The Art of Propaganda: 7 Tactics to Influence Character Behavior

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0389

A Brief Word From Johnn

Foil Their Plan With Initiative

It’s been mentioned in this e-zine before that you can foil any group plan by rolling initiative. We proved that in our recent game session on Thursday. It doesn’t even need to be initiative. Just go around the table and play things out one-character action – and decision – at a time.

Unless your group is disciplined and has clearly communicated and established what each character needs to be doing along a timeline, all of their plans will unravel as each character does his own thing and begins to deviate from the intended assignments.

Use this power to save a villain or to give important NPCs a chance in their next battle against the PCs.  Avoid over-using this, else players will get frustrated. Reward good planning as well, perhaps by not calling initiative and instead declaring the plan successful.

Between Sessions – Gather Info

Another tip that came to mind after Thursday’s game was that players are better off using in-between game time to gather as much information about their options as possible, instead of doing elaborate planning.

At the start of the session all sorts of character options came out, and we spent some time investigating those. The PCs checked in with their contacts, went shopping, used teleport spells, cast divinations, and so on. That was great. The more information the PCs have, the better-armed they are against the tough foe that the Temple of Elemental Evil is.

The downside was that any between-session planning went to waste because all sorts of new options came to light. So, encourage your players to do as much investigation and accounting they can between games, instead of figuring out what their grand plan of action is.

Looking For New Dungeon Ideas? Volume 10 Ready To Download

The next volume of 5 Room Dungeons contest entries is now ready for download. Featured in this volume:

  1. Revenge of the Urn Beast by Cheka Man
  2. Raid on Tantalus IV (sci-fi) by dark_dragon
  3. Sewer Lair by Daniel Burrage
  4. Orcish Olympics by Aki Halme
  5. Pitfall Castle by Nathan Wells

Download (PDF 1.1 MB) – 5 RoomDungeons – Vol10

All the previous 5 Room Dungeons –

Have a game-full week.

Johnn Four
[email protected]

The Art of Propaganda: 7 Tactics to Influence Character Behavior

A favourite marketing blog, Dosh Dosh, recently posted about how bloggers can use propaganda in their promotional campaigns to emotionally engage readers. Blog author Maki notes these methods aren’t for deceiving people with false or misleading information, but rather to place your messages in contexts that will engage your audience.

As I was reading the article, I thought the methods used by media, governments, businesses, and politicians are perfect tools game masters can use to influence players and their PCs.

The ideal game night often involves the characters fulfilling the adventure plans of the GM. This isn’t a requirement, but it’s optimal because the game is frequently better when using what the GM has prepared. If this isn’t true for you, then you might consider not preparing for games anymore and putting your time to better use, such as by doing more world-building or reading great fiction to fill your well of ideas.

Your best bet is to lure the PCs along your desired path, and make it seem like the players are making free-will choices. Everybody is happy in this scenario when done right.

Below are my GMing interpretations on Maki’s propaganda tips to help you lure the PCs into your plans better. You might want to read Maki’s article first before diving into the tips:


Use derogatory names, titles, appellations, and words to associate the target with something negative. This can be a shortcut way to discredit someone, because the audience will emotionally pin their thoughts and feelings associated with the name to the unfortunate target. Why put forward a complex argument of fact and evidence when you can just call them a warmonger or rich or geek and win the audience over?

Game master use:

  • Influence the PCs by having NPCs calling them names.

Example: The characters are about to leave your plot hook behind, uninterested. A rival shows up and uses racial slurs to goad them into action.

  • Influence the PCs by an NPC manipulating audience perception of them through name-calling.

Example: The characters won’t engage in the exciting combat encounter you have planned. The foes start making noise, drawing a crowd of onlookers, and then call the PCs cowards and wealthy foreigner mercenaries to pressure them into fighting.

  • Influence the PCs’ perception of an NPC with name-calling.

Example: The party is skeptical an NPC could be guilty of a crime they’re investigating. In truth, he is not, but another NPC comes along and declares him evil, a consort of demons, a sympathizer of the Usurper, and any other name that would have an impact. Suddenly, the NPC is on the suspect list now.

  • Motivate PC action with name-calling on signs, in graffitti, or in clues.

Example: You’d like the party to visit one tavern in particular, out of dozens in the city. To attract them, you give the tavern a name that speaks directly to one or more characters through name-calling.

Glittering Generalities

Use poorly defined, emotionally charged words and phrases to stir up feelings of approval, sympathy, and support. As Maki says in his article, this technique works well because each person will apply their own preconceptions, experiences, and ideas as to what the generality means. It means something important to everyone, so you can reach and affect each person who reads, watches, or hears your message. With this method, you don’t have to customize the message to each audience member.

Quotes Maki: “Our first and natural reaction is to assume that the speaker is using the word in our sense, that he believes as we do on this important subject. This lowers our ‘sales resistance’ and makes us far less suspicious.”

Game master use:

  • A villain could flatter and influence the PCs by declaring them heroes in front the Mayor. To one PC, hero means saving innocent lives. To another, it means chopping down waves of monsters. To a third, it means facing powerful foes with only your spells and wits to defend yourself with.
  • A rival thieves’ guild member approaches the PCs in disguise and points out how his enemies are thieves and are stealing from honest folk. He says he knows where the rogues operate from and the PCs would be doing their civic duty and earn great honour if they destroyed the operation.

With such glittering generalities as stealing from honest folk, civic duty, and great honour, the PCs might be motivated to act immediately. Even if they do take time to verify the truth, they might be lulled into not questioning the motives of their new informant.

  • As a plot hook, you promise the party great wealth for performing a certain task. You might even lend greater legitimacy by signing a request with the King’s seal. The King actually intends to pay a sum of 10 pigs and 5 chickens. But, when the characters read the posting, they’ll superimpose their own ideas of what the great wealth might be.


This method uses such things as symbols, titles, memberships, or associations to transfer what is good, respected, or even revered about something over to something else.

The recipient of the transfer inherits the ideas, respect, or authority the audience recognizes or identifies with the source. Uniforms, religious symbols, heraldry, and flags are good examples.

Game master use:

  • Reputation system. If your game has reputation, transfer should be part of its toolkit.
  • In D&D, this technique could be a subtle reward for prestige classes. A small bonus to social skills, or grants of certain mundane powers or authority.
  • Roleplaying. Have NPCs fall for the trick and react as intended transfer methods.
  • Party name and colours. As news spreads of the party’s actions, encourage your group to come up with an identity. Roleplay NPC reaction to the identity, especially over time as the identity becomes clearer and associated with certain ideas and beliefs.
  • Give NPCs greater impact by having them bear the symbols of power, authority, or association. For example, certain NPCs might bear crests or badges that the PCs identify with the villain. Wearing such symbols isn’t illegal and doesn’t provide proof of criminal activity, so the PCs must use restraint and think about how to properly ensnare these people.


Social proof has great influence over others, especially those who haven’t made up their mind, or are not critical thinkers. The technique involves a source the audience approves of, trusts, or respects vouching for what the propagandist wants to promote.

Modern examples include reviews, rock stars promoting a cause, and athletes endorsing products.

Game master use:

  • Have an NPC the party trusts vouch for a plot hook. Nobody is perfect, so if you want a twist then the NPC could be making a mistake.
  • If the PCs disregard a plot hook as rumour or speculation, let NPCs speak up for it through gossip, eye witness accounts, or bearing “proof.”
  • Do a reverse where a rival or enemy says to do one thing to motivate the PCs to do the opposite.
  • To influence how the PCs think of an NPC before meeting him, perhaps to setup interesting roleplay or to play a trick, have stories of the NPC’s deeds reach the party, and have other NPCs provide testimonials about the non-player character.

Plain Folks

“Hey, I’m just like you.” The plain folks method earns the propagandist acceptance, sympathy, empathy, or trust because he appears to share the same qualities as the audience. Often, the qualities include having the same beliefs, enduring the same misfortunes, and having the same heritage or social class.

Game master use:

  • A great disguise for a foe is to have him be just like the PCs. Perhaps the NPC is “running from a tragic past, but can’t settle into a routine life and seeks adventure.” The NPC waits patiently until the perfect moment to reveal his true motives.
  • NPC self-defense. The party might not respect commoners and will not hesitate to use fireballs in the street or bust up buildings and personal property during skirmishes. To curb this behaviour at the GM level, get the PCs to sympathize with the locals using the plain folks method so they might be less likely to kill a family’s winter food supply next time with an errant explosion.
  • If the PCs avoid a plot hook because they don’t trust the NPC source, have the NPC enter into plain folks mode. Let the non-player character reveal something in common he has with one or more PCs, or have the party spot the NPC doing something that earns their respect or sympathy, such as being bullied or standing up to authority.

Card Stacking

The card stacking game master focuses on the positive side of his agenda, and downplays the negative side. Pros, benefits, facts, and supporting opinions are brought into the limelight and stacked up, while cons, dissenting viewpoints, and counterpoints are pushed aside, not addressed, or repressed.

Game master use:

  • Plot hooks. Upsell the reward, excitement, danger, sense of exploration and other positive aspects to motivate the party to bite on the hook.

Facts such as no one has ever returned from the adventure location alive, legalities, who the quest ultimately benefits, potential collateral damage, and other concerns are not revealed unless the PCs specifically ask or investigate.

  • NPC motives. Give NPCs motives independent of the current main quest. This adds a bit more depth to your campaigns, gives realism to NPCs, and makes the game world seem less like it revolves around the player characters.

For NPCs to achieve their goals, they will instinctively card stack when making their cases to the PCs.

Sometimes, an NPC just wants to complain, and the PCs are his unfortunate audience. Such an NPC is unlikely to give an objective account. Everything will centre around him, and the unfairness of his situation, and how everything is out to keep him down. This is a great basis for a roleplaying encounter or background moment.

Other times, an NPC will manipulate the reality or perception of the situation in his favour to get the PCs to do what he wants.

  • Merchant sales. Change boring, accounting gameplay when the PCs restock supplies or buy new equipment into an adventure.

Some goods might have a downside. Let the merchant card stack so the PCs are convinced their expensive new investment is the best thing in the world. However, once out in the field, they learn the item has charges, is cursed, is half-drained, has a quirk, was stolen and is being tracked down, and so on.

Bartering is great fun if the party is interested in such roleplaying. Ensure the shopping trip doesn’t last too long or risk boring non-shopping PCs. In the meantime, enjoy gaming merchants who try to earn more than market value for goods with card stacking, or who try to pass off less than top quality goods for the standard price, and who try to sell goods the PCs might not actually need.


My mom used to ask me, “If everyone jumped in the lake, would you jump in too?” I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time. I couldn’t swim in those days, and I thought I was being warned about deep water. Now though, I realize she was warning me about how cold lakes can be.

If everyone is doing or thinking the same thing, then that creates pressure to conform. In Maki’s words, “It’s aim [is] to persuade people to follow a general trend by reinforcing the human need to participate on the winning side.”

Bandwagon propagandists will point out, or create the perception of, what everybody is thinking or doing – in alignment with their agenda, of course. Bandwagon GMs can use this technique to influence PC and player decisions.

  • All the locals call their leader a tyrant. His soldiers patrol the villages, watching, lurking, and meting out cruel punishments. His taxes are a burden. His ways are evil. The truth though, might be something completely different, and enemy spies are planting these suggestions and skewing villager perceptions to turn the leader’s populace against him.
  • Everyone regards the PCs as heroes. They are given a parade, free food and lodging, property, and money. Who could refuse the new benefactors some small favours? Who could say no to the people who now revere and celebrate them? What cold-hearted characters would want to alienate their new friends, turn them away, and return to an ignominious life?
  • What NPCs are the best to deal with or talk to for information and services? The ones that serve the villain, of course. 🙂 Use the bandwagon technique so the PCs are pointed to working with these NPCs, further miring them in your evil plots and plans.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Timeline Based Quests

From Strider Starslayer

Reading about the recent 5 Room Dungeon project, I thought of how I approach quests in my own campaigns, and felt that it might be useful to share this methodology with others. I call the concept timeline based quests.

It is a fair departure from the normal organization of quests, but not complex. I find my players seem to like it for two reasons:

  1. It gives them a real feeling the world they are operating in is alive and things happen in it beyond the actions of the PCs (which might automatically make it unsuitable for some games, like 4 colour super heroes).
  2. If the PCs get stuck they don’t have to feel like the GM has bailed them out. They know that, if they can’t figure out a given section of the quest, then eventually something else will happen allowing them to try to piece things together from that point on.

The base premise is to write the quest assuming the PCs will _not_ be present. You break the quest into as many discreet chunks of time as possible. A very basic outline for this would be, ‘An evil necromancer has taken up refuge in a crypt outside of a small farming village.”

In a timeline based game, if the PCs do nothing, eventually the problem will be solved by other adventurers or the villain simply moving on. To build the campaign properly, you should set up overlapping timelines with events tied to them. A gantt chart can help with this, or doing it on paper. I’m going to try my best to do it via ASCII:

  • Day 0. A necromancer sets up in the crypt outside a small town with population 180. He has 15 zombie bodyguards, and a specially prepared body that he is trying to make a high end undead with. During the time that he is building his new creation, the necromancer will be much less powerful due to most of his magical energies being focused into the creature. He still has enough might to raise a zombie every day, and become invisible to escape from combat.
  • Day 1-10. Occasional raids by the necromancer into the village increase his stock of zombies by about one every day, as well as providing him the necessary sacrifices for his undead project. In the event the necromancer runs out of captured citizens and cannot get more, his undead project will be delayed in completion. The prison the necromancer has constructed in the crypt can hold a maximum of 4 individuals; any more would have just been slaughtered and turned to zombies immediately.
  • Day 4. A call for assistance is set out. On a percentage roll of 30 or less the guard will be deployed in three weeks to deal with the problem.
  • Day 7-15. Somewhere in this time period a few of the village toughs work themselves up enough that they actually attack the necromancer. They cannot push past the zombies however, but do manage to kill 1d6 zombies. (If a 6 is rolled they will attempt to push past again two days later. If they manage to kill all of the zombies, the necromancer will abandon his crypt at that point.)
  • Day x-20 (only happens if the village toughs clear out the zombies). The crypt has been hastily abandoned and likely contains treasure, as well as potential pointers to where the necromancer escaped to, but still contains magical traps. The village toughs, and assorted adventure seekers in the village, will make runs at the crypt almost nightly, costing several lives. By day 20 someone will have managed to circumnavigate the traps and pick the place clean. Any time before that, assume that 1d6%/day has been looted.
  • Day 20. Unhampered by the foolish attempts of the village toughs, the necromancer finishes his high end undead project. The necromancer can now use the full might of his magical spells, and has a powerful undead bodyguard. However, the necromancer still wishes to rest to recover from the project’s drain.
  • Day 25. If the guard was going to arrive they arrive that night, and easily dispatch the zombies, only to be slaughtered by the combined might of the necromancer and his new undead minion. Replace any remaining zombies with 8 high basic physical stat zombies wearing full plate with fine quality weapons.
  • Day 25-45. Emboldened by his success, the necromancer increases his attacks on the village, intent on making another powerful undead minion.
  • Day 35. Another adventuring group arrives in the town and spars with the necromancer. They have a 25% chance of success, and a 5% chance of actually killing the necromancer. These odds 5% and 1% if the guard now make up the defending zombies. In the event of success, the day plan continues as per x 20* from that point on. (If the 5% is met there is no necromancer to track down.)
  • Day 45. The second high end undead is completed, the village is now stripped of more than half its population. The necromancer will launch a final assault into the town, destroying and looting everything, and raising all intact corpses as zombies before proceeding to a more easily fortified position, such as an abandoned castle or cave.

Based on that timeline, the PCs can arrive anywhere within that 45 day period. They might have heard of the necromancer earlier on through rumor, and have had a chance to stop him before he becomes more of a problem. If they ignore the rumor, they might receive a request for help from a villager later on. If the guard shows up and is destroyed, they could be hired by the guard to scout the location (and your PCs might or might not remember this being related to the necromancer rumor), or through the family/friends of the other adventuring group wondering what happened to their friends.

The best way to implement this sort of adventure setup is to have:

  1. Many multiple quests like above (more than the PCs could ever attend to at once, so that some things will reach conclusion without them).
  2. Hook points to catch the PCs’ attention.
  3. Perhaps some way for the PCs to get status updates on what is going on, so they can decide where there is the most need, the most money, or the least risk, depending on the party’s goals.

It’s a bit more work and bookkeeping for the GM than simply having “this week’s quest.” But, I feel the amount of life it gives to a campaign world is definitely worth the effort. A well put together series of adventures like this allows anyone else to take over GMing _without_ having to break the

campaign progress as well. Just hand them the sheet for whichever timeline the party has chosen to pursue, and let them make any changes to the setup they like.

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Loss Of A Player

From Darryl Hodgson

One of our players took a couple of months off from our fantasy game (of two years) but his return is questionable now. While waiting for his return I switched to a “one night stand” sci-fi game. But not having him return, I asked the players what shall we do? Most feedback wanted to continue the fantasy game but with new PCs and a new quest.

To meet their ideas and put an end on the unfinished quest, I moved to ten years later with a written history about their old PCs. It included their accomplishing the main quest and several personal quests. Then I added a few notes about what each did after the quests using their PC’s personality or desires to guide my ideas.

The players enjoyed the history of their characters, and their new PCs get to begin with real knowledge of their world. It also means I can bring back their old PCs on occasion.

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Use Monster Parts For Spell Components

From Danny East

Merlin and Gandalf. How do you imagine these iconic gentlemen? I see a tall, slender fellow, bearded, with crow’s feet and ink stained fingers. I see them in robes, with a thin sword tucked into their belt, a gnarled walking staff in one hand, and a leatherbound spell book, fat with torn pages and notes, being cradled against their chest.

What I do not imagine is Barry, the guy at the auto parts store downtown, who can find a single spark plug or fuse amongst thousands in a moment’s notice. Yet, this is the way spell components are treated in the rules of most of our fantasy games.

So I decided to change the rules. My thoughts turned to that initial image I had of Merlin and Gandalf. Ink stained fingers. Though I was able to picture an owl in a cage, I could not imagine him keeping an octopus in a bucket or some such nonsense.

From now on, the only necessary spell component (other than speaking it) would be the ink used to record the spell. My players loved this idea, and the added fun has persuaded a few to make mages.

Here’s how it works:

One vial has enough ink in it to write a total of five spell levels. A fifth level spell takes one total vial.

They can buy the vials from shops or hermit mages. The price, of course, will change with the contents.

Adventurers can obtain the ink for their mage friends or for sale. Could these be quest options? Heck yeah.

Similar spells necessitate similar ink. For my group, all fire spells need red dragon’s blood for ink. Mind control spells need tears or barbarian blood, depending on the control desired. Cold spells use mountain ice, magic missiles need storm clouds, and so on.

As far as the research of the spell goes, this enables them to act more like wizards and less like Barry, trying to get smarter and more experienced, and learning how to figure it out instead of learning how to find. This “spell ink” also enables them to become creative with inventing their own spells. Mixing elemental ink is a fun way to add a little fun to the campaign.

And this system makes it easy and quick to throw together a short session. They now have a reason to look for and fight a hydra other than XP.

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Practice Quick Thinking With Snappy One Liners

From Tyler Elkink

I read the article in #388 about on-foot thinking today; found it interesting. I thought I’d suggest one more thing that’s helped me. The “quick thinking” a GM needs is awfully similar to the style of thinking used to come up with snappy one-liners and comebacks.

I used to be in the same boat as the fellow who wrote you, able to think well given time, but not so good at responding quickly. While I am not the fastest wit among my friends, I can now zing with the best of them. What changed? I went to college and ended up in a dorm, where humor was rapid-fire, cutting, and short.

If a GM feels the need to improve the speed of their reactions, they don’t need to speed up their slow, deep thoughts; they need to learn quick, “good enough” thoughts, and this can be trained.

Punning contests, word games, and even speed chess, can encourage the brain to sort through options quickly. Take a look at the famous “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” for ideas. If GMing is like anything, it’s like improv comedy. Watch it, try to come up with answers of your own while you’re watching. You’ll always think of the perfect response five hours later, but what a GM needs is the ability to make a good enough response right away. If there’s a local drama club, I suggest joining it just for the improv training; freezes is a famous one.