If you sit down to run a session of D&D you’ll have to take the role of different characters. You could have an empty dungeon that players are just thrown into, but even in that sort of situation it’s common they’ll run across a talkative ghost or fellow tomb robber. You might have a temptation to voice act all of the characters the players run across. However, this comes with difficulties and that’s what I hope to go over today.
You’re A Story Teller First
The first responsibility of the Dungeon Master is to be a story teller. The nature of collaborative story telling is that the players also have a story telling role, particularly deciding the actions of their characters, but the Dungeon Master is the head story teller and controls what comes their way. In this role voice acting is not necessary. I’ve played with plenty of Dungeon Masters who did not voice act any of their characters. They did change their manner of speaking, added certain words or constructs to give each character a personality, but they did little in regards to changing the tone of their voice. People were engaged enough with the story that their imagination filled in the blanks.
The Problem Of Long Gaming Sessions
Remember that Voice Actors take breaks and need to be careful not to strain their voices. You often don’t have that luxury when running a gaming session. Lasting 5 hours when voicing many different characters is a trail of endurance. If you’re unsure that you can last that period of time, don’t risk it. It’s better that you keep your voice for the other things you need to do that week, and also are in good shape for the next session.
Too Many Characters
If you have a campaign that lasts years, your players will run across many different characters. Bandits, villagers, mages, a magic talking skull where the soul of a mage who died 600 years ago is trapped, and many more! Most voice actors can’t voice every character in a TV series.
Pick Your Battles/Characters
So what’s the answer? First, I’d say it’s not worth voice acting a random villager in the street. Give them regional slang if you must, but giving them a unique voice isn’t worth it. It’s also unlikely your players will be able to easily tell all of your characters apart by voice alone unless the cast is kept short.
You don’t always know which characters will become long term fixtures in a campaign. A shopkeeper you meant as a one-off may become the player’s favourite place to sell their unneeded loot. This means that sometimes you’ll need to voice act characters after they’ve already spoken and made their introduction.
I’d suggest to pick a small number of characters who are important to your campaign, and voice act those. The main villain is a great choice, but not always doable. It’s rather hard to imitate the voice of a very deep voiced villain if your voice just doesn’t go that low. Keep this number low. For most I’d say don’t go past 3 characters.
Using Technology (Recording Ahead)
I once played in a one-shot where the Dungeon Master was a good voice actor. However, he also couldn’t voice all of the characters. So what did he do? He asked his friends to record lines for some of the other characters. When the character was introduced, he’d play the recording. It was 1-2 lines that established the character of their voice. After that, it was back to him speaking their lines with modified mannerisms.
This techniques works well and can help you if you’re on your own and get a bit of stage fright. However, the overhead of recording lines multiple times to get your ideal take can be too much and not feasible if you run sessions ever week and every two weeks. If you’re planning a one-shot, it’s far more reasonable if you have the prep time. In fact, I’d like to see more published adventures use this approach. I’d love to have a bunch of files I could play to introduce characters to my players.
Mannerisms and Lines Over Voice Acting
The title says it all here, and I’ve been mentioning this repeatedly but let’s get this stated explicitly. It also works as my closing statement. Focus on the story, what’s going to be said, and the mannerisms. If you do that, even without voice acting, people’s imagination will take over and your voice will fall away as they get immersed in the story. I’ve heard quite a few great story tellers in my time. Some did voices. Others didn’t, and I could still get lost in the stories they told.