This is RPG-ology #56: Voices, for July 2022.
A couple months back someone on a Facebook RPG group (and I honestly don’t remember which) asked for advice on how to individualize non-player characters. There was some good advice given, including a small bit from me about creating character voices; but the question keeps coming back to mind, so I thought I would expand on the idea here.
The problem for the referee is that at least sometimes the setting suggests that there’s a room full of people, and he is most of them. If it matters who says what, there has to be a way for the players at the table to know who is speaking. You might resort to literary glosses, “The innkeeper says,” “Thuljor answers,” and the like, but that gets cumbersome quickly. Some referees use props to identify whom they are speaking as, such as a specific hat for the NPC Bard, a mug for the bartender, a letter opener for the local thief, but having enough props close at hand for the wealth of characters that have to be represented could be daunting. The easiest way, though, to distinguish one character from another is by using specific voices for them. Of course, some will object that they have only one voice–but with a few thoughts you can probably stretch that voice to at least half a dozen, and perhaps more.
Think about voices, and what makes them different. Some people have high-pitched voices, and some have low-pitched ones; but everyone has the ability to raise and lower the pitch of their own voice if they think about it. So let the gnome have a high-pitched voice, or the dralasite have a low-pitched one.
In addition to pitch, there is speed–does the character talk fast or slow? Fast-talking characters are more difficult to do, because not only do you have to move your tongue fast enough to articulate the words, you also have to be able to think fast enough to come up with the words before you have to say them. Slow speech is generally easier–as long as you don’t forget what you’re saying before you reach the end of the sentence.
Cadence is like speed, but different. Impressionists for decades have mocked William Shatner’s speech pattern, exaggerating its stops and starts, but a choppy delivery is an option–as is a svelt delivery, a lilting voice, a firm voice, a precise articulation, all ways to give a different sound.
Timbre is another aspect. If you don’t have a nasal voice, you can easily use one for some characters; if you do, you can practice opening your voice to a fuller sound. You can probably produce a breathy voice, or a focused one–talk like an operatic singer. Other affectations, such as a whiny voice or a gravely voice, can be good identifiers. You can even give a character a musical quality to his delivery, tones rising and falling pleasantly or harshly.
You can also use particular expressions. A character who begins most of his statements with “Honestly” or “Well” or “Gosh” is going to be identifiable simply by that; one that peppers his speech with some particular word, whether “friggin'” or “darn” or even just “um”, will have a characteristic feature that makes him recognizable.
That’s all the technical approach. What’s easier is that almost everyone has at least a few lousy impressions and bad accents. Dig out your brogue, your drawl, your British, your Boston, your Valley, your Brooklyn and Jersey and Bronx. Use foreign accents, the way movie characters who aren’t native speakers sound, or imitating the way local immigrants struggle with the local language. Make a character sound like Schwartzenegger, or Robin Williams, or even Goofy or Bugs Bunny. No one expects you to be Mel Blanc; you only have to be able to deliver a voice that is recognizably different from the other characters you’re voicing. You can even be simpler than that. Pick friends of yours, and try to talk the way they do. Everyone knows people they think talk funny, or at least different, and if you try to imitate them you’ll produce something your players will recognize, and might even see as an inside joke.
So that should get you started on some ways to characterize non-player characters through the use of voices. It’s best if there is some connection between the voice you choose for a character and the character’s personality, both because it will make sense to your players and because it will be easier for you to remember, but what matters most is that you can switch between them easily and fall into them quickly at need. The voice of the character is the one thing you can always use to distinguish him.