I was expanding on some of the recent history for Fletnern, and I had a semi-emotional feeling. I was writing about the Vile Ones, the tribe of orcs who were the tops dogs. (If you read 13 Tribes, you will see that the Crooked Swords are now the top tribe.) Anyway, to me, the Vile Ones should instill fear in the hearts of the commoners around the city of Parnania. Now how to get that feeling into the players?
Reputations are a funny thing in role-playing games. The characters know far more than the players ever could. This means that when you’re introducing missions, you need to say things like, “You’ve known about and feared the Vile Ones tribe your whole life. These orcs are known as the best warriors and the most ruthless mercenaries in the Central Plains.” Of course, if you say that, most players immediately start arguing that their characters aren’t afraid of anything, least of all some orcs, but the truth is, this tribe of orcs dominated the region for a generation. Even the most skilled warrior would have a little twinge in the pit of his gut when the Vile Ones are mentioned. He probably lost family members to their assaults.
Then I thought - well, is it fair that I assume that everyone knows who these guys are. After all, the orcish army was huge; would every peasant know the Vile Ones. Yeah - I think so. The story tellers and news bringers of that time would want to tell the most exciting stories, so they would enhance the reputations of the major players. In modern times, everyone knows who the KGB were (are?). Think about the Iraqi Republican Guard. Before Desert Storm, the news media portrayed these soldiers as the most dangerous military on the face of the earth. Afterwards they are best remembered by the joke - Iraqi guns for sale, only dropped once. Are either of these valid - of course not! They are both exaggerations, but with enough storytelling, they are believed.
In my games, the players normally don’t care what the reputation of a group is, if they have a reputation. I write all this cool background stuff, and people seldom care. (Look back at my last entry about how huge Fletnern is, and it might explain why they don’t care. They simply cannot know it all.) What they notice is when a group doesn’t have a reputation. If they never heard of them before, then they know they’re insignificant.