This is an article I wrote for a small press gaming magazine 15 years ago. The magazine went under before it was published, but I thought it would make a good blog post.
In a tournament I once ran, one character was an inquisitor (a torturer). He had worked for the Duke of the region for many years and become one of the most feared men in the region. Upon the Duke's death, a wild romp had begun over who the successor would be (the main point of the tourney). This inquisitor backed a nephew of the old Duke and the two of them were able to bluff their way into the palace and passed all of the guards protecting their rivals (well, all but the golem that killed them both, but that's another story).
These characters did not fight and kill everyone that opposed them, they intimidated. "Do you want to be the next one on my rack?" is quite a fitting argument to avoid conflict. Granted the torturer was skilled in intimidation and had an extreme presence about him, but this type of "attack" can be quite powerful.
In many games people are afraid of dragons. Anyone not afraid of dragons either has a game master that has been too nice to them or a lack of good sense. Why are people afraid of dragons? Because they breathe bone-frying flames and can bite a steer in half. Pretty good reasons to fear dragons.
What about normal adventurers? Farmers and merchants should have a healthy fear of these battle hardened veterans, even if only because the rumors of short tempers and fast blades. Not to suggest that adventurers should be able to bully their way through any town, but they should certainly be respected and treated with care.
A solitary orc guard facing a troop of six armored and mounted men backed by a dangerous looking wizard should flee in terror or quickly lose his life. There is no reason for the orc to stand his post only to be cut down by the first initiative rolled by the adventurers, yet this happens time and time again. Common sense, even in a simple and stupid creature, would have the orc flee no matter how afraid of his boss he might have been. Only a religious fanatic or other berserker warrior would face down six opponents when any one of them could easily defeat him.
Remember the gun-fighters in the old westerns? The second they walked into town, parents started bringing their children in off the streets. Store keepers closed early. The local sheriff walked out to discuss the fact that he "didn't want no trouble". How did the people in these little town know that these were gun-fighters? Could it be the fact that they walked into town wearing weapons in plain sight? Could it be the fact that their clothing often looked like it had been through a battle? Could it be the killer look in their eyes? Could it be the fact that nobody looking like them lives anywhere around here? Do these things sound exactly like how most adventuring parties enter a town, no matter what the genre?
The people in the town they have just entered not only know they are there, but they will know where they are staying, what they look like, and have made up several rumors about what their real purpose is. These adventurers should have an awe power over the generic farmers in a town. They should be able to intimidate just about anyone. The civilians will either worship them as heroes or fear them as the vilest villains.
As for the adventurers themselves, why are they not afraid? Should the thought of annoying the local baron and bringing down the full weight of law enforcement intimidate the party? One would think it would, but typically the local baron had better have several warriors more powerful than the party if he wishes to keep himself safe. Unfortunately with the average adventuring party, powerful guards becomes a test of machismo vs. machismo. No self-respecting adventurer can allow the baron’s bodyguards to scare him away. Killing the baron becomes a matter of honor, whether there is a reason for it or not.
Even in situations where the game master outright tells the characters that acting against this certain person will mean your death, they typically insist upon testing the theory. OK, so only berserker warriors, religious fanatics and adventurers will fight battles that they have no reason to believe they will win.