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Old Screeds

In Cold Blood [23 April 06] Is it evil to kill prisoners?

I've blogged before about enemies who take suicide pills before you can capture them, about torturing prisoners, and about what to do if your character is captured. But what should player characters do -- especially good-aligned characters -- with captured prisoners? Specifically, is it okay to kill evil prisoners?

In this discussion (cached by Google from a Monte Cook forum), some say that killing captured prisoners is fine for good Player Characters (PCs), so long as the captured foes are unambiguously guilty of great evil (human sacrifice, torture, etc). Rory Weston said:

These guys are guards for evil priests who capture innocent people for bloody sacrifices & are buddy buddy with all sorts of vile monsters whose alignment entries in the MM read "always evil." No neutral or good guys would hang with these cultists and claim "just doin' my job" for more than about a day before finding their alignment shifting to evil. I also view the guards as being members of the cult -- they are not priests, but I expect they take part in the ceremonies and rites ... My players have no compunction about executing these bas*ards after they have questioned them -- and frankly I as DM would be more likely to look at alignment if they let one of these "monsters" go free after questioning.
Others in this discussion disagree. Renegade sums up the other side:
Good characters are bound to accept surrender and treat prisoners properly. Torture is out. Summary execution is out. Cutting down a surrendering foe is out. Those are evil acts. That said, a good character doesn't need to be stupid about prisoners. Bind, gag, and blindfold them, just don't torture them.
But he somewhat dodges the question of what you can or can't do to enemies who do not surrender, but who you capture alive. Is it evil to kill a helpless enemy -- even an evil one?

In another discussion (on a Wizards of the Coast board), one poster asks if it is okay to kill a captured enemy in order to inspire his captured friend to talk. The information sought would save innocent people, so his intent was good, said some in the discussion. Other said that killing one person just to intimidate a second person is evil no matter what the motive. So, is it good if your intent is good? Does intent matter?

Steve K, a friend and online DM of a message board Dungeons and Dragons game, puts it this way:

The Players Handbook says "Good" protects innocent life. Good does things for others. Says nothing about the killing of evil people. Therefore, if players have a helpless, helpful prisoner who is bad, it is fine to kill him after interrogation. It is fine to inflict pain to get that interrogation. No evil in it. The worst dilemma is how to get the blood off your armor.

If you inflict pain on the prisoner after you got what you want out of him? That's evil. If you interrogate and kill a shopkeeper who doesn't want to tell you some piece of info? That's evil.

There's very little to go by in the official core rules, which give a few hints but no clear-cut guidance on this issue:

Good characters and creatures protect innocent life ... "Good" implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings.

From the Sage Advice column in Dragon Magazine (#341, p82):

Is a coup de grace attack an evil act? (i.e., can a paladin make such an attack without falling from grace?

The coup de grace is simply a kind of attack and is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. In some cases, it's the best option against a foe (such as an unconscious but regenerating troll). If attacking a particular character would be considered an evil attack -- such as stabbing an innocent merchant in the middle of his shop -- delivering a coup de grace would be just as evil.

Of course, if the paladin has already promised to face her foe in nonlethal combat, delivering a coup de grace would almost certainly violate her code of conduct.

And from the Book of Exalted Deeds (page 28):

Prisoners must be treated with a certain amount of respect. Torturing prisoners is out of the question, of course, and generally knocking prisoners unconscious every time they wake up amounts to cruelty ... There is one good and important reason to take prisoners rather than kill every enemy: live prisoners give better information than dead ones ... While evil characters readily resort to torture to extract information from prisoners, good characters simply can't, and even using the threat of torture ... is morally questionable.
The book goes on to suggest compulsion spells and intimidate skill: "This intimidation need not include threats of physical harm, since displays of holy power or strong moral exhortation can serve the same purpose." The book suggests using Diplomacy long term to convert creatures to Good.

If you need help figuring out your own alignment, then this Online Alignment Test may help. But it does not answer the question of what you can and can't do to a prisoner.

Let's go back to the core rules:

Good characters and creatures protect innocent life ... "Good" implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings.
Well, let's establish that captured prisoners are not innocents. In fact, letting these villains go may lead to the villains hurting innocents. It may be that killing prisoners, even in cold blood, so to speak, is what you have to do to protect the innocent people that villains would tend to target if they are not slain.

But the respect for life and dignity rule then kicks in. Torture is prohibited because it is disrespectful of life and dignity. On the other hand, I think threats and intimidation, not to mention charm spells and such, are not an affront to respect and dignity, especially not when dealing with criminals and enemies. So, in my opinion, you can certainly extract info and then kill prisoners, but kill them cleanly.

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