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The Dungeon Master Experience
By Chris Perkins

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 session begins in medias res, picking up where we left off the previous week. The heroes are trapped inside a military stronghold, fighting off dragonborn soldiers and wizards in league with a secret organization called the Vost Azaan. The organization's leader, Zarkhrysa, lies badly wounded at the heroes' feet, reduced to single-digit hit points. Oleander, the party's halfling rogue, deals the first attack of the evening, dropping Zarkhrysa to zero hit points before she can utter a single word. However, unbeknownst to the players, the villain has a special ability that revives her to 1 hit point and lets her "play dead."

When a squad of bluespawn godslayers storms the fortress, the heroes retreat into an extra-dimensional space created using Oleander's exodus knife and take Zarkhrysa's "corpse" with them. Baharoosh, the party's dragonborn rogue, makes a successful Insight check and realizes that the villain is playing dead. He tries to stab her but misses, giving her time to chide the heroes for opposing her plot to bring stability to the Dragovar Empire by installing a new emperor on the throne. However, her villainous monologue is cut short by Baharoosh's second attack, and she dies from a slashed throat.

A nonplayer character (NPC) is nothing but a cardboard figure without the DM to flesh it out, and nothing makes an NPC come alive more than good dialogue. But here's the thing: You can't really prepare the dialogue ahead of time. You have to wait for opportunities to arise and then wing it, and sometimes the results are underwhelming. Believe me, I know. I was delighted when Baharoosh slashed Zarkhrysa's throat, because that conversation was going nowhere.

Much of my "adventure planning" involves me thinking about the NPCs in my campaign and ways to make them "come alive." I like to think of clever things for them to say—rebukes and rebuttals that don't sound too clichéd. Unfortunately, I tend to forget these little gems by the time the game session rolls around. Writing them down doesn't help. I've tried that, and more often than not, the opportunity to use a pre-planned snippet of pithy dialogue never comes up. My players are too unpredictable. Still, it's a fun thought exercise.

Dialogue between PCs and NPCs is largely improvised, as you well know, and sometimes you get lucky and spark a really interesting conversation. A good tête-a-tête adds drama and realism to any encounter. However, we can't all be Aaron Sorkin. It's the supreme test of a DM's skill to keep the conversation interesting and to portray NPCs in a way that's both honest and memorable.

Every DM, like every actor, has a different range. Some actors transform themselves so completely that they vanish into their roles, while other actors tend to play every role the same way. Not every actor can portray a schizophrenic or a samurai. My range is limited, so when I am confronted with an impromptu roleplaying opportunity, I draw upon four distinct aspects of my own personality and vacillate between caricatures and realistic portrayals using these four archetypes as touchstones. Once in a blue moon, I'll make a concerted effort to stretch beyond my range, with mixed results. For example, you might be awesome at portraying emotional or loquacious NPCs. Alas, I am not.

Lessons Learned

Every NPC with a major speaking role has a base personality trait that governs how he or she acts and reacts to the player characters. Here are four base archetypes I use often.

The Authority: Here's an NPC whom the players love to hate. The Authority speaks with conviction (not unlike Kevin Spacey in Se7en). No matter his alignment, he believes what he's saying is true, either because it IS true or because he has a warped sense of reality. His tone can be dictatorial and condescending, or it can be genuinely sincere and well meaning. Here are some sound bites the arrogant NPC might use in conversation:

  • "Don't play the fool."
  • "You're not making any sense."
  • "You know I'm right."
  • "The discussion is over."

The Authority doesn't mince words. He's blunt. He gets to the point. He's willing to listen to the rabble (up to a point), but he's no diplomat. The purpose of conversation is to communicate his point of view and present well-reasoned arguments, and to quash debate. When flustered by all the stupid people around him, he might resort to insults or sarcasm to assert his superiority.

  • "It's like I'm talking to an ogre."
  • "What am I, a crystal ball?"
  • "Alas, if only your mind were as sharp as your sword."

Quick Trick #1: The Authority likes to steer the conversation. When speaking in character, I try to interrupt the players and talk over them. I treat the exchange like a flurry of punches: short, forceful jabs building to a knockout conversation ender. "And that's why I'm better than you," is a nice one.

The Sage: Players who lean on this chap for answers or guidance are rarely disappointed, because the Sage has great clarity of thought and diplomacy. Unfortunately, he often has a roundabout way of getting to the point, relying heavily on cautionary tales or verses that sound like they were plucked from fortune cookies. This can be both funny and infuriating to players. The Sage knows that it's unwise to offend a powerful band of adventurers, so when called upon to assist the party, he's careful not to make decisions for the heroes or express his arguments is a disrespectful way (rather like Pete Postlethwaite's lawyer character, Mister Kobayashi, in The Usual Suspects). Here are some sound bites the Sage might use:

  • "There's an old saying . . ."
  • "Would that I had all the answers. I'd be as rich as a king."
  • "Forgive me for saying so, but perhaps you're going about this the wrong way."
  • "Do you know the story of the farmer who lost her family to a pack of werewolves? Consumed by grief and rage, she spent her family's wealth on a silvered blade and hired a skilled ranger with silvered arrows to lead her to the monsters' den in the heart of the Fellhaunt Forest, and together they slaughtered the pack. To her dismay, the ranger was grievously wounded in battle. Before they could reach civilization, the curse of lycanthropy took hold. No one knows what became of the farmer, but the ranger formed a new pack and terrorizes the realm to this day. Evil, my friends, can't always be slain with a sword."

Sometimes the Sage is "out of touch" with the world around him, not unlike the Sphinx from Mystery Men. He might spew the occasional cryptic non sequitur, mention things that have no relevance to the topic at hand, or hearken back to earlier conversations, making his train of thought hard to follow.

  • "What was I saying?"
  • "The well is dry, friend. The well is dry."
  • "I'm reminded of the time I met Sultan Malak al'Harran and his third bride, what's-her-name."
  • "Of course, I could be wrong. Many of the books I've read were written by wizards, and one should always be suspicious of their works."

Quick Trick #2: If I'm stuck, I'll have the Sage veer off topic or lapse into storytelling mode. He might tell a story that sheds light on his past, or he might recount a fable from his childhood. He might share his latest conspiracy theory or a cryptic bit of verse that holds no real meaning. It buys time, and with luck, one of my players will discern some connection or shred of relevance and make something of it. If not, the NPC can simply shrug his shoulders and say, "Come to think of it, I'm not entirely sure that's relevant."

The Schemer: The Schemer wants to elevate his status or reap the rewards he feels he so richly deserves, and the adventurers can be useful tools for achieving his ends. That doesn't mean he's evil. A benevolent temple priest might play upon a paladin's sense of duty to bring a criminal to justice, knowing full well that the criminal's capture will garner favors from the king. The Schemer might even regard the player characters as close friends, directing his plots toward others who are less likely to uncover his shenanigans and rip out his lungs. The Schemer fills the party's ears with compliments and platitudes, cleverly or not so cleverly redirecting conversations so as not to lose credibility or advantage. Think of Paul Reiser's spineless corporate parasite, Carter J. Burke, from Aliens as you weigh the following Schemer-worthy sound bites:

  • "I sleep very well at night, thank you."
  • "A thousand apologies. I meant no offense."
  • "Can I give you some friendly advice?"
  • "You, sir, are much smarter than I. Or is that 'smarter than me'? I'm not really sure."

If the players are aware of the NPC's scheming nature, they can put his skills to use for their own gain. It never hurts to have a friend who lies like a rug for a living and who can turn a clever phrase or help untangle complex plots.

  • "You wound me with your accusations!"
  • "What can I say? I'm a polecat in a dog-eat-dog world."
  • "If I help you put down this assassins' guild, what's in it for me?"

Quick Trick #3: A Schemer likes to answer questions with questions, and practically speaking, a question framed as an answer can create tension and make conversations much more lively. A question such as "Where's your boss?" might lead the Schemer to reply, "What makes you think I have a boss?" or "That's not really the question you should be asking, is it?" This was the stock-and-trade approach for nearly every government character in The X-Files, and it's hilariously infuriating.

The Brooder: Far from the scintillating conversationalist, the Brooder rarely speaks unless spoken to, and even then the player characters need a crowbar to pry words from his lips. (I'm reminded of Peter Stormare's brooding blond psychopath in Fargo.) He's a godsend for the DM who has trouble weaving dialogue on the fly—a monosyllabic utterance here, a fractured half-sentence there, and that's that. The Brooder might have a hundred things on his mind, but he keeps his thoughts to himself. His actions, however minimal, speak volumes. Occasionally, he might open up and spill his guts, but only when the stars are perfectly aligned or circumstance warrants. He might talk openly with one character while avoiding conversation with everyone else. Some players like the mystery that surrounds him, while others harbor grave suspicions and question the reasons behind his unyielding silence. He comes up thin in the sound bite department:

  • "Oops."
  • "Go away."
  • "Don't make me hit you."
  • "I'll take first watch."

One of the more brooding characters in my campaign is a dragonborn assassin who recently converted to Bahamut's faith. Unlike Zarkhrysa, he survived having his throat slashed, although it pains him to speak. He doesn't talk often, but when he does, his whispered words carry a ton of weight.

  • "Oh, shi—"
  • "Your skin will make a fine cloak."
  • "That makes me very angry."

Quick Trick #4: NPCs who decline to speak or lack the capacity to speak are fun for DMs because they shift the burden of conversation to the players. A mute NPC might communicate through misspelled written words or crude drawings, while an NPC who has taken a vow of silence might communicate using a rudimentary sign language taught to him by a reclusive order of monks. A DM can have a lot of fun with that.

Of course, these are but a sampling of NPC archetypes. I've included a few more in this week's poll. If you can think of another archetype, feel free to mention it in the comments field. Don't be afraid to throw in a few dialogue snippets for good measure, but be warned: I might steal your ideas for my home campaign.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Which of the following classic D&D books would you most like to see re-released in some fashion?
D&D Rules Cyclopedia 868 37.6%
AD&D Fiend Folio 161 7.0%
AD&D Greyhawk Adventures hardcover 190 8.2%
Aurora's Whole Realms Catalog 93 4.0%
The Illithiad 119 5.2%
GDQ1–7: Queen of the Spiders 218 9.4%
I3–5: Desert of Desolation 122 5.3%
T1–4: The Temple of Elemental Evil 398 17.2%
None of the above (leave a comment) 140 6.1%
Total 2309 100.0%

Which is dumber?
Allowing half-dwarves/half-elves (dwelfs) in your campaign. 1251 61.0%
Allowing a player to play a chaotic good half-orc paladin named Haxx Two-Pieces. 800 39.0%
Total 2051 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #98

 Which of the following NPC archetypes do you enjoy roleplaying the most?  
The Authority
The Brooder
The Chatterbox
The Emotional Wreck
The Jester
The Narcissist
The Sage
The Schemer
The Sycophant
The True Friend

Christopher Perkins
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.
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