Introduction and Context

Over the course of almost two decades of gaming, and most of my real life, my experience is that there's a social approach which seems like one of the many workable choices 'on paper', but turns out to cause more problems than it solves in practice. I'm talking about the approach that involves getting what the PC(s) want(s) through threatening the NPCs.

Whenever I examine scenes in which such an approach either was or could be used, an overwhelming majority of the time I get the impression that it's not the best choice. That at best it'll provide a short-term gain at the cost of a greater long-term loss, which adds up to be a net negative throughout the whole length of a campaign.

Now, an overwhelming majority of systems which distinguish approaches, be they Rapport vs. Provoke, Charm vs. Intimidate, Respected vs. Feared, Persuasion vs. Intimidation, or whatever else they may call them, seem to not consider one of the two to be sufficiently inferior to warrant a discount or a disadvantage compensation. Similarly, I see that many players and GMs are much more comfortable with this approach and see it as quite worthwhile (e.g. willing to play a PC whose only way of socially dealing with others is through terror).

Based on that, I'm assuming that I'm just not very knowledgeable in the strategies of choosing social approaches, or am lacking some other knowledge or practical understanding - thus I'm asking how to mitigate the drawbacks and emphasise the benefits of intimidation-oriented approaches, keeping them 'worth it' as compared to other (primarily more 'positive') approaches to social interactions over the course of a campaign, and prevent them from turning into a downward spiral.

The Off-Putting Drawbacks

There are two key drawbacks that make me see such an approach as generally inferior, and that I want to learn to roleplay 'around' - either by roleplaying in a way that would reduce the disruptive effects thereof, or in a way that would make the drawback worth the benefit.

The primary drawback I see is that of consequences spanning beyond the short term. Even assuming the browbeating attempt is successful, it creates resentment and worsens future relationships with the NPC in question. Even if a power asymmetry makes the target unable to just avoid the PC in the future, this still creates risks down the line - this a contributor to why, for example, minions and dragons betray their evil overlords and switch teams at the most inconvenient moment. This isn't just a matter of tropes and fiction - based on the contrasting experience with workplaces where bosses use different social approaches, the ones that went for intimidation had a major long-term deterioration of the underlings' attitude and reduction of morale. It seems like if I play my PC as a thug, this is prone to creating a trail of enemies - enemies who either hate my PC for the actions in question, or even the whole party for being in cahoots with the thuggish jerk. (Can substitute another fearsome archetype in place of thuggish if you like.)

The secondary drawback is that of applicability and appropriateness. There are more situations where being likeable is useful than situations when being scary is useful. E.g. even in warfare, the grudging respect of the opponents tends to be of use. Conversely, there are many situations where being scary either doesn't confer worthwhile benefits, or has additional drawbacks (such as reactions of onlookers). Perhaps I'm just terrible at seeing the right moments for playing up the scariness of a PC in a useful way.

A Word on 'Naturally Occurring Situations'

The above observations are applied to what I call Naturally Occurring Situations in the context of a campaign. By that I mean that the GM tends to generate situations the way they would be logical for the setting and the campaign, without significantly bending the logic to cater to specific character builds. I understand that it's possible to deliberately come up with situations that would emphasise a specific approach, but I found most such approaches too contrived and thus not good for willing suspension of disbelief.

This also incidentally means that a large but not total part of my interest focuses on finding enough good uses of intimidation as a player or as a GM controlling a proactive NPC that would make it competitive with diplomatic/persuasive/charming approaches (which tend to be a much more universal tool in the kit, and much less prone to backfiring), when analysing situations that already came up. Conversely, answers that amount forcing the events to 'conspire' to raise menacing approach to usefulness/appropriateness level of the more likeable ones (whether through GM fiat or metanarrative influence given to players in narrative-leaning systems) are not helpful.

A Word on System Agnosticism

This was never intended to be a mechanical question; it's a question about roleplaying in a non-self-detrimental way. The observations of mine are gathered across playing using multiple systems, including campaigns which only nominally adhered to a system (being played very rules-light most of the time), or which use roleplaying, not mechanics, to resolve social situations. Thus the question is tagged as system agnostic. If some sort of non-agnostic default assumption cannot be abstained from, it's probably best to take 'freeform roleplay over IRC or other chat' as one for a starting point.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Asking about keeping intimidation relevant in the span of the hobby as a whole kinda doesn't make sense: there are games that don't handle the concept in a comparable way, or don't handle the concept at all, or already naturally solve the problem through highly system-specific mechanics that are not easily translated. There are also only specific narratives in which intimidation is going to be relevant enough to be a skill. Solutions also naturally have to work in whatever system you're actually working with and won't be one-size-fits-all. No system to target means we can't solve this. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 15:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I suppose seeing it as a narrative-oriented question would be a reasonable approach. Should I edit the question to downplay the system aspect and more explicitly focus on the narrative one? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 15:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm looking for help focusing more on the narrative side (not in the GNS sense though) of different approaches to social influence than on the game-mechanical side though, so focusing on any system would be counterproductive. Now I'm thinking whether to rewrite the question or give up because I can only hope for mechanics-oriented answers. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 15:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ You'll get narrative- and mechanics-oriented answers. But in answering we need to be able to navigate the narrative and mechanical implications of the system and its relationship to Intimidate (including what kinds of problems it's likely to solve or create and when it is/isn't appropriate) which are not universal features. This means we need a specific game to work with before we can dive into those things. Or to put it differently, we can provide a narrative answer for WoD, but we cannot provide a narrative answer simultaneously for Exalted and WoD and GURPS and Fate and Bubblegumshoe and... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 15:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ We explicitly allow system-agnostic questions here, see Meta for repeated discussions on that, e.g. rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2794/…. While narrative techniques never apply to Every Single Game, there are obviously a wide swath of trad games where there is not a specific solution to this that’s not just in the roleplay. Of course, answers are expected to adhere to Good Subjective, Bad Subjective or be deleted. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jan 26, 2019 at 13:30

3 Answers 3


Intimidation Works

If you are looking for mitigations to the negative impact of intimidation-based approaches, but aren't talking about specific mechanical drawbacks, then really you just need to have a better understanding of how intimidation-based approaches work in the real world to run a PC that uses intimidation effectively.

Kinds Of Intimidation

First of all, intimidation isn't just threat of violence. You can divide "persuasion based approaches" as basically pushing the human "desire" button (whether lust, greed, or virtue) from "intimidation based approaches" as basically pushing the "fear" button - but it can be fear of losing your job, or of shame or humiliation, or of someone making a scene, or a bad performance review, or loss of some other item or privileges, or social troubles...

There are well documented social systems that work predominantly on intimidation that you can watch every day on TV, from Mean Girls to the Trump White House to the crime families in the Sopranos, to police interrogation, to, frankly, some parents. I mean, we wish, and are taught in elementary school, that approach isn't self sustaining, but it can be if you just double down on it enough.

What is the character using as leverage?

Now if a PC is just relying on "violence" type interrogation, that's like only relying on persuasion approaches where you offer up your body. It'll work some of the time, but not all of the time. You should be looking for any of the many kinds of undesirable things you can use as leverage in intimidation. Now, the more institutional power the PC has, the more options they have. If you're a murderhobo that just rode into town, then violence or embarrassment (like the Blues Brothers scene in the fancy restaurant) are your only options. The GM is never required to just "let someone roll" and push their skill button if they don't have any relevant leverage in any game I know of - for intimidation or persuasion. But even wandering PCs end up poking into things and uncovering secrets, etc. that can be used. "You wouldn't want the king to find out about this letter you wrote to the count!" The more prep work you do, the more (and safer) opportunities to use intimidation you'll find.

Intimidation Blowback?

Some assume this worsens relationships and makes NPCs less cooperative in the future. But is that really how the world works? They're less likely to do helpful stuff for you in your absence, sure. But in my experience, people who have caved in once to an intimidation are pretty much automatically likely to cave in to that same person next time even without the full threat machine having to come into play. The question states one down-side as the PC's friends are "looked down on" for associating with the thug which is true - but they are also implicitly other people to fear. "If I call the guard on him that's all well and good but what about those other four people with bloodstained clothing he rode in with?" The target doesn't have to know they're goody-goody, feel free and tell them "we'll all be watching."

It's up to your PC to develop a longitudinal approach to intimidation. If they just want to flex their pecs and wander off, then sure, it's not going to last long and there'll be blowback. Ever seen a TV/movie scene where the criminals (or cops, to be fair) initially intimidate someone and then ask for their drivers' license and get their address and say "you don't want to hear from us again?" That's a secondary intimidation designed to make them not just turn on them the second they walk out of frame. In The Sopranos, once you pay the gang protection money, then suddenly you have a rich set of potential problems - them messing with you, another crime organization messing with you, the cops messing with you, social stigma from dealing with criminals... All of which are leveraged to make a self-sustaining relationship based on intimidation.

Of course the Sopranos usually mix the greed in with the fear - mixed in are opportunities for people to make more money, etc. - using both approaches together is effective. But you don't have to rely on the skill...

Effective Intimidation In Game

I'm running a Pathfinder campaign right now where the PCs are pirates and the captain is Lawful Evil. He has certainly used physical intimidation on crew members, but also the threat of undesirable duties, the threat of withholding money, the threat of withholding shore leave, and so on. He also uses positive reinforcement to solidify his position, but he sucks at Diplomacy so he doesn't try to "persuade." Persuading says "Hey, if you go do this special mission for us I'll give you 500 gold!" He says, "Here's 500 gold. You're going on this mission. If you f**k it up you will regret it." Same parameters, but an intimidation based approach. While you're being technically intimidated into doing it, you're also up 500 gold at the end... Maybe you'll stay on this train and see where it's going.

Similarly, when threatening others, he doesn't just have to bare his teeth at people. "It'd be a shame for..." something to happen to someone else you care about, or your property, or for your business rival to get a windfall, or people to find out about that whorehouse you go to, or... Now, many of these aren't drive-by approaches, you need some intel (source of leverage) on the target first to make it long lasting, but the same bar should exist with persuasion: I "like" plenty of people but am not going to let them into my place of work without something special going on.


People don't like being intimidated, but with judicious application of carrot and stick, you can make a career of it.

So in the end, I am challenging your two assumptions about the drawbacks of intimidation based approaches, as they don't bear out in the real world as always bringing everything crashing down. Bullies do pretty well for themselves in many cases. You can't just do it dumb, but you shouldn't let people succeed at persuasion dumb either - similarly, that works for a while and then collapses (hint: Fyre Festival). @Glazius' answer is good in highlighting how to not overpower persuasion, but I've stuck mostly to the intimidation side of the equation.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree with the notion that IRL there is no long-term deterioration of relationship (in fact the observation of such deterioration is one of the contributors to this question, and I tried to mention that in one of the paragraphs). But otherwise I find some of the techniques you offered (particularly those centred around the sixth paragraphs) to be very helpful and will try them out next time I see opportunities for my PC. (Now to also get better at spotting the right opportunities . . .) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 26, 2019 at 18:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure there is, but long term is long term. Like IRL, your PCs will need to either move on after a while or eat up their targets and find new ones. Crime families and political administrations don't last forever, but they do last a long time, longer than most campaigns span. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jan 26, 2019 at 18:04

How to GM for a Diplomacy-Oriented Character While Introducing Negative Complications For The Party

What wonderful people my new friends are! Of course I'll be glad to let them through the gate I was tasked to guard! They were fascinating to talk to and I feel richer for having known them. Now to never think about them again.

-- Literally no human being who has ever lived, and also like 95% of town guards in an RPG

So, yeah. The problem is not you playing wrong and giving your intimidation negative side-effects, the problem is your GM playing wrong and never giving charm any when it should totally have some. If people resent you strongly enough, they might attack you, because they think you'll hurt them; but, similarly, if people hold you in high enough esteem, they might make demands of you that you're not prepared to meet, because they think you'll help them.

Of course not every charming character is going to be followed around town by a crowd of admirers like a singer in a rock'n'roll musical. Not every intimidating character is going to find that every guard they look at crossways goes on to throw their life away to track them down across the continent, knife in hand! Yet somehow the latter one happens. Why?

Name everyone. Give everyone life.

Well, most often? Because pretty much everybody wants to keep on living, so some rando NPC standing guard because "there should be somebody there"? They want to keep on living. They'll attack you because they think you'll hurt them.

But what people want, and what they think the PCs can help them with? That varies, person to person. That needs them to actually be a person with ambitions. Coming up with a realistic set of ambitions for town guard Q-12, who the orcs will slaughter without thought, often just isn't part of prep or a part of play, and when the PCs smile and wave at guard Q-12 and scroll him off the stage? It's easiest to just let him stop existing.

This isn't some overwhelming demand to give everyone six pages of backstory. Canny people have already spotted the reference in the section header to a pretty common principle in Apocalypse World and its derivatives:

Make your NPCs human by giving them straightforward, sensible self-interests. Take Roark, one of my favorite NPCs. Roark comes back from burning down the neighboring hold, unleashing chaos upon us all, and he's beaming because he's really just not that complicated. He wanted to burn it down, so he did, and now he wants a bubble bath because he's all sooty, and that's his entire deal. In your game, make all your NPCs just not that complicated. They do what they want to do, when they want to do it, and if something gets in their way, well, they deal with that now. What they do in life is follow their parts around -- their noses, their stomachs, their hearts, their [privates], their guts, their ears, their inner children, their visions.

Apocalypse World 2nd ed, p.84

Another common element of those games is that you can't just smile and wave your way past a guard, you need something they respect as leverage. And, hey, maybe that is just a friendly face after a long day standing in the rain, but you actually have to think about it for a couple seconds as a GM. And it also puts that guard on the radar of things that can show up later to complicate the PCs' lives.

Word Horses For Social Courses

The easiest way to sum up the response heuristic I've used running longer campaigns of Apocalypse World (which has separate "by violence" and "by charm" moves) and Dungeon World (which doesn't) is "game recognize game". The more often someone deals with problems through violence and threats of violence, the less likely they are to respond to violence out of proportion, and similarly with charm.

The fat, lazy merchant has been flattered by sycophants in every port and is impressed that you're making the proper obeisance, but will flip out and start screaming for their scar-covered bodyguard if you pull a knife.

The scar-covered bodyguard makes a living threatening to break grabby hands and will step aside to preserve their own hands for someone who wields violence with the proper restraint, but will stay up at night thinking of the complete stranger who somehow understood them so well and said so many impactful things.

You know, like that. And it doesn't have to be an either-or slider; a pushed-around toady desperate for a win might well trail the PCs around regardless of whether they shoved a fist, a kind word, or a bag of coins at them. A landed noble who used to be a knight has dealt with enough brute violence and lofty words that neither one is unusually impressive.

And What to Say When You're Riding

So, for all that I say that the problem is down to a GM leaning far too heavy on the reactions to intimidation and far too light on the reactions to charm, what can you as a character do to try and get your intimidations reacted to proportionally? I'm not saying, like, you should expect to get lauded as a hero for putting Prior Abigail in a chokehold until she hands over the orphans' fund, but...

You're probably playing in a world where violence is expected to solve a significant number of problems.

"How dare you try to get a discount through violence! Now go out there and murder the 673 goblins menacing our farms with these arrows that you will buy at full price!"

"How dare you try and get me to back down with violence! Now hand over your valuables or I'm going to cut your throat!"

"How could you think violence would be a solution? I shall see you tomorrow, knave, where hundreds of my countrymen kill and die to hundreds of yours to decide who will get to stand on this hill!"

"Oh, there goes Sir Justice! He hunted down that nasty lich Ossian and his horrid minions and put them all to True Death by the sword! Oh, ugh, and Fightgar's with him? Vile dwarf. I hear he solves his problems through violence."

-- this is what inhabitants of a fantasy world actually believe

I mean, don't suddenly try to dump this on a GM in the middle of a session or something, playing gotcha never goes over well. But in the wrap-up, if you've pointed violence at someone who wholeheartedly believed in using violence to solve problems and got a disproportionate response, bring up the contradiction and how you were expecting something different.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To meet Good Subjective, Bad Subjective this needs some citations, or how it works when you use it in play, or other back it up type content. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jan 26, 2019 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Glazius This is another example of an interesting trend with your answers: they provide a series of good insights on the spirit of the question (warranting an upvote warranted right after a first read), but also leave space for another answer that would be closer to the letter thereof (thus making me delay awarding acceptance in hopes of encouraging more people to answer; in this case - for an answer that looks at roleplaying the interaction from the player's side and not the GM's). Thanks for the answer! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 26, 2019 at 17:16

I am having a bit of difficulty understanding exactly the nature of your question, but I can see a couple of possible approaches that might help:

"I am Batman"

Batman is an intimidation based hero, who uses his Dark Knight reputation to deter and cow street thugs. He has the grudging respect of his fellow Justice League members because he only uses intimidation on low life thugs, and even then it is less violent than actually beating every one of them up. He never uses intimidation on the innocent or to extort personal gain.

"Consider this justice a gift on my daughter's wedding day."

From The Godfather:

"Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you'd come to me in friendship, this scum who ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by some chance an honest man like yourself made enemies they would become my enemies. And then, they would fear you."

You don't use intimidation on everyone. You have a definite sense of who is "in" the protected group and who is "out". People respect you because you are always clear in your dealings and you are fair to everyone who shows you respect. You use that intimidation not only on behalf of yourself, but also on behalf of those who are "in" your group.

You don't make threats. You just explain what will happen if the NPC makes certain choices. You don't humiliate them. You don't do any more to them than necessary.

Don't (Appear to) Be Selfish

Above you cite the problem that the Intimidating Evil Overlord always spawns hostile forces among those he intimidates. But fiction is full of characters who are perceived as "cruel but fair," who keep the riffraff from robbing store owners in return for just a small percentage of sales. Its the capricious and/or universal violence that causes revolution.


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