That’s not me. I do funny voices and occasionally remember the voice I should be using two sessions in a row, so players can get familiar with the character’s portrayal.
The fact is that most NPCs don’t need much attention to detail. Work out one distinguishing feature – typically vocal, as that’s the most direct way to be memorable, although sometimes facial ticks or gestures can work – and stick to it. They’re only going to be there for a session or two, then forever forgotten.
It’s the NPCs who stick around for session after session after session that need more attention. I’m terrible at this, but I have one advantage: If I can’t remember every aspect of their portrayal from session to session, then neither will the players. This is like the early days of TV: you’re not being recorded, so people won’t rewatch your performances and realise that you had a completely different accent the first time the character appeared. (There are huge errors in Doctor Who continuity because it was originally though of as only being broadcast and watched once!) I don’t have to be Matt Mercer.
My starting point for characters tends to be acting performances I really like. I’m very happy to do a Marvin the Paranoid Android impression, or an Alan Rickman impression, or both at the same time. I’m sure there are people out there using Sean Connery as the basis of numerous characters. Me? I really enjoy doing a Londo Mollari impersonation when they meet travellers from distant lands.
I have stock characters that I’ve worked out over decades of doing this stuff. There aren’t as many as I’d hope. A few years back, one of my players identified that I had three characterisations I used all the time. I’d like to think that I have more now, but I probably only think I do. I likely have three *different* characterisations these days, having forgotten the original ones. Although I think I can still do the doddery old priest if I set my mind to it.
I was running Suits of the Mist last night, the beginning of the D&D Adventurers League series of adventures set in Barovia. It’s a really challenging one as it has a LOT of characters. Doddery old man – check. Wicked witch – check. Annoying raven – check. Huh: I think I’ve got the three portrayals I do over and over again.
The thing is, the more you role-play a character, the better you get at it. When you have one character you role-play for a year, getting into the “voice” of the character is much easier. The DM’s challenge is doing that and coming up with mannerisms for all the other characters that appear.
It doesn’t have to be a funny voice. Perhaps it’s a turn of phrase, or a way of pausing at unusual moments.
I had a troll once who shouted a lot, and failed to understand that the world was made up of other humanoid races apart from humans. As all the player characters were non-human (Dragonborn, elves and dwarves), they got really annoyed at him. It was funny. It also helped him stick in their heads. You don’t need a complete portrayal to start with: just one or two things to make them memorable.
Strangely, the best role-playing experience of my life was because I couldn’t do a Russian accent. Yeah, I’m really terrible at accents. I can do fake-Irish and fake-Scottish, and that’s about it. So one of my friends took over the NPC (his PC wasn’t a major focus of the adventure). And he hit it out of the park. Took the story in incredible directions, shocking and surprising the other players. Sometimes, giving a key NPC to another player really works.
How much your players get into this sort of acting also affects the game. If you’re the only one doing it, it’s hard. If everyone is doing it, it becomes much easier. You don’t need to force this sort of role-playing if you don’t enjoy it: every group is different. There is a very wide range of play styles.
Try stuff. Experiment. See if your group likes it. Those are the people you have to please: Not me, not Mike Mearls, not Matt Mercer. You just have to entertain your players. And you’ll be entertained by them in turn.
DMing D&D? Wouldn’t miss it for the world!