Devoted followers may remember my recent exhortation regarding the use of torture in roleplaying games: leave it out. More specifically, if “enhanced interrogation methods” must be included, handwave it and make sure there’s a clear and heroically appropriate way forward.
Ironically, today’s post features ideas on how to play a torturer character in a roleplaying game. “But wait,” I hear you protest, “how can I play a character with enhanced interrogation abilities who doesn’t interrogate enhancedly in play?”
Read on to find out.
The secret sauce? Play a dark history without playing a dark present.
Redemption stories require darkness. Many times, redemption happens “inline:” characters start off mundane or even heroic, and antagony lures them to the brink of dark decisions. However, starting play with “damaged goods” of a character already tainted by darkness provides an alternate route for redemption.
Many games attempt to create opportunity for this mechanically; Dungeons and Dragons has its warlock class and Dresden Files RPG has the changeling. Players relying on a mechanical solution sometimes find a shortcoming in balancing the mechanical aspects of the game with the color. In other words: it sucks to lose all your character’s cool powers because you’ve made the decision to be redeemed.
Some will validly argue that this very tension depicts the real-world counterpart of choosing between virtue and power. Characters with dark pasts provide another way of achieving this which sidesteps the mechanical problems. Instead of making difficult decisions about choosing story goodness or mechanical kickassery, players can choose between story goodness and story power. In this case, the power comes from the ease of historical solutions.
To play the former torturer character effectively, this tension ought to impact most relations driven out of character need. From the simple “We need rooms for the night” to the complex “Who paid you to kill us,” the torturer is someone used to getting what he wants through force.
Skills and Traits for Former Torturers
Whether you play class- or skill-based games, it’s important to give your former torturer a set of attributes that reflect his former life. The presence of these abilities presents the foundation of temptation between virtue and power.
It’s tempting to over-rely on strength, but torturers don’t have to be buff. Think of the typical TV trope, pencilneck bizzaro doctors handling trays of medical instruments often do the dirty deeds. Unless you’re going the big-ax executioner route, you don’t need high strength.
Drawing on that trope provides insight into an important skill set. Torturers’ effectiveness comes from their knowledge of how to cause the most harm to a person. Perhaps the core of this knowledge is knowing also how to help a person. For this reason, playing a torturer can paradoxically justify possessing a set of healing abilities.
Torturers who did their work alone require a high intellect to process the information they receive as they ply their trade. These sorts of characters ought to possess a strong force of character as well. The temptation to create a low charisma character might exist, but remember that these sorts of people get information most effectively when their victims see them as a redeemer. In actual play situations, this sort of former torturer character may be a reluctant leader.
Other sorts of torturers of course work alongside interrogators who do this work on their behalf. In this case, character traits focusing on willpower ought to rule the day. This represents the character’s ability to stay focused on an unpalatable task that isn’t the primary focus of an exchange. These characters don’t require the charisma of their solo brethren, and as such often take a subordinate role to another character.
Whatever sort of former torturer you play, make sure to focus on the skill set representing: drive, conviction, guts, or fortitude. Your character has an expertise in compartmentalizing his very soul. A common experience in playing this character might be many long-delayed recognitions of emotional connections behind seeming disparate events.
Game Ready Content: Mark Antworth, Exiled Torturer
A third-generation naval officer, Mark Antworth proved himself an indispensable asset to the empire, brilliant as both a soldier and a tactician. Antworth’s highest commitment belonged to his unit; he vowed to perform any task necessary to maximize strategic effectiveness while minimizing risk. He became a master at mentally dehumanizing his enemy, thinking nothing of ambushing his foes in cathedrals or hospitals, staging attacks against civilian populations, or forcing his enemies into impossible decisions while innocent lives hung in the balance.
Some called him a terrorist, but Antworth calmed himself with the mantra that terrorists wreaked havoc for the sake of calling attention to a cause. Mark did not care for attention; the safety of his unit motivated the military actions he took.
When an injury collapsed Mark’s lung and diminished his capacity for endurance, the empire provided him a new way to serve which took advantage of his unique outlook. Mark continued to dehumanize his enemy and perform any task necessary for the safety of the empire. His new job did this on a more personal level, pitting his compartmentalized talents against captured, helpless foes. When their pleas for mercy threatened to shatter his steely resolve, he calmed himself by mentally tracing through his family tree back to the time of the Third Empire.
Things changed when the Empire asked him to extract information from an unnamed traitor. When Mark confronted the man in the torture chamber, he recognized the beaten foe as a former soldier in his command. Mark tried to separate his sense of duty to his men from his sense of duty to the empire as he tortured this one he had sworn to protect, but in the days and weeks following these events, the stories, pleas, and screams haunted Mark’s subconscious thoughts.
Mark researched the soldier’s claims and found them to be more true than he was comfortable admitting. Upon confronting his superior officers with these facts, Mark found himself first reprimanded, then arrested, then imprisoned in his own chamber. His intellect and knowledge of the area allowed escape, but when he went to free his former ally, he learned that the man had died from his injuries.
Mark’s ability to compartmentalize now helps him cope with everyday life as he leads guerrilla armies against the Empire, but he has added a set of strictures to his toolkit. Instead of mentally chanting a family tree, Mark now cycles through a list of self-imposed rules. “Are my foes soldiers?” “Have I offered an opportunity for surrender?” “Can I take on more risk to diminish risk around me?” Mark’s commitment to protecting those around him remains, though the scope has changed. Mark now maximizes effectiveness for humanity, hoping to one day find his own.
Have you played a torturer (or other character with a very dark past) in your games? Have insight on how to play such a character who hasn’t yet left the job in a way that doesn’t make you hate yourself? Tell us about it in the comments!