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TL:DR;

My players don't act as though they find intimidating NPCs intimidating. How can I make NPC intimidation more effective while maintaining player agency?

My Issue

I have a recurring issue across campaigns I run where NPCs that I intend to be intimidating to the players don't quite come off that way. Instead of responding fearfully or being cowed by the NPC, I find that some of my players respond with back-chat, derision or outright humour at the NPCs expense. This breaks the tension and makes it difficult for me as the DM to maintain the narrative flow of the scene. I don't want to override player agency and say "Your character wouldn't act that way" but I also don't want the players just laughing off serious NPCs.

My feeling is that the players aren't intimidated even though their characters would be. Sitting around my coffee table listening to me make funny voices isn't exactly a terrifying scenario. Therefore they can laugh off the seriousness of the situation to relieve the tension, exactly the opposite of what I'm going for.

A recent example

Last session the party were tasked with rescuing a rival adventuring party that their town relies on. They located them inside a Koa-Toa temple where a Kraken Priest was attempting to summon a Kraken. The leader of the other group (Derrig), instead of trying to stop the ritual, was trying to modify it to grant him control over the Kraken. Something the PCs definitely didn't want to happen.

After a long and intense fight the party managed to stop the ritual and escape the temple. With 3/4 of the members of the party on single digit hit-points, the other with only 17, all but 1 spell slot spent and no potions or once-per-short-rest abilities left the PCs only just made it. That's where Derrig confronted them, informing them of the version of events that they would be telling the town once they returned. A version where he was painted as a hero and the party came in at the end to help pick up the pieces.

The players were aware Derrig had plenty of HP remaining and the ability to down the majority of the party in a single turn, and the rest by the end of his second and that's without the help of his own allies. In this situation he held all the cards and the party had no realistic option but to agree. Yet when I played out him threatening the PCs at sword point to stick to his story, I was met with sarcastic responses and the PCs openly admitting to agreeing now just to change their story later.

This is just one example from my current campaign. I've experienced similar situations in previous campaigns.

What I'm looking for

Ideally I want my players to respond to intimidating NPCs in a more realistic manner, without taking away their agency or trying to dictate their actions. I'm open to mechanical solutions, social solutions or even roleplaying advice on things I might be doing wrong to lead to this scenario.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does intimidation always in physical nature? Are players otherwise invested in the story and/or characters? \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Sep 26, 2022 at 5:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ Doesn't have to be, in fact probably usually isn't. Just this most recent example happened to be. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Sep 26, 2022 at 5:39

13 Answers 13

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Wanting your players to respond in a specific manner to anything you do as DM is a recipe for disappointment. It's possible to force the characters to respond in specific ways via mechanics or DM fiat, but as you note, that takes away the players' agency in extremely un-fun ways. So what can you do?

Talk with your players

If the PCs are never frightened of anything because the players don't feel frightened or intimidated, that suggests a mismatch between your expectations and your players'. So talk with your players about how they see your campaign. It's possible they're thinking of it as a fun hack 'n slash with no consequences, while you're thinking of it as a fleshed-out world with NPCs who react to the PCs' actions and vice versa. It's also possible that your players are on board with the plot, but don't realize their characters' reactions aren't. And finally, it's possible that your players simply enjoy Casual Danger Dialogue to a much greater degree than you do (warning: TV Tropes link).

The only way you can know for sure is to talk with your players. Don't treat it as a confrontation - this isn't you vs them. Treat it as a friendly discussion about what you've noticed, ideally during the post-game chatter after a session where you notice this behavior. When I've had this conversation with my players, I usually open by saying, in a light/joking tone, something like "Y'all don't seem to think Derrig's going to be much of a problem, huh?"

Where I go from there depends on how my players respond:

Scenario 1: I've had some groups say, completely seriously, "Oh, no, we think he's terrifying", which lets me gently probe into their joking responses ("really? you were snarking at him an awful lot for being terrified"). Usually from there I can tell whether it's a matter of Casual Danger Dialogue or something else.

Scenario 2: I had one group that did brush off (what was supposed to be) my Very Scary NPC. They thought he was a stuck-up prick who wasn't worth the time of day. This told me that, while they were interested in the character and the story, I wasn't conveying the NPC's intimidating demeanor the way I thought I was.

Scenario 3: If your players' responses make clear that they really don't care about the story or the characters, then you have to decide how to proceed: either give up on trying to intimidate the PCs or otherwise get character-based reactions from them, and play the light hack 'n slash adventure they think they're on; or have a more structured Session 0 (or 0-2, DM Boogaloo) to fix the expectations mismatch.

Incorporate the PCs' lack of fear into your plot

In Scenarios 1 and 2, you have a lot of room for DM fun.

Treat the snark seriously

Have your NPCs respond in the moment to not being taken seriously. One of these worthless worms is mouthing off? The NPC attacks something in the vicinity (not a PC) and utterly annihilates it as a warning and a demonstration of power.

Caveat: Be careful about saying anything like "you're next", unless you're willing to follow through on it by starting a combat. Your players will likely get frustrated if they're curb-stomped, even if you gave them plenty of warning, so make sure your NPC has a reason to exit the scene before it gets to that point. Lines like, "You're too stupid to even take this seriously. Why am I wasting my time on you?" and a haughty Exit Stage Left are your friends here.

Have your NPCs be better prepared

If someone who's used to being the big fish in the small pond gets snarked at by guppies, they're going to make sure to bring out the (possibly literal) big guns for the next encounter. Give them backup, like a monster you know your players will take seriously, which your NPC has talked, bullied, or forced into working for them. Or have the NPC arrange the encounter in their favor - innocents to slaughter every time a PC says something inappropriate, a deadly trap where the PCs are about to die, etc. In other words, have your NPC plan for the fact that the PCs don't appear scared.

Reconsider your NPCs

I mentioned in Scenario 2 that my players weren't scared by my NPC. He was supposed to be the secret big bad of the campaign, but when I realized that both the PCs and the players saw him as a frat boy with an overblown ego, I chose to lean into that characterization. I gave the NPC some "friends" to take over the role of villain and terrifying underling, and even had those new NPCs join with the PCs in mocking the first guy. This had the added bonus of making the new villain and her second-in-command look actually intimidating - because if a new character is as contemptuous of an NPC as the PCs are, it's easy to draw the conclusion that it's because the new character is at least as strong as the PCs. (See The Worf Effect.)


The most important thing about all of these options is that, as you noted in your question, you don't try to force your players to react in a certain way. Instead, you need to work with them to find a solution that works for your whole table, by making sure you're all on the same page about the kind of game you're playing, and then by adapting your NPCs and their reactions to fit what that game is.

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This is based more from your comments than the question, but you need to ask yourself this:

Why is my character scary?

It can't be because the you wrote scary on the NPC character card, it has to include a reason for the player characters to actually be afraid of them.

Once you know that reason you need to ensure that the player characters (and the players) know the reason.

Then they can decide how their characters respond to the scary character because they now have a reason to be scared.

If you just say "this guy is scary please act accordingly" hardly anyone will; they need to know that if they don't comply then they will die, or their families will die, or the BBEG will kick a puppy, or something. And you need to make sure that both in game and in meta your NPC will actually do that thing, otherwise it still isn't scary.

Make the players actually fear the NPC and they will roleplay fear of that NPC

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. If players are not scared or acting scared of someone threatening them, it's often because they do not believe anything would happen to them. "This guy is threatening my life but I know my DM wouldn't kill my character like that." could be a way the players see the situation. And there's no harm in them being right, since there's plenty of other ways to threaten someone without straight up menacing their life. As long as they believe that "If I make a wrong move here something bad will happen" they'll definitely get invested in the situation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    Sep 26, 2022 at 9:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Matthieu Threatening NPCs is more effective than threatening PCs because PCs have the dual mental blocks of OOC "The DM wouldn't do that," and IC "I risk my life literally every day, why is this different?" But threaten somebody they care about and oh yes that could happen. That can lead to the "I have no connections with anyone so there's nobody you can threaten" style of PC, I suppose, but is the player is determined to never have a weakness, well... \$\endgroup\$ Sep 26, 2022 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ There is an easy solution to people thinking "the DM wouldn't do that". A DM only ever has to do it once. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 26, 2022 at 21:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri this! While the players are roleplaying the player characters, the DM should roleplay the NPC characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bartors
    Sep 27, 2022 at 13:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri OK you had a bad DM. DM's are human. Get over it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 27, 2022 at 23:17
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Here are several general things. I will talk specifically about your game later

Empty threats are not useful.

Here is the thing, threat are effective when the threatened party believes they are real.

If the party does not respond to threats that way, they likely do not believe anything would happen.

It is important for the players and characters to understand that there is weight behind the threat. Show that the NPC means business and remind players of it. This can be as simple as "You remember X that happened" (for anything the character is sure to know) as an in-game reminder or even out of game "Do recall that few sessions ago X happened". Do not shy away from bringing it up out of game - it is entirely possible that players forget details. There are days, if not weeks between sessions.

NOTE: This does not necessarily mean that the NPC has to act against the party. It could as effectively be the party observing an interaction where the NPC was following up on a threat. Or they can see examples of the results of threats:

The baker the party meets every day is now limping. When asked, he explains that he owed some money to Bigbully Meangoblin - the local mob boss. The baker further says he got off lucky - he heard of that store in the other side of town. The owner loudly refused to pay for Bigbully's "protection". A week later the shop burned down with the shop owner and his family in it. So, the baker is grateful that Bigbully was generous enough to give the baker an extension on the loan. The baker finishes up with a trembling "Do...do, you want to buy some f-fresh bread?"

Death is cheap in D&D

By extension physical violence, is cheaper. If players lose HP, that is maybe some health potions or a couple of spells. Or they can always rest, too.

Death itself is a running joke in D&D - at most it costs some money to resurrect a player. But even a lower-level Cleric can cast Revivify on a recent corpse.

In some games, the attitude swings too far in the opposite direction - death is ever present and characters can die at any point in time. Maybe even multiple times in a session.

That is certainly not the attitude in all games. Death can be serious and meaningful. The point is that it can also be a very cheap way to threaten players. The response can just be "Eh, I will just have to pay for resurrection" or "Eh, I will just have to roll a new character again".

Simply put, threatening with death should be used sparingly.

The joke is that players fear for their items or levels more, as those are harder to come by. Hence why things like rust monsters or negative levels (in older editions) exist. But this is a cheap way to scare players. I would not recommend it. It might work once or twice but, especially after being used multiple times starts to lose any punch. Depriving players of that magic armour, or magic hat, or magic sword, etc. works only so many times.

Death is not realistically portrayed

This is related to "death is cheap", however, I feel it deserves its own point.

On one hand, death for player characters often enough does not carry enough weight. However, NPCs often do not pay it much attention. A typical encounter would have the player characters pitted against bandits, or town guards, or evil cultists, or any number of creatures that should value their lives. But the encounters usually end with the players killing each and every enemy.

Let's think about this for a moment: a group of bandits is just some people who rob to provide for themselves. Realistically, if half the bandits are slaughtered, why would the rest want to go to their death? Yet, a typical encounter would end up with all the bandits dead. As if they all do not fear that end.

Yes, some NPCs might be inclined to give up their lives. However, the point here is that if NPCs players encounter do not put much value on their life, why should the players put any value on theirs?

There is opportunity to change how NPCs behave in a fight. The ones that are intelligent enough should give up and beg for their lives. Especially if their boss, or some of their friends/colleagues, or the boss's underlings were already killed.

The reaction of NPCs towards killing might need to portray the seriousness of it in order to convey to the players what the stakes are.

Player investment

There is another aspect entirely - are players even invested in the game? Some people play the game just as a fun getaway. Not paying much heed to what is happening in game. You might expect that when a character is faced with a threat, they might respond seriously. But the player might just not be thinking about that, if they are not invested in their character.

There might be some alternative - find what the player is invested in. Maybe it is the story. It might be a character in the story. Or a particular goal. Threatening what the player (and thus by extension, the character) does care deeply about can be more effective.

NOTE: This should also be used sparingly. It can come off as heavy-handed and can cause a problem for the player's enjoyment of the game. Maybe make sure they are OK with this if you are not sure how the player would respond. Take great care with characters the player might be really invested in.

One less-problematic way might be to just threaten the goal of a character. A player might be trying to get some item but the NPC can try to deny them that. If the players want to get in the good graces of the king, then an NPC who has contacts might threaten to spread bad rumours about them. In general, that would undermine the effort of the player characters.

It can work better as a threat because it poses a direct obstacle to something the players are working towards. And it introduces a more interesting story element. Moreover, it allows players to fail more gracefully - even if the threat is followed up upon, the players can still achieve their goal. They now have a new villain. The item they sought is just now in that NPC's hands and it can be dangled as a carrot to get them to do what the NPC wants. The players can work with the NPC or plot to defeat them. In either case, there is potential for more story. And eventually the goal of "get the item" is still on the horizon.

Embrace consequences

Threats can be issued and players can choose to ignore them, even if there is weight behind this.

This can be even more general - never expect the players to act in certain way. Whether through in-game intimidation, cajoling, begging, contracts. Players can always ignore those and end up going against what they were "supposed" to do.

There can be consequences and they can be weaved into the story. The players might decide to pay no heed to the "warnings" they are given by that criminal and if something bad happens it should not just be a background detail. Whole sessions or even story arks can spring up from such an action.

One way to show you mean business but without imposing hash consequences yet would be to play out a "what if" session. You can announce it ahead of time or keep it secret until after. In either case, essentially the players will see how things play out for the worse. This can be a dream, or a vision of the future, or just a quick one-off with little justification. The point would be to show what could happen if the players do not act how "they should". If the players confirm that is indeed what they want to do, then everything that happened in the session actually happened. Just jump to the time after it. If they decide to amend their choice, then you can still jump ahead and assume that they help up what they wanted.

This can be an effective technique if used well. It should be introduced early to show what kind of game is being run. The best place to have one is after a meaningful choice that can have real consequences for the rest of the game. It is also useful for newer players.

Most definitely it should not be used multiple times. "It was all a dream" already has a bad reputation at undermining the very meaningfulness the "what if" session is trying to establish. To that effect, I would advise to announce it beforehand, as well. Yes, maybe it seems more fun to reveal at the end that it is not too late to prevent this, however, it can also leave a bad taste in one's mouth.

The way I would set up and run such a session is to leave the players with a choice at the end of a session. For example, the evil vizier wants the players to accept his offer and aid him, or else. Session ends with the characters pondering their choice. I would discuss with the players what they want to choose. And if they say the "or else", then I would tell them that next session I would run a "what if" and at the end they can choose to embrace it or change their choice. The session starts, and the players having rejected the vizier's offer find themselves blamed for a crime they did not commit. On the run from the law and nobody around wanting to give help to outlaws. Even friends, acquaintances and family shun them for the heinous act. Perhaps the players like the struggle against injustice. The session after the "what if" continues where the last one left off. Or perhaps they re-think their choice and prefer to work with the vizier. For now. So the session after the "what if" has them running an errand for the vizier.

Discussion, discussion

As always, there can, and probably should, be a frank discussion with the players. What their goals and expectations are of the game. Maybe they just do not align with the game you are trying to have. Or maybe both the GM's and the players' intentions align but a given intimidation attempt did not come off as it should have.


My feeling is that the players aren't intimidated even though their characters would be.

I do want to address this. No, the characters need not be intimidated. You had the characters threatened with physical violence when they were weak. Potentially death. That is effective...for literally just that one moment. Let me put this into perspective: player characters face physical violence, injuries, and death very often. D&D is a game built around the concept that player characters would be doing a lot of fighting. In-game, adventurers might be brushing with death every day. Maybe even multiple times a day. Every encounter they fight for their lives. If they are downed and start making death saves, they stand at death's door. Only to rest and repeat this over and over.

Why should they take into consideration the threat from the past? The NPC has advantage over them now but tomorrow after a long rest, they would have full HP and other resources. That is not "metagaming", it is perfectly normal for adventurers to think this way in-game - they do long rests all the time.

Quite honestly, the threat does not make much sense. "I could have killed you but did not" does not really carry much weight as a threat when the party stands fully prepared later on. Especially if the threat came at a point when the characters are weak. It comes off as if the NPC cannot back up that threat otherwise.

This, of course, comes with a caveat - depends on the type of game. But the most regular types of D&D game, there is not much logic to keep being in fear after the NPC leaves.

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This is not about the villain, it's about the kind of game you and your players want to play

First, as you say, the players are doing this to relieve tension. You put them into a no-outs, painful situation that is not their fault. They fought valiantly and are down to their last spell to save the other party and defeat the Kua-Toa. Now, instead of rewarding their playing along with the plot and heroically sticking it out, you trap them in a set-up where they have to betray their values and prostate themselves to a dirtbag NPC. They respond with sarcasm, by breaking the fourth wall and having their PCs act in that situation in a way that the PCs themselves clearly would not. That is, they respond to you on a higher level, letting you know in a jestful way that this is not what they came for, and that they do not want to accept the premise of the situation you set up.

In effect, they are calling your bluff: you now either have to play along and laugh it off with them, running the encounter as a farce, or, you have to follow through and do what Derrig would do if they responded like that: kill them all and go back to town explaining how he saved the day but could not manage to save the PCs, ending the campaign.

My recommendation would be to do the former: it is great that you have a cool group of players that can take such DMing mishaps with humor and grace. Embrace it and be grateful for their offer.

The alternative is to be true to your game world and have Derrol kill them all. This will serve to teach them a lesson how serious you are about the verisimilitude of the crapsack, unfair nature of your world. It also will be a major downer for all of you, and I'm not sure if your campaign would easily recover from it.

Fundamentally this issue is not about the players being unimpressed by your threatening NPCs. It is about you putting them in a situation they did not deserve and do not want to be in (and yourself too, as you have no reasonable out, either), and so they react with gallows humor.

Talk to your players about expectations

It may be that you have to clarify with your players what kind of game you want to play. Do you want a world that is unfair, dog-eat-dog, where doing good ever only will let you be the sucker that is taken advantage of? That is harder to have fun with, but it can be done, if everyone agrees to it. But it is not what most people assume when they sit down to play D&D. The norm is a more heroic game, where doing good will be rewarded. So, maybe your players are not acting intimidated because cowering is not what they came for. Maybe they are looking for a less serious, more easy-going game. You should clarify with your players what kind of game you want to play, and if they would enjoy what you envision -- because at the end of the day, you all are there to have fun together. I would recommend talking with them outside of the game about the expectations you all have, if you have not done so, a belated session 0, if you so want.

If you want scary NPCs

Independent of all this, if you want to have an impressive, fright-inducing opponent that the players will be scared of, you can get that by building up to it: long before they ever meet the villain, they hear rumors, other NPCs tell horrifying stories in hushed voices of how he crushed great heroes with ease. When they then finally meet him, all of that will be on their mind. This has worked for me very well, with players being scared out of their wits when it dawned on them whom they were facing.

Also, if you want to be able and follow through on threats from your villains to teach the players that snarky comments are no way out, try to create situations that leave you other options than just killing the PCs. This is still hard, as in my experience, any form of being beat down and having your toys taken away is a general downer for the players, but at least that situation can leave them hungry for revenge, and when that finally comes around a few levels later, it can be very satisfying.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Overcoming this NPC and his gang is meant to be a long term payoff, this unfair situation just another step on the way that will make his downfall all the more satisfying. I'm aware that following through with my threat is an option, but as you say, not a fun one. But this also isn't an isolated incident, other more fair situations have been met with similar responses. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Sep 26, 2022 at 5:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin Yes, that is what my session 0 paragraph is for -- are you sure that the players what to play the kind of world you apparently are going for? Maybe you have talked with them about it, but if not, you should. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 26, 2022 at 5:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ We did have a session 0 for this campaign and also have regular feedback sessions. My players indicate they like the way I run the story and my NPCs but I still get these kind of responses when I use intimidation tactics. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Sep 26, 2022 at 5:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ In that case, you need to follow through on the threats -- maybe pull the punches a bit, making a situation that does not paint yourself into a corner like this one where the only realistic option it to kill them. Have the bad guys beat them up and take away their toys. However, in my experience, getting subjugated is very un-fun for the players, and I would not recommend it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 26, 2022 at 5:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this may be more about the specifically described scenario, but I really do agree with this. I recently stopped watching critical role when after completing one objective the DM through an unwinnable fight at them (cos story...). People like the rewards of winning, and taking it away can look good in retrospect, but that payoff is not only a long way away, but players don't know it is coming so it can feel really bad in the moment and I would avoid it at all costs. If you want to do this you should create a new encounter, winnable as always, where the players have to escape. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 26, 2022 at 8:05
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Your problem isn't that of maintaining player agency.

Given the mechanics of D&D 5e, your NPC didn't take the threat far enough. The 0 HP / death saves / unconscious / stabilize mechanic is a tool you could have used there, but didn't, to add a layer of gravity to the threat.

My players don't act as though they find intimidating NPCs intimidating. How can I make NPC intimidation more effective while maintaining player agency?

Your problem is desiring to maintain their longevity not their agency. Player agency includes owning the consequences of their actions and decisions. If they smart off to someone threatening them with deadly force, a likely consequence is an affirmation that the one in the position of power isn't bluffing. You preserve their agency when you let them see and then deal with the consequences of their decisions.

A recent example

The players were aware Derrig had plenty of HP remaining and the ability to down the majority of the party in a single turn, and the rest by the end of his second and that's without the help of his own allies. In this situation he held all the cards and the party had no realistic option but to agree. Yet when I played out him threatening the PCs at sword point to stick to his story, I was met with sarcastic responses and the PCs openly admitting to agreeing now just to change their story later.

Kill one PC - actually, drop them to zero HP since you are playing D&D 5e, and let them sweat out the death saves. The NPC then looks at the others: "That's my story. I'm sticking to it, and you're sticking to it, or you'll never get to tell any side of the story at all. I'll let the townsfolk know you died a heroic death in saving me!"
He looks threateningly at the other, and still breathing, PCs as the one he dropped rolls their first death save.

The Players and Characters now know that this NPC will (or may) kill them, that he's not bluffing, and that their next step may be more death saves, at best.

Then let it play out. If they acquiesce, one of the PCs tries stabilize the one who is at 0 HP - and so on, and they carry the unconscious PC back to town under the baleful eye of Derrig.

What I'm looking for Ideally I want my players to respond to intimidating NPCs in a more realistic manner, without taking away

their agency or trying to dictate their actions.

The scenario I suggested above preserves agency, and dictates nothing. They can agree to go along openly (and then backstab the guy later) but telling him that up front is quite frankly stupid, in character.
The consequences of being stupid can be lethal in a situation like that. They get to own their decisions, they get to own their mistakes. That's an element of player agency.

I'm open to mechanical solutions, social solutions or even roleplaying advice on things I might be doing wrong to lead to this scenario.

As I noted above, he only has to drop one of them to 0 HP as a reflex to their collective (foolish) response to send the message more strongly than was done in play. If they don't change their tune, he can drop another one, and then tell the two remaining ones:
"I can do this all day. What is your final answer?"
Note that in D&D 5e, once they have stabilized the one or two that are unconscious at 0 HP, and stabilized, the two breathing PCs now get to drag / carry / pull on a travois or stretcher, their two unconscious comrades back to town. Again, they are under the baleful eye of Derrig.

Agency includes the rational consequences of decisions made by the PCs making a difference in play.
Note that I didn't say "kill one" and leave it at that, since the 5e mechanic of dropping someone to 0 HP as an intermediate step lets you, the DM, raise the stakes but leaves open the chance to make a different choice.


Coda

But what happens if they don't take that seriously?
If they insist on acting irrationally when someone else holds the cards, killing off one of the PCs (roll a die and pick one, let it be random, or, choose the player who you think can best handle this - use your best judgment) will ensure that all of the players are aware that NPCs, like them, will sometimes kill their opponents. If that isn't an option, then how can you expect a threat from an NPC to be taken seriously? You can't.


Experience: I've been on both sides of the DM screen, in multiple editions, in similar scenarios where the DM raised the stakes to get the players to take their situation more seriously. Yes, sometimes a character died. Other times, they were captured and / or suffered other negative IC consequences.

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    \$\begingroup\$ On picking a PC to attack (and probably kill) one could also ask leading questions. "So... Who of you do you think has taunted the big bad guy the most?" and look at the players figuring that one out. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – HolKann
    Sep 27, 2022 at 15:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a supplemental / variant idea, introduce friendly NPCs along the way. If an NPC's not being taken seriously when they should be, kill one of the friendly NPCs in such a way that it's extremely difficult / impossible for them to be resurrected - and make sure the villain tells the PCs the NPC's death is their fault. If they manage to reincarnate / resurrect Tiny Tim after he was burned alive in a public square, Tim can have obvious trauma related to the incident. Works best when the PCs had numerous positive interactions with Tim leading up to the event. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 27, 2022 at 17:29
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It is indeed all down to consequences. Death is too binary and harsh in gaming. Or, not all that harsh if the right healing magic is available. "Breaking their kneecaps" is a secondary level idea, but even less meaningful with healing magic.

Anecdote #1: The PCs were being too mouthy and disrespectful to a well-dressed fellow, obviously their social better. He walked away to their mocking laughter. And the next day the PCs found he had paid all the proper bonds and fees to have the Assassins Guild put a contract on them. This made the gang very paranoid and skittish, since all their mighty power wasn't worth diddly against the stealth and guile of assassins. They eventually solved all this with a humble helping of apologies and repaying the insulted party for the bonds/fees.

Anecdote #2: One of the recipients of the PCs jibes and jokes turned out to be a magic-user (not wearing the regulation pointy hat and robes). "You want to play the jackass?" He singled the biggest PC out. Glowing eyes and the hand wave of a Geas. "Then be a jackass until the next full moon." The PC didn't become an actual donkey, but had the ultimate hypnotic suggestion to act in every way like a donkey. The player got over the shock and took the RP challenge to heart. It was a fun time, but the Life Lesson wasn't soon forgotten.

Anecdote #3: A situation almost identical to the example offered in the Question. The PCs were running on fumes, facing a Big Bad Guy who still had lots of juice. Luckily the Big Guy wasn't dyed-in-the-wool "Bad". It was easy to slap them unconscious. They woke up hog-tied and (temporarily) helpless. Upon finally freeing themselves, they discovered a judgement had been levied in the removal of some, not all, of their gold.

In all cases, one has to be sure the PCs understand just why this has happened to them.

A flipside consideration for you: do your NPCs treat the PCs with proper reactions? Every now and then I have to stop and put myself in the sandals of the peasants hoeing turnips when a gang of...freaks...comes to town. Races and species the peasants have never seen. More importantly, freaks that are extremely heavily armed. Players can get quite exasperated when they just want to ask directions but all the peasants are fainting, grovelling, and butt-kissing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ By way of a P.S...visual aids are invaluable on focusing imagination. "A big barbarian chieftain" is too vague, but dig out a classic Frazetta illustration (for example) that depicts the Big Bad and it can make some of the players sit up and mind their manners. (In an early 1990's superhero campaign, I had the heroes fight Godzilla. Their reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Finally I flat-out asked. Turned out none of the table had ever seen a Godzilla movie! "Some sort of dinosaur, isn't he?" A short time-out while we watched a video from my collection. "We're fighting THAT?? Holy @*#*!") \$\endgroup\$
    – Blaze
    Sep 29, 2022 at 21:12
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Fear in RPG acts on two levels, in my experience. First, it is what the character should feel given the fiction, and second what the player believes the consequences will be.

In your scenario above, did the NPC follow through with his threats, or were they empty?

In short, the answer to the question is to make the NPC follow through on their threat. If a bully has their victim at sword point, and the victim laughs at them, use the sword to make them take the bully seriously. You could kill an insolent character; it should be within the bounds of the fiction since they have no hitpoint, and you have signaled the threat.

If this has been going on for a long time, so the players expect you not to follow up on threats made by NPC, give them a warning that you will change your style.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Killing the PCs is a drastic solution that while in character for the NPC doesn't really fit with the enjoyable game I am trying to run. Therefore I'd prefer to find a solution that doesn't rely on me following through on threats. \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Sep 26, 2022 at 5:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin if you aren't willing to follow through on a threat on a meta level, do you think your players know that? They can't be scared of something that isn't scary and a barking dog on a lead isn't as scary as a barking dog chasing you down the street. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 26, 2022 at 8:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin Following through doesn't necessarily mean killing a player. It could mean the scary NPC jamming their sword into the PC and you describing the way they slowly push their sword into the defenseless PC's flesh, twisting and smiling. Numbers generally aren't scary. Visceral descriptions are. \$\endgroup\$
    – Valthek
    Sep 27, 2022 at 8:27
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Empower their agency

If the PC says or does something that would cause the NPC to kill them, then the NPC kills them

An NPC that makes empty threats is not intimidating and the PCS are right not to feel intimidated. Or, to be more accurate, you as DM have, for a long time, perhaps forever, made empty threats so your players know that they don’t have to take them seriously. So they don’t.

Now, if (and it’s a big if) you want that to change then you have to tell your players that it’s going to change. And then, during the encounter, that it has changed: several times. Then you kill a PC to drive home the lesson.

Now, you may be concerned that this is cruel and unkind. Let me put your mind at ease: it is cruel and unkind. But, if you and your players want the kind of game where villains are lifelike and scary, then they, which means you, have to do cruel and unkind things.

You may also be concerned that this will be unfun for the players. Again, let me reassure you on that: it is unfun. Losing a PC sucks. It makes you feel awful in the short term. But, in the long term, if you enjoy playing in a game where your actions have real consequences (like swimming with the fishes if you tick off the troll mafia boss) then the short term pain is the price you pay for role-playing in a “real” world rather than a “look at my awesome PC” one.

In any event, “fun” is not the goal of an RPG, just like it isn’t for other forms of entertainment: reward is. Watching Schindler’s List or reading All Quiet on the Western Front are not fun experiences, but they are certainly rewarding.

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Should your players be intimidated?

You might actually want to consider this question, remember an adventuring party is usually made up of high level characters - stronger than your average villager or even village strongman - who are overconfident and cocky enough to be going out to brave a wilderness of ferocious monsters in search of treasure. (Or whatever)

...and generally players want to play them this way! Look to action heroes in movies: Spiderman doesn't act intimidated no matter how many limbs Dr. Octopus attaches, and he likes to get off the odd snarky comment when he can too.

So the common peasant in the field might be intimidated as hell, but the PCs might not necessarily be so.

Now you say:

Derrig had plenty of HP remaining and the ability to down the majority of the party in a single turn

He might have the stats to down the majority of the party, but does he have the will? Which means, do you (the GM) have the will? The players might well sense that the GM doesn't really want an instant party kill, and while they are not consciously or maliciously taking advantage of that fact, the knowledge certainly kills the intimidation factor.

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There are two major steps to having players care about the actions of npcs in ttrpgs.

  1. Make them care about something.

  2. Genuinely have them believe that that thing can be taken away.

If you always pull all your punches, they will not believe #2. If you don't create things they care about in the world via roleplaying, description, timing, placement, dramatic/acting techniques, or other methods, you can't do #1, and #2 relies on #1.

You'll note I don't say 'antagonists' in my heading. A PC's wife threatening to leave him if he keeps going out at night and coming back covered in blood in a WoD: Hunters game is not an enemy attack, but if you have carefully built up this tension (so it is a believable threat) and this character's connection to his wife and motivations for hunting the supernatural etc so there is a real cost and no easy answer, then they will care about this situation.

Players can care about npcs actions for their own reasons, or because they like the story hook and want to interact with it. Good players will often care about things spontaneously, without needing much from you to create that investment. Sometimes people will take even weak or obviously fake threats seriously, either due to misreading the situation, or feeling that if they are roleplaying they should do so. So this can all occur 'naturally', even if you always pull any punch, and never really use any storytelling techniques to create sympathy, interest, or value intentionally.

However if you intend for it to happen without just sorta hoping it does on its own, you need to have the judgement of how to carry through threats and when to rather than to pull punches, and the grit to actually do it, on top of intentionally creating things the players care about such that you have things you can punch. Players do tend to care about their characters, but often only to the degree that the character continues to exist. Wounds, broken limbs, reversible death etc can all be ignored, especially if there is a strong certainty that the GM would 'never' actually kill off a character etc.

Likewise, killing characters uses up all the narrative investment and screen time you've put in them. It can be powerful if played right, but for whatever reason people always seize on this as a means to get players to pay attention or care, when it is actually more likely to cause them to entirely tune out. Skipping step #1 and just seizing on the one thing they actually already care about and destroying it is very likely to lead to disengagement from the game entirely.

Basically, just make sure to do step #1 first. Especially when you have a situation where players are sure the GM will always pull punches - at that stage you may need to punch several things before they will believe it wasn't a fluke and they can't just dick around if they want to preserve the things they have come to care about. Thus you will need not just 1 thing they care about, but like, 4-5.

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Your core issue

is you're trying to enforce something D&D doesn't have: a promise mechanic.

I was met with sarcastic responses and the PCs openly admitting to agreeing now just to change their story later

Where exactly is the problem?

The encounter as you described it went fine:

  • Derrig threatened the PCs
  • the PCs told him they would follow his order
  • he got what he wanted and let them go

They acted reasonably intimidated and didn't laugh in his face.

Now, they lied.

Does Derrig and his gang have any way to detect the lie? Have the party cooperate on a Deception check against Derrig's gang's Insight. If that succeeds, that's it.

What if they did laugh in his face

(or lied and got disbelieved)? Remember that Derrig's gang should also be acting on incomplete information. Does he know how seriously wounded the PCs are? (This is Medicine.) Is he absolutely sure they don't have hidden resources (PCs especially are stingy with expendable-use items)?

If he does kill them there and then, is he sure the PCs don't have a powerful patron - one who's too important and busy to waste his time on a mere kraken but will come to investigate if his team of kraken-fighters goes MIA?

The PCs' bravado is their own Intimidation or Deception attempt (use whichever's higher) against Derrig. Maybe he's better off leaving the PCs in peace and doing PR damage control against the NPCs back in town.

Also, they did just save him. As much as Derrig might hate the PCs, he'd hate it more if he were eaten by the kraken and the town sunk into the sea. Rivalry is cool and all, but when Team Monster wins, everyone loses. In D&D Land, killing another monster-fighting party is literally a crime against humanity, and four consecutive life sentences is literally four consecutive life sentences. (It gets worse if you're immortal.)

What if the PCs laugh off an unwinnable challenge?

Then you kill them, as punishment for having gotten themselves into an unwinnable situation ^^

In most games, PCs should not be facing any unwinnable situations that you arrange beforehand. By sitting down to play D&D, you agree to present the players with rewarding and winnable adventures, and they agree to take them up without doing preliminary cost-benefit analysis, often retroactively inventing reasons for why their characters are interested in going on that particular adventure.

If you do allow for the possibility that some quests may be traps, players must be empowered to act on the information. The ability to discern which adventures are worth going on and which are traps is at least as important as combat; legwork has to be its own minigame, to which each PC can contribute, with the weight of iterative probability working in favor of the PCs. The party should NOT walk into a stone dragon's maw because the fighter botched his History roll. No edition of D&D is equipped to handle this.

But in the end,

absolutely nothing prevents the PCs from agreeing, then "changing their minds". If you try to use the players' out-of-character laughter as evidence they're actually doing Deception and call for a check, you'll discourage players from talking about their characters' motivation at the table (a bad thing in most games) but you will still be unable to enforce the rule.

D&D doesn't have promise enforcement

outside of magic like Geas. NPC skills like Persuasion and Intimidation should not work on PCs, and Deception is only partially effective (in that Deceived PCs will not get a "yeah, he's lying" confirmation from you but are not required to act on the lie).

And this is normal. The degree of influence on a story a player gets from a resource should be proportional to his investment in that resource. If all conflict ever could be settled with Persuasion and Intimidation, what are the other 319 pages in the book for?

A standard Kraken Priest is Challenge 5. The party is probably around level 5, too. But you seem to want to land what is effectively a Level 5 magical effect (so, Wizard level 9) on every party member - why? on what basis? A barrage of 4 Geases is Challenge 13, completely disproportionate.

NPC social skills can work on other NPCs

Suppose the PCs arrive back in town, only to find out everyone believes (or claims to believe, nervously looking over his shoulder) Derrig's version of the events - what now?

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Think about why you want intimidating NPCs in the first place

There are a lot of great questions already looking at this from various angles, so here is bit of a soul-searching and frame challenge. I think it may not be a good idea to have a lot of intimidating opponents to begin with.

Do you like your pets?

As a DM your freedoms are god-like and you can create NPCs with any kind or level of power. Yet the irony is that as a good DM, your role is to have the monsters and NPCs you roleplay lose the fight essentially every single time you are sitting down at the table. In the end, your job is to take it on the chin, time after time, to make the players feel great. This is tough, especially if you only DM, and don't play as a player, too.

So it can also be seductive to use your freedom to create a powerful character to live vicariously through for a change, to get to play a character that the PCs will not one-up. This can lead to either DMPCs, or to their "intimidating villain/opponent" equivalent. I'm not saying this is the case here, but I think you should think about if it is, about why you want to have these intimidating characters. Because for the players, a DM who lives out their power fanatsies through intimidating uber-villains sucks.

Do you think real tough is fun?

Another reason why you want intimidating NPCs may be because you are looking to keep it real. Tough, real-feeling worlds, where it is hard to win, like in real life. Where you easily lose if you are not thinking on your feet, careful and ready to run. With opponents that give you no quarter, and that you only beat against the odds and with a great plan. And that of course calls for opponents that are a bitch to beat.

The thing is, players enjoy winning. Even easy wins. Of course, things get boring without real risk or challenge, but in my experience, it's much harder to bore your players by letting them win than you would think. Much harder. Frustrating them through indecipherable intrigue, lethal challenges, stripping them of loot, or humiliating them is a lot easier. They play because they want to be heroes, not because they want to be powerless. Winning is simply more fun than cowering. So let them win, and use the bad times sparingly, like salt when cooking1.

Think scary and interesting, not intimidating

Overall, you can have scary opponents easily. They do not need to be powerful and intimidating. They can be a sicko that the players easily can defeat, but that did horrible things and the players learn about it. They can be powerful by having goons and allies, and that organization is intimidating, even though the evil mastermind phycically is not.

You also can have interesting villains, that have blind spots, weaknesses, soft spots, maybe even humor or understanding. This is not so easy to do, as most of the time the PCs will meet them with the objective to stop and cut them down, but if you avoid this by making them powerful enough so they have an opportunity to survive and show some of their personality, you are not forced to make them intimidating. They may not care about those puny PCs and what they do, before it is too late. They may be content to beat them up, and then show some emphathy and let them live. Or let them live to send a message to someone.

So I think the reasons for making the Big Bad intimidating are often clicheéd and often unneccessary to begin with. It may be interesting once in a while, but from what you describe, it sounds a bit as if you are using this regularly, and then it gets old.


1 I do not think playing the tough game cannot be done, as @Dale points out, there are other kinds of rewards and it can be very meaningful, but it is much harder to do well.

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If the DM decides that an NPC won’t press their advantage over the characters because the players won’t have fun, then that is metagaming. The players will pick up on this and start metagaming themselves. The obvious solution is to stop metagaming — put more focus on portraying a consistent world with NPCs that act based on in-fiction reasoning so that PC decisions have understandable consequences.

Trying to kill the PCs is not the only way for the NPCs to press their advantage even if things come to blows. That can also knock a character out: “When an attacker reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacker can knock the creature out…The creature falls unconscious and is stable” (PHB page 198).

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