RPT#111 – 10 Tips For Roleplaying Rulers
A Brief Word From Johnn
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New Campaign Starting — Wish Me Luck
I have a new D&D 3E campaign starting this week. Thanks again for your Temple of Elemental Evil tips, as per my plea in #105. I’ll be GMing four players who will be completely new to me and I’m quite excited. Hopefully they won’t be bringing any tomatoes or rotten vegetables with them. 🙂
Johnn Four firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Rulers Should Be Special NPCs
Kings, Presidents, Generals, and leaders of all shapes and sizes should be very special NPCs in your campaigns. They should be roleplayed well and deserving of the respect that your world’s inhabitants give them. Too often PCs expect to meet with rulers and demand, say, and get what they want with impunity. Or, even worse, they finish the encounter with a yawn.
I recommend giving extra care and attention to scenes in your stories that involve leaders. Spend a little extra time thinking about the NPC’s personality, responsibilities, goals, and behaviour so that your players are left with a sense of awe, respect, or even fear after an encounter with a capable leader.
Encounters and scenes that involve nobility, leaders, and rulers should be saved for key moments in your adventures and campaigns. This will help prevent the yawn factor and help players to not take such meetings for granted.
Examples of key moments:
- Just before the story’s climax
- Just before the PCs begin a dangerous encounter
- The reward for a successful mission
- To enhance a dramatic scene or moment of the plot
Imagine that the PCs are hired by the King for a mission whose success is vital to the kingdom. It’s tempting to have the King meet directly with the PCs at this point, but there is no drama or tension yet in game play. It’s just the beginning of the story, and possibly, the beginning of the game session when the players are still half in and half out of character.
Instead, have the King’s advisor hire the PCs and send them on their way. Perhaps the characters see a dark figure wearing a crown standing high up in the shadows of a castle window wordlessly watching their departure.
The PCs overcome great adversity and return triumphant. “Come this way to meet the royal advisor” they are told. And they are re-united with the advisor again. Only, the advisor quickly whisks them away to the throne room where they are surprised by a rushed meeting with the King who briefly shakes each PC’s hand and congratulates them personally. The appearance of the King at this point is guaranteed to seem as part of the reward, whereas this would not have been possible if the PCs had met the King at the beginning of the story.
- Never Reveal Weakness
A leader revealing weakness is like dripping blood in a pool of sharks. A ruler must always appear strong, even during moments of great weakness, otherwise ambitious rivals will step up their plans for a take-over.
What this means for you as GM is, during every moment of every scene that features a leader, you must roleplay that NPC with strength, confidence, and decisiveness.
- It’s Better To Stall Than To Hesitate
Roleplaying a confident and decisive ruler is tricky, especially when the PCs gang-up on you! Any time you:
- Can’t think of what to say next
- Start to hesitate
- Don’t know how the ruler NPC would react
- Feel torn between playing the leader true-to-character and covering up for a PC’s mistake or breach of etiquette
You’re better off stalling for a bit while you think up a solution than to hesitate and make the NPC appear weak.
Here are some ways to stall gracefully:
- Have the leader turn aggressive. “Do you know who you are talking to? You will show me respect when you speak to me! Now leave me and next time I summon you, if I choose to do so, you will demonstrate manners appropriate to your lowly station.”
- Let an advisor save the day–that’s what they are there for. An advisor can:
- Step forward and whisper something in the leader’s ear (and while you’re roleplaying this out, you are buying time to think)
- Interrupt: “If I may be so bold sire, I happen to know/be an expert on…”
- Create a distraction (see below)
- Turn aggressive: “Do you question the king?! My Lord, shall I summon the guards to take these rogues to a dark, cold cell?”
- Create a distraction:
- “Fire! Fire!”
- A messenger stumbles in, out of breath with an important missive
- The leader’s charismatic wife/husband/mate enters the room
While this method isn’t very graceful, you can turn this potential disaster into a compelling encounter with fast timing. As soon as you start to get stuck or hesitate immediately execute your distraction. If you do it fast enough, the players will think it’s part of the show, or at least become distracted enough to not dwell on the leader’s gaff.
- Have the leader turn coy:
- “The Captain throws his head back and howls with mirth. ‘You’ve got guts’, he says, ‘I’ll give you that!'”
- “That’s an interesting point. You seem quite confident in yourselves…” (Then remain silent until the PCs grow too uncomfortable and speak first–meanwhile, you’re busy thinking up a way out of the situation)
- Stall with a story. “When I was about your age, something similar happened to me in the Darkspine Mountains…”
- Stall with a dismissal. “I’ll take your opinions and questions under consideration. Do not leave the town proper until I have granted your leave, I may need to summon you again.”
- Use The Chain Of Command And Bureaucracy
By their very nature, most characters are egotistical. By this I mean that they expect to utter some magic words like “I bear an important message for the King!” and be granted an immediate audience.
It’s probably not entirely the PCs’ fault that they act this way either. They most likely do have an important message, and modern life makes players impatient with bureaucracy and formalized procedures.
However, it’s important that you stick to your guns and have the PCs follow whatever procedures you have established. As a general rule of thumb, the more powerful and important the leader, the more hurdles PCs will have to leap in order to gain an audience, make a request, or get noticed.
It’s important that you reserve direct interaction with important leaders for powerful moments in your stories and campaigns.
Some example hurdles to place in front of PCs are:
- Guards with some, though limited, authority
- Bureaucrats (clerks, supervisors, managers, ministers)
- Personal guards (often authorized to shoot first, ask questions later)
- Spouses and significant others
- Etiquette (“You wish to see the Prime Minister in those…garments? I think not.”)
- Policy (i.e. public hearings held only on the Tenday)
- Be Careful With Questions
Questions are very powerful things in parleys. Aside from answers, they can reveal two important items:
- What you don’t know
- What the other person doesn’t know
Unless the leader is quick-witted (and therefore, you as GM as well) you should be careful with questions:
- Avoid asking questions that reveal the leader doesn’t know something important–especially if it’s something the leader needs to learn from the PCs. That instantly gives the characters leverage that they can wield to the leader’s disadvantage.
Two ways to get around this are:
- Ask in a round-about way. If the leader needs to learn where his enemy hides the magic orb, have the leader ask the PCs to tell him “everything and anything you can think of regarding the Baron”. Hopefully, the PCs will cough up the hiding place in their ramblings without knowing how desperate the leader was for the orb information.
- Have a third party ask the question and make the leader look disinterested in the answer. Usually the third party is pre-instructed to ask the question, possibly after a signal from the leader.
- Give a thoughtful pause after each PC question, even if the leader is ready with an answer. This creates drama and tension, plus buys you time for questions you aren’t sure how to answer right away. It also slows the pace down to a manageable level for you, and takes a little power away from the questioner (i.e. the PCs).
- If the leader is asked a question that she does not know the answer to, and does not want to reveal her ignorance to the PCs, you can: – Respond with a question. (“Why do you ask that?” or “What do you think?”) – Refuse to answer. (“Due to national security reasons, I can’t answer that”) – Play games. (“Wouldn’t you like to know!” or “Hah! If I told you then I’d have to tell everyone else!”)
- Purposefully ask a series of questions that the leader believes the PCs don’t know the answers to. If successful, this can damage the PCs’ credibility, reputation, and/or good standing with the leader and other NPCs within hearing distance. It’s also a good way to put uppity characters back in their place and to re-gain the upper hand in a parley. Just be sure the questions are pertinent and important. Asking “Why is the sky blue? What’s that stain on your shirt? What’s my middle name?” would just make the leader sound silly.
- The PCs Are Disposable
Assuming that the characters aren’t relatives, ultra- powerful allies, or close friends with the leader, they will be ultimately regarded as disposable. And this attitude subtly conveys power that separates roleplaying this kind of NPC from others.
Rulers have a single, almost back-breaking responsibility: the welfare of their followers. If the leader isn’t corrupt and involved in a get-rich-quick scheme, then he must weigh all actions and decisions against the welfare of the state and its citizens.
This means that ruler NPCs are generally willing to sacrifice the brave few (i.e. the PCs) for the sake of the many. Some leaders will regret this loss, other won’t; but the bottom line is that the characters are expendable in the eye’s of the NPC and are treated as such.
- The PCs Are Not Equals
Another key to roleplaying rulers is that they do not regard people like the PCs as equals. Not all rulers have this attitude, but many do and it’s a great way to set these kinds of NPCs apart from other types that you roleplay.
Before your next PC-to-ruler encounter, take a moment to visualize this in your mind:
- These people (the PCs) have no land or position in society.
- They are hardly better than vagabonds or homeless rogues.
- Peasants, at least, know their place, pay me taxes, and work my land.
- They come from peasant stock, and there are others out there like them, so they are easily replaced.
- They have no breeding and no manners.
- They tread in places most foul so it’s best to deal with them quickly lest they transfer some disease to me or spoil the air with bad vapors.
- Their loyalty swings to the highest bidder and they cannot be trusted, just like any other mercenaries.
- Their type often believes themselves to be overly clever and can be like dogs who let you pet them and then attack when your back is turned.
Now that you’re in the right frame of mind, start the encounter!
- Talk About The PCs In The Third Person
A great trick to quickly establish who’s in charge is to talk about the PCs in the third person to their faces. This will, of course, antagonize the characters, but that’s what power is all about.
- Avoid Overusing The Friendly Leader Archetype
Friendly, confident, just, fair, and fatherly rulers make excellent mentors for PCs. They are also great for seeding stories and adventures, providing rewards, and moving plots along in the right direction when needed.
However, beware of over-using this archetype in your campaigns. This type of NPC should be special and rare in order to provide good contrast for all the evil and not so black-and-white leaders in your worlds.
It can be tough roleplaying unjust, belligerent, or jerkface rulers and bosses. Your players show up to escape real life, not re-enact it. 😉 To compensate, you can:
- Have a chat with the players out-of-character, letting them know that the ruler NPC is just being true-to-character and true-to-role, and that you’re not doing this to be spiteful or arbitrary. It’s just the way it is in your world, and they shouldn’t take it personally.
- Introduce a valuable contact NPC who can act as a friendly and sympathetic go-between between the ruler and PCs. This way the characters get what they want and you can avoid direct ruler-to-PC interaction.
- Allow the leader one redeeming quality so the whole encounter isn’t as frustrating–but keep the rest of the flaws!
Also, consider that the ruler has many large responsibilities, so that, in some circumstances, noble things such as fairness and truth are just ideals that have to be weighed against factors like hunger, national defense, and keeping the peace.
For example, it might be true justice dismissing the charges against a PC who slew a corrupt baron, but the ensuing unrest amongst the nobility who would be outraged by that verdict prevents the King from letting the character off the hook, truth be damned.
For this reason, benevolent leaders must often put on a face of indifference and even severity to do their job.
When a kind ruler does enter the PCs lives, they’ll respect him much more because he is no longer a dime-a-dozen.
- Speak Like A Ruler
Some quick speaking tips:
- Speak slowly, as if you expect people to hang on your every word.
- Speak like you expect to be obeyed: commanding, but not bossy.
- Make assumptions on what people will do, as a subtle form of command.
For example: Arton, a PC, stands before the High Magistrate of The Librarian’s Guild, seeking permission to do some research.
“So…Arton seeks entrance into the Inner Sanctum to learn more about the history of the Drow, does he?…Interesting. Brother Demos, draw up a permit for Arton immediately. And, Arton will be offering us his services in exchange, as I have the perfect small job for him. Now, both of you leave, I have other business to take care of!”
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- Hand Out Pics Of NPCs Only When The PCs First Meet Them
From: Tommi T.
I recommend that you should only attach a picture to an NPC when the PCs initially meet him, since they are quick to draw their own pictures in their minds and it is really annoying to look at a pic that doesn’t match your mental image…
- Finding Pics of NPCs On The Web
From: Eric B.
One of the best ways to find pictures is the web. Two of my top sources are:
- The DEA / FBI / local police files. The people look slimy and aren’t going to complain about copyright infringement.
[Comment from Johnn: Here’s a site with some celebrity and historical mug shots: http://www.apbonline.com/media/gfiles/index.html
(By the way, http://www.apbonline.com/ is a great site for plot hooks and story ideas. Just check out the headlines.)
And here’s another site with a few mug shots:http://www.mugshare.com/index.html ]
- Models pages: Models and talent agencies put high quality images up on the web with the hope that it will generate business. They also make excellent props.
- The DEA / FBI / local police files. The people look slimy and aren’t going to complain about copyright infringement. [Comment from Johnn: Here’s a site with some celebrity and historical mug shots: http://www.apbonline.com/media/gfiles/index.html
- The Battledome: A Way To Give Or Remove Items From PCs
From: Ryan C.
One of the ways I always enjoy to either give items to PCs, or take some away, is the BattleDome. This is a place for PCs to face NPCs or monsters one-on-one and maybe gain something out of it.
The way it works is: let’s say Madgog the Barbarian has a long sword +1, so he walks into the BattleDome and sees that there is a Half-Ogre seeking a fight who is willing to offer up his Maul of Krev Hamfist as an ante to any man or beast who can beat him in a pure physical fight.
Madgog offers up his sword as his ante and fights the Half- Ogre, each using a mundane weapon of their choice made available just for this fight by the BattleDome. If Madgog wins he gets to keep his sword and he gets to take home the Maul, but if the Half-Ogre wins he gets the sword and the Maul.
This is a good way to get those powerful items PCs have out of their hands or to put items that will be necessary into their hands. The main thing is, the BattleDome is sealed by Eldritch forces, meaning that any spell cast will not affect the spectators and it insures a perfect resurrection if the character dies.
You could offer up anything like better weapons, cursed weapons, maps, or even items that will just be needed later. Another use is for PCs to see certain NPCs in action, such as the wealthy land baron who sponsors fighters, or the fighter who fights in the Dome and may be hired. The possibilities are endless as long as the GM has the imagination to run with them.
- Alien Voices Tips
This mostly applies to Sci-fi games, or games where there are non-humanoid races which take an active part in the game. For best effect, develop a voice for the character or race. Some examples include:
I was GMing a TMNT RPG game, and the players came across a mutant squid. Squids aren’t very human-like to begin with, so I was racking my brain for a voice to give him. Something that would startle the players, just by hearing a single sentence. On the spot, when he began to talk, I started speaking in a screeching, hoarse, grating, gurgly voice, and my players just cringed. When they found out that I was going to answer all their questions in that voice, they decided to attack. One character, using a sniper rifle, managed to blow a hole in the squid, which gave another surprise for the players: a screeching, hoarse, grating gurgly voice, now SCREAMING at the top of it’s lungs!
This might seem merely annoying, but it’s actually very effective at conveying the NON-humanity of the creature.
As another example, I’ll use my GURPS Space game. The characters are performing a raid on an alien outpost. When they get inside, I first treat them to the sound of the alarm, which is completely different from what you would expect: No high pitched sirens, just a loud, low, hum. Second, when they encountered a group of the aliens, I had a VERY weird voice ready. There weren’t even any intelligible words, just a random string of nasal buzzes. And when the creature took out it’s translator, I even had a voice for that. Developing voices that non-humanoids can use is tricky, but well worth the effort.
Most of it is made up on the spot, which gives it some randomness, but it also means that once you start speaking in that voice, you have to stick with it whenever the players encounter that character or race. I practice voices, usually AFTER I have made them at the gaming table; it may be more effective to do it beforehand.
As for techniques, I try to imagine how does this creature sound? Some things are very obvious, such as a high pitched, raspy metallic voice that sounds despicably evil, but does it fit the race? If the race is an intelligent insectoid or reptilian, then the answer is probably yes. But if the creature looks more like, say, a rhinoceros, then a deep, low, hoarse voice would sound better, especially if you throw in a few grunts or snorts.
Also, after I have made a voice, the first warm-up I try is to say the races name using that voice. Obviously, if you give a race a human-sounding name but they’re insects, then it will be VERY difficult for them to pronounce it, if not impossible. For that reason, it’s better to try out the voice before you even give the name of the race to the players. Try making up a simple word or phrase (in their language), and just try saying it in the voice until you get the hang of it. To maintain your dignity, don’t do REALLY alien voices in front of others until the game. You will get some REALLY weird looks from your family.
Sometimes, though, you need a computer to help, or a commercial voice changer (they retail in Toys ‘R’ Us for about $5). The only problem with voice changers is that they usually have only 3 settings, and it’s hard to get inflection from them. Computer programs for modulating voices are great, but you should then DEFINITELY practice well in advance, to get it just right.
Another thing I do is I try to laugh in the races voice. Then, I come up with a new type of laughter. The squid monster I mentioned sounded like a toilet backing up!
And finally, as I said before, imagine how that kind of creature talks. Some general guidelines are:
- Insectoid and Small Reptilians: High, scratchy, hisses or clicks in the language.
- Large Mammals and Dinosaurs: Deep, hoarse, throaty, grunts or snorts work wonders.
- Predators: Try a slightly higher tone.
- Birds: Bird-like races are usually excellent mimics; if you want to remind players that they are alien, use a parrot-like voice.
- Telepathic races: If you can make a resonating voice, it gives a better impression of telepathy.
- Really alien creatures: These are a bit tougher. You have to make it up yourself.
Hope that helps!
- Easy, Consistent Name Creation
From: Johnn Four
This tip was inspired by an ICQ I received from Kjahti.
An incredibly easy way to create names and words for your games is to use foreign languages. And a great way to do that is Google’s free translator service:http://www.google.ca/language_tools?hl=en
- Word translation. Type in the word(s) you want to translate, the language, and click Translate. This is an easy way to keep your definitions straight and words consistent. It’s also a great way to generate names.
For example, the word “shirt” from English to Italian is “Camicia”…a great name!
- Web site translation. For mass word generation with a single button click, enter a web site URL in the “Translate a web page” option.
There’s a limited number of translation languages available, but if you’re like me and barely have command of the one language you do know, then this will open up new worlds for you. 🙂
- Word translation. Type in the word(s) you want to translate, the language, and click Translate. This is an easy way to keep your definitions straight and words consistent. It’s also a great way to generate names.