First off, I'm not trying to redefine the "non-player character" Cougartown-style. I've seen the term "Non-Protagonist Character" in several games, and it fits how I consider NPCs better than "non-player character" does. If you don't like it, there are extensions for Chrome such as Word Filter and similar ones for Firefox (and I'm sure others) that can replace words in a live webpage. Have a field day.
NPCs have always been somewhat hit or miss for me. They're arguably the most valuable means for the players to interact with the game world (aside from the PCs themselves). When NPCs are done well, they can bring the game to life. When they're not, they can turn the whole thing into a parody of itself. The unfortunate thing is that, as a GM or player, I'm a poor actor. I suck at voices and I suck at portraying mannerisms. I can do expressions okay because I do have a face. Overall I'm in this gig for storytelling, not drama club.
This means I fall back on something that I am (or think I am) much better at - writing. I tend to describe things in narrative terms and seldom take on the direct role of the NPC. Instead of sternly saying, "Not in my courtroom!" I'll say, "The judge sternly says, 'Not in my courtroom!'". I'm not quite sure it makes my games better or worse, but I've gotten few complaints. It goes along with the very astute advice, "No silly voices." To me playing the NPC is not much different than describing the scene, or narrating the action.
Describing the NPCs in this manner, rather than "playing" them, means a constant tightrope act between making the NPCs "pop out" from the background and having them just be part of the scenery, forgotten as soon as I stop talking about them. By the way, I suffer from this as the GM, and I'm sure if I was trying to "be the NPC" it might not happen so much. Because of this, I'm always on the lookout for ways to improve my NPCS. Having key mannerisms or phrases are pretty much part of GMing 101. Just as I do when writing fiction, I usually draw inspiration from real people that I know. I can loosely mimic their behavior, speech patterns, etc. and hope that the character comes across as more than a cardboard cutout. Sometimes just Googling for a general image gives me an idea for how to portray the NPC off of.
But I think have a new technique, or at least a way of looking at NPCs, that I'm itching to start using. It may have originally showed up in the Dresden Files rpg, and is also a part of the Spark rpg. They are called Faces. Essentially, a Face is an NPC that is the essence of a particular location or faction. I'd actually extend that out to include scenes, concepts, themes or moods. For example, a tavern where the PCs frequent might be populated with dozens of NPCs - only one of them is the Face of the tavern. It doesn't even have to be the barkeep, either. It could be that old man who's always sitting by himself, mumbling to himself with odd random outbursts. Or the hulking Northerner who is always challenging people to arm wrestling matches. The Face might change with the night of the week, or the season. By making the NPC tied to something else, I think it would help cement the NPC in my head and improve the portrayal.
Luckily for some games, like Tribe 8, this is an extremely easy thing to do. Various characters have already been created that are the Faces of their outlook, tribe, faction, sect, etc. That doesn't mean they're the only NPCs for each of those, but it helps anchor them a bit and increases the chances that I'd use them in the game (especially, as I pointed out in yesterday's post on Metaplot, I now know which characters are important and which aren't). One way to look at it is a form of "What's my motivation?" (although that is a remarkably good method too). Instead, it's "What am I giving a face to?". Once I get this game up and running, I'm certainly going to give it a try.