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Old Screeds

Torture [16 October 05] in role play games.

Sometimes the real world intrudes into our little slice of gaming heaven, despite our best intents. In a recent screed I talked about how players can do their best to take prisoners alive. But what if you succeed? What if you DO capture that enemy? Naturally, you want something from the prisoner, or why make the capture? But if the prisoner is disinclined to give you what you want, it can get ugly.

[Aside: Well, maybe you don't want something from the prisoner, after all. Maybe you are a nonviolent character who has sworn to kill no living thing. Or maybe you use mercy to show prisoners the error of their ways. Maybe you just want to bring them to justice. But in these cases, you probably are not thinking about torture, which makes this aside fodder for a different screed.]

And what is it that you want from your prisoner? Odds are, you want information. Where is the kidnapped prince? Where is the prisoner's lair, not to mention the treasure? Who sent Otto Malworthy that severed finger?

If your initial efforts to find out what you want to know do not succeed, then you may be tempted to try torture.

If you are a DM, you may be contemplating torture as well. You run bad guys, of course, and sometimes villains capture player characters! What if the hero refuses to talk? Well, you know your bad guy is very very bad. The logical recourse may be torture.

And there are certainly resources for you out there, oh you devilish game master! Perhaps you own the Book of Vile Darkness, an official Wizards of the Coast product written by the author of the Third Edition Dungeon Master's Guide. According to this review, it has torture devices and plenty of villains to use them.

Or perhaps you own Explore - Torture Chamber a Quicktime VR product that lets you roam around a 3D torture chamber on your computer, take screen shots, print them out, and use them as props in your game.

Or you've come across articles like this one, and you think adding a bit of torture to your fantasy role play society is a good way to spice things up.

What's wrong with any of that?

Well, if you type "dungeons and dragons" and "torture" into a Google search, the very first result brings you to our dear friends at Chick Publications. I already gave those jerks a link once, so no need to go there again. The point is, if the enemies of the game are beating us around the head with accusations of immorality (and far worse), it becomes harder to defend using the depraved in your game.

This is not like the Second Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, in which they removed all reference to demons and devils in order to placate those falsely accusing the game of spreading occult influences. There is nothing wrong with putting devils and demons in the game, nor gods nor all manner of other creatures out of mythology.

But there's a case to be made that putting torture in your game may actually be wrong -- morally wrong.

This became especially clear to me in a visceral way with the recent reports that the U.S. government has pursued a policy of torture in its treatment of prisoners, both suspected terrorists and prisoners of war abroad. To browse beyond gaming for a moment, I recommend Andrew Sullivan's blog, which often pursues this topic, as well as this essay by Andrew on a soldier standing up for what's right.

In the past, perhaps, we had the luxury of indulging in darker elements for our games, especially when those elements seemed far away to us, or exotic and fantastic. But now, torture even in games strikes me as too real, too true to life, and too ugly.

After all, on a fundamental level, we play the game to have fun. How can torture be fun, even imaginary game torture, when it conjures up real world images of Abu Ghraib and real-life practices like water-boarding and worse? To the extent that, in a story, the threat of torture can be a great narrative device, and even actual torture may drive the story forward in unique ways, well, maybe there's some value, some fun, there. But when your players are uncomfortable, horrified, and disgusted, odds are you have pushed your game too far.

No, I'm not saying you should bowdlerize your games. But if you are tempted to put torture in your role play games, I have some suggestions on how to do it.

1) Be sensitive. Have a good intuitive feel for the comfort level of yourself and your players, and do not let game events go beyond that. If your players are nervous, or angry, or even laughing a bit too much, it may be a sign. Err on the side of less rather than more.

2) Use alternatives. In a fantasy world, there may be no need to resort to torture. The Intimidate skill in Dungeons and Dragons is the easiest way to handle this. And in a world with Charm spells and magic items that let you Read Thoughts, why torture?

3) Empower the victim. Let the subject of the torture tell the story. That's how this game master handled a situation in which a bad villain just logically had to torture a player -- the player described the scene. This takes some skill, but it can work well.

4) Draw the curtain. Not every scene has to be described in detail. If there must be torture, let it happen off stage. There's nothing wrong with leaving the gruesome details to the imagination.

5) Offer an 11th hour reprieve. There's always a chance that the cavalry will arrive, saving our hero from a fate worse than death. Even if the "cavalry" is the evil villain's henchman distracting the villain with a pressing need, that can offer a clever hero a chance to escape. This listserv post offers more detail.

6) The villain always makes a deadly mistake. Another way to avoid the opportunity for torture is let the villain stumble, especially if some convoluted evil scheme or torture device goes awry. In just about every James Bond movie, there's the scene in which the captured Bond manages to outwit the enemy who holds all the cards. A perusal of the Evil Overlord List offers lots of inspiration in this department.

7) Encourage your players to tone it down. If player characters capture enemies, let the enemies cave fast from time to time; not every enemy would rather die than talk. Offer reasonable deals, such as information-for-your-life swaps. Let players buy off enemies. Offer role-play awards to players who are clever in extracting info without using torture -- and note alignment shifts for those who go too far.

It is sad when the stuff of horrific fantasy becomes a commonplace in the real world news. To the extent that your game lets players escape from the burdens of the day, keep the darker element of torture away from your gaming table. And if even if your game does not shy from the grotesque and reprehensible, think twice before subjecting your players to the worst that people inflict on each other.

In the hope that this will be useful to more game masters, let me link to Treasure Table's Blogging for GMs.

Feedback! [20 October 2005] Martin at Treasure Tables was kind enough to link to this screed, and to post some feedback for me at his blog. His comment and my flip response:

Martin Says: (October 20th, 2005)

(There’s no way for me to leave a comment on your site, Cayzle, or I’d do that.)

I like that you mix paractical advice with links to examples, and you manage to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short post. Good stuff.

Plus you said “bowdlerize,” which I had to go and look up.

Cayzle Says: (October 20th, 2005)

Thanks for the feedback, Martin!

But no comments on the site? LOL! That’s ’cause at Cayzle’s Wemic Site we handcraft our screeds the old-fashioned way … with home-made html and lots of TLC! None of this new-fangled Web-logging software or fancy-pants RSS feeds for us, no sirree bob! The only thing we cascade is our dishes!


Seriously, I *do* manually post comments that people e-mail me, or in this case, that people leave in others’ blogs! “What’s wrong with good-old e-mail feedback?” ask the happy happy elves who cobble together Cayzle’s Wemic Site!

Home | This page last modified: 20 October 05