Right before all of the Halloween craziness of this year occurred, my buddy decided to run a Halloween themed game instead of having the weekly Kilt and Beer night (yes, there is a weekly Kilt and Beer night). Not having been a player in a long time, I said sure why not. We only had a few hours, so knew it would be short and crammed with stuff, but it sounded like a hell of a fun idea. The game went great and I attribute a lot of that to one brilliant thing that my buddy did with the game. Being a game based off of the plot for a movie called Horror Express, my buddy overacted the NPCs in such a way that paid total tribute to the B-movie, Schlock horror style of cinema from which the game was spawned. The more I thought about that aspect of the game, the more I realized how brilliant an idea it was and how all NPCs should be “overacted” in some way. By overacting, I don’t necessarily mean making them cartoon like caricatures, but more the choice to emphasize specific important elements and make those larger than life. Here are five reasons that I’m hoping convince you of the strength of this idea.
1. The Subtle Details Are Going To Be Forgotten Anyways
Ok GMs, let’s face it. No matter how much nuance we cram into our NPCs, or how much detail we write down on index cards that we give out to our players, the little details of the NPCs are always going to be forgotten. The vague general sense of the major thing that NPC represents is what is going to be front and center. The arch-dukes sense of evil is what is going to be remembered, not the small plot point that he was casually seen speaking with a hooded man as the PCs entered the throne room to speak with the king. If this is emphasized and overacted, the detail has more of a chance of sticking. Remember, the players are always looking at your game world from a slightly different angle.
Our brains are god damned amazing, but they are also weird. Our images of others is never a complete image. Think about any person you’ve ever met. The biggest and brightest things, their most obvious physical and personality traits are what comes to mind first. In some cases, especially for people you’ve just met, the idea of the person is more like a fuzzy image with some things defined. If we think about our NPCs in this way, we want to present the most relevant details about the NPC to the players so that their brains, working in the natural way, will have the information they need.
3.Makes Them Memorable
In the game that inspired this article, my buddy acted out the strange monk’s odd behavior and weird voice. We definitely picked up on this and noticed him. He also acted out the irate and angry behavior of the “refined doctor” and the pompous boasting and loud nature of the nobleman who was the beneficiary for the expedition. I remember these things about his game incredibly clearly, despite it only having been a 3 hour game that occurred over a week ago. Grabbing these couple of elements about the NPCs distinguished them from one another and helped us keep the decently large cast of NPCs (7 important NPCs on the train we were riding on)distinct during the short game. If you want more proof, just look at this little montage from “The Gamers”. (p.s. You should totally go check out their new web series called Journey Quest.)
4. Overacting The NPCs Encourages Interaction With Them
The loud guy across the room is a whole lot easier to talk to than the quiet one sitting in the corner. By being loud and noticed, a person breaks the personal space barrier around themselves and encourages people to communicate with them in some way, even if that way is only watching them intently. Kids at theme parks are more drawn to the larger than life full suited mascots than they are the more realistic looking character actors. Overacting your PCs and making them larger than life makes them much easier to engage with roleplaying. It also breaks a little of the tension for players who are less prone to roleplay or get “in character”. If they see you doing it, they are going to feel less silly when they pull out the crazy actions and character accents.
5.Prep Is Easier
Knowing that you are going to overact an NPC makes it much easier to create them. You only have to focus on the elements that you are going to be over-representing. Focusing on big elements during NPC creation also tends to help you flesh out the little details that you may keep in your mind about them. Knowing the NPC is an occult NUT can spark your mind into thinking of all the ways that they express that. Even on the fly, when someone asks how the person is dressed, keeping those one or two defining factors up front makes them easier to build off of on the fly. “How is he dressed? Umm . . (Wait a minute, he is an occult nutjob and I want the PCs to figure out that whatever he is telling them is bullshit.) You see a pentagram tattoo on his hands, but not the kind that looks like it came from an old researched book. No, more like the one that comes from a removable tattoo from Hot Topic."
So, there are lots of reasons to “overact” your NPCs. Do you think the tactic is valid? Do you usually play your NPCs over the top or try to keep them more realistic? Do you think it kills the realism to overact the NPCs?