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How should a GM role-play a torture scene for a PC?

In one of my games, one of my PCs will be captured by the enemy who wishes to get information from him, using... less than ethical methods.

Leaving whether or not the information is divulged to a dice throw seems a waste, but on the other hand, it's hard to force a player to give up info if he doesn't want to.

I'm playing an L5R campaign, with the L5R system.

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@Sardathrion, thank you for the complement. However, researching the problem domain is so vary basic, that it is in no way specific to this question and answers! Please, feel free to edit my answer in order to emphasize the point. Also, I extended the answer a bit - and possibly drifted too far from the question. Feel free to trim parts away. Long live the Community :D –  Vorac Oct 14 '13 at 11:23
    
@Vorac: There are nine answers, about forty votes, and yet no one but yourself mentioned researching torture. I have seen too much rubbish about it. For example, looking at boobies was defined as torture -- no really... Actually researching what torture entails and why/how it works for some situations is worthwhile. How explicit one depict it in a particular game is clearly part of the contract of the game: use with caution! Just like rape, gore, fear, racism, yadda. –  Sardathrion Oct 14 '13 at 12:36
    
@Vorac: Besides, scientific method for the win! ^_~ –  Sardathrion Oct 14 '13 at 12:37

11 Answers 11

up vote 28 down vote accepted

There are a couple approaches.

First option - don't. Make real sure your group is on board with this, because many people find scenes like that at the table unacceptable (and it's not just binary, there's also the depth to which you go into it). There's a lot of related topics (loss of control, permanent effects on a character, squeamishness, other psych issues) that really bother people about it.

I and my gaming group aren't really squeamish, so we'd skip past that option, but it's worth saying.

Second option - make it a mechanic. Some games specifically have skills for that - in Alternity, there's both Physical Resolve and Mental Resolve stats that can be used in a simple or complex skill check situation to quickly simulate torture and the PC "giving it up" or successfully holding out/giving false information. In D&D you might use opposed Concentration vs Intimidate/Profession:Torturer, Bluff vs. Sense Motive, or similar. In L5R, there is actually a Low Skill called "Torture," I would assume you'd use that.

The use of Torture is dishonorable because it involves touching blood, sweat and dead flesh. When using Torture, a character is trying to extract information from the tortured character using pain. Torture is a contested Awareness+Torture roll vs. the opponent's Stamina (deducting a number of dice equal to his current Wound level, of course).

The main drawback here is that players always hate control being taken away. Sure, there's always charm and paralyze and stuff, but it is often even more objectionable when there's not the excuse of "it's magic and you failed your save."

Third option - make the PC feel it. Have the torture do not just "hit point" damage - do stat damage, some temporary some permanent (or whatever analogue of that L5R supports - reduce Traits, for example, or apply Disadvantages like "totally jacked up"). See if permanent damage convinces them to talk. The main drawback here is that many players will just opt to die rather than talk, as it's an easy choice to make, and if left with a crippled PC they'll just demand to roll a new character/commit suicide/leave the group and call you names.

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+1 For option 3, really like that idea. Players can be blasé about hit points, pain and stuff, but start touching their stats and they'll squeal like little squealing things! Great idea. –  Rob Oct 9 '13 at 8:16

There is a third option, other than pure roleplaying and rolling dice, which is to offer a choice.

For example, here's a difficult choice. Either the character gives up the information or suffers a random amount of damage. Make it clear that, if the damage dice roll high enough to kill the character, the character will die.

So, then, the player chooses between giving the information or a chance the character will die.

IF you prefer something more narrative, try this. Either the character gives up the information or someone close to the character dies.

Alternatively: either the character gives up the information or a prize piece of a equipment is destroyed. Either the character gives up information or they lose an arm. Either the character gives up information or another PC takes damage. There are lots of possible choices: pick one that will engage your group.

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How I'd do it- less simulation, not too much detail.. but enough that it makes sense in context. The point is, make the scene serve the game.

For example, I might say as the GM "You get captured..imprisoned for a while, and then one day they torture you. Terrible things happen.. you are permanently scarred (both mentally and physically) by the twisted and painful things that happen to you. However.. what happens is up to you. They keep asking you about (whatever issue).. What do you end up telling them?"

Which isn't too graphic, really. And it lets the player decide ultimately what the outcome is. Does he try and bluff? endure? you know.. and also it gives him a hook to roleplay off of (he can decide he hates the race/cause/nation of his torturers, he can decide that he can never allow torture to be used on anyone else.. or maybe he becomes a torturer himself, ala Said in Lost, etc..He develops a phobia of knives.. he loses an ear or an eye or something. The point is- it's all a hook).

I don't advise going into detail; that's just juvenile, usually. Even if you have the best intentions.

Hit points are a non-issue, really, although skill checks might make sense. Also talk to the player beforehand about how cool it might be if some info slipped out. Getting a player to pick a losing option on purpose isn't as hard as it seems if you can convince them it makes for a more interesting situation or will in the future.

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Rationale should influence approach

I guess this all depends on the narrative purpose of the torture scene. Does it need to be played through? If not, go with some of the other suggestions here. Say 'you were tortured and move on.' It's good advice.

If you feel that there is some important reason that you play through the scene proceed with caution. I've run torture scenes in the past but have always 'faded to black' before the actual torture takes place. Showing some nasty/out of left filed torture devices and having the villains talk of what they're going to do is enough. It seeds enough enmity and provides for roleplaying opportunities.

Player Agency

The tricky question of player agency is important too. In my experience, players don't like having their characters knocked out, tied up, gagged, etc. It takes them out of the scene and can make them feel frustrated. It's a tricky task, but if possible I'd play to their character's strengths while letting the scene play out. Regnar the barbarian won't break. Loki the thief sows disinformation. Find ways to let them play their characters being tough, smart, cunning so that they don't simply feel as though they're being railroaded or restricted.

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Torture can mean many things is the pc attached to anything? Anyone? His reputation? He could hire a shape-shifter to kill the king making for some great role playing any thats torture. Also same could be said boy if I was a honorable person and someone took my form and tortured people i would give up my rights and serve the crime if the real reason could not be shown, for not protecting them better and allowing it to happen. All kinds of ways to accomplish this other than saying they pull a tooth out.

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Torture is a very sensitive topic, and the first thing you need to do is have a conversation out of game about how the players feel about such a scenario.

People have history, and issues, and ultimately Torture is mental, if it works at all. Unless you want to cause a mutiny, you need to understand how the players think. And maybe best to have one-on-one conversations with individual players to find out their thoughts. My experience with Larp is that when you have sensitive issues, you need to get permission, or just don't go there. (And that experience translates to tabletop, and even online gaming).

Some people have no problems, as this is just a game, but other people may not like the loss of control (even if the control is only their game avatar). A player may have defined their character as someone who would react in a certain way, and 'forcing' their character to react differently violates the essential control they need in their fantasy. I have role-played both sides of the torture thing (serious Larp'er), screaming, dramatics, but I also respect other people and their needs.

(I apologize for drawing from Larp experience for this response, but I think the advice is pertinent to tabletop and computer/online games as well, as the following added story illustrates.)

Many years ago, I was playing in an AD&D campaign with other college students, and we had an encounter that went badly. A torture sequence was role-played, and a young lady was very offended. She and I had a long discussion where she related her feelings, and I came away from that wiser, and more sensitive.

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L5R is not, to my knowledge, commonly LARPed, and he's referring to using the mechanics which do not translate particularly well to live action. –  Kyle Willey Oct 9 '13 at 6:22
    
@KyleWilley The fact that this answer draws on LARPing experience does not make it a bad or inappropriate answer; It gives much the same advice as Pulsehead's upvoted answer. It's not as detailed, I admit, but it does answer the question as written. –  GMJoe Oct 11 '13 at 5:18
    
No, I'm not saying that, I'm just pointing out that segregating things as being a LARP related thing isn't helpful; I've actually found pretty much everything he said to be pretty good in the traditional tabletop, and the focus on LARPing just seem to unfairly separate it from pen-and-paper play. I'm just being critical to provide feedback, even though that may unfortunately also imply that I think the answer is bad. Mind you, I still think it could be improved in other ways, but were I to require his answer to fit my criteria I'd be writing my own answer rather than critiquing Chuck's. –  Kyle Willey Oct 11 '13 at 5:32
    
And, of course, I didn't downvote it either. It didn't hit some of the mechanical examinations I'd like to see, so I didn't upvote it, but as it stands I am more concerned that it seems to claim to focus on something outside the original question's focus even though it is on topic at its core. –  Kyle Willey Oct 11 '13 at 5:36
    
No, my comments did not address mechanics. But I think it cut to the core of what torture is, which is mental. And a caution about the meta-game. –  ChuckCottrill Oct 11 '13 at 5:50

Since you mention nothing about a group's social contract, hopefully I cover all the possible ways to handle it . First, consult your group's social contract (if it exists) on the topic of torture, and if not now may be a good time to consider codifying some lines and veils for future reference.

Definitions: Any given topic can be considered as a line, a veil, or "fair-play"

Line: A line is something that a player objects to being in a game. Frequently I use the topic of rape as an example of a line. This is something that my group feels so strongly about, that if I were to have PC1 raped, the rest of the group would walk out before PC1 was finished packing up their character. Lines are things that do not get crossed.

If torture is a line to any of your players, you need to do a re-write of your torture/interrogation scene.

Veil: A veil is something that is difficult to experience "in-character", yet a player has no objection to it being used as a story mechanic. As other answers have mentioned, torture scenes can be huge and scenes of great transformation for a character. If you watch old movies (like from the 1940s or 1950s), love scenes / sexuality are commonly handled as a veil. The two characters start smooching a bit, the music crescendos and then the picture fades to black. Next scene, is "tomorrow morning" and either the two characters are in their bathrobes (if a married couple), or the movie has moved on (if not).

If torture is a veil, you should ask the tortured PC's player something like "This guy is going to torture your character. How long do you hold out before you start talking, and what do you say?" This gives the character the chance to figure out where they break, and also gives them the option to try to lie to the interrogator. If the player chooses to hum the 1812 Overture for the entire interrogation, you should ask them if they are sure they are sure about killing their character. This should be handled as something of a negotiation where both of you come out feeling good about the scene. If necessary, pull back the 4th wall's curtain a little bit.

Fair-play: This is somethign that your players all consider to be something they are comfortable participating in on a blow-by-blow level. Combat is a fair-play concept. NPC dialog is as well.

If Torture is a fair-play, you can go nuts. Give your torturer some personality and a bit of a style.

Ways to torture: I would encourage you to not do anything that is permanent. There are many ways to apply "pain motivation" without destroying a character's body. You can do cosmetic things like scarring (cut a flesh-wound, then rub salt/vinegar into it) or cutting off ears/nose/fingers. You can also attempt to bend joints in ways they are not intended to go. The arm-bar used in MMA tournaments is a great example. Straighten an arm and then try to bend the elbow backwards, it is very painful and the pain stops immediately when pressure is removed. If the character decides to not talk, you can push it the rest of the way, break the bone(s) and move on to another joint. Simply put, as debilitating as these things are your PCs can then heal that damage. Sure, maybe they get a sore elbow/knee whenever the weather changes, but that only adds seasoning to the character.

A final note on lines/veils: Once you have polled your players on how they feel about torture, your group's opinion is whatever the most conservative view is. So if even one player considers it a line, it is a line. If everyone thinks it's fair-play, I would recommend you give everyone a marker or other token. If anyone gets squeamish, they turn in the token, no harm, no foul and the rest of the scene is wrapped up as a veil topic.

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Very good explanation of the social contract. Also like the terms you used (introduced?). –  fgysin Oct 10 '13 at 14:25
    
I've seen lines/veils talked about. My idea was a term for fair-play (since line/veil pages tend to talk about "no" topics and now where the dividing line is), and the token idea. My group does not really know wehre they start to feel uncomfortable so we have the blanket "I'm not comfortable with this" objection. We don't use a token, but we have also gamed with each other for 15 years. –  Pulsehead Oct 10 '13 at 17:48

And just for completeness sake, as nearly all answers here seem to address to the question "How can I avoid explicit torture scenes as a DM?"

If it is OK

So after going through the metagame topic of "Is it OK?" (preferrably in advance), and if it is OK, you can role-play it in a nasty simulationist fashion.

Prepare for the session as usual:

  • research the topic
  • print out some torture devices (in black and white) and maybe some mutilated human bodies
  • play out the two concurrent processes of torture - the dialogue with the NPC, and enduring the actions of the NPC (torturer)
  • don't start out by "I'll ask nicely", start with some pain in order to put the subject in a stressed state, where lying would be detectable
  • tortured subjects usually get executed afterwords, if they hold no more information of interrest

Leave the system at the background

but on the other hand, it's hard to force a player to give up info if he doesn't want to.

- Just hold still while I am doing to you eye what just happened to your finger. 

This situation is intended to scare both the character and the player. The character ... well, this is clear. The player, because he/she knows that you, as a GM, stand up to what you declare, and his character is going to have that -5 on any ranged check ... forever (in a non-magic setting).

"Hold Still, I don't have good depth perception!"


How to establish credibility

Needless to say, however, don't mention the ranged penalty during role-playing the scene. "You will get -5 to ranged attacks, are you sure you don't tell him the truth". This kind of metagaming brakes immersion! Role-play, then, as an epilogue to the scene, summarize the mechanical repercussions of the scene. Doing this several times in different situations immediately establishes the "you, as a GM, stand up to what you declare", mentioned above.

Of course, do this for beneficial scenes too: "That kiss from the elven princess boosts +1 permanent Dex bonus. And now for the chase scene."

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+100 for "research the topic". –  Sardathrion Oct 11 '13 at 12:12
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.. And putting the bounty where my mouth was. +100 indeed. ^_~ –  Sardathrion Oct 15 '13 at 11:47
    
@Sardathrion, yey, my first bounty win on SE. I owe you a beer. –  Vorac Oct 15 '13 at 12:12

The essence of torture is loss of agency. Someone is using techniques (yes, I'm glossing here) to remove agency from the individual and make them act how the interrogator wants. That essence can actually be gently echoed in roleplaying games without playing the scene, by exploiting the nature of the player-GM relationship.

You can easily deny the player agency for a brief time.

A side effect of torture is that the person is in the total power of an enemy. They can be compromised, turned, or even replaced with sufficient technology/magic. (See The Manchurian Candidate; also see D&D doppelgangers.) You can easily highlight the loss of player control over the character, and the uncertainty about whether they have maintained their integrity and even identity, by exploiting the nature of the player-character relationship.

You can break the usually-reliable connection between a player and knowledge of their PC.

A PC has been captured. They're in the power of the enemy. Don't play it at all. They get no screen time, except maybe a little bit of the very beginning of their captivity, before the torture begins. (Ideally this is very little actual table time, since the point is not to deny them play time, only choice.) They're captured, and they're returned/freed/escape. That is all handled by GM fiat. The player has lost agency (briefly). The intervening time is vague and unreliable, and neither the player nor the players of the PC's companions get to hear what actually happened with any guarantee of truth. You don't tell them precisely what information was extracted. Just roll for it, but keep the roll to yourself. Now the continuous control over the character has been interrupted, allowing for doubt about integrity and identity to creep in.

Denying players information and the chance to act is pretty powerful.

Unless there were memory-affecting things involved, you can answer questions the player has about what happened, but give it in vague, unreliable terms. For example, to answer "What did I tell them?", if your roll was good (or their resistance roll wasn't): "You're not sure, by the end you just told them what they wanted to hear." or if they did resist well: "You don't think they learned anything useful. You told them a lot of lies. At least, that's what you remember."

An information vacuum is unsettling to players. Players are used to gaining information and mastery over situations. Here, they don't know what happened, what is about to happen, or even why the PC has been returned to them. Are they OK? They don't know. You might have them flashback at a critical moment, ruining a delicate operation. Were they compromised? Are their reports of what happened even true, or were they so broken that they don't even know? Are they even who they appear to be?

Handling torture this way has the benefit of both skipping descriptions of torture, and it also gently echoes the outcomes of torture in the relationship the players have to the tortured character, which is actually going to be more effective (and affective!) than any gruesome detail can be.

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I really like this idea. Wish I could upvote it more than once. –  Bobson Oct 14 '13 at 17:00

The biggest issue I see with this is whether or not the players will be okay with it. I have learned the hard way that if you're going to be doing any kind of collaborative RPing at all, from torture to simple vignettes, you almost need to have what story gamers refer to as "the veil":

If at any time you feel uncomfortable with an idea, a direction, or anything that is happening at a session, you have the right to say "let's draw a veil over that". At that point, we will stop doing that. The ONLY questions which we can ask are:

  • Whether or not it's okay to "fade to black" on a scene and discuss the consequences of it, or if we want to kind of delete the whole thing from the campaign.
  • What, exactly, we are drawing the veil over.

And that's all. What you cannot ask is "why". The veil is not intended to start a debate but to make everyone comfortable with roleplay. Hopefully it will be used sparingly but it is in my personal experience that some of the worst gaming experiences I and others have had was when someone should have pulled the veil over something but did not (or, in my case, we didn't have the "veil" rule in place and the player did not realize that he had that power).

The veil can cover something as innocuous as a name (perhaps a player's dead wife shared the name of the witch you're using - again, it doesn't matter why) or as extreme as "guys, let's draw the veil over torture".

I realize that you're asking for mechanics here, but I think that ultimately with a topic as contentious as this, this is a more important factor than pure mechanics.

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Along with the point many other answers point out - talk to your group whether torture is something they care to have roleplayed in their game or skipped over.

I don't see much value in getting graphic with torture - for me it's enough to say "you're exhausted, bleeding and beat..." and then go into what usually is more interesting as far as that goes - either taunts or threats to things the character cares about.

"You think duty is not folding or bending. You think duty is you protecting things. What you don't understand is this: we choose you because now the choice is yours - you tell us what we need to know, or your daughter will be the next one we bring into this room. We know you can take the pain? Will she? I hoped you'd be reasonable. I was just trying to protect your family for you..."

For L5R it's especially fun to have people twist the ideals of bushido in their threats.

Mechanically, what you want to do is make it a choice:

Paying the Price?

It's been years since I've played L5R so I don't remember the skill list for these things (or it may have changed with 4E).

Tell the player, "There's going to be 3 Torture rolls against your Willpower/(appropriate skill). Each time they get a success, the difference in totals is going to set you up with a choice:

a) fold and give the info b) take that many points of Disadvantages, permanently, as chosen by me, the GM.

If they beat you by X amount, you automatically fold. Spend your Void wisely."

Aside from obvious physical/mental disadvantages, consider the fact they may pull out OTHER, unrelated, but still powerful information instead. This could be a social disadvantage as they can now blackmail you on other things, or worse yet, a disadvantage to other characters as the PC has spilled dirt/valuable info on someone else.

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