, insists that his priest help him don ceremonial armor to greet the heroes upon their arrival, we know a lot about what the king cares about before he even speaks a word.
- Make them representative of a faction's goals. The best way to characterize a thieves guild is to present a thief from that guild who embodies its values. Think of how a single NPC can be a window into the larger world: introducing a single vizier who serves a terrifying and distant Sultana can be almost as good as having the PCs come into contact with the Sultana herself.