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I was DMing the second session of my first game a few weeks ago and I started thinking about how I should have handled a particular situation. We had 3 PCs being assisted by a cleric NPC; this same cleric had actually been murdered previously by the players, resurrected by another NPC, and as a sort of test had her accompany them in a dungeon, the idea being to test her genuine loyalty and skill, and to see if the PCs would turn on her.

During this session, at one point one of the PCs was injured pretty badly, and demanded the cleric heal him. He had been berating the cleric NPC the entire time, and when she refused, he rolled to intimidate; essentially stating, heal me or I'll kill you again.

My initial thought was heck no, she isn't healing you even if she is terrified, she'll as likely stab you in that case. He rolled really high for his intimidate, with clear success, and when he was all proud that he was about to be healed she instead saw him as the threat he succeeded in being perceived as, assumed she'd likely die in the next moment and having accepted that, pulled out her sword to finish him instead. The situation resolved when the other PCs stepped in and convinced her not to execute him right there.

My understanding of intimidation is that you are seen as a looming threat, and that bad things will happen if you don't comply; in that regard an NPC can react different depending on their resolve and the context of the situation, resulting not necessarily in an automatic gratification but rather a change in the conditions of the interaction, with them either complying, lying through their teeth to survive, immediately becoming hostile, etc.

Was I being fair, in the context of their previous interactions versus his clearly successful intimidate check? Or should I have given him his win and let him bully a heal out of the cleric?

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I've always ruled Intimidate like this: Intimidate is a charisma skill, and is about using your personality to override someone else's good sense. It's not about being a danger that people think about, it's about being in their heads and manipulating them.

When you make a threat with muscle and an axe, rather than an intimidate check, your target will think with their normal amount of wits about them. They might conclude that they need to comply for their own safety, but they will be trying to find a way to both be safe and to not do the thing that you're trying to force them to do. They also might (correctly or not) conclude that there isn't anything you can really do about it. Bluff checks can be used to influence this logical appeal, but the opponent is still thinking.

A successful Intimidate check means you have short-circuited their reasoning with your own certainty that you will hurt them. An intimidated opponent will do what you ask as best they can (unless that puts them in immediate danger from another source), regardless of whether it makes sense or not.

So, an intimidated character won't think to lie about the information you're demanding from them. A character with a sword to their throat will be weighing their options, and may try bluffing if they think they will be out of danger by the time you find out they lied.

So I would say the cleric should have complied. The intimidating character was not a threat to be dealt with rationally, they had instead intimidated the cleric out of using their better judgement and instead doing what was asked.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a good way to explain it Edwinsage, thank you. I think my situation skirted the edges of what is reasonable, and could be pushed either way as either "mechanically I was out of line" or "he RPed bad decisions and suffered bad consequences" but I think it's clear that on examination I really wasn't in the right with my ruling. I appreciate the insight! \$\endgroup\$ – Nevurmore May 7 '18 at 17:29

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