I’ve been running D&D 4th Edition games for about four months now, and I feel like I’m to the point that I can run combat pretty well. I generally know what the bad guys can do in combat, and I know how they want to approach the player characters. I’m getting better at using interesting terrain, putting some movement into the battles and so on.
Where I’m not so great yet is role playing. Role playing as a dungeon master is a very different experience from role playing as a player. When you’re a player, you have a single character whom you know inside and out, whom you’ve built up from nothing, who has a personality and desires and fears that are intimately familiar to you.
When you’re a dungeon master, you’re playing a host of different characters every session. Sure, you might have some recurring NPCs or some characters that accompany the party for many sessions, but that’s not always going to be the case – and besides, you don’t want an NPC to take too much of the spotlight anyway. Most of the time, you’re playing monsters.
A great dungeon master can make these throw-away characters come to life – not to the degree that a great player character will come to life, but enough to make the bad guy memorable before it falls beneath the attacks of your party. Below are some thoughts on how to become a better role-player as a DM (which I’m still trying to put into practice myself!).
Think like the character
This goes for any role-playing, but it’s easy to forget about it when it comes to a monster. An intelligent NPC should certainly be thinking, and you should get into their heads, but that’s obvious. What about a beast or an undead creature or an aberration? Do they act on instinct alone? Are they following commands from another creature? Do they act randomly?
Once you know how the character acts and why, show it! You can say, “The rat whips its head around, looking for the nearest piece of flesh. It sees the meaty-looking cleric and charges in with fangs bared!” Or, “The zombie hears the necromancer command it to attack the paladin, and it mindlessly obeys, shambling over with its arms raised in preparation for a smashing blow.” “The aberration swerves erratically, paying no heed to the avenger standing next to it as it randomly heads toward the wizard. Avenger, you can take an attack of opportunity…”
Talk like the character
No, you don’t have to channel your inner thespian too much here. Some bad guys bellow. Others sneer. You might find some that hiss. And of course lots of them don’t speak at all, but that doesn’t mean they’re silent. Have your NPCs taunt the party, bellow in rage when hit, whimper pathetically when nearly destroyed.
On a related note, have the monsters talk to one another when appropriate. A leader may yell commands to his troops (and here’s a possible area where you can reward the player who took language training in Goblin or Giant – they may be the only one who can understand the command). A great suggestion that I received recently was to have one creature complain about the skill of another, especially when the other is a minion. “You useless pile of bones! You’re not worth the necromantic energy the Dark Lord spent to animate you!” Evil creatures don’t always get along with one another – play this up!
Act like the character
Might your NPCs and monsters have any interesting mannerisms? Run with them! Lots of dungeon master books talk about behavioral quirks that NPCs might have, but this can apply to monsters, too. A bad guy might do a little dance of joy when he hits a player. The monster might cower after being hit. I played in a game with one DM who essentially described a poor little kobold as having pooped himself upon seeing a PC obliterate some other kobolds. Yeah, it’s a poop joke, but it worked!
Just because you’re the DM doesn’t mean you don’t get to role-play. You have a huge influence on how much your players will role-play and how immersed they get in the game world. The more you can think, talk and act as your characters would (even when they’re just monsters), the more your players will buy into the game and the more fun everyone will have.