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I'm running a game in a modern setting with emphasis on the paranormal (Conspiracy X). The player characters are part of a secret government organization and are tasked with investigating & combating the various alien conspiracies active on earth. They also often run into rival organizations and alien groups who use humans as members. Quite often I find that once they get wind of someone having to do with one of the groups the plots they are trying to investigate, they kidnap someone involved and interrogate/torture them rather than doing any real digging (thus circumventing a lot of the investigate aspects of the adventure). They also have a psychic who can read minds.

Their parent organization doesn't necessarily encourage kidnapping and torture, but it understands it's uses as well. I don't mind the tactic getting used on occasion, but it seems to be the default when they think they've found someone important. I'm wondering what people's thoughts on dealing with this might be?

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Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/8002/1084 –  wax eagle May 3 '12 at 17:35
    
@waxeagle I related that one in my answer :) –  wraith808 May 3 '12 at 22:35
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Related: skeptics.stackexchange.com/q/4498/6207 –  KRyan Mar 10 at 11:51

10 Answers 10

up vote 71 down vote accepted

I don't think it's anything to really be dealt with, unless you object to the idea of torture in your games. Of course, there are detriments to using torture, which is why it's a case of last resort (or no resort) for many intelligence agencies. What detriments?

  1. People will say anything to get out of pain. You end up with a lot of dross to sort through, especially when someone doesn't really know anything.
  2. If word gets out about what's being done, their enemies will react a lot differently (fight to the death, fight harder). Their friends will, too.
  3. Torture doesn't work on pathological liars.

So, if you want to introduce the negative consequences of their actions, I'd suggest the following regimen:

  1. Have them get erroneous information from the torture, that really bollixes up the investigation.
  2. Have their enemies find out, and use that against them in bonuses to their morale against the PCs/Bonuses to attack.
  3. News agencies. In modern times, if news of this gets out, there will be ramifications (see Abu Ghraib and Gitmo)
  4. A variation on 1 - get a lot of information, some correct and some not. It will still take investigation to untangle.

Personally, I don't limit most things in games- but I do try to play the ramifications of the PCs actions- both positive and negative. In many (most) cases, these ramifications are enough to make the PCs take a hard look at their actions, if not change them.

(you might want to look at the question How do I get My PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins)

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It's not so much the act of torture I object to, it's the use of it as the sole investigative technique. It also sometimes sidesteps the info gathering parts of the mission I have planned. I like your idea of adding in useless info. I also like the idea of altering their enemies reactions. Maybe they'll deal with the PCs more brutally next time they meet. –  D43m0n May 3 '12 at 17:34
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+1 An excellent answer. If you really want to discourage this behaviour, then there needs to be in game consequences to the PCs. –  Phil May 3 '12 at 17:35
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This is exactly the right approach. The reason competent real-world intelligence agencies discourage torture is that is produces really bad intel. Also, in a conspiracy game, having an innocent (or even guilty) friend or relative abducted and tortured by strangers... leads to someone becoming an obsessive conspiracy seeker out to expose the whole organisation responsible. Who are likely to throw the PCs to the cops/wolves/Mulder rather than risk exposure. –  Tynam May 3 '12 at 18:35
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One thing to add to this: Not only will the torutred say anything to get out of the torture, they are almost certain to say what they THINK you want to hear. You're going to get a lot of willfully false information. If you strap ANYONE who's not trained to deal with torutre to a chair, and ask them if they are the Compte de Saint Germaine, there's a near certainty they'll say yes eventually. –  Rhylok May 3 '12 at 18:58
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In Con X in particular, it's not too difficult to have a powered NPC masquerading as someone who you can torture without worry for information. It's genre-appropriate to have the PCs' enemies deliberately plant someone to get captured and 'fake torture' or at least fake break down really easily and give away information that leads the PCs into a trap. –  Aesin May 3 '12 at 21:00

One of the more pragmatic (vs. moral) reasons that real-life agencies don't condone torture is that it leads to bad intelligence. The guy getting the treatment is so desperate to end the torture that he'll start telling you anything you want to hear.

After a few times getting useless or harmful info from a torture subject, maybe they'll opt for less brutish methods.

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Thanks for the reply. Good point. My problem there is making stuff up on the fly. I'll give it a try though. –  D43m0n May 3 '12 at 17:37
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@D43m0n You don't have to in this case! Since you know your players will be getting our the thumb-screws as a matter of habit, you can invent some bad intel ahead of time. This gives you a couple advantages. First, it won't sound made-up-on-the-spot so your players are more likely to take it and run. Second, you can use the bad intel to more interesting effect than a dead-end lead. Make it part of the adventure! –  Argyle May 3 '12 at 17:43
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@D43m0n: if you have problems like that, give away part of the plot... and then change the plot during the week before the next gaming session. Eg. IF you tell the PCs it was the cardinal who did it (because the evil cardinal was doing it), you can rework the plot enough when you have time to think that makes the cardinal be a good guy who was trying to stop it happening, which is why he's so involved in the plot. –  gbjbaanb May 5 '12 at 23:44

Here's a few potential ideas:

1) Parent organization finally cracks down on them (they went too far? tortured a relative of someone important? under new management?)

2) New enemy that looks normal but is actually an imprisoned demon/alien/whatever (or they have a berserk Mr. Hyde personality), torturing the host releases it to try to kick the party's butt

3) Fake teeth with poison in them for committing suicide become wildly popular (or better yet, an implanted bomb they can detonate by thinking or saying trigger phrases; they not only deny the party information but also potentially kill the torturer)

4) Characters are afflicted with a disease / curse / alien implant that causes them to suffer harm when they torture someone

5) People possessed by something that makes them outright immune to pain

6) FBI or some other normal government organization without clearance to know about the party starts investigating all these kidnap/torture murders (possibly leading to pressure from party's parent organization to cut it out, per #1? Alternately, parent organization might even decide they're a risk and cut them loose to fend for themselves)

7) Families of tortured people realize some shadowy group is doing this (but don't know about the paranormal stuff), band together to hunt down party & avenge their relatives

8) Party is haunted by ghosts of their victims, who interfere when the party tries to do anything (penalty to certain rolls?)

9) Party fights an angel or other creature of judgement, which gains power for each person they've unjustly harmed

10) Nail them with any alignment penalties the system happens to have

11) Create new alignment penalties as they become corrupted by demons (check out 2nd edition D&D's Dark Powers checks from the Ravenloft setting: get noticed by the dark powers too many times and your character turns into a being of pure evil and becomes an NPC super-villain)

12) Combine the above, so that each time (or even just most of the time) they try to use torture, they run into some new problem

Instead of all the above, you might also try to talk to the players. Explain you think it's getting a little out of hand (is anyone uncomfortable with all this torture/murder? have them speak up!), and ask them to tone it down a bit.

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All excellent suggestions. Thanks! –  D43m0n May 3 '12 at 18:35

Sounds like they need to feel some consequences. If there are no consequences to kidnapping and torture, then there's no reason for them not to do it. You just need to take some real world examples and apply them to your game. Here's some ideas:

  1. Limit the people. The people that are easy to kidnap are the ones with the least amount of useful information. Compartmentalized information is exactly why Special Ops teams have a "need to know" directive. The people that actually have the information are increasingly difficult to get to, making other options more profitable.
  2. If they have a psychic, why don't the enemies? Perhaps they've prepared their people with psychic blocks that provide false information, or block out all their useful information or revert to a catatonic state when hit with a psychic attack?
  3. How would your PC's react if someone didn't show up? They'd assume the worst had happened to them and go off the rails mad about it. Why should the other guys be any different? Once your PC's kidnap someone, covert is out the window. Panic buttons, regular checkins and more are real world examples of how this is dealt with.
  4. After the fact problems ... ranging from media coverage to police involvement (it is still illegal, yes?) to retaliation (perhaps the NPC's kidnap a player? WARNING be sure and clear this with at least the PC being kidnapped ahead of time ... for some people having their characters kidnapped can be a traumatic experience)

If you make it less attractive, they'll find other options.

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I agree that the best thing to do is to introduce ramifications of one sort or another. My favorite is probably the bad intel thing, because enough bad intel could land them in a really, really nasty situation.

You mentioned that you have trouble coming up with things on the fly; however, you know that this is probably going to be the default response from your players. When you're working out the knowledge pool of a given kidnapee, just throw in a few things that are completely false. Things that it seems likely this group would want to hear, which probably amounts to confirming whatever bias or suspicions the group already has. If the PCs ask leading questions, e.g, "Isn't it true that you turned that group of Girl Scouts into Jello on the orders of so-and-so?" or any other question where they indicate the answer they expect, they've already done the work for you. Just have the hapless NPC agree, and let their assumption get them into some sort of trouble.

You might also consider giving potential kidnap victims a suicide capsule. If they're doing this often enough, sooner or later the enemy organizations will figure it out, and anyone who knows sensitive information and would probably break under torture will be under orders to not be taken alive, or kill themselves before they can be interrogated. Suicide would probably be preferable to the NPC anyway.

It's also possible that they could get their hands on someone who's been trained not to break under torture. Which would probably involve either a super-soldier program or lots of previous torture. Either could be fun.

If the situation allows, there could also be a rival group after the same goal, who actually uses the proper investigation techniques, and to better effect. Either their info is more accurate, they leave fewer traces, they don't raise an alarm, etc. It might not work, but it would at least illustrate that there's a better way of going about it.

And there's always a chance that even if they do get the truth through torture, the NPC might not actually have the useful information that they need, either because he doesn't have clearance, or that's not his department, or it's all in some file or hard drive he doesn't have. Just because they're torturing someone doesn't mean they're torturing the right person, after all.

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Hah. +1 for having a rival NPC organisation show up the PCs by doing their job better. –  SevenSidedDie May 6 '12 at 21:58

Take away their Easy Button!

If torture has become their exclusive investigative tool then I'm going to assume that it is working for them. As GM, I think you're obliged to change things up to prevent the PCs from solving an entire problem set with one technique indefinitely. RPG's aren't a video game where you can learn The Combo and level up until you win :)

There are plenty of great suggestions on how to go about that in other answers so I won't belabor this with another.

There is strong evidence to suggest that torture does not work as an investigative technique so you are on strong ground by watering down its usefulness in your campaign. Also, note that most of the research indicates that the subject of the torture will not only tell his torturers what he thinks they want to hear, but he will also come to believe it! Being able to directly read minds doesn't necessarily help a whole lot.

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Nice note about how this interferes with psychics. –  SevenSidedDie May 6 '12 at 21:35

The players regularly torture your NPCs, realistically tortured people are going to crack and tell something. You can't always say "he's too tough for torture."

So, after your players go to town on him, your NPC just wimpers "all i know is..." (insert a clue which leads them to do their own investigation here)

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Welcome to RPG.SE. Interesting answer! –  wax eagle May 4 '12 at 19:27

Another idea -- introduce a plot with an NPC who they need to cooperate in order to reach some objective. Give them a chance to screw it up by torturing one of the NPC's friends before they meet. When they screw it up, they're going to have to work double hard to get the NPC's assistance, and he's not going to let them forget it...

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Since a character must be captured alive to have torture be a useful method of interrogation, start implanting cyanide capsules in the NPC's teeth! A couple of frothy mouths of death down the road and they might start to change their tactics!

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(There are some very good answers here, and I realize it's a two-year-old question, but I can think of a few things to add, which might be useful to other GM's.)

Some reasons I dislike PC's using torture ... and especially "too much" torture, is that it can tend to dehumanize the attitude towards game characters, and dehumanize the PC's. The players can accidentally turn their characters into monsters and I feel it's the GM's job to provide the feedback that shows why torture is not just another option.

Several approaches along these lines:

  • Really roleplay the torture victims. Show the players the horror of what their characters are doing. Keep in mind and convey how horrible it would be to be tortured, and what experience they are giving to someone else, especially if that person is not a terrible evil hateful person. Horrify them with what they have chosen to do, by showing them the actual consequence for the other person.

  • Really roleplay every other NPC who may be present to witness the torture, or to hear about the torture. Most NPC's who are not sadistic themselves should probably be horrified by this, and take various actions such as pleading with the PC's not to do it, or reporting them to superiors or authorities, or having nothing to do with the PC's in future, or even running away from them and hiding, or possibly even joining the opposition.

  • In particular, there are probably many NPC comrades, friends, allies, informants, superiors, even entire groups or factions, etc., who are not sadists and who strongly disapprove of torturing people, who would at least be horrified and speak out against the torture, and might also change their relationship with the PC's drastically if they found out they were torturing people - particularly if they are torturing not-particularly hateful people, and/or doing it unnecessarily. Even if the PC's allies are sadistic or soulless enough to not object, they might have practical objections, because as others have pointed out, torture is actually not really very effective at producing reliable information, and can become a nightmare if you get found out by people with morals, and it can have many other bad practical effects.

  • If you torture people and let them live, some of them, or their friends and families may decide you should be stopped, arrested, killed and/or tortured yourself.

  • If some of the PC's are captured, they might often actually be released unharmed, unless someone happened to know they were torturing bastards...

  • Enforce roleplaying. Look at the PC descriptions. Many games have systems for penalizing bad roleplaying out of character. Beyond those techniques, consider that the character is not the player, and the player who goes for torture is probably not taking the situation seriously. What would the character-as-written's actual reaction be, if the character were a real human? If the players override their character descriptions, I would think that would tend to mess up the character psychologically. Another approach can be to actually intervene in the bad roleplaying of players who have forgotten who their characters are, reminding them if their character is someone who would not torture, or who would object or walk out or report the torturer, as appropriate to the character. Just as a GM can dis-allow using out-of-character knowledge, a GM can dis-allow out-of-character gamey behavior, especially if it is short-sighted torture because the players are getting lazy. If you don't stop it before it starts, then you can get into a situation where you need to enforce it in consequences, or if you don't, your game starts getting dehumanized.

There are a huge number of situations where a person can create problems for themselves by having tortured people. It loses friends, creates enemies, and leads to misery not just for the immediate victims. What goes around, comes around.

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Great answer. I like the idea of having the victims out for revenge. Also the idea of the character starting to suffer from his callousness. Maybe they could get some new drawbacks like having nightmares/flashbacks. I'm definitely going to use that. –  D43m0n Oct 24 at 12:17

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