From One Tyrant To Another: Villainous Tips Inspired By A Real World Dictator

From John Dunkelberg

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0125

A Brief Word From Johnn

Is The Hackmaster RPG For Real?

Oh yeah, it’s real all right. I’ve been taking baby steps in the planning department recently to prepare for GMing a Hackmaster game, so I wandered over to the Kenzer Co. web site. There I saw a post in their forums from Vice-Prez Jolly Blackburn who runs into gamers who feel that Hackmaster is a joke or designed to be unplayable.

That’s definitely not true. It’s a playable game with an attitude and I’m looking forward to running serious sessions with lots of role-playing in them. The game hearkens back to 1st edition D&D and the rule books are extremely well- written. This game will definitely not suit the tastes of every GM or group, but if you like D&D 1E, Palladium FRPG, Warhammer FRPG, Rolemaster, or d20, then I’d recommend checking it out next time you’re in your local game shop.

On a related note, I just picked up Ars Magica, 4th Edition and can’t wait to dive into that as well. Ars is in my personal top 5 favourite RPG list and I’m keen to find out what changes were made in the newest edition. (4th has actually been out for awhile, but I’m just catching up now and taking advantage of some of my new free time.)


Johnn Four
[email protected]

From One Tyrant To Another: Villainous Tips Inspired By A Real World Dictator

GMs can find great inspiration for tyrants and other leading figures from our own history and current events. Biographies of famous or infamous people can provide wonderful plot ideas as well as gripping personality traits.

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly on Saddam Hussein (“Tales of a Tyrant”, ) is an excellent example of a modern tyrant whom you can draw inspiration from for your campaigns.

While these tips are biased towards fantasy games, with a little imagination they apply equally well to any game genre.

A Tyrant’s Origin Is A Great Place To Start

Cliches abound on how an unjust or hard environment molds a character and affects people for life. Saddam Hussein has a tribal tattoo on his right hand. While many Iraqis prefer to remove these tattoos when they rise above their village in Iraqi society, Hussein has not. It reminds him and those around him of his birth.

  • Is your tyrant proud of his birth, or ashamed of it?
  • Might he fly into a rage when it’s been suggested that his birth was less than noble?
  • Has his family been raised into power alongside him? Or are they forgotten, exiled, or destroyed as evidence best removed from sight?
  • What sign does your tyrant carry of his origin?

A tyrant’s roots give you a great opportunity to add depth to your campaign world and its history, or to explore elements only previously touched upon.


  • The leathery, sun-beaten skin of the warlord is a constant reminder that he was not born into the sheltered life of a noble but as a wild tribesman of the steppes.
  • The self-crowned Queen has cultivated the accent of those she deposed, but when angered her speech becomes colored with her native tongue.
  • The bright, red hair of the dictator is a brilliant symbol of his origin, and now many people who wish to curry favor with him have taken to dyeing their hair to match.

Tyrants Create Their Own History

Whether a tyrant acknowledges his origin or not, he might still feel a great need to distinguish himself further from lesser men.Hussein has commissioned genealogists to create a “plausible” lineage back to Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. Notice that this mixture of real and wishful origin does not necessarily conflict in the mind of the tyrant. Many tyrants claim right of rule due to blood.

  • Does your tyrant claim to be of the same bloodline as an ancient hero or king?
  • Does he want to hearken back to a time when the empire spanned many more star systems than it does now?
  • Does it help rationalize imperialistic designs to reclaim the empire of an ancestor?
  • Does a holy bloodline prove that the tyrant’s actions are the will of the Gods?

An entire plot might be built around trying to get the truth out to discredit the villain.


  • The poet-laureate of the nation publishes a stirring account of how the tyrant was abandoned as an infant upon the holy mountain and was raised amongst the bears, which are the totem of the God of Strength.
  • Wishing to stir his people to war, the tyrant claims to be descended from a popular line of nobility who were killed generations ago by a rival kingdom.
  • The demagogue claims a philosophical ancestry to the founder of the nation, twisting well-known and popular writings to support his goals.
  • The politician claims to have been present at a great battle of recent history, when in fact he was at a desk far from danger.

A Tyrant Is Surrounded By Layers Of Subordinates

Before your players meet the tyrant they are likely to encounter layer upon layer of subordinates. Hussein’s subordinates can be identified in the ever-narrowing circles of those he trusts.

  • Who around your tyrant are trusted? Do they fear him, trust in him, or worship him?
  • What demands does he make on them? (One general of Hussein’s was thrown from favor when he was noticed dozing off in a military meeting.)
  • What tyrant would be without the equivalent of Hussein’s “al Himaya”, personal bodyguards whom only the foolish would dare defy because they are untouchable by any law?

Your story can naturally rise to a climax as the players get closer and closer to the tyrant by piercing each successive layer of subordinates via diplomacy, intrigue, or combat.


  • The dictator does not trust anyone who has not served in his army, and so all council positions are held by officers.
  • The tyrant-priest has bestowed twelve swords upon his inner council that are the symbol of his authority. Unbeknownst to the twelve, the tyrant is aware of any conversation that happens in the presence of the blades.
  • The cult leader is surrounded by brainwashed devotees each of whom follows upon his words with a fanatic zeal, but with a lack of imagination and foresight.

A Tyrant Cannot Show Weakness

A tyrant’s world is held together by fear and incredible strength of ego. To show any weakness would be to allow challenge from another.Only the very closest to Hussein can be allowed to see him hobbling in pain from his bad back or drinking wine forbidden by Islam.

  • What weaknesses does your tyrant hide from the world?
  • Is he over-conscious of how his body weakens with age?
  • Has your tyrant been forced into a position where he must pretend to hold great prowess or attributes that he does not actually have?

Discovering a weakness might be a critical step in your heroes’ path to deposing the tyrant.


  • A Queen in a male-centric medieval world is always seen in an armoured breastplate that symbolically reinforces she is as powerful as any man. Only those in “The Council of the Boudoir” are allowed to see her relaxing with her hair down and armour off.
  • The magnate of the dominant spacing guild is obsessed with his aging body and regularly has cosmetic surgery to keep himself looking young. Meanwhile, his agents seek to rejuvenate his body by any means known to humans or aliens.
  • The fearsome wizard has an annual ritual to make him invulnerable to physical attack. But, in exchange, he has taken on a potentially fatal weakness. With each year he chooses a new weakness and slaughters all those who assist him in the ritual. And, unfortunately, this year one slave escaped the ceremony and the heroes are in a race with the agents of the wizard to find the fugitive.

A Tyrant Is Reflected In His Children

The children of a tyrant provide a source to explore the tyrant’s personality, add depth to your campaign, and generate interesting stories and side-plots.In The Atlantic article, two sons of Hussein are mentioned. The eldest, Uday, is a flashy hedonist, while the youngest (Qusay), is cold and disciplined.Such duality begs for a story and presents wonderful plot opportunities. Uday was the heir apparent until he killed one of Hussein’s advisors in a fit of passion. Hussein beat Uday brutally, and now grooms the quieter Qusay to power.

  • Does your tyrant have children?
  • How have they grown up in the shadow of their parent’s power?
  • Do they revel in their untouchability?
  • Are they burdened by responsibility?
  • Does the parent see them as the closest of their innermost circle, or are they potential threats to power that must be watched carefully? If you recall the saying “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”, perhaps they are both.
  • Are the children being groomed for succession (see below), for marriages of policy with powerful neighbors, or as tools?
  • If your tyrant does not have children, is it through infertility, discipline, or fear of weakness?

Fans of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” will remember how Baron Harkonnen set up the brutish Raban to tame Arrakis, with every intent of deposing him to put the favored nephew Feyd in control after him.


  • The dictator grew up in a time of harsh war and feels his sons are weak and pampered in comparison. He dispatches them to the most war-torn corners of his empire, hoping that the fire of battle will harden them into men worthy of carrying on his name.
  • The aging vizier plays his children against each other and his enemies in court intrigues. He has already had the eldest daughter poisoned when she became over-eager in her quest for power.
  • The only son of the king has retreated deep into the books and scrolls of the royal library. The king is glad that the son has access to the education he never had, but the son secretly seeks an escape from the terrible burden of rule that he must eventually bear.

A Tyrant Is Shielded From Truth

Though they wield great power and may field armies of spies, tyrants often remain blind to information about the world outside the court.Hussein’s advisors are caught in a terrible bind since their duty is to provide him with information about the outside world. If they tell him truth, they might bring his anger down upon them and their families. But if they tell him lies, then when eventually he discovers the truth he will see them as betrayers.Leaders of all kinds can be blinded to what is really going on beyond the castle walls.

Tyrants who hate the idea of “freedom of the press” or unguarded tales of a traveling bard are particularly blind. Lies compound upon lies and provide great possibilities for court intrigue.Wiser tyrants may recognize this weakness and seek to overcome it though. A classic example from numerous stories tells of the king masquerading as a commoner in order to see past the filtered truth of his court.


  • Can the advisors dare tell their Emperor that a handful of planets on the galactic border are in revolt? Or is it best that they not tell him and try to handle it themselves so that, by the time he finds out, the rebellion will have already been crushed?
  • Three years of drought have left the people on the brink of starvation but the ministers hide this from the president-for-life. They fear what will happen if he finds that the money meant for agriculture has instead enriched their personal estates.
  • Realizing that the court actively withholds the truth from her, the queen compels the PCs to investigate the violent death of a loyal general.

A Tyrant Seeks a Legacy

No tyrant wants to face the day when they lose control to a successor, but most also want to found a legacy that will revere them beyond death.Hussein desperately wants to be the founder of a great resurgent Arab culture and be honored for centuries to come. Statues of Hussein abound, and every tenth brick used to rebuild the ancient palaces has Hussein’s name or mark placed upon them.

  • How does your tyrant want to be remembered?
  • Does she deny her mortality, or does she make preparations for the next tyrant?
  • Does she make the current favored successor obvious, or does she keep everyone guessing so that all potential successors need to keep proving themselves to her?
  • Perhaps she has a favorite son but knows that he is unsuited to rule compared to the younger daughter?
  • How is she molding the future (and the past) to make sure that her greatness is acknowledged for the ages?

This provides you with great symbols for your PCs to face. The celebration in freeing a village from the tyrant might culminate in tearing down his statue, a foreshadowing of the eventual climax of your story line.

A Tyrant Must Remain Paranoid

A tyrant’s nature means that enemies are constantly awaiting a weak moment. Hussein is said to never sleep in the same bed twice, has testers check his food for poison, and uses decoys extensively. On Hussein’s birthday, a favored general who mimicked Hussein’s mannerisms received the adoration of an unknowing, gathered crowd.Kings throughout history have employed poison-testers and Hussein certainly is not the first to fear an assassin.

  • What does your tyrant do to avoid those who hate him?
  • Is he so self-confident that he feels he cannot be killed?

If your game is of the D&D kind of fantasy, it may well be that your tyrannical high-level mage is right in feeling he can walk the streets and no mortal attack can penetrate his defenses.

For a gritty science-fiction game, the tyrant might not be safe if his enemies know what world she is on if planet- buster missiles exist. For such a space tyrant, legions of cloned decoys may be necessary while she resides in a capital ship hidden in an uncharted system.

A Tyrant’s Demeanor Shows Her Self-Image

A tyrant’s great charismatic power can have multiple channels of expression, each showing a facet of her terrible power.Hussein fancies himself an expert in every field and question that borders on his rule and likes to demonstrate his intellectual prowess. As befits an intellectual, Hussein is said to usually be extremely polite and calm, his rage being a rare and terrible glimpse underneath the mask.

  • Does your tyrant control by persuasion, physical intimidation, or blackmail?
  • Is your tyrant constantly raging at subordinates, smashing things or even people?
  • Or is your tyrant icy, with the court knowing that the quieter her voice gets the more dangerous her mood?

The demeanor of the tyrant is a great way to set the mood for a scene.

A Tyrant’s People Must Hide Discontent

Perhaps the most difficult thing to remember is that your tyrant is, or at least was, a hero to someone. Unless you like your game worlds to be black and white, the tyrant will have faithful followers. And when caught by the eyes of the tyrant, everyone is better off if they look and act just like the faithful.

Thus, the common folk are likely to have two faces: the public face when the spies of the tyrant may be watching, and the private face that despairs and perhaps craves revolution.With both high-tech and high-magic settings, the private face has to turn more and more inward to escape drawing the attention of the tyrant’s police.

  • Does your tyrant still command the devotion of a majority of those he rules?
  • Is rebellion seen in the streets every day?
  • How hard is it for the players to find an opposition figure or party?

The opposition of the tyrant are likely to be the allies of your PCs, so defining them gives shape to your story.


  • The warlord has great strength amongst the rural folk from whence he came, but inside the cities the intellectuals chafe at his rule. The library once was the center of debate and opposition until the warlord was tipped off. As his soldiers torch the library, rebels flee with the scrolls of the nation’s history: each scroll now a symbol of freedom.
  • The tyrant has carried his racial group to dominance with him over the former rulers. Now a member of the tyrant’s race, claiming to desire rebellion as well, approaches the rebel PCs. Can the PCs put aside racial prejudices and dare to trust the newcomer?
  • The followers of a dark god have taken control of the nation under their high priest. The opposition hides in cellars with candles lit to the god of light and justice, praying for heroes to lead the return to freedom.

A Tyrant’s Name Amongst His People Speaks His Nature

Consider what titles or nicknames his people give to your tyrant. Saddam Hussein is referred to as the “Great Uncle” of the Iraqis. The familial nickname shows his common touch, and is fertile for satire.

  • What outward attributes do the people see in your tyrant?
  • Could an adjective both be used to praise and condemn the tyrant, depending on how it is said?
  • Does the nickname come from his origin?
  • Does the nickname show the relationship between ruler and ruled? Perhaps it is from a known predilection or weakness? Merely uttering a nickname that demeans the tyrant or makes light of a weakness may be a terrible crime in a land that is ruled by fear.


  • The tyrant known as “The Northern Duke” now rules the proud but downtrodden southerners.
  • In the taverns the men call the young king “The Lusty Prince” for his lack of control around women, while in public the women have taken to wearing loose and concealing dresses in the hope of avoiding abduction by eager agents of the crown.
  • People cower in fear and detachment of the tyrant they only call “The Black Master”.
  • The self-proclaimed defender of the faith is called “Our Holy One” in disgust as they hear of his latest egotistical law.
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If a realm in your world is ruled by a controlling figure, you have a great opportunity to extrapolate the realm from his personality. This can make the tyrant very vibrant for your players, and make the PCs itch to overthrow or at least thwart him. Certainly, many of these attributes apply to more benign rulers as well, and even the most good hearted queen is likely seen as an enemy to some.


Keep Your Dice In Your Pile And Your Candy In The Cabinet

Jump over to Dragon Scale Counters and pick up some of our durable plastic counters for your campaign. Then you can put that candy back in the cabinet and keep your dice for what they’re meant for – rolling damage. To sweeten the pot, we will toss in a gargantuan dragon (a $4 value) if you make an order of at least $10.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Use NPC Reactions For Small Rewards

From Henry O.

Handing out experience points and magic items willy-nilly can rapidly unbalance a game. Therefore, when I feel the need to reward one of the players for clever actions, I often employ boons like simple NPC approval or a good (local) reputation.

You’d be surprised how little things, such as housewives smiling at the PC in the street, kids asking for stories, or innkeepers knocking a few copper off the price of a meal can truly appeal to the player’s ego.

Just knowing that people, even those in a small area, recognize his/her name can make a player a bit more proud, and thus, a little more enthusiastic.

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Training Bonus: Rewarding For Clever Skill Use

From Maarten van B.

In my home-made gaming system, the amount of training a character has in a skill is given as the number of training hours.

The actual skill score is calculated from these training hours, the overall difficulty of a skill (magic skills require more training hours to master than card games) and the average learning ability of the character.

When a character uses his skill in a unique and original way, I usually award him or her with a few bonus training hours in the appropriate skill.

Firstly, this increases his skill, and secondly, it reflects the fact that you can sometimes learn a lot from doing stuff in a way you have never done before.

Good roleplaying can also be rewarded in this way. One time, two PCs were almost caught by the city guards while breaking into a house. They quickly pretended to be plastered and trying to get their key into the lock of their house… As the guards pointed out to them they were at the wrong house they were extremely grateful and had the guards bring them home while keeping up the act the entire time.

As a reward for their inventive roleplaying, I gave both of them a few training hours in the Acting skill. Since neither had ever bothered with the acting skill they had no score in it whatsoever, but now they do, and they are extremely proud of it, even though a lowly village thespian would not want to be seen with such a score.

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Classic Tip: Reward With Luck Points

From Roger B.

I give bonus points for good roleplaying, called Role- Playing Bonus Points. These are spendable like luck points, and can often make the difference in a failed die roll. They are totally up to my interpretation as how they are to be used. In less important roles, I simply provide a successful result for spending a point. In critical situations, I allow a reroll for each RPBP spent.

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Cool Name Resource

From Forrest

Thought you might get a kick out of this. You will find out what your name would be if you were a Hobbit, elf, dwarf or orc in middle earth… [Comment from Johnn: I entered my name. You may address me as Ruzkrut the Atrocious from now on.

This tool is pretty cool and has great potential for use as an on-going name generator for your campaigns. Thanks Forrest.]

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A Good Poison Read

From Kate M.

I found the article on Poison Tips quite interesting. [ RPT#122 – 5 Poisonous Tips ]

Especially since I’d just finished a book called “The Concubine’s Tattoo” by Laura Joh Rowland that weekend. It’s set in 16th Century Japan and the central focus deals with the murder of one of the Shogun’s concubines by the use of a rare poison. Besides being well written, this book is a good illustration of some of these tips in action, more specifically tips 1(d) Obtaining the poison, 1(e) application and use; 1(f) effects of the poison; and 3 sowing fear.

This book has lots of twists and turns, so I’d recommend it to anyone, not just someone running a campaign set in the book’s milieu.