I’ve been talking a lot about social engagements in the last few weeks. In every conversation, the word “interrogation” has come up. The topic also came up in an episode of Fear the Boot I recently listened to. This exposure has put my brain into a tangential rant. Why the heck are torture and interrogation so prevalent in our games?
Today’s rant comes in three parts. First, we’ll look at GM/player dynamics that seem to result in the need for enhanced interrogation methods in our games. Next, we’ll take a look at the games themselves that, in my experience, have most frequently led to these abuses. Finally, we’ll explore some ideas about how to exclude this element from your game (or how to humanely include it in rare games where it is appropriate).
Before I start, here are some assumptions I’m making in this article. First and foremost, I’m writing from an assumption that the GM’s job is to facilitate an environment for players explore compelling stories through their characters. Second, I assume that torture is something that heroes do not engage in–that pulling teeth even out of an evil orc is just as inhumane as abusing even a rabid dog. Heroes might kill in battle, but when it comes to a defenseless opponent, mercy is the heroic trait. This leads to a third assumption: most of the games we play feature heroes, and anti-heroic games where torture is appropriate are the exception to the rule.
Player Dynamics and RPG Character Interrogation
The Fear the Boot crew had a good word for some horrible train wrecks I’ve seen in RPG interrogation scenes: torture porn. This is when the act of extracting information from a captured opponent turns into grotesque descriptions of what the characters are doing to get that information. I will unequivocally state that such descriptions have no place in a game, and players who relish in such things are not players I would be pleased to find around my table. As such, I’m not going to spend time exploring simple depravity as a reason for torture talk around the table.
Still, I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve on occasion been drawn there myself. One explanation offered on FTB was player frustration that the GM was somehow cheating players by withholding information. The mentality is that a GM has an intricate plot and doesn’t want to spill the beans because the characters haven’t “worked hard enough” for the information by simply winning a combat and leaving a guy alive. Somehow, forcing players to “work hard” in describing the extents that they’ll go to to get the information scratches the GMs itch to withhold the information.
There’s another nuance to this dynamic, which is related to one of the four main problems with RPG social conflicts I explored last week (article link below). This is the issue that players can sometimes take “defeat” of their characters personally–this extends to the GM and his NPCs as well as the players running PCs around the table. One of the GM’s jobs, in a sense, is to create characters who get beaten up on a lot, and for some, that starts to bruise the ego after a while.
Aside from player competition or feelings of inadequacy, there’s one more item that leads to players making bad decisions about how to handle prisoners: ignorance. Players seem to inherit the TV mentality that “we’ve gotta take one alive for questioning,” as if the GM won’t give hooks to continue the plot if there’s no bad guy NPC to serve as a mouthpiece. I’ve even seen GMs encourage players to make sure to leave a guy alive. The problem is that our collective fantasy and sci-fi backgrounds have taught us well when it comes to imagining swinging a sword, throwing a fireball, or shooting a raygun. They’ve not given us much by way of training for CIA-level depravity… so when we take a prisoner, we have no idea what to do next, and our primate brain takes over.
This last mechanic leads nicely to flaws in game that lead to this perennial problem in RPGs.
Game Mechanics that Encourage Interrogation
For the frequency that interrogation seems to come up in games, I don’t recall ever seeing a mainstream RPG include a “how to interrogate” section in the rules. The combat chapter might include seven pages of how to negotiate a sword swing around a corridor’s corner, but there’s nothing in there about what to do when the swords stop swinging.
The same is true for skill descriptions–in a game like D&D, there are paragraphs devoted to the nuances of climbing or swimming, and intimidate is just kinda there for the player’s imagination to expound on.
One thing I have enjoyed so far in reading Night’s Black Agents (my first exposure to the Gumshoe system) is the sidebar about “Why is there no ‘lying’ skill?” In short, the author suggests that there are a number of ways to lie–seduction, intimidation, logic, or emotional appeal. I’d expand this to suggest that there are a number of ways to intimidate. I was always frustrated in D&D that intimidate was a Charisma-based skill. As a human being with a decent Charisma score, I can tell you stories of numerous high school bullies who intimidated me quite well with their eighteen double zero strength and charisma of a venus fly trap.
Including skills like “intimidate” in a game suggest that this is a technique that a good number of characters ought to use on a regular basis. But does the archetypal paladin use intimidate in the same way as the barbarian? Charisma might be a great skill for the former to use–but when you label the tool “intimidate,” it creates a connotation that this character should start using decidedly un-paladin-like behavior.
In the absence of examples of how to handle prisoners, and the presence of rules that provide obvious (if gross) methods of getting information, it’s no wonder that many people’s brains go right to physical abuse.
Alternatives to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques
The first and most important way to avoid torture in your game is to have an honest discussion of people’s expectations around the table. Especially in those rare games where it would be appropriate for characters to use torture, players should have a good idea of what these scenes might look like before they come up in play.
This can be as simple as saying, “My character is willing to do anything short of taking a life to protect innocents. I’ll make use of whatever tools I can find on a scene to extract information I need to protect people–but only if there’s an immediate danger. And if I can’t get an answer through torture, my MO will be to turn the prisoner over to a superior officer.” Dealing with the “when,” a very cursory overview of the “how,” and an answer to the “what happens if it doesn’t work” are a good foundation.
Even better than this, though, is evaluating what your character is capable of, and what their values are. This goes for the GMs NPCs, too. Is your character really someone who will do whatever it takes to get information? More likely, he’s someone who values life and humanity–someone who will be grateful if the enemy surrenders. Imagine that the following scene sees your character offering water to the surrendered opponent, tending to their wounds, even giving them privacy to mourn their fallen. Imagine the conversation that follows–”I stopped fighting because I didn’t want to die. I recognize I am bested. Let’s negotiate the terms of surrender.”
Finally, there are two things a GM can do to avoid torture porn. First, give your characters easy outs. If you allow a prisoner to be taken, give the characters an easy and humane way to dispose of them. This can be as easy as the bad guy saying, “I’ve failed my boss. If he finds out, he’ll kill me. Trust me, I’m not running back to alert him.” Encourage your players to provide rations and water to the survivors of the combat–instead of making enemies for life, they’ll start to build a cadre of former foes who have developed a respect for their humanity.
Second, remember that your job as a GM is to facilitate an environment for players explore compelling stories through their characters. This can’t happen when you withhold information. Look for ways in combat or in the environment to give information, so there are more obvious sources than a prisoner. This might even be banter that happens in combat. Decide ahead of time how much a particular group of foes might know, and be ready to offer a compelling argument why they wouldn’t know more.
Heroes should act heroically. Find ways to help that happen.
- Better Social Conflict in Roleplaying Games from Intwischa
- Better Social Conflict part 2: Cat and Mouse Mechanics for Character Conflict from Intwischa
- Episode 270 – mixing your mythoi from Fear the Boot
- Episode 268 – quitting the field from Fear the Boot
Do you have horror stories to share about interrogations gone wrong in your games, or solutions to these problems that you’ve seen work effectively? Have an opinion on waterboarding? Tell us about it in the comments!