Some Advice for Playing a Role (And Then I Swear I’ll Get Back to the Juicy Bits)
First of all, when talking as an NPC, do not force it. Do not try to dress up your speech with flowery or archaic language. Don’t worry too much about anachronisms. Speak naturally. I know I just gave a thousand basement-dwelling wannabe thespians a heart attack and someone is going to scream about immersion in my comment feed, but those people are wrong. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does. If your speech doesn’t come naturally or you use words your players don’t understand, its going to ruin the scene much more than an out of place remark. I’m not saying you should refer to cars and trains and lasers in a medieval fantasy game, but don’t worry about having your medieval police inspector speak a little more like Joe Friday than Inspector Javert. It’ll get the point across and players will actually get a stronger feel for the character if they understand the character and can relate it to something. So, just be natural.
If the players say something that is unclear, do not be afraid to ask them to clarify. And you can let the NPC do the asking. After all, if you are confused, the NPC probably is too. This is the one time when you can actually ask the players direct questions through the game world and have it make sense. Take advantage of it.
Likewise, remember that if people want something, they will eventually say so. If an NPC has a price or some reason why he doesn’t want to help the party, he’ll only banter for so long before he outright says “I don’t trust you guys” or “it’ll cost you.” It is a natural habit for DMs to withhold that stuff because they like to make an InterACTION! a puzzle. But it usually ends up being an unfair and frustrating puzzle because the players can’t read minds and the conversation just sounds bizarre and unnatural. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for an NPC to be cagey (like not wanting to ask an official for a bribe), but usually, not asking for something is the quickest way to not get it.
More generally, don’t be afraid to give the players clues as to how they can wrap things up. In a combat situation, a good DM uses descriptions to communicate information about the monsters, right? A monster that dodges a blow instead of blocking it with a shield or just taking it on the armor is obviously more agile and has a good agility defense (or whatever). A monster with heavier armor is harder to penetrate than one with light armor. And so on. If you know the NPC needs a reason to trust the party or that the NPC is afraid of ratting on the crime boss, hint at those things or say them outright. It gives the party something to play off and stops them from spinning their wheels. “Why should I trust you?” “I can’t talk or I’m a dead man.” Whatever.
When you get started, it is more important to run InterACTIONS! (drinK) correctly than to worry about bringing them to life. But you can inject a bit of personality into every NPC pretty easily. Begin by practicing (away from the table) how to change your phrasing to match a specific personality trait. While you’re driving to work, take a single phrase or question, and repeat it over and over, using a different tone every time.
Neutral: “What do you want?”
Helpful: “What can I do for you?”
Curious: “what are you looking for?”
Suspicious: “What do you want from me?”
Beauracratic: “With what do you require assistance?”
Frustrated: “Yeah? What do you want?”
Obviously, typing it out doesn’t convey tone and tone is important. That’s why you have to practice. Then, during the game, you can assign an NPC a single word that defines their personality and phrasing. Each time you say something as that NPC, phrase it to match the tone you’ve chosen.
Don’t be afraid to pause and think about how to respond. You are doing a lot of mental gymnastics whenever you run an InterACTION! and players just need to f$&%ing understand that! You are acting, playing a role, trying to pace the game, trying to offer hints and clues, and watching for the inevitable true InterACTION! so you can demand dice rolls and resolve the stupid scene. Sometimes, you need a moment to think.
In real life, people use all sorts of verbal and physical cues to say “hold on, I’m thinking.” When someone asks you a question and you say, “ummm…” or “well…” or “let me see…,” those are social cues. They indicate you have heard the question and that you are now thinking about how to respond. “Please wait, loading speech file, language will come out of me in a moment.” Most people, as part of learning how to be social, learn to shut the hell up when those happen. Use that to your advantage.
When you need a moment, drop a pause indicator. “The guard thinks this over for a moment.” “The elf says ‘Hrmmmmm….’” Or just you, yourself can go, “Welllll…” either in character or out of character. Body language works too, but sometimes it is too subtle for people to pick up on. Still, breaking eye contact and looking at the ceiling will stop most players from talking for a moment, as will stroking your chin, looking down at your hands, or other “thinking” gestures. Breaking eye contact is a vital first step. It is the clue most people respond to right off the bat.