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When GMing D&D 5e (and similar games), I occasionally run into a situation like this:

The party has captured a member of a hostile scouting party. They have them cornered, and want to get some information out of them. A party member asks to roll Intimidation or Persuasion, but they roll a 9 and fail. The NPC spits and says "I'll never tell you what I know!" The NPC is still cornered, so there's an awkward pause. Somebody else coughs and says, "uh, can I try rolling Intimidation too, except I draw my poison dagger for extra effect?"

I find this a little bit unsatisfying for a few reasons.

  • It feels like the failed roll has no consequences to the story or the characters.
  • It often leads to escalating threats, which can lead to torture scenes that I'm not always interested in roleplaying out.
  • It slows down the pace of the game.

A few solutions come to mind, and while some of them work in some situations, I don't find any of them particularly good. (Obviously, if you think one of these deserves more credit, feel free to elaborate in the answers.) As follows:

  1. Solution: Don't make them roll if success is guaranteed. If they'll eventually get the information, just give it to them.
    Problem: This takes away high-CHA characters' chance to shine, and makes it feel like the baddies aren't actually committed to keeping this information secret.
  2. Solution: After failing the roll, the NPC under interrogation gets away, the PCs are drawn away by other pressing matters, or the PCs otherwise lose the opportunity to interrogate.
    Problem: Sometimes, it's just not practical that the character could get away. ("They take their own life rather than give up info" is another solution, but not one I'm enamored with personally.)
  3. Solution: Lie to the characters.
    Problem: Players know they failed a roll, so this often prompts further Insight checks to spot the lie.
  4. Solution: Talk to the players out of game, explaining that they get one interrogation roll as a party.
    Problem: There's not always a great way to explain this within the fiction. "Tell us everything you know about the Duke!" "Never!" "Well, okay, bye then!"

Some related topics:

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  • \$\begingroup\$ (This could plausibly be a duplicate of rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/53967/…, but I'm hoping to focus on ways to keep the interrogation short while still rewarding a success.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Kaia
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 2:51

7 Answers 7

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You don't have to play out torture

I'll go into all the details below, but in summary, and assuming you want them to roll so the party face gets a chance to use their skills:

  • If you are concerned about the players knowing if they succeeded on the roll, you can roll information gathering rolls in secret for them
  • If you want to avoid one player after the other trying to roll on failure, use help or group checks
    • As an example: one of the other characters can help the intimidation roll by saying "I'll pull out my poisoned dagger to make the threat greater" - but this means that the characters need to get used to helping each other, rather than relying on one character to "shine" due to a high ability score. Such Help is the idea behind applying advantage to the roll, per Chapter 7 point on Help for Ability Checks.
  • If you are concerned about the pace of game when players decide to move to torture after they fail, don't play it out: summarize in a few sentences what happened and move the action ahead

What do the rules recommend for your problems?

The DMG advises you on p. 236:

Dice are neutral arbiters. They can determine the outcome of an action without assigning any motivation to the DM and without playing favorites. The extent to which you use them is entirely up to you.

So it is up to you if you make them roll dice. If you do, then following the advice on p. 237 DMG, you only should ask for a roll, if there is a real chance of success and failure, and failure should have consequences. Either the prisoner won't talk, or they will lie, or you may use the Success at a Cost option (DMG, p. 242)

Failure can be tough, but the agony is compounded when a character fails by the barest margin. When a character fails a roll by only 1 or 2, you can allow the character to succeed at the cost of a complication or hindrance. Such complications can run along any of the following lines: [...]

  • A character fails to intimidate a kobold prisoner, but the kobold reveals its secrets anyway while shrieking at the top of its lungs, alerting other nearby monsters.

When you introduce costs such as these, try to make them obstacles and setbacks that change the nature of the adventuring situation. In exchange for success, players must consider new ways of facing the challenge

The challenge for you then is to come up with a creative way to make this costly. You may not always find one, depending on the situation.

In particular for the solution of lying, where your only concern is that the characters who rolled a low result will know so and press on, the DMG under Dice Rolling on p. 235 offers this solution

You might choose to make a roll for a player because you don't want the player to know how good the check total is. For example, if a player suspects a baroness might be charmed and wants to make a Wisdom (Insight) check, you could make the roll in secret for the player. If the player rolled and got a high number but didn't sense anything amiss, the player would be confident that the baroness wasn't charmed. With a low roll, a negative answer wouldn't mean much. A hidden roll allows uncertainty.

For the age-old problem of multiple PCs trying the same check one after the other: In addition to just allowing it, the PHB offers two options (page 175): help (the second character that butts in grants advantage on the roll), or group checks: everybody rolls and if half or more of the players succeed, the prisoner will spill the beans. All of them threaten him, and there is only one roll to determine if it works.

These group solutions do require that you are aware of the problem (which you are), and set the rules for the interrogation up front. They also of course may not stop the players from escalating, and resorting to torture if they really want to know. But that is theirs to decide -- players should have agency. You however don't have to roleplay it out. You can apply the same approach as with travel montage for travel: decide they succeed, summarize the whole thing in a few sentences instead of laboriously playing it out, and move the action forward.

The three clue rule

It may be that the information they seek is just a nice-to-have that will merely satisfy their curiosity, or give them some advantage later on, for example for inflitrationg the prisoners' organizations' hideout.

But in case that the information is critical for the adventure to proceed: don't put that information behind a single roll that might fail. That is really bad adventure design. As quoted by @VLAZ in a comment, use the Three Clue Rule, and provide multiple ways that the players can get access or find this information.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Proficiency is not a requirement for the help action (although that is a common house rule). All the PHB requires is that it is a task the helper could attempt on their own, and one in which multiple people working together would be productive. \$\endgroup\$
    – smbailey
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 17:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @smbailey I think you need it if you need it to undertake the task but you are right, not always. PHB: A character can only provide help if the task is one that he or she could attempt alone. For example, trying to open a lock requires proficiency with thieves’ tools, so a character who lacks that proficiency can’t help another character in that task. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 18:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Right, picking locks is given as an example of something not just anyone can attempt, but I don't think intimidation is something that falls under that umbrella. Anyone can in theory try to be intimidating. \$\endgroup\$
    – smbailey
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 20:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ If your players want to role-play torture, find another group. In reality people might not know anything and you torture people and can't believe what they say anyway because they tell you what they think you want to know, or make something up. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 8:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like your bit on group checks. I added an example of how to get/use the help for advantage under your bullet point. If you find that to verbose, by all means remove or improve. I don't think that what I had to say offered anything close to a better answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 15:31
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Don't call for a roll if you don't want failure to be an option.

As a DM, if you want the captive to spill everything he knows, don't ask for a roll. Just have the them tell everything. Heck, if it's plot-critical, don't even wait for the PCs to ask, just have the guy volunteer that he'll tell them everything if they just let him go!

Don't call for a roll if there's no cost for failure.

A prisoner who won't talk may do something drastic to enforce their refusal -- a suicidal leap, throwing himself onto the guard's knife, biting down on a poison capsule. "You failed to intimidate him" may mean "he managed to kill himself rather than tell you anything of value".

But if you don't have any particular plan that requires the prisoner to give up the info and you really can't think of any reason failure is meaningful, then don't ask for a roll. The PCs just succeed.

I use this a lot when tasks are harder than trivial, but don't really mean anything -- for instance, throwing a grappling hook over a wall when there's no resistance or time pressure isn't a roll, you just do it. If I ask myself "What's the penalty of failure?" and realize there isn't any, calling for a roll is pointless.

...Or is it?

Failure doesn't always mean the PCs lack sufficient skill.

One of my favorite DMing tricks is that a failed roll doesn't mean the player character simply failed at the task; it means the task is impossible. In a sense, the failed roll changes the narrative universe so that it wasn't possible to complete in the first place.

For example, if the rogue fails to pick a lock in an abandoned haunted tower, he didn't just lack sufficient skill. The lock is rusted solid or has become jammed deep inside. Even if there's no particular reason he couldn't try to pick it again, trying again is pointless because the lock is nonfunctional.

Or if the barbarian fails to climb a wall, it's not that he can just try again; the problem is the wall has no handholds, or they crumble under his fingers.

In the context of the interrogation, a failed intimidation roll may simply mean the guy has nothing to tell them. It's less "I'll never tell you!" and more "I don't know anything, honest! The boss never told me nothin'! I just did what he said!"

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    \$\begingroup\$ Really like section three. +1 \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 3:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Yeah, it seems to work well, e.g. Matt Mercer often uses this. Just don't think too hard about the fact that boosting your dex modifier actually makes you more lucky about the quality of locks you encounter, preventing someone else from trying because you tried first. As long as the players are on board with this as a narrative explanation for the fact that the DM's only going to allow one or two PCs to roll at all for most checks (unless they come up with a different way to try), even when there isn't time pressure, so the low-Int PC won't eradicate info from books by looking. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 5:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ It does require a little bit of player buy-in but it also feels a lot less punishing sometimes, especially for badly flubbed rolled. "You failed because the task is impossible" feels better than "You failed because your character is a buffoon". You can use it in combat, too -- "You missed the monster" versus "The sahuagin sweeps his trident across, catching your blade and shoving it back". \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 19:02
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DM should ask for rolls, steering the narrative

I think the root of the problem is misusing 5e ability checks, treating them like skill checks in 3.x: "I use my Insignt skill" — "Okay, make an Insight check". The following phrases indicate this issue:

A party member asks to roll Intimidation or Persuasion

Somebody else coughs and says, "Uh, can I try rolling Intimidation too?"

Players know they failed a roll, so this often prompts further Insight checks

Such approach is okay, and this is exactly how skill checks work in 3.5 rules as written. However, 5e steps back to older editions — when using rolls out of combat was completely in DM's hands. See How to use skills — did this change between editions and how? for more details.

The rules themselves aren't supposed to make the game intertesting. It's you, the DM, who controls the narrative flow and makes it engaging. "The rules serve you, not vice versa".

So instead of straighforward

— I want to intimidate him, so he tell me everything he knows.
— Okay, make an Intimidation check.
— 17.
— 17 is a success. He tells you this: there is a hideout two miles to the north. Inside there are....

the game encourages DMs and players alike to add their personal touch:

— I want to intimidate him, so he tell me everything he knows.
— How do you do that?
— Let me think... I make a grumpy face and start sharpening my knife, demonstrating how I'm going to torture him.
— Okay, make a Wisdom (Insight) check.
— 17.
— Good! So, you can definitely feel this — he is very scared and has almost lost the ability to think rationally. He will tell you any blatant lie he thinks you want to hear. What do you ask?

As a DM, you doesn't have to ask for specific rolls. The books don't cover all the possible situations, they just allow you to describe the results — failure, success, partial success, or success with a cost. How interesting the results will be, depends on you. Asking for a roll adds some randomness to the results, but it doesn't dictate the results themselves.

If you don't want players to torture people — don't reward this behavior. If you don't know, how things should go after player's failure — don't leave a chance for this failure. You are in control, you steer the narrative. Asking for rolls, figuring out outcomes, describing scenes — all these are just tools we DMs use to do our job — ensure that the game is successful and fun for everyone involved.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer on understanding how to use the game loop (three steps) for ability checks. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 15:32
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You have two basic strategies here:

  1. Don't run a critical path for an adventure through a single die roll.

If the only way to keep your story on track is for the characters to make a successful die roll or run a successful interrogation, then you've made a narrative bottleneck. Provide some other means for the necessary information to come to light or (one of your rejected solutions) don't make that particular information hinge on a die roll.

  1. Success is the easy road, failure is the hard road.

Or in other words, success extracts some optimal or maximal amount of information the NPC, which allows the PCs to avoid some particular obstacle and conserve some resources.

Failure should get less information, or even worse, bad information. Resources are not conserved, and might even be burned for no reason due to a lie. Zone of Truth (and similar) makes this more than a little bit chancy. And it does take some care in setting things up so that there is plot-moving but difficult information to give out in the case of a failure-- I personally find it difficult to just wing it, in that scenario.

If your objection to this is, as you mentioned, that the players know they failed a roll, then allow me to push back hard against that notion: Don't let them know if they failed or succeeded. Don't let them make those rolls, make them yourself. Opinions vary on this, but there are strong arguments to be made that some rolls should be made by the GM, because the PCs don't know if they succeeded or not, and the PC-player firewall can be hard to maintain. Stealth rolls are the classic example, but this is a good example, too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Provide some other means for the necessary information to come to light" thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/… \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 6:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ I had that very article in mind, but was too lazy to look it up. Thanks for providing it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 7:14
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Solution

If your NPC gets tortured, they will eventually tell them everything they think the PCs want to know. That's how torture works. People will tell their torturers anything to make it stop.

Note I said "anything" - not the truth - anything! With very rare exceptions, everyone talks when tortured; they just don't say anything useful.

That's why real interrogators don't use it - it doesn't work; yes, you get a lot of information, but most of it is bullshit, and you can't tell that apart from what you want to know.

So, for your circumstances, the NPC tells them a whole bunch of stuff, some of which is true, most of which is false, and all of it comes out in a rush with pitiable begging for mercy. The PCs are now criminals because most societies frown on torture, and if they're smart, they're also murderers because leaving your torture victims alive to testify against you is stupid. Of course, in a setting with magic or forensic science, being dead may only be a minor impediment to giving evidence.

How do you progress the story from here? You don't; the story here is over. If this piece of information is crucial to the adventure, then a) you wrote a brittle adventure, and b) the PCs fail.

What you are doing wrong

The brittle adventure

Read the Three Clue Rule. Do that. I have nothing further to add.

The skill check

Read 5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System. This time, I am going to elaborate.

The situation

The conflict is that the NPC has information, and the PCs want it. The skill check determines whether the PCs get the information.

Depending on your system de jour, there may be several different skills that can be used. For D&D 5e, the most obviously applicable skills are Deception, Persuasion, or Intimidation, but you should not close your mind to other weird and wonderful approaches.

A party member asks to roll Intimidation or Persuasion

Willy Wonka, You Lose

"You lose! Good day, sir!" Players do not ask to roll dice - they declare actions or ask questions. You tell them to roll dice when you decide it's needed.

The players should only declare their actions - their approach to resolving the situation in their favour. In this case, what are they doing/saying to elicit the information they want? What they do or say will inform you of the appropriate skill and any situational modifiers or advantage/disadvantage that might apply.

If they tell lies or bluff, they're using Deception; if they cajole or bribe the NPC, they're using Persuasion; and if they intimidate, threaten, or (foolishly) use torture, they're Intimidating.

Don't call for a dice roll until the action is declared! The players have to commit - you don't roll a climb check until they swing their legs over the cliff, you don't roll an athletics check until they jump the chasm, you don't roll a stealth check until they try to sneak past the guard, and you don't roll a social check until they have done something equally irrevokable.

Clarify, if necessary, "OK, you've pulled out your poised dagger. The NPC has seen how effective that is and eyes it warily. To be clear, is this a threat, or will you actually use it? Because if it's a threat, you'll get the info, or you won't; if it's the latter, you will either get the info or have a dead NPC. Is anyone helping? Guidance? Bardic Inspiration? OK; roll me a Charisma (Intimidation) check with advantage plus 1d4 from the Guidance."

When they roll the dice, they get the information, or they don't (and, maybe, the NPC dies):

  1. "As you approach, the NPC licks his lips and sweat beads on his brow. 'Please, I have children; they'll be killed if I tell.' Undeterred, you draw closer, place the point of your dagger against his jugular and whisper, "I don't care." Tears rise in his eyes. 'They're on Dantooine; the Rebel base is on Dantooine.' He looks away in shame."
  2. "As you approach, the NPC licks his lips and sweat beads on his brow. 'Please, I have children; they'll be killed if I tell.' Undeterred, you draw closer, place the point of your dagger against his jugular and whisper, "I don't care." Tears rise in his eyes. 'Well, I do.' He raises his chin defiantly, and you know that you aren't going to break him before you run out of time."
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your third paragraphs don't belong in this answer, as the absolutes you declare are debatable (at best). The rest of the answer is good. (But yes, the cops I know are well trained in how to get information out of most people simply by various ways of talking to them and getting people to trip themselves up. But it doesn't work on everyone). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 15:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I’m hoping the cops you know don’t torture people. Interrogation is not torture. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 22:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is the question about torture? No. Go and read the question again, please. And no, the point was, sometimes the cops Don't Get The Bloody Information. You added torture to the situation. Why? The OP did not. The "what you are doing wrong" part of the answer is good stuff, though. Also, I know you are smart enough to know the difference between a threat and torture. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 22:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I have reread the question. The OP explicitly says “torture” in their second bullet point. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 22:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ It often leads to escalating threats, which can lead to torture scenes that I'm not always interested in roleplaying out. All you need to tell him is to not let them in. It's his players who need to hear your advice about torture, not this DM. Looks like he's not into playing out torture scenes, so no, I don't see that as part of the problem to solve. He doesn't need you to tell him that. Nobody's answer handles that up front. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 3:01
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"I'll never tell you what I know!"

Just tell them to find another way and make another setup. That chance is gone. This is just an addition to the "You don't have to play out torture". You can even use it as a backup if that route fails too.

Example: Corpses are dumb.

This matters in 5e because you can speak to the dead. and use perfect disguises. Disguise as someone else preferably higher ranked in the targeted organization. Having to get that intel could also be a part of the "penalty" for failing.

Give them some option to redo the interrogation in a way that succeeds for sure but does not break in universe lore. This is the easiest example I can come up with but there surely are other options.

But in this case there is a good reason to not just do this to begin with:

  1. Do you even have a party member who can cast speak with the dead? If not you need to pay an NPC to do it and maybe also make sure they don't ask too many questions themselves. Maybe someone with a reputation about accepting coins instead of difficult answers. Or maybe they will have to do some errands first to earn trust.
  2. Your PCs would have preferably not killed that NPC. I don't know how murder hoboly your party is.
  3. The option was on the table to begin with but just was deemed to expensive/difficult (Societal views on necromancy?)

And I totally forgot myself: This can also just be done with already dead enemies. So just feed that guy with some faulty information about you and let him go.

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Going through your ideas:

  1. This actually works fine if you just treat the roll as determining how long the interrogation takes, in stead of whether it fails. If you have sufficiently ruthless PCs to say things like "Everyone breaks... eventually" then you can remind them that 'eventually' can certainly mean days.

  2. and 4.: I don't think these work well in 'one roll = one action' systems like D&D. They're the intended style for games like Blades in the Dark, where 'one roll = one scene,' though, and you certainly could run D&D non-combat encounters like that.

  3. In some groups this is fine, and OOC knowledge just adds to the fun. That's obviously not usually the case, so you need to make them unsure whether the information is true or not. You can let them make their Insight rolls, but expand the options: the victim might be lying, or under some sort of supernatural influence, or hiding a key piece of information, etc. Make sure the players are thinking about this in advance, of course! This also works well with the 'always succeeds' option, as the players don't know whether the victim was actually telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but when they finally break him.

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