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Torturing Player Characters

Written by Expy - Published on May 31, 2010

TortureStaring up from the table, strapped down and glaring with furious eyes, was Gannick. Lord Immelir’s lieutenant struggled against the gag, and we chuckled at our good fortune. Who would have known that a gang war would deliver us such a potential wealth of information?

Ah, torture…it’s the standby tactic for dictators and warlords looking for that hidden morsel of information. Taking a look at the rules provided in Kobold Quarterly #11, a Dungeon Master now has the tools at hand to create moments where heroes might suffer under the cruel torture of a clever archvillain. In Star Wars, Darth Vader subjected Princess Leia to the terrible questioning with the assistance of a sinister appearing, needle-wielding droid—all while trying to learn the location of the Rebellion headquarters. Contrast that with the scene in Empire Strikes Back, where, after being betrayed by Lando Calrissian, Han Solo is taken behind closed doors and subjected to the sorts of scream-inducing pain only Vader could conceive. What does Solo say upon exiting the room? “He didn’t even ask me any questions.” Whether you consider fantastic Sci-fi movies or draw from contemporary ethical discussion, it becomes clear that torture is nearly universally thought of as this abominable act that only the most despotic and evil would ever use.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if the adventurers were presented with the opportunity? Would expediency and convenience override their morals? Would the adventurers be willing to turn on the enemy and use their own evil tools against them? Why not create the situation and see if your heroes’ convictions hold and how might you go about doing so? There are a couple of ways you can do this, but first you need to build up a number of unanswered plot questions, loose ends that only an escaped foe could answer. Then, you complete the dilemma by presenting them a mid-ranked enemy or lieutenant in a ready position to be exploited by torture. We’ll call the enemy, “the enemy,” “lieutenant,” “he” or “him.” Catchy, I know, but stick with me here.

The easiest option is to have the enemy captured by a third party, like a thieves’ guild, a crime “family,” or a pirate crew. All three of these have historically been willing to inflict great injury without much provocation. The guild could have captured the enemy for ransom. A crime family might intend to use him to send a message to his superiors. Pirates might use the lieutenant to make an example, increasing their reputation while weakening the enemy’s position. Depending on the nature of the adventuring group, they may have contacts within those organizations or even favors that could be exchanged. How would they react when a representative approaches the group with the chance to “ask” the lieutenant some questions? An adventure might take them into a pirate stronghold, a gang hideout, or a mafia safehouse where the enemy is held. What choice do they make when the search for loot after the battle turns up an unrelated foe, tied to a chair and at their mercy?

However, beyond the urban environment, there is the possibility of an enemy caught by misfortune. The goblinoid hunter could be found hanging from a snare. The Baron’s lordling son could have stumbled upon a pit trap, now lying pinned beneath his dead mount. Really, any enemy who might be traveling could be discovered after some kind of accident—a carriage crash, a quicksand patch, or even an avalanche or landslide. Will the adventurers help the incapacitated enemy, maybe earning friendship or a grudging respect, or will they take advantage of the lieutenant’s unlucky turn of events and press him for information?

Probably the easiest option is to seed one of the enemy’s lairs with torture implements. He might be an accomplished torturer himself, retain a torturer or possibly have a torturer construct. The lieutenant would need to be knocked unconscious or otherwise disabled after combat to make this scenario work best. To build up the chance a party of adventurers might decide to use the torturer’s methods against him, consider putting a few examples of his terrible handiwork up for display—perhaps a victim left to die on a breaking wheel, or one hung from the wrists until suffocated. Then, as the party searches the area for treasure or loot, they discover an encoded letter, or a vaguely worded directive, perhaps a plan with the names missing along with the enemy’s torture chamber. The situation is ripe for debate—you’ve established a ready subject for interrogation and a topic to pursue. By making the information something that can’t be magically ascertained, you ensure that the more gruesome option is discussed.

But why bother? Why go to all the effort of creating a situation like this? The simple answer is that these situations become tests of principle. How will your adventurers react when tempted by an opportunity and presented with an enemy they know (think?) would torture them? Will they take it? For paladins and clerics of good alignment, the answer seems simple—but when they “wander off,” separating from the group temporarily, aren’t they complicit in their feigned ignorance? Does it make any difference if they do not commit the torture themselves, but benefit from the act when companions or acquaintances deliver the information gathered under the knife? And if that interrogated subject survives or manages a resurrection, the lieutenant has a dark secret he could use as blackmail. How far would a paladin advance within his holy order when he’s marked with even the shadow of a reputation for questionable behavior?

You might think this is an easier question for the rogues and ruffians around the table, but there are considerations to make there, too. Should they choose put the enemy on the rack, they establish their own reputations. Not only do they flaunt the law and act primarily in their own interest, but they also demonstrate that they have little respect for ethical decency. It’s one thing to cut down an enemy who faces you on the battlefield. It’s another thing entirely to restrain him and yank teeth until he tells you what you want to know.

And if your group takes the plunge, deciding that the good of the land outweighs the pain they might inflict upon the villain’s lieutenant, I suggest you still have them roll for the effects of their handiwork while using the charts in Kobold Quarterly #11—if only to maximize the emotional investment. The ones in the magazine are for the Pathfinder and 3.5 systems, but they can be used in 4E with very little conversion. For instance, I would suggest replacing the nonlethal damage options with a loss of 1d2, 1d3, or 1d4 healing surges, and taking hit points when no surges remain. Ability damage and drain isn’t really used in 4E, but I would still use it. To adjust for ability damage and drain I would permit the Remove Affliction ritual to heal all ability loss. I’d also allow loss to be healed with healing surges—allowing 1 surge to heal 1 point of ability damage, 2 surges to heal 1 point of ability drain. This keeps the ability loss consequential, but not overwhelmingly so. I’d also permit the particular effect of the torture to be adjusted in either direction based on a successful Heal skill check, or also, for Pathfinder/3.5, a successful Profession(Torturer) check (DC equal to enemy’s level + Will save adjustment). In 4E, base the DC as a difficulty appropriate to the level of the enemy and what you’d consider their strength of will. A cowardly enemy would have an Easy DC, while a hard-bitten veteran warrior would have a Hard difficulty. For every 5 they beat the target number, allow the effect to be shifted 1 value up or down.

Overall, torture within the game provides a chance to show if the adventurers are heroes or mercenaries, principled in their actions or ruthless enough to take any step necessary for victory. Even for those with the stomach to use torture against their enemies, the scenario becomes a demonstration of just acts they are willing to commit to ensure an advantage or even just the demoralization of their foe. It is a shocking and mature element; one that should be seriously considered prior to its inclusion and even then, only incorporated if you believe your group is mature enough to handle it. But when properly used, this sort of situation does a great job of creating memorable and intense roleplaying moments that test a character’s integrity and moral dedication while driving them to answer the question:

“How badly do I want to defeat my enemy?”

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Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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8 Responses to “Torturing Player Characters”
  1. Ben. says:

    Hopefully you enjoy the article– or at the very least, it inspires debate.



    Ben McFarland
    Progressio sine timore aut praejudicia

  2. Wade says:

    When I was a teenager, my friends and I didn’t hesitate to torture a captured enemy in games. However, the GM never let us get any information out of them because “you guys wouldn’t stand for it if I did it to your characters.” Rules like the ones in KQ #11 do even the playing field in that respect. And if a PC does get a reputation as a torturer, it might make his opponents more likely to use those tactics on him.

  3. wickedmurph says:

    I’ve never hesitated to torture players. And my players, to their credit, have played along admirably. The best one I ever did was in a urban Waterdeep campaign. One of the players, a halfling thief, had totally failed to break into the house of a suspected spy in the city. He’d passed out from taking a poison needle to the face, and awoke in a strange bed with a horribly swollen, tender face and 2 grim-looking bounty hunters looming over him.

    They inquired as to the name of the person that sent him to the house. He refused to tell them, so the bigger one poked the halfling’s swollen face, lightly, with one finger. “IT WAS DORDON!” was the players immediate response.

    Great role-playing, but it did require the player’s cooperation and understanding the character. Some players might have tried to tough that out… and I would have killed their character for stupidity.

  4. Charisma says:

    Sometimes it’s hard to be a player getting tortured. It takes some maturity to pull it off right, I think.

  5. Tiorn says:

    The only time I recall that our party was ever in such a situation… we had captured a Drow Priestess of Lolth and were trying to get information from her. I can’t say that torture was or was not used at all. But, since I was playing an exiled Dark Elf who had turned to the ways of Law and Good, I tried to avoid it. One of the goals I had set for my character was that he intended to create a safe haven for others of his kind to find refuge in when they escaped from their Drow communities. Using torture against ‘one of our kind’, no matter how ‘misguided’ they were, would certainly have ruined my character goals. But we really needed that information. So, as a spell caster, my Dark Elf pulled a copper piece from his pocket and cast a spell (2nd edition… ESP — material component: 1 copper piece). We got the information that we were seeking. What happened to that Drow Priestess after my character left the room is beyond me. But I’m sure it wasn’t good. :)

  6. Ron Shearer says:

    I would not hesitate to use torture on one of the PCs (or NPCs) in my world, as any heinous violation upon a carefully honed character (or companion to such) often builds up an almost palpable level of righteous anger upon which they often attack a quest with a higher level of intensity.

    But as for my PCs employing such tactics themselves, I don’t see that as likely. Because I do allow evil PCs (my son and his friends see enough wickedness via TV, movies and video games), the very act of news acquisition through physical extraction would endanger too many characters. Because we have several rangers, priests of Peoni, priests of Larani or one the latter goddesses’ paladins, the cost of such a method would be much too high, and I am sure they would see that before they succumbed to the temptation.

    No player running a ranger or paladin would like seeing their defender of good suddenly reduced to a CN fighter. Nor would any priest enjoy suddenly finding themselves cut off from their god because of their actions. And I don’t see them trying to pull off the old “Look, Sir Orsic! An evil doer!” trick (from “Gamers II: Dorkness Rising”, as much a must-see viewing for D&Ders as “Office Space” is for cubicle-dwelling grunts)

  7. Achuak says:

    so my whole issue with all this is. in the time period these games take place torture is considered ethical. Athena, Zeus, Aphrodite, Thor, Odin and a number of other Good Gods allow torture. (though commonly they may show mercy after) Currently we view it as wrong but even the military uses torture (mostly mental) to gather information to protect therw countries. This leads more to what reasons they have to torture i think


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  1. […] Torturing Player Characters What happens when the good guys want (or think they need) to stoop to the lower levels of morality and torture someone? Well…. lots it turns out, even if they’re not a paladin or someone with a code of honor to uphold. […]

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