Intimidation and Persuasion in Dungeons and Dragons

I swear I’m not trying to turn my personal website into a D&D blog, but that’s what’s been on my mind lately when it comes time to post. I just turned 46 – I work quite a bit, I’m no longer a wild and zany party guy, and a lot of my life now is based on domestic bliss and gaming. Since my partner doesn’t love being the topic of Internet discussion, gaming it is!

I set out a couple of days ago to write more realized rules for persuasion and intimidation in Dungeons and Dragons. I will post those rules later, once they’ve been through some second readers. I worry at present that like so many of my supplemental rule interpretations that they’re unnecessarily complicated (even if I think that’s kind of fun – and it’s not less complicated than, say, Polearm Master + Sentinel + Smite etc. etc. etc).

However, that’s not why I’m posting today – I’m posting because in researching the skills for my own benefit, I saw a question (or some variation of this question) pop up quite a bit:

Are persuasion and intimidation the same thing?

To which I emphatically answer No!

It’s the difference between recognizing someone as a living being with their own interests and goals and trying to bind them to your own, and seeing someone as something to be manipulated into doing your bidding. It’s the difference between allying with someone and using them.

When you persuade, you are trying to convince the other person that for whatever reason, helping you is the right thing to do – perhaps you are appealing to their basic goodness, to the benefit they would enjoy in helping you, or some other net good, but ultimately you are trying to bind your fate to theirs and to affect the best outcome for both. Persuasion suggests that you are trying to attain your own ends while still serving the interests of the person you are persuading.

When you intimidate, you are using force (or the threat of force) to make someone do what you want. If persuasion is “we shall,” then intimidation is “you’d better.” An intimidated person is made to see you, the intimidator, as the threat, and whatever goal you are trying to achieve is now their problem. When you intimidate, you hope that the threat of whatever you are going to do to the person is greater than the threat of whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

The benefit of persuasion is one of fellowship. A person persuaded to aid you does so because they believe it is in their own best interest. Helping you is, in some way, helping themselves.

The drawback to persuasion is that it is often harder to affect. Desire is complicated, and aligning desires even more so.

The benefit of intimidation is one of expedience. Threats are obvious, and an unambiguous threat with a clearly stated goal, provided the threat is adequately severe, is likely to merit an immediate response.

The drawback to intimidation is in the creation of new foes. Threatening someone into compliance is not the same as making a new ally – the intimidated party is likely to plot revenge or, at the very least, will not work sincerely towards the intimidator’s best interest.

Why does it matter?

In real life, it’s the difference between recognizing someone as a person and treating them like an animal, a hunk of meat, or a tool. Violence can never be persuasive, nor can the threat of violence be persuasive. It is force – and human beings do not apply force when they value the humanity of other human beings. Force is the application of physical energy – work, or violence. I cannot reason with a piece of rock, but I can apply force to it. When I apply force to a human being, I am treating the human being like an inanimate object. I am abusing it, or at a minimum, merely using it.

When I seek to persuade, I am appealing to a person as a person – a person in a position to grant aid, to ally, to come together with me in mutual interest. Regardless of the portion of benefit (that is, if I get something I want very much, and they only get a warm fuzzy feeling, or if we see an equal share of some treasure or reward), I acknowledge the agency of the person I am appealing to – I see their human being-ness, and speak to it accordingly.

In-game, dungeon masters should understand that a persuaded NPC is interested in helping the players for their own reasons. Somehow, the players have made clear their shared plight and the NPC, no matter how marginally or temporarily, is a member of the party. This doesn’t have to be a rich detailed play experience, but it means that a persuaded NPC is someone willing to work with and for the players.

An intimidated NPC is acting out of self-preservation, and may very well seek revenge on the players later. They have been hurt, treated as less-than, and embarrassed. At the very least, they will do only what it takes to avoid harm. If left to their own devices, they will flee the situation, mislead or betray the players, or lead them into a trap or similar circumstance.

In the end, I think a good way to think of this is to think about trust: a persuaded NPC can be trusted because they act in their own self-interest in addition to whatever communal interest has been established. An intimidated NPC cannot be trusted because they act only in their own self-preservation and share in no communal benefit in so doing.

That’s Just Like, Your Opinion Man

I have a PhD in rhetoric. Please don’t make me use it.

1 Comment

  1. talaraska says:

    Sounds like a solid take. Will be interested to see what you come up with.

    Back in the day I played in a long Fantasy Hero campaign and it had a great mechanic for this type of thing. These day most people scoff at any mention of that system for being too crunchy but I never found it to be unwieldly.

    The system used a base stat (Presence) and then the base would be modified based on the actions taken, at the GM’s discretion. If a 90 lb. weakling entered the room and said “please surrender”, that roll would likely be at a penalty. If a daring adventurer kicked open a door and demanded “drop your weapons”, that might be a straight up roll. Finally, if an otherworldly abomination crashed through the wall while carrying a severed heard, that roll would most certainly have extra dice added.


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