GM as Actor
GMs also need to take on the role of actor. When heroes encounter villains, allies, or neutrals, they want for them to be interesting enough to be able to tell one from another. When the NPCs perform their heroic or dastardly deeds, they should remain feasibly consistent with what the players have already learned about them.
Cult of Personality
NPCs are people too! They need to have personalities. Often, by taking an existing character that the GM knows well, whether its Barney Fife, Ferris Bueller, or his own second cousin, he can use the existing personality for an NPC (without letting the players know about the hidden connection). This will guarantee consistency, as long as the GM keeps straight that Miles Brogan, barroom brawler, is actually Rambo in a different body and an Irish accent.
Besides developing a specific personality for the NPCs, the GM needs a way to communicate to the players who the NPCs are. By putting on a hat, an apron, or glasses, the GM can communicate that he is slipping into a new role. And if the props and costuming are consistent for each NPC, the players begin to recognize that when the GM wears that green fedora, he is no longer the GM, he is Montana Smith, pulp archaeologist.
Holding up a picture of the character being acted is also a good way to communicate which NPC is speaking.
There are many other ways to instantly communicate switching roles to the group. It can be done with mannerisms like always scratching one ear, always talking very slowly and deliberately, or constantly looking from side to side. For GMs with skill in mimicry, changing voices for different characters works wonders. Speaking with accents is also a good way to differentiate, but watch that it doesn’t get old too quickly.
Putting It All Together
Ideally, a good GM will use all of these methods, and vary them for each character. When the GM takes off the scarf that identifies him as Scarlet of Mystery, and begins to speak with a cheesy German accent while holding his pencil like a cigarette, the players know that their archenemy General Zorg has entered zee interrogation rheum.
As actor, a good GM knows his NPCs’ beliefs and habits, and communicates them effectively.
What are your best tips for portraying the huge number of characters a GM is responsible for?
This article was originally published in The Way, the Truth, & the Dice. Due to the original article’s length, it is being serialized for this format.