Player sympathy in tabletop gaming is like a quick DMV line. Theoretically it’s happened somewhere, to someone. But not to me. Out there, among the thousands of gaming groups, a player has refused to bludgeon an unguarded merchant over his countertop of shiny baubles. Somewhere the pleas of an orphan in the street weren’t met with suspicious purse-clutching. In someone’s game– maybe even your game, dear reader– a damsel was saved because it was the right thing to do, without anybody rolling a Charisma check for a “happy ending.”
Those are not in my games.
So, over time I’ve pulled dirty tricks from the pages of popular fantasy to garner sympathy from the players– to encourage them to do the right thing– or at least not do the absolutely worst thing they can imagine. Here for your pleasure are 5 tips for writing sympathetic NPCs to sway your players.
1) Barely-Sentient Animals/Monsters
Nothing hits the sympathy button like animal cruelty. Even the most reviled creature can touch our hearts if handled properly. In the movie Cloverfield, the monster was a rampaging alien, demolishing the city, and I had nothing but hatred for the creature as a character…until I read online that it had just ‘hatched’ from its cocoon and was searching for its absent mama. Think about the Rancor from Star Wars, and how everyone cheered for Luke to rip its hojos off– right until it died a sad, pathetic death.
Add hulking monsters into your campaign with clear signs of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment, and give your players the chance to free or redeem the monster. Hand them the keys to the troll’s cage, only to find that its owners have crippled its legs so it can’t run away. The most devastating act known to man is the cruelty inflicted upon those that can’t understand why– why it has been selected for pain, not knowing how to make that pain stop.
2) Speech Impediment
I admit this is a simple, cheap trick if you can pull it off. I once had an old tinkerer who hired the players to track down his red balloon, which was a floating magic sphere of red iron that drifted through the city causing havoc. The tinkerer was a doddering old fool who puttered around his shop, creating nigh-useless trinkets, and referred to everything, regardless of its function, as “m-m-my t-t-things…” which I borrowed from George R. R. Martin’s short story The Pear Shaped Man.
This trick worked so well that when I hired the players to later kill that old coot, half of them outright refused. The assassin, who eventually decided his character would have no compunction slaughtering an old, bewildered grandfather, did the deed.
The party then spent several campaign sessions (and a good deal of gold) resurrecting that same old man after they turned in the quest. Nothing reminds us of our own social vulnerabilities like a character who can’t voice his or her opinion due to an unnamed disability.
3) Ironclad Principals/Morality
Think Hannibal Lecter, or Dexter Morgan. These are seriously bad men, but we still sympathize with them as characters because of their airtight moral guidelines. This tip is a little more trial-and-error than the others, but when it works, it works like gangbusters.
Assign an unbreakable moral code to your NPCs from time to time. Experiment with it. Allow the players to learn that the warlord they’re dealing with has an affinity for animals and refuses to harm a doe in the forest, despite him sitting on a throne of human skulls. Let them meet the Necromancer who won’t take advantage of graveyard full of bodies because they have families. Turn away the players’ stolen goods because their fence refuses to buy anything pilfered from the poor part of town. You’ll still end up with a few slit throats, and a few forgotten NPCs. But once in a while you’ll strike the right balance of morality, principals, and unique NPC traits that make a character unforgettable.
4) Mirror The Values Of The Players
Did you know that if you mirror your boss’s body language, he/she will like you more? It builds trust and displays sympathetic responses to the person you’re mirroring. That, or you come off looking like a creepy robot.
You can also use this basic principal of psychology to foster sympathy with the players, but be warned, this can backfire. If your players roleplay as a marauding band of land-pirates like mine, introducing a foul-mouthed cretin of similar virtue can ingratiate them to the party. Besides, who doesn’t want another thirsty sword to bolster their ranks? However, this comes with its own unspoken warning of: you knew the risks.
Between the murderous and unscrupulous there is an understanding; if everyone agrees on a course of action, everyone benefits. If there is a heated disagreement a party member can become the next target. But that’s all part of the bargain. By introducing an NPC with similar values you are signing an invisible contract. The players reserve the right to murder-loot your NPC under the same circumstances they would each other. Keep your NPC on-guard, and sleep with one eye open, just like aggressive players do with each other.
5) Vulnerability From The Powerful
A common problem I find in writing sympathetic characters is the instinct to insert the most vulnerable wretches on earth into your game, in the hopes their lowly plight will bring a tear to the player’s eye and activate their maternal/paternal instincts. This. Does. Not. Exist.
My players, and by extension some of your players, are riding high on a power trip. The last thing they want is to be reminded of how vulnerable fleshy human(oid)s can be. Do not try to jerk at their heart-strings with orphans. Do not tie damsels to the tracks. Instead, make them sympathize with the notion that the powerful (like the player-character) can be brought low.
Pictured: Starting low and ending low.
Have a stern, no-nonsense woman of authority, preferably a badass fighter/sorcerer in her own right, and take her out of her element. Let her butt heads with the players early on. Let her push them around, force them to jump through hoops, maybe even get into a physical altercation with the players. This works especially well if she is a quest-giver.
But after all the quests have been completed and it’s time to pack up and move on to the next town (of victims) let the players see her toppled from her pedestal. Whether through war, political infighting, or the player’s actions, let them see her left in the dust, vulnerable. And if you’ve done your job right, the players will be incredibly compelled to lend a hand in mutual respect and sympathy.
Written for Statbonus.com and Masksofmonsters.wordpress.com
Featured image from Gothamspoilers.com and DC Comics.