In the group that I GM, I ran an adventure a few months back that was generally considered very good by everyone involved (Including myself, which does not happen often). It included a little girl that I added specifically to trigger the (real life-)emotions of a certain player, which went so far that said player adopted an almost mother-like behavior towards the child (The player is a female of 22).

I know that using a child to appeal to the emotions is a pretty obvious (some would say "cheap") technique to create emotional ties from the players to the NPCs, so I was wondering what other ways there could be.

I came up with the following:

  • The aforementioned child
  • Heroism / selflessness by NPCs might inspire some emotions, depending on the group

...but I can't think of anything else off the top of my head (There are certainly many more tricks to it). I also see a big difference between players role-playing emotions and feeling emotions, where the ideal is obviously always the second thing.

Somewhat related: Inspiring dislike or hatred for an NPC, without the obvious things like "having them execute a friend of the group", "slaughtering villages for no reason" or having the Villain repeatedly taunt or betray the Players. I'd like to have an emotional base on which the players base everything the person says, if only to make the odd final revelation that the perceived villain is in fact a good guy that much more surprising.

What are your techniques for these things?


8 Answers 8


For an NPC to be able to inspire emotion, it should first be capable of emotion itself. AND your characters have to be aware of this. Give your NPC a personality. A motivation. A pet peeve or compulsion. Make it someone whose interactions with the PCs are significant.

A villain slaughtering villages for no reason must be stopped. A villain slaughtering villages for revenge, screaming his unholy fury to the skies as his blade runs through the imploring mother's chest raises questions. What drove him to this madness ? Could he possibly be reasoned with, maybe dissuaded ? Is there any hope of redemption ? Or maybe, just maybe, his act of revenge is somewhat justified, as the village was in fact the hideout of a death cult responsible for the summoning of Malkamor the Fiery ?

On the other hand, a "friendly" NPC, like that merchant the party escorting from Tranquilstream to Backstabia, has its own quirks. Maybe he's a greedy jerk who takes every opportunity to remind those lazy mercenaries how to do their job ? Maybe he's the only one who's accepted to make the trip to deliver the sole remedy to the black plague that's ravaging the city ? Is that out of nobility or is it because his brother is there, his life in the balance ?

Every now and then, remind your players that the "puppets" they regularly interact with are as alive as their own characters. That when you cut them, they do bleed. And that when they freed that shellshocked, tortured reporter from his cell, they did set free the guy who would rush in and stab the villain multiple times when they thought they'd be able to send him to jail.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for For an NPC to be able to inspire emotion, it should first be capable of emotion itself. And I'd add to this that you have to be able to play their emotions. If you're too detached from the characters to show their caring, then don't expect to inspire that same emotion in others. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 16:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for Tranquilstream and Backstabia, I just love creative naming in examples. I'd also note it's not easy to come up with convincing NPCs on the spot, so if you have a recurring NPC (even a shopkeeper) play that well, improve him in-between session and give him character. \$\endgroup\$
    – Maurycy
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 18:40

I also see a big difference between players roleplaying emotions and feeling emotions, where the ideal is obviously always the second thing.

I don't think the second is always better, although it is my preference. Most players want to express emotions, but whether they're more satisfied by pushing real emotions to the surface or by pulling an emotion from thin air is going to be something that varies from player to player. It may even vary from emotion to emotion. I'm not particularly interested in ever feeling real grief over another character, nor am I interested in in-game romance.

Back to the point. To get a human reaction from your players, you need them to react to human (or humanoid, system depending) things. If your bad guy deep fries an orphanage and feeds crispy orphan mcnuggets to his minions, that's monstrous but not particularly emotional because we have no connection to it. It's so far off the deep end that you can't relate to it.

On the other hand, maybe the bad guy left his own children at the orphanage because a) he's a womanizer and b) his world domination plans left no time for child rearing. Odds are your players will have some personal opinions on these. If you're into temptation and want to make the players feel uneasy, give them explicit options to use the BBEG's orphans against him.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You are making a fair point concerning the difference between feeling and playing emotions. I was mostly thinking about positive emotions, like in the example I gave, although I personally wouldn't mind a bit of "casual hatred" for a villian, if you can call it that. But I can see why people would maybe not want that, and how you would have to talk that over with your group, similar to the thing @Sardathrion said about "playing with fears". Also, I love the "Orphan mcnuggets". \$\endgroup\$
    – malexmave
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 16:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @malexmave - especially with the mustard sauce \$\endgroup\$
    – psr
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 22:29

I've tried to recall any times where I've seen players actually have emotions towards an NPC. Sometimes it just occurred out of role playing realistic characters, and would be hard to re-create. Sometimes it required a pretty skilled GM to pull off - such as the charming rogue that you couldn't help like even when he got the best of you.

However, the question seemed to be more about easy (maybe even cheap) tricks to get players to feel emotions about NPCs. A few that have worked:

For your example of a villain that is really a good guy, have the "villain" cost the players loot (or anything that would make their characters more powerful). At the end of a lengthy session (or more) when they think they have succeeded in getting (whatever), the villain somehow gets it first. It needn't be by force, he could just rescue a hostage just before the P.C.s, etc. Ideally by means at least slightly shady, but perhaps no more than the P.C.s would do. If he does it more than once they are almost guaranteed not to like him.

In the little girl vein, what about a dog (or a puppy, you might as well own it). It won't be separated from on of the P.C.s, tries to defend him, attacks all enemies, real or imagined, etc. Not sure to work but might. As cheesy as it gets though.

I've also seen the formerly great, now pathetic former hero leading the P.C.s to complete the task he failed disastrously at. Though he is obviously an amazing person, he despises himself and now wants nothing but the partial redemption that might be left to him. Though he is still a great guy and doesn't want anyone to have happen to them what happened to him.

That's all I can remember working outside of just growing out of role-playing - apparently shallow emotional manipulation is harder than it seems.



Yes, you can use whatever scares the player to scare the character. If you are going to do this, do make sure you have full disclosure from the player as to what they consider acceptable in the context of a fun game. So, if a player is an arachnophobe, that large giant spider is going to be a good start. But we all know that the small ones are much much much more insidious. Player having nightmares about a Hag-like creature walking in their room ... okay, do I even need to go on?

Like for like

A GM should know their players well enough to know what kind of person they like, what kind of ideas they consider to be good things. I role play with scientists mostly, so someone with a logical mind, reasonable, and intelligent is going to be much more friendly than some chav scumbag. Now, a good role player will follow this to what their character acts and thinks. This is where you have to have a good understanding on how the characters think.

Now that the characters like the NPC...


There's things we all consider to be aberrant. You can use those to make an otherwise likable character have a really dark side. That nice and friendly king, the one that is all for equality and freeing the slaves and all that. The one the characters helped re-claim the throne since he was the best choice. He has a sound economy, is reasonable, and wants peace across his lands. Well, he has a thing for young girls. He's keeping it under control since the Queen is 17 but what happens when she grow up? The opposite is true as well. That racist, sexist, ugly pig. Well, he's the best king that can be. Sure, he's scum but the rest are much worse and actually, he will be a good king -- even if the minorities will have a hard time under his rule. But otherwise, the unwashed orcs will eat everyone. Death or slightly moldy cake?


I found that the D&D 3.0 book, Book of Vile Darkness, written by Monte Cook was a good inspiration in making the evil character's of my campaign reek of badness, and therefore the characters really came to 'hate' them. The players also seemed to be invested in strongly disliking the villians.

The GM must have a degree of empathy for each of the PLAYERS. Each person sitting around the table has their own story, values, insecurities, accomplishments, hopes, dreams, desires. It is the challenge of the GM to use these bits of information to highten the empathy, sympathy, apathy that you want the PLAYERS to feel. Realize that you are now treading in a sensitive territory. Some people play games in order to NOT FEEL personally accountable for actions.

Players with children are usually very empathetic with young, vunerable NPCs in game. Single male players are commonly a sucker for the damsel in distress. Fathers may feel pride with a mentorship-like relationship with an NPC. Highly religious players are probably perseonnaly invested in thwarting evil in all its forms.

So, short answer, know your players and hit them in the heart of THEIR value system.


This sort of falls into the "trick" category, but I like turning things around on my players. What I mean by this is I'll set up a potentially emotionally charged scenario based on things playing out in a certain manner that I feel would be typical for how this particular group handles situations.

An example to illustrate:

The party was heading to a small town that they'd heard rumours about having a heavy werewolf population. I set a scenario in which a very attractive female NPC approached the least charismatic individual in the party and began trying to flirt with him. I did this knowing that the players I game with tend towards being suspicious. They were, especially once she disapeared shortly after noticing a large man come into the bar.

Later they encountered her on the road outside of town. She begged for them to take her with them, acknoweldging that her intentions previously had been false, and making some claims to being caught up in werewolf affairs and not being able to escape. My players, being ever wary of a trap, sent her packing.

A few hours later when they heard the howls of wolves, followed by a woman screaming, followed by a lengthly period of silence, there was a palpable feeling in the room as the players looked at one another and began suggesting that this person or that should have done something differently.

Obviously things could have played out differently, but the point I'm trying to make is that if you know your players you should have a good idea of what they might do in a given situation and can challenge them that way. My players learned that sometimes the damsel in distress is simply that, and this is what resulted in the emotional experience.


I've always been a fan of having players define a code of conduct for their characters. I have a few basic canned "outlooks" (good, evil, malicious, etc.)... but good roleplayers will feel emotion through their character based on their values - reflected in their code. Its great because i can target certain hot buttons for some, while let other remain more level headed. And as noted, i use codes for my main npcs too - at least their values and basic motivations. Many are often woven through with local politics and organizations to promote their values... so its easy to see how a characters values influence their actions, which have this ripple effect in such things as brotherhoods, institutions and churches.


I think there is some great inspiration in this feed. One thing I would add is sort of an extension of your original ideas, maleXmave. You've listed NPC acts of heroism/selflessness and I don't think you just discount acts of selflessness by PCs.

You might say that good-aligned PCs are constantly completing selfless quests, but I would argue that they very rarely undertake some task that they truly believe will require their death. As plots go, you might present your party with certain death right up front, which would be straightforward, but the PCs may just turn down the quest line or find some alternate way to avoid catastrophe.

The sneaky-slightly-cheesy-but-still-tasty way to go about this is to assume world saving as usual for a good two thirds of the plot line, and right about the time the party dynamic has been fully developed and friendships are strong, present them with a situation that demands quick, decisive action. "The enemy will be on them in minutes, the portal is still several leagues away. The refugees will never make it in time, but if the whole party stays to defend there will be no one with the skill or knowledge to lead the helpless civilians through the underdark."

So someone has to hold the enemy at the gates, and they won't have a way out. Cue line: "I'll give you as much time as I can. Go!" It's a gimmick storytellers use all the time. The important thing when employing it in an RPG is that you still let the PCs choose that gimmick. If they come up with some brilliant plan that doesn't require any PC death, don't shoot it down. Offer someone in the party the opportunity to be the ultimate hero, and if they take it, their party members are sure to appreciate the sacrifice both in game and out of game. (We're talking two-thirds of a campaign this character has survived! Flushed!) It's not a technique to be overused, but its emotionally effective.

PS - Don't forget to reward that player with a little meta-game-karma.


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