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.
Those are not my games.
Over time I’ve pulled dirty tricks from the pages of popular fantasy novels to make my NPCs more sympathetic. To encourage the players to do the right thing– or at least not do the absolute worst thing they can imagine. Here are those tricks…
— Google Images/Wookiepedia
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 disgust for the creature as a character…until I read online that it had just ‘hatched’ from its cocoon, and it was searching for its absent mother.
Or consider the Rancor from Star Wars, and how everyone cheered for Luke to drop a door on its head– right up until it died a sad, pathetic, gasping 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 captors have crippled its legs so it can’t run away. The most devastating act of cruelty is to inflict pain upon those that can’t understand why– why this is happening. Let the players see that cruelty, and give them the opportunity to stop it.
I admit this is a cheap trick if you can pull it off. I once had a doddering old sorcerer who hired the party to track down his ‘red balloon’ which was a floating magic sphere of red iron that drifted through the city causing destruction. The sorcerer was a confused 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 kill the old coot, half of them outright refused. One of the party members was roleplaying an assassin, and he eventually decided his character would take the job even if he didn’t want to. The doddering old sorcerer with the speech impediment was slain, and the party got paid.
Then party then spent several campaign sessions (and a good deal of gold) resurrecting that same old sorcerer after they had 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.
— Google Images/Hannibal Wiki
Think Hannibal Lecter, or Dexter Morgan. These are seriously bad men, but we still sympathize with them as characters because of their ironclad 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 district. 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 makes a character unforgettable.
— Wiki Commons
Did you know that if you mirror your boss’s body language at work, they’ll 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, mirroring them means you’ll be playing a foul-mouthed NPC of low virtue.
There’s another danger to playing an NPC that shares the same Chaotic-Evil(ish) values as the players. By introducing an NPC with the morals of a chainsaw to the party, you are signing an invisible contract. The players reserve the right to murder-loot your NPC under the same circumstances they would murder-loot each other. So keep your NPC on-guard, and sleep with one eye open, just like aggressive players do with each other.
Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais — Wiki Commons
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 that 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 fantasy. 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 other powerful people (like the player-characters themselves) and then show them that the powerful 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 her 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 well, the players will be compelled to lend a hand in mutual respect.
Or they’ll loot her for trinkets. It’s always a gamble for the DM, isn’t it?