Humanizing Your Enemies A Powerful GM Tool

From Chuck Schneider

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0152

A Brief Word From Johnn

New Contest – GMing Encounters Feedback

I’m not really supposed to tell you about plans to produce a second, follow-up eBook to NPC Essentials in the GM Mastery series yet. However, I’d like to start research on it early so I can begin writing early in the New Year.

So, book #2 will be all about Encounters. Creating, designing, planning, and running encounters. Different types of encounters. Tricks, tips, and tactics for roleplaying, combat, and puzzle encounters, etc. But remember, you didn’t hear that from me.

To enter the contest, send in any feedback on the problems and challenges you face with planning, creating, or running encounters. Also, send in any tip requests regarding encounters you might have. I’d much rather write a book that solves the problems you have than to hear myself type.

Each problem, tip request, or challenge feedback item is equal to one entry in the contest. You can send in as many entries as you like. The contest ends Saturday, December 22, 2002.

Up for grabs are:

Email your contest entries to: [email protected]

Roleplaying Tips / GM Mastery Yahoo! Group

I’ve finally set-up a discussion list for Tips subscribers, NPC Essentials eBook owners, and GMs in general. The idea is to provide a forum where you can ask me questions about my eBooks or the tips ezine. I’d also like the Yahoo! list to act as a support group for GMs to help each other with friendly advice and tips.

To join, send an email to: [email protected]

Or visit:

See you there!

Happy Holidays.
[Translation: I wish my damn holidays would start so I can get some good gaming in! :]

Johnn Four
[email protected]

Humanizing Your Enemies A Powerful GM Tool

What It Means To Humanize

I’d like to start by giving credit where credit is due: I didn’t think up this concept for myself. This tool was introduced to me by a very good friend of mine (and a great GM!). During one of his adventures, our characters were creeping up on two gate guards when they began doing something that took us totally by surprise: they started talking.The GM played the roles of both of these two guards and they talked back and forth about home life, family, hobbies, and so on.

It took us a few moments to realize that these guards were not important NPCs -? they were just normal guys doing their job. This situation threw us a proverbial curveball. Our party couldn’t bring themselves to kill them and we ended up threatening them with force and tying them up before proceeding.This tool, which I have come to call “humanization”, involves giving your NPC enemies personality traits that transform them from mere sword-chow to people with a past and a life. I’ve discovered that doing this simple thing makes dramatic changes in the game.

The following tips are observations I’ve made that I believe stem from humanization of enemies.

Test Player Role-Playing Skills

Giving your players a moral dilemma is a wonderful way to put their roleplaying skills to the test. When put in the situation of dealing with a humanized enemy, will their characters just keep on acting as they always do? Or will they reconsider the situation? Will the evil characters stay in character and annihilate the enemy soldier even though he has three wonderful kids back home? What if one of the characters has kids, too?The enemies don’t even have to be likable.

Maybe they just have similar hobbies to the characters. “Wait, he does wood carving? My character does wood carving. He’s not so different at all.”See what happens if you have an enemy surrender and beg for mercy. You might be surprised at the result. Can the characters kill someone in cold blood? If not, how do they deal with this potential threat? If they spare this enemy, will it come back to bite them? (Perhaps literally!)

Encourage Role-Playing Over Roll-Playing

This tool will do surprising things to a power-gamer. When faced with humanized enemies, I’ve seen a player who does nothing but annihilate everything that moves do the unthinkable: he turned around and started leading the group in a way to solve the situation non-violently!Making enemies more real can put an end to a power-gamer thinking of his foes as ability scores and leads them on the path to acting in character and having the PC act as the PC would.

You might be surprised at the reaction you get when you first start to do this. The aforementioned bloodthirsty player backed down from a kobold when it said that the party could kill him, but pleaded with them to leave his family alone. Not only did the warrior back off, he demanded that the party acquiesce! (This has led me to believe that there’s nothing wrong with a hulking warrior who’s just a big ol’ softy.)

Keep Enemies From Getting Stale

Yes, they’re in the employ of the Blasphemous Darkmage, but they’re also people, too. Instead of a completely fearless, over-motivated minion, what about a real person with thoughts, concerns, fears, and opinions?

  1. What about the thief who steals from the characters to feed her family?
  2. What about the castle guard for whom it is just a job until he and his wife can move out to the country to start a family?
  3. What about the one member of an enemy squad who is the butt of all the jokes and is generally disliked?
  4. How would you feel after killing an enemy and then finding well-read love letters from their significant other in their pocket?
  5. Even taking out cannon fodder enemies like stormtroopers or orcs can make a person feel bad, provided they were carrying a picture of their family, or a lock of hair from a loved one.

Enemies aren’t just scowling combatants any more, they are people, just like the characters, with families and friends back home.

Caveat! This is not to suggest that every enemy the party meets should be fleshed out! This would get tiresome for the players and even more tiring for the GM who has to make up all of these humanizing factors.

Make Villains Likeable

Tying in with the above, making your villains more human can make for some interesting play. The secret here is to do more than just humanize them ?- it’s to make them likeable. There’s no one so hard to fight as the likeable enemy, the one who opposes you only because he or she feels they are right. As with the above caveat, use this sparingly!

A cackling maniacal necromancer is still one of the best villains ever!But, why settle for another snarling arch-demon when you can have a villain who only does her cruel deeds to forget the horrible life she has lived? How about the stern conqueror who feels he is bettering the lives of those he rules? How will you handle the good and just queen, whose hand is forced by blackmail?

Is the leader of the gargoyle horde, who only wishes to reclaim the species’ ancestral homelands, really as evil and bloodthirsty as the king tells the PCs he is?

Change Combat

This is both a high point and a low point of the tool: when used it makes combat more realistic, but it can dull the sense of adventure, so be careful!There are three main effects on combat that I’ve seen:

  • The players will be deterred more easily
  • They will enter combat more reluctantly
  • They will kill less often

Deterrence: By this I mean that, quite often, characters who are in a position to fight “humanized” enemies will go out of their way not to fight them! One group I played with spent 10 minutes trying to get around three guards rather than just slaughtering them in 3 minutes like they could have ?- mainly because one of the guards just happened to be a fan of one of the same musical groups as one of the PCs. With this tool, the characters are more likely to skirt enemies and be stealthy.

Reluctance: When the characters know they must fight an enemy they have come to like or respect, they will enter into combat more soberly and deliver the final blow more reluctantly. One thing is for certain: after the PCs kill the enemy soldier who misses his parents and is only serving his nation like they are, they won’t crow over their victory like they would if they had crashed into the ranks of the Generic Evil Hordes.

Subduing: Characters tend to be more merciful to enemies they have an attachment to. To blatantly steal a phrase: instead of kill, they will maim; instead of maiming, they will injure; instead of injuring, they will subdue; instead of subduing, they will let go.

If this tool is used in every situation, the thrill of combat could cease to be felt. Be sparing in the use of this tool or you might end up GMing bored players with thirsty swords.

Avoid Over-Individualization

The biggest plus for this tool is that it makes the world seem more real — which is also its biggest caveat! This tool helps to make a world that goes on AROUND the characters instead of happening TO the characters. Those gate guards don’t just exist so you can slaughter them -? they are as much a part of the game-world as the characters.For GMs who are going for a more detailed feel to a world, this is great.

However, one of the many reasons people play is to escape to a world where orcs are fierce, stormtroopers are dumb, and justice is meted out by the edge of a blade or the business end of a pistol. If you disrupt this too often, your players could get annoyed as the fantasy disappears.A big mistake a GM can make (which I have expounded on over the course of this article) is to individualize every enemy in the game.

Instead, use it sparingly as a dramatic effect, as a special challenge, or as a new kind of puzzle.One last interesting aspect of humanizing your enemies, and the most important: It’s surprisingly FUN for both you and your players, and isn’t that what this is all about?

Graphic of section divider

Chuck Schneider is an Oakland, CA native who has been gaming since he was seven and GMing from the age of nine. (He likes to think he’s improved a bit in the intervening years.) He is a U.S. Navy sailor for a living and his hobbies include working on his own home-brewed gaming system and maintaining his sanity.


Check out The Hero Factory’s
Save some $$$, and as always, free
stuff for Roleplaying Tips subscribers!

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Riddle Tip

From Darrel D.M.

Wondering if there’s ever been a Tips issue on creating and using riddles in games? [Comment from Johnn: No! Anybody have any tips for creating and using riddles?] I checked, though not really carefully, but if not, I have a few suggestions.

Here is my riddle:

Rich yet lowly.
The end of every living thing.
An end and a beginning.

Guessed it yet? It’s dirt.

Let me go through the process I used.

Dirt is fertile, so I came up with another word for fertile: rich. And it is found on the ground, about as low as you can get.

The end of every living thing. I borrowed that from the Bible, “from dust…to dust you shall return.”

Animals and plants return to the dust, but by dying they create a beginning for plants and in turn more animals.

I create my riddles by taking common sayings, or common sense terms, and turning them around. I found this to be very helpful and enjoyable.

Now try this one:

5 there are.
Found in the water, on dirt, in the air.
Each one separate, but all one.


Graphic of section divider

Storing Miniatures

From Mark

Just replying to an old tip where you asked for hints about safely carrying lead miniatures.

I found computer parts boxes work well. They are fairly durable cardboard, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and have foam padding on the inside in an egg carton-like pattern. And they are very cheap (i.e. free). Just wander round to the local computer shop and ask to have some of the ones they are throwing out.

Hope this helps.

Graphic of section divider

Great NPC Online Tool

From Yogi Bear

Hello! I subscribed to your mailing list some 30 issues ago, and that was the best subscription I ever took out. Your tips are great! I’m a newbie GM and your tips have helped me be more professional as well as pointing me to many great resources on the web.

So here’s the meat in this letter: I found a web page which has a Flash-engine for making composite faces, just like the police artist does for wanted posters. You select ears, hair styles, eyes, etc. from a list of thumbnails, and the program builds a face in real-time that you can screen- capture and save.

The web address is:

You can get some great faces this way — even if you haven’t got a smidgen of artistic talent, you can now have a mug shot of your character; either your own PC or an NPC to show the players. “This is what the Guild Master looks like.” The images are dithered black-and-white, perfect for printing onto a character form.

Graphic of section divider

9-Act Structure

From Alan De Smet

Tip 3 in issue #149 referred to “Brennan O’Brien’s 9-Act format”.

I’m fairly confident that Mr. O’Brien’s source is David Siegel’s “Two-Goal Structure” and “Nine-Act Structure”, some very interesting analyses of what makes a successful movie. I originally encountered Mr. Siegel’s ideas many years ago (around 1996), and immediately appreciated the relevance for game masters. I heartily suggest his articles on the topic to all game masters, especially “the Two-Goal Structure” and “the Nine-Act Structure.” These articles provide a great deal of additional depth to Brennan’s summary.

The Nine-Act Structure:

The Two-Goal Structure:

Adventure Writing Tips: The Goal Reversal & The 9-Act Format:

Graphic of section divider

Mood Music

From Alan H.

Putting your players in the mood: when I run a game I choose a piece of theme music to go with it. I try to go for something distinctive that we wouldn’t play during the session (we tend to have film soundtracks running in the background while we play). After the initial greetings and banter, the theme music goes on and it lets the players know we’re starting and sets the mood for the evening.

I also record opening “credits” over the theme music in the nature of a radio drama, i.e. “starring so-and-so as Bert, so-and- so as Tom,” together with an episode number and a suitably cryptic title like the cliffhanger serials. After the music has finished I read a brief summary of the previous session and then we’re into the game.

If you choose appropriate music for the genre and style of game it can go a long way towards creating the mood and atmosphere you want. For the conspiracy-type game title music I used the Huron ‘Beltane’ Fire Dance by Loreena Mckennitt that I first heard on the ill-fated series EZ Street — very atmospheric. For space opera I used the title music from a seventies TV science fiction series that none of my players were familiar with.

Graphic of section divider

More Top 7 Lists

From Grim Jesta

Re: RPT#127 – Using ‘Top 7 Lists’ To Help Assimilate Published Game Worlds

I’ve been a subscriber to your e-zine for a long time now and I have always found every article useful. But the one about incorporating settings to your game [Issue #127], was absolutely fabulous. The “Top 7” lists are awesome, and I plan on implementing them right away. And to boot, I am not using a new setting. I have been running the D&D 3E Kingdoms of Kalamar setting for some time now, but the lists will still help. The one that REALLY hooked me was the top 7 curses for NPCs to use. One of the things I liked about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is how the NPCs have their own curses, most based in the history of the world.

I have some more top 7 list ideas:

  1. Top 7 local herbs and alchemy components. Tolkien always had his own herbs, and in naming the regional herbs, you too can make a realistic flora for your area. This should be done on a region by region area for the places that you game. It should be noted that though they have different names in regions, many of the herbs will be the same. The alchemical components would be monster body-parts, rare minerals, and natural concoctions that the locals would know about.
  2. Top 7 weapons and armor most commonly used. This might seem trivial, but your region will seem much more realistic if the people have a set range of weapons and armor most commonly used. Of course, these aren’t the ONLY weapons and armor used, but they are the most commonly imported/exported or used in the area. Like England with its longbow and Rome with its pilums, creating a small list such as this will add flavor to the region you are running your game in. It might help to do this for the surrounding areas too, so that someone might comment on how they carry “Nation X”‘s longswords in stock, or chainmail from distant “Nation Y”.
  3. Top 7 games played. Again, this is pure flavor. What games do the nobles and peasants play? When the PCs wander into a tavern or the local Baron’s court, they can see such games in practice.
  4. Top 7 real-world accents. Write down the names of each major kingdom and empire in the setting. Then give that nation a real world accent that you and players from that area might use to seem all the more believable. For example, give the large monarchy an English accent, the feudal petty-state nation a French accent, the large empire a German accent, and the barbarians in the north a Celtic or Norse accent. This not only makes the game world seem more realistic, but if the PCs can only hear an NPC, not see, they can at least tell where that person is from.

Those are just some of the ones I have done in the past (though not in a Top 7 list format), and the payoff was worth the little extra work I had to put into the game. The players truly felt that they were in a living, breathing world.
Thanks for the excellent ezine and keep up the good work.