This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.
MONDAY NIGHT. The heroes are sailing aboard their elemental ship, the Maelstrom, when suddenly Captain Yuriel (played by Nick DiPetrillo) receives a sending stone message from his mentor and benefactor, Sea King Valkroi. Word has come down that Sea King Senestrago, Valkroi’s hated rival and sometime campaign villain, has been killed off-camera in a naval battle.
To deliver this great news, I conjure up the very best Jamaican accent I can muster. Suddenly, Nick gives me a quizzical look and says, “Doesn’t Valkroi have an Australian accent?”
Nick’s right—I’ve gotten my accents and NPCs mixed up! It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’m horribly dismayed. I use a Jamaican accent for exactly one character in my campaign—a drow crime lord named Maliq du Mavian. You’d think I would remember that! (And for those who read last week’s article about names, this one’s pronounced “mah-LEEK du mah-vee-AHN.”) Truth be told, even good DMs have their bad moments, and when it comes to voice acting, I’m at best an amateur.
Before I dive headlong into this short discussion about using voices to bring NPCs to life, let me tell you about my recent encounter with a god among voice talent artists.
Last month, to cap off a very pleasurable experience at Comicpalooza in Houston, I shared a limo ride to the airport with voice actor and professional announcer Tom Kane. We joked about flying cars and why humans should never be allowed to have them. (I’m sure it sounded grand back in the 1950s when futurists first postulated the notion, but imagine someone’s half-eaten Big Mac, leaky antifreeze, or rusted-out muffler dropping on your head from a height of 100 feet. That’s not progress, people.)
As we talked and joked, Tom let a bit of Admiral Yularin (from The Clone Wars animated series) slip into the discussion. I was also treated to a wee bit of Yoda and a few other characters in Tom’s vast repertoire. The voices came out offhandedly and effortlessly, and at that point I realized we had more in common than successful careers in the fringes of entertainment. Tom was doing something I like to do in my D&D sessions and in real life—change voices in conversation, usually for comic effect—only he was doing it really well. He is, after all, the professional, and I’m just an amateur.
I’m not selling myself short here. After all, being an amateur isn’t the same thing as being a novice, as evidenced by the fact that I have more than 20 years of experience making up voices in my D&D campaigns. The fact that I don’t get paid for my voice “talent” is why I’m not a professional, and frankly I’m not sure I have the chops for that line of work. Voice acting requires serious training. However, I am Canadian, which means I can do a passable Canadian accent on command. I can also riff on 2d6 + 7 other real world accents because I watch lots of TV and movies. The key word here is “riff,” because I’m not sure I can do any accent justice. My German accent makes it seem like I’m mocking Germans—you know vhat I mean, ya? Ditto with French, Spanish, Cajun, Russian, Scottish, Jamaican, Australian, Bostonian, Minnesotan, Texan, and so on.
Anyone who’s seen all four Pirates of the Caribbean movies and all eight Harry Potter films should be able to conjure up one or more fake British accents (unless of course the person is genuinely British, in which case one would assume it comes naturally). If you can’t, it’s probably because your lips were sewn on upside-down. However, unless you’re a gifted mimic with a trained ear, the voice you hear when you speak is not the same voice everyone else hears around you. I’ve done a lot of podcasts, and every time I listen to myself, I feel like I’m hearing a stranger talk. My recorded voice does not sound like the voice echoing in my head when I speak aloud.
Consequently, when I do an impression of a famous person like Jack Nicholson, or a famous character like Foghorn Leghorn, the voice that I ultimately create isn’t exactly one or the other. It sounds similar but not exactly the same. It is, for all intents and purposes, derivative—and that’s perfect. I don’t want Jack Nicholson playing a part in my campaign, but I want a character inspired by him. I don’t want Foghorn Leghorn, either; I want a ruthless sea captain with a lot of southern bluster or a talking stone face carved into a wall that thinks it knows everything.
Let the Mutilation Begin!
It’s perfectly fine to mutilate real-world accents. So what if your Maine accent doesn’t sound like a real Maine accent. It’s not like your campaign in set in Maine, after all; the players won’t hate you because your rendition failed to conjure memories of summers spent in Bangor. In my campaign, I have no qualms about “looting” regionally distinctive dialects, inflections, and idioms. So what if my tiefling henchman sounds like a caricature of a Boston thug? My players remember him. He’s the hahd-ass with the big fat mouth (no offense to Bostonians). Rad Longhammer, the new intern of Acquisitions Incorporated, sounds like a Californian surfer dude—or at least my imitation of one—and he earned more than his fair share of laughs at PAX last year.
In my Monday night campaign, I have a recurring NPC named Rhutha. She’s a fat dragonborn military general who really knows how to throw her weight around. When I speak in her voice, I automatically stick out my pouty lower lip, talk as deeply as I can, and enunciate every syllable slowly as though she was the long-lost dragonborn sister of Alfred Hitchcock. Then. I. Make. Each. Word. Its. Own. Sentence.
Not surprisingly, General Rhutha is one of the most memorable villains in the Iomandra campaign. It’s also easy for me to remember what her voice sounds like because my entire posture changes whenever I get into character. I slouch in my chair and talk down my nose, imbuing her with a certain air of contempt. (Did I mention that DMing is one part acting, one part directing, and two parts improvisation?)
I have another dragonborn NPC who bears the scar of having had his throat cut, and he speaks with a harsh whisper—simple yet effective.
I typically reserve “new voices” (as opposed to higher-pitched, lower-pitched, faster-paced, and slower-paced versions of my natural voice) for important characters. My campaign has thousands of NPCs, and it would be physically exhausting and mentally taxing to give each one a distinctive voice. My players can usually guess the relative importance of an NPC by the extents to which I describe the character and tinker with the voice. If my description of the NPC is threadbare and the character speaks in my own voice (more or less), the players know they’re probably dealing with a “one-off” NPC of little consequence. If the NPC instead sounds like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love or “Buffalo Bob” from The Silence of the Lambs, their expectations are immediately inflated.
I rarely forget which voice to use, but it happens—as evidenced by my recent misstep with Sea King Valkroi. To my credit, Sea King Valkroi was envisioned as a particularly important NPC in the Monday night campaign, but because of the direction the campaign went, he’s been more of a background figure who pops up infrequently. I still feel like a balloonhead, however.
One of the most effective ways to make an NPC memorable (after giving him or her a distinctive physical trait, quirk, or habit) is to give him or her a voice inspired by a real-world or fictional character. Any person or character with a cool voice or trademark affectation is fair game: Antonio Banderas. Anthony Hopkins. Katherine Hepburn (“Norrrrrman! The looooons!”). Alan Rickman. James Cagney. Anne “Throw Momma from the Train” Ramsey. Peter Lorre. Vincent Price. Christopher Walken. Cheech Marin. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you’re looking for something more exaggerated, try riffing on a character like Zapp Brannigan, Yosimite Sam, Jessica Rabbit, Gaston (from Beauty and the Beast), Ren (“Steeempy, you Eeeediot!”), or Vezzini and Fezzik (played by Wallace Shawn and André the Giant) from The Princess Bride.
I occasionally come up with voices “in the moment” (particularly when I’m forced to breathe life into an NPC on the fly), although I admit those aren’t always the most successful. Sometimes the accent is too difficult or too hard to sustain; I once tried to make a villain sound like Dr. Claw from the Inspector Gadget cartoons, but my throat simply wasn’t up to it. Sometimes the voice just sounds horrid, and so I end up jettisoning it or “wearing down the edges” so that it becomes a bit more palatable.
I like to rehearse voices ahead of time. My three-legged dog, Reggie, tolerates it during long walks through the back woods, where no one else can hear me. A typical rehearsal is basically 5 minutes of me trying to imitate some TV or movie villain, such as Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort or Bill Nighy’s Davey Jones, and maybe twisting it in some way (to make it sound female, for example).
Here are some things worth remembering as you fearlessly experiment with voices of your own:
Think of an actor whose voice you like. Try to imitate it, and no matter what the quality, you will end up creating a new character voice that’s all your own.
Often a bad accent is better than no accent at all, and it doesn’t need to be “over the top” to be memorable.
Change the shape of your mouth. Try speaking with your teeth bared, your lips puckered, or your tongue firmly pressed against your lower gums. It sounds stupid, but it works.
There are scores of other tips and tricks—had my limo ride to the airport been a few minutes longer, I would’ve pestered Mr. Kane for some voice acting advice to step up my game. If you have some tricks of your own, I’d love to hear about them.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 07/14/2011 Results:
How do you pronounce "Drizzt"?
- DRIZ-it: 22.3%
- DRIST: 21.2%
- DRITZ: 11.1%
- DRIZ (the "t" is silent): 4.7%
How do you pronounce "drow"?
Rhymes with "cow": 84.1%
- Rhymes with "toe": 15.9%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 07/21/2011
When you play the role of NPCs in your game, how do you distinguish them?
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.