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So I'm running the lost mines of Phandelver as a new DM and we're about 5 sessions in. I've noticed a pattern that seems to repeat itself: the players defeat and capture an evil NPC character that knows some information, that character is tied up and intimidated/tortured, then that character inevitably spills the information it knows.

This cycle is getting a bit repetitive and depressing. How can I, as a DM, encourage my players to try more diverse ways of obtaining information from uncooperative NPCs without withholding story-critical information?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure it's a duplicate as such, but you should start with this canonical question on the topic: How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins? \$\endgroup\$ – lisardggY Sep 13 at 14:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! What a whopper of a first question. Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Sep 13 at 14:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi notAlex. It might help to focus answers if you could specify what exactly you don't like and are trying to avoid, since your question suggests several possibilities. Is it that the party always uses the same technique and you want to encourage variety (you used the words habit/pattern/repetitive/diverse)? Is it that you find the torture and intimidation too effective, and you would like them to fail more often (inevitably)? Or is it that you are personally uncomfortable indulging them in on-screen torture scenes (macabre/depressing)? \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Sep 13 at 16:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Aren't alignments a thing? Who does the cleric pray to? \$\endgroup\$ – CGCampbell Sep 14 at 11:40

14 Answers 14

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Don't reward the behavior.

You control the game universe and everything in it. Start making your NPCs tougher and smarter. Let them resist the torture defiantly, going so far as to die to keep their secret. If they complain this is unrealistic, point out that in real life, Thomas More resisted intense torture and then execution at the hands of King Henry VIII and never caved into the king's demands.

Alternatively, make the victims crafty. Have them give the PCs bad information to get out of torture. Again, realistic: torture victims tend to tell their tormentors what they think they want to hear, not necessarily the truth. With enough bad information, the players should start drifting away from the tactic.

Also make sure to have the bad guys react to this tactic. If they torture an orc, the orc band burns a village in retaliation if they find out about it. This continues this answer's theme of realism: torture often breeds very ugly tit for tat escalations - it's a reason most people avoid it. Have the players face the consequences of what they're doing.

There are no game mechanics for torture that I have ever seem, which means the outcome is up to you. When your players start playing this game, just make them lose until they stop playing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Here's another option: NPCs can be wrong. They can be misinformed or not remember right, or perhaps never actually know in the first place. This can be a result besides "tell them what the torturer wants to hear" that results in unreliable info. This is, honestly, my favorite way to lie to my players' characters (Someone feeds an NPC a lie, who believed it then passes it on to the PCs). The best Insight Check in the world is useless against someone who genuinely believes they are telling the truth--but is wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Sep 14 at 0:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Adding to your third point, even aside from the orcs finding out and retaliating, how are other (at least nominally-friendly) human/demihuman NPCs likely to react when dealing with a band of known torturers? \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Sep 14 at 8:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ On the idea of the orc band finding out and retaliating... how would the players feel if one of their PCs got taken by the orcs in retaliation and was tortured? It might make them think twice about casually abusing their enemies and not expecting any consequences. I think the Book of Vile Darkness has some mechanics for torture. \$\endgroup\$ – peacetype Sep 14 at 12:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tom: The fact that torture makes people angry and vindictive is hardly news to anyone. This isn't a political opinion, or some difficult line of causation to follow: Knowing your friends have been tortured will make you hate the torturers. And hate has a way of spilling over onto people similar to the ones you hate; if all the orcs know is that humans tortured their buddy, well, there's motive. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadowRanger Sep 14 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Wikipedia article on the effectiveness of torture discusses all the ways torture doesn't really work for the purposes of gathering information, I'd use that as a guide for the outcomes i.e. obtaining reliable information should be a rare outcome, not the rule. \$\endgroup\$ – Nathan Griffiths Sep 15 at 5:29
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Hypothetical approach: torture doesn’t work

Please read what may be the best entry on the entire Stack Exchange network, which deals with this precisely—albeit in real life, not a game.

Then just have the torture, realistically, not work. When torture “breaks” someone, they don’t tell the truth—they tell you absolutely anything and everything that they think might stop the torture. That thing’s relation to factual reality is of absolutely no concern to them, and they’ll make no effort to constrain themselves to it. And it’s impossible to detect a lie in this circumstance—the entire reason we use Deception versus Insight is because lying is stressful and people have tells. Someone being tortured is, by definition, stressed beyond human capacity to deal with, and the stress of lying to their torturers will be a complete non-issue in comparison. I would even go so far as to allow new saves against zone of truth or the like in the case of torture, with increasing bonuses to the saving throw.

Torture is an effective scare tactic; if the PCs are running an evil empire that is seeking to terrify its enemies, routine use of torture is good for that purpose. (Though this is a dubious goal if one is seeking power, since that terror is just going to harden the enemy’s resistance and determination to eliminate the threat.) But if the PCs are seeking actionable information, then torture is worse than useless. It guarantees you cannot rely on any information you get from the subject.

Actual approach: since torture doesn’t work, let’s just leave it out

The above represents how torture should be handled in-game—but really, this is an out-of-game problem. Realistically, torture doesn’t work for the purposes most characters have for it, and you could totally run a game that way and see that play out—but that’s just as macabre. And since it doesn’t work, there really no reason whatsoever to even go there. Pointing out the ineffectiveness as torture then becomes less of a way to run the game, and more of an argument to bolster your case for leaving torture out of your game.

The real argument, though, is that you find it uncomfortable, and don’t want to run it. That it drags the game away from what you meant when you agreed to DM a game of “D&D,” because in your conception of “D&D,” the heroes don’t routinely torture enemies. The horrific pointlessness of it is merely a tangential point that, hopefully, nullifies the argument since there’s no reason to fight for keeping torture in the game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "I try to Sense Motive!" "No roll needed. Their Motive for saying that is stopping the torture." \$\endgroup\$ – Emilio M Bumachar Sep 14 at 14:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Very good point about lie dtection skills becoming useless! \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Borgwardt Sep 15 at 12:03
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Talk to your players

You could try to solve this issue in game by creating consequences for the tactic. You could point out that torture has a pretty poor record of turning out solid information. You could threaten to have the characters be considered evil (torturing someone would generally be considered evil).

All of these options, however, are trying to solve your discomfort with the tone of the game through your powers as the DM. That might work but it also might make your players distrustful.

Instead you can have a chat with your players where you communicate that you don't like how often torture is showing up in the campaign. You can then express under what circumstances you would be okay with torture being in the game (when done by a villian, when veiled, etc...). Lastly you can make clear to your players that torture will not be necessary for the plot to progress.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is really a very good answer. Any time anything bothers you in an RPG (player or GM) you should talk to the others about it, and they should be reasonable and drop the behavior that bothers you. If it's reasonable (not liking torture is reasonable, not liking combat or the use of monsters is really not) and they refuse, then there is a deeper problem with the group dynamics that you should be concerned about. It's a game and you're all theoretically friends. Nobody should be making anyone uncomfortable. \$\endgroup\$ – ruffdove Sep 13 at 17:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not liking combat or the use of monsters is totally reasonable for a person—it just means they should filter the RPGs they play accordingly. Anyway, I agree with you and Odo! \$\endgroup\$ – Greg Martin Sep 14 at 0:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's true. I should have specified that it's not really reasonable for D&D 5E (or other versions of D&D). \$\endgroup\$ – ruffdove Sep 14 at 1:45
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First, give them plenty of other opportunities to find stuff out. Can they sneak up on the goblins and listen to them talk? Can the one who speaks orc pretend to get captured and listen in, giving a signal to their friends for rescue when they’ve learned the plans? Do the guards carry their orders with them written down, even if it’s in code? Can they rescue someone who’s overheard their captors’ plans?

It would also work to use the The Dark Knight solution: give them information, but teach them that information obtained via torture is highly unreliable. Either the captive is vindictive and gives them false or misleading information to spite them, or they’re scared and intimidated and will say anything to make them stop the torture, whether they know the truth or not. Make it clear why the information is unreliable so they learn that what they’re doing is awful, not just ineffective.

Another option is to use NPC reactions: have a NPC witness their behaviour, or ask them how they learned secret enemy information, and have them react appropriately when they learn how the party got it. Alternatively have NPCs they rescue have heard about the party’s behaviour, perhaps even from their captors, and be frightened to travel with them. This might mean they’re wary around them, or if they see first hand their tactics, perhaps they run away or try and sneak off during the next rest.

Something else I’ve learned in these situations is to give the players a clear chance and path to redemption. If you haven’t had the out of character conversation or you want to find an excuse to have it, it helps to turn the story consequences into a good story opportunity, rather than just punishing behaviour you find gross (as do I) and they presumably (hopefully) haven’t thought too deeply about. So have the NPC they’re talking to put a hand on their shoulder and tell them this is not the way. Have the one who is with them when they go to cut something off a victim give the orc a clean death and tell them there are more honourable paths.

And, at the end of the day, have the out of character conversation where you explain that you know it’s not real and no-one’s really getting hurt, but in a game where they can literally choose to do anything, note that they are repeatedly choosing to imagine torture. Be upfront that this is not something you are okay with; if they really want to go there, that’s their prerogative, but they might need a new GM. It might help to walk this back to session zero chat and draw up some lines and veils, or introduce the X-card - these techniques are not just for players, but for GMs too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Bravo for the added references in your last paragraph. +1 👍 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 13 at 15:49
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My approach has been to sort of "auto-interrogate" captured NPCs. I assume that the players are capable of extracting any information the captured NPC knows, and we don't really talk about how that information gets extracted. I just give the group a summary of what the NPC knows (or, if I feel like it, an in-character explanation speaking in a funny voice).

In some cases I might ask the group for their Intimidate or Persuasion skill, and roll secretly to see if the captive manages to conceal some crucial bit of information. Usually I don't bother, though. I feel that most NPCs, once they are captured, don't actually care that much about keeping secrets.

I definitely try to avoid any situation in which the NPCs "resist" torture, because that encourages the players to get even more graphic and brutal in their descriptions of what torture they're doing, which is not the direction I want them to go.

I also recommend you avoid any solution that goes "just make them lose until they stop playing", because that can lead to players feeling unhappy and frustrated. Sometimes the game they stop playing might not be the torture minigame, but your D&D game as a whole.

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First of all not every NPC needs to have important information, a lot can know nothing. If they don't know, they may tell the party anything at all to get them to stop.

How your party behaves should also be reflected in their alignment. If your party are good then have a serious conversation with them out of game about their alignment rating and how they should be acting in game. If there is a good cleric or good paladin then they should, in game, be the moral leaders of the party. If they are ignored then should have agency to act accordingly.

Torture in real life is remarkably unreliable so use this as a technique: I have sent parties on many a wild goose chase based on false information provided during a torture-based interrogation session. An NPC that knows nothing will make stuff up. You, the DM, know what they have or have not heard and you can just send the party in the wrong direction, possibly allowing the big bad to achieve their goal.

Reputation matters

If the party get a reputation for bloodthirstiness then good alignment NPCs will be less inclined to want to hire them. So start having work dry up; have an NPC tell them that their reputation precedes them and it isn’t a good one. I once had a party who went down this route. By the time they had run around chasing made up shadows, accusing innocents of being bad, and torturing and killing anyone that they wanted to question they found themselves declared enemies of the city and were told to leave. The big bad got hold of the weapon he wanted and was too hard for them to kill. Their allies all refused to help them. Enemies fought to the death rather than surrendering and insisted on having more support so the enemies they faced where larger and harder and the party cleric who’s (god is good alignment) found she had lost some access to her powers due to her god's displeasure. Due to all of this their experience points started to dry up to.

In the end they decided as a party to work to rehabilitate themselves. They spent a long time improving there reputation and so had a real development moment.

Have the world react to character actions and behaviors

Sometimes you have to remember that this is not a computer game where the world acts in isolation to the players' behavior. Every action has a reaction in the wider world. I run my worlds as large open world areas where stuff is constantly happening out of scene that may or may not impact the players' experience. If they start going murder hobo they find prices go up, people shut doors, in keepers suddenly have no rooms available; reputation is a big thing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please, in the future, check your use of "their" and "there." There refers to a place; their is a plural pronoun, third person. I corrected most of them. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 13 at 15:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry dyslexic so I tend to mix them \$\endgroup\$ – Richard C Sep 13 at 19:17
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Give them consequences for their actions:

Ask them for a medicine check

Torture gone too far on a beaten enemy could kill their captive. When they realise there are risks to the torture approach, especially anything particularly gory, they might hold back.

Have witnesses

The party quite often wants to be the good guys, give them a certain reputation within town. If anyone from the town sees them torturing their captives the towns people could become wary of the party, disadvantage on charisma checks with the people of the town, higher prices in shops, anything else you can think of.

Have the torture victims send them on a false trail

Not everyone reacts to torture by telling the truth. Don't ask the party for checks (because false information on a success loses their faith in your) and if they want to do an insight check to spot the lie they can.

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[tongue in cheek] Wait... The evil big bad doesn't have an evil sniper, one of whose jobs is to kill captured NPCs before they spill whatever beans they have? I'm not sure you understand the depths of evil.

Heck, even just having the leader (of the retreating remnant) of an orc squad snipe his captured underling ("for weakness") wouldn't surprise anyone I've ever gamed with.

Then...

  • "Why do these guys always suicide when it looks like we're going to capture them?" "They've been told we don't take captives, we just [irreversible religious taboo] them."
  • I assume your NPCs know enough counterintelligence to put falsehoods and lies in the heads of their underlings. "I hear he has invisible hellhounds guarding [McGuffin] at all times."
  • Evil captives should understand the PCs have no direct way to validate any information given at that time. If you already believe you're going to be killed when you finish telling your story, you can get very creative inventing methods, mechanisms, hidden allies, and other fictions, just to prolong your life.
  • "I'll tell you what you want to know. It'll just cost my weight in diamonds."
  • "There's no way I could tell you; I've never seen it in the light. ... after the fourth sandy strand, where the wall switches from slimy to squamous, and you can smell the gelatinous cubes, ... Yeah. There's no way to explain this. I'll have to show you." (Escape attempt planning completed.)
  • If they're dumb enough to be captured, they're too dumb to know anything.
  • "$&*(&$J#@!" "What?" "$&(&$J#@*!!!" "Does anyone here speak ... whatever that language is?"
  • "Of course we captured the mute one."
  • "Of course we captured the deaf one. Does anyone here know [race] sign language?"
  • "What's this 'insulin' he keeps asking for?" "Just keep feeding him cake; it'll be fine." (And variants for other ingestives -- like the moss that protects from the heavy metals in the water.)
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    \$\begingroup\$ And what about the ol’ cyanide-capsule-hidden-in-the-mouth trick? \$\endgroup\$ – peacetype Sep 14 at 12:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I'll tell you what you want to know. It'll just cost my weight in diamonds." seems like it could turn very dark very quickly. There are a lot of ways to reduce a character's weight. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Sep 14 at 13:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @peacetype - Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking. Suicide pills are really common for people who have to enter situations where torture is possible. Also, the leader could have spelled the NPC to die if questioned. \$\endgroup\$ – chasly - supports Monica Sep 14 at 13:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @peacetype - Yes. He could reply with "Mmmm ... mmm ... muhhh ...urgh" or even a nonsense language. \$\endgroup\$ – chasly - supports Monica Sep 15 at 0:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @chasly-reinstateMonica : I choose to think he is dominated to sing "It's a Small World" in a loop, until the PCs start failing sanity checks... \$\endgroup\$ – Eric Towers Sep 15 at 14:23
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Adventurers are accepted by society because they are good guys. Use tactics like this and you'll get a reputation as bad guys. What happens to bad guys? Adventurers seek them out and kill them!

Others have said they'll find the towns closed to them--nope, no town is going to reject someone powerful and evil. Don't expect them to offer up information or anything, though.

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Lots of great answers here. I'll just add my favorite way of dealing with repetitive player behavior: Throw an NPC at them who is psychologically hardened against whatever they're trying to do.

If they're torturing enough, have the next enemy they capture be stone cold. They fail to extract any information and either 1) kill him in the course of torture or 2) are forced to try other means, such as persuasion, trickery, spells like suggestion, etc. to find out what they want to know.

Put differently, make them work harder, give them a way for their preferred tactic to fail, and they'll be much choosier about it in the future.

Another option is to have someone they've tortured come back for revenge. That may not make your game less macabre, but it would add another level of consequences for their behavior.

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Lie

Who said the NPC had to tell the truth? They torture the NPC and the NPC gives them information that leads them into a trap.

If you tell the players what they want, you're rewarding bad behavior. If they walk into a trap, they won't be so fast next time.

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One fun way to handle might be to have the next person they capture be like "Oh CRAP! I heard about you guys let me tell you WAY more than you're asking". Like, an embarrassing amount of personal information from the panicking prisoner.

Basically hang a lantern on the fact that they are getting this reputation for being cruel.

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Give them a narrative event which makes it clear how the world feels about their deeds.

Consider a situation where a local teenager, an aspiring adventurer themselves sneaks out of town and tails the party. Expecting a grand heroic adventure they instead witness the horror perpetrated by the party, flee home and tell everybody of the parties blood-lust and cruelty.

All of a sudden the local Inn keeper a devout follower of Tyr is asking them to please vacate their rooms. The locals who used to admire them now look at them with fear and suspicion in their eyes.

I would also consider giving any Paladins / Clerics a visit from their deity, few good aligned deities will tolerate evil being perpetrated in their name.

Another approach is to consider how the big bad will react to this. Any villain worth their salt doesn't tell their minions their full plans.

It would be a great twist to have Spider or the head of the Redbrands use this against the party. A good villain has no issues telling lies to their followers. This could result in the party thinking they've uncovered something great, but instead walking into a trap.

If you do anything make it sensible in the context of the world so your players feel engaged not punished. They should walk away from this feeling like they've learned not to always trust information from an enemy.

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Try humanizing the torturee. Make up events later on that bring up their life, loved ones, their pains and struggles, and let the party see the 'person' behind the NPC. They tortured him so he couldnt work and lost his job. Down the aventure, his depression and PTSD causes all kinds of dark macabre emotional probs for him. Then, his family suffer. Have ppl and events connected to him pop up every so often thru the adventure, and let it show how by them having fun, they destroyed his life, and the lives of those around him. Show ppl in despar and tears wondering who pushed him to suicide, or destitution, etc. Sometimes telling ppl wont work, but giving them the full fledge unblinking result of their actions...will work.

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