Much of a dungeon master’s skill amounts to choosing the technique that suits a moment in the game. I have two examples:
- Maps and miniatures bring advantages, but if a character battles a sentry or flees an army, skip the grid.
- Only start a scene when the characters have a goal and face an obstacle, so when someone buys rope, use a summary. (See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure)
Use the right tool for the job.
For years, because I used the wrong tool, a type of roleplaying scene sometimes left my players confused. Adopting a better technique would have forced me to accept a limitation that just about every DM shares. Few of us can stage a good one-performer show. Lucky for my players, a giant of roleplaying game design set me straight.
In Dungeons & Dragons, the DM plays every non-player character. Speaking in character makes these NPCs more vivid, makes scenes feel more immediate, and encourages roleplaying. (See Most Advice for Encouraging Roleplaying Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.)
As a DM, when I portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. I figured if I performed better, then the confusion would lessen. So I worked on character voices and doing a better job attributing each speaker. Sometimes I even held up a picture of the current speaker. Despite any improvement, players still often became confused. Perhaps worse, players sat idle. Roleplaying games should encourage interaction and my one-man show discouraged it.
Permission to change my approach came from Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu—probably the most critically acclaimed roleplaying game ever. In a convention presentation, he says, “Never let two NPCs have a discussion, because then it’s just the gamemaster talking to himself.” Thank you, Sandy.
Instead of acting two parts in character, just tell the players what the two characters say. “The elders disagree about the best way to stop the raids. Some want to strike back the chief. Others suspect the attacks seek a stolen totem held by cultists in the village.”
Such a narrative approach falls short of ideal, but it works better than talking to yourself.
Still, the best roleplaying scenes feature a small number of players speaking to one NPC at a time.
In your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones.
Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need two characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view. Now you can act as each NPC in character without fostering confusion.
But suppose you have the acting chops to fill a crowd scene with distinctive voices chatting among themselves. Awesome! Can I play at your table? Still, avoid putting more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.
Dungeon masters should work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.
As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. Splitting the party makes everyone contribute. Less-vocal party members gain time in the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them on their separate ways. (See Never Split the Party—Except When it Adds Fun.)