5/9/12

Intimidate checks: Making them an offer they can't refuse

It happens sooner or later in every game: one of the PCs is holding a gun on an NPC and they want the NPC to drop a weapon, or open a door, or whatever. The GM has the PC make an intimidate roll, and because the PC has a low intimidate stat, or because the dice gods hate them, they fail. It should be clear to the NPC that failing to comply is tantamount to suicide, but the dice say the NPC isn't afraid.

What is a GM to do?

Some thoughts below. Also - Google tells me that I have lurkers. Feel free to chime in with comments/suggestions on this or any other posts.


To oversimplify things a little, there are (at least) two different ways to think about intimidation.

Option 1) Intimidate governs whether or not the target does what the intimidator wants them to do.

This is pretty straightforward - if the intimidate succeeds, the target complies. If the intimidate fails, they don't.

When using this method, I'm a big advocate of healthy situational bonuses on intimidate rolls. Credible ability to harm the target, either physically or otherwise, should count for as much as the actual skill.

Consider: Are you more likely to give your wallet to an angry linebacker who is threatening you with his bare hands from the wrong side of a chain link fence, or a ragged looking teenager who has a pistol pointed at you?

Even if the teenager is physically unimposing and nervous, the gun gives him more credible ability to cause harm. That's why people use weapons in muggings - because they make compliance much more likely.

Still, no matter how large the bonus to the die roll, sooner or later one of the PCs will botch an intimidate against a NPC while they have an assault rifle jammed in the NPC's mouth. And that brings us to option #2. 

Option 2) Intimidate governs the ability of the character to instill fear above and beyond their apparent ability to inflict harm.  

Even if the NPC isn't intimidated, they will probably comply with someone who can clearly inflict harm on them, especially if that harm is significantly worse than the consequences of compliance. But they aren't unreasonably scared of the intimidator. And, as soon as they think they can get away with it, they will probably seek revenge in some form that is proportional to the level of the threat made against them.

To go back to the example above, If that teenager with the pistol lets his guard down while he is picking up your wallet, you might just kick him in the teeth. And you are almost definitely going to report him to the police afterwards, because his ability to offer a credible threat will be gone. Unless he rolls really well on that intimidate check and you keep quiet for fear of him finding you and exacting retribution. 

Example: The PCs have broken into the Evil Overlord's fortress, and one party members has an evil minion at gunpoint. The player fails his intimidate roll, so the PC hasn't managed to put the fear of god into the minion. The minion isn't an idiot (one of the benefits of a tight job market is that even Evil Overlords can hire decent henchmen), so as long as the PC is paying attention and has a gun in his face, the minion will do (or try to look like he is doing) what the PC tells him. But, given the opportunity, the minion will probably try to set off a silent alarm, or make a break for it, or grab the PC's gun.

I'm a fan of this interpretation for two reasons. The first is that the GM doesn't need as many situational modifiers, since they are taking the situation into account when determining the narrative effects of the failed intimidate roll. The second is that because it gives the GM much more control over how the NPC reacts to a failed intimidate, it allows them to narrate it in a way that makes sense given the NPCs character and the situation. It also provides fun ways for the GM to control the pace of the game as things unfold.

This probably isn't for everyone. If the game is a sort of rules-governed player vs. GM competition, this kind of narrative control might elicit cries of foul play. But for cooperative games, I find that it works very well.

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