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Throughout my gaming career, one type of interaction has consistently failed to engage me: interrogations.

All of the interrogations that I have seen in roleplaying games follow this formula:

  • Interrogator (PC): What do you know about X?
  • Suspect (NPC): I don't know anything about X!
  • Interrogator: Yes you do!
  • Suspect: No I don't!
  • Interrogator: Yes you do!
  • Suspect: No I don't!

This continues until the PCs either give up or, in keeping with RPG traditions, resort to torture. All in all, these scenarios take up time without providing anything of interest, and risk hurting the story and the setting because the "heroes" end up acting like villains.

How do I make interrogations more interesting than this?

Among other things, I would like to know:

  • How do I add structure and variation to an interrogation so that it becomes more than a yes-no argument?
  • Can I involve multiple PCs? Should I?
  • Can I involve other skills than interpersonal ones?
  • When is the interrogation over? What happens if the PCs fail to get answers?
  • What can I adapt from negotiations? What is different?

I'm focusing mainly on situations where PCs are interrogating a suspect (since those are the most problematic ones), but I would also appreciate advice on how to handle witness interrogations or the PCs themselves being interrogated.

Let's focus on solutions that don't involve torture or the threat of torture. We can do better than that!

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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is fine as system-agnostic and I have reopened accordingly. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jan 5 '15 at 23:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know if this is worth a full answer, but make sure your bluff and sense motive checks (or other system equivalent) are rolled behind the screen, to prevent your players from subconsciously metagaming that they failed. \$\endgroup\$ – Random832 Jan 7 '15 at 22:26
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As with almost anything in roleplay, a little research on the real world can pay large dividends. Begin by looking at real-world police technique.

(To begin within, Google "Reid technique" - badly outdated but still generally used in the US, and appropriate for most fantasy games as well - and the "PEACE method", a more recent approach widely used in Europe.)

To look at your points in order:

  • The first thing to bear in mind is that an interrogation is not an event in itself, but part of an investigation. We interrogate to get relevant information. So the interrogation is affected by what other clues and information the players have.

    Give them leads that they can confirm, or refute, by interrogation. Knowing what questions to ask is half the battle. Let them take that information out of the interrogation, and follow up on it, and come back when they know what else to ask.

  • Yes, you can and should involve multiple PCs. ("Good cop / bad cop" is one of the oldest interrogation tricks in the world, because it works.)

    (They don't all need to be good at interrogation! There's good roleplay in the scene where the subject was about to reveal something, until a cack-handed amaterur lets slip the lead interrogator's bluff...)

  • Non-interpersonal skills can, and should, provide information that can then be used (via interpersonal skills) to persuade, taunt, inform or lie to the subject. (e.g. Knowing what poison was used on a murder victim may let you intimidate a suspect who could have supplied it... or catch him in a lie.)

  • If you don't want the interrogation to be an infinite loop, don't loop. People who genuinely "won't talk at all" are extremely rare... and mostly hardened interviewees. Instead of deciding whether the NPC will or won't talk, you should be decided which topics he wants to talk about, and which he is avoiding.

    Your "no" can then become a "no, and..." - an attempt by the NPC to steer the conversation in a new direction.

  • If the PCs fail to get answers, you should have provided some alternate means for information to be obtained and the plot to continue - maybe at a cost in effort, resources, or reliability. For example, the subject might talk willingly... if a favour is done for him first.

    (This falls firmly under the "never call for a skill roll you don't want to fail" principle - if a failed interrogation derails your game, why allow it to happen? Either provide an alternate way to progress the plot when it fails, or make sure it succeeds.)

  • Most things that apply to negotiation apply to interrogation. However, bear in mind that a detective is a bit of a con artist: a negotiation has to think about the subject's opinions afterwards, but an interrogator is (usually) only concerned with the subject's reactions during the invesetigation. An interrogator can afford to lie or bluff to get the desired results.

I recommend that you take a look at Mutant City Blues; being a police-based game, it has a few pages (p109-111) summarising interrogation technique, with GM advice on ways to make it work in play. (It also has a lot of useful ideas about investigation-led game design in general.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, if only for real life interview techniques. The rest of the answer is superb. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Jan 6 '15 at 7:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Really good answer. The OP could also watch some episodes of Burn Notice ;-) \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Jan 6 '15 at 10:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I took a look at the suggestions in Mutant City Blues, and here's a summary: For gamemasters, it is suggested to make things easier for the players by allowing retconning, giving hints, and allowing all players to help out even if their characters are not present. For players, it is suggested to figure out what the subject wants and not feel pressured to be 100% in control, since having the subject talk is always a good thing. Feel free to work this into your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Jakob Jan 18 '15 at 13:57
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Most of these examples focus on the PCs talking to an NPC, but all of them are applicable to the PCs as well. When interrogating a PC it is even easier. As the GM you know that characters motivations, fears, desires. The real danger there is a player that isn't willing to stay in character if it means "losing" the interrogation, but that's another topic entirely.

Interrogation is about getting information

The interrogators job is to convince the prisoner that the best option is to tell them the truth. This is most often accomplished through fear. There are many studies that show the fear of pain is more motivating than actual pain in gathering information. If your PC's are resorting to torture, they are probably not using all of their options. So let's look at what else they can do.

Preventing the Yes-No Loop

A large part of avoiding this problem is avoiding asking the same question repeatedly. When the PC hears, "I don't know X", then ideally they will change tactics and ask about Y instead hoping to lead to X. As the GM you can encourage this by answering with more than "No". You want to give answers that lead to another question. Answers with only a small part of what the PC is trying to figure out are also good. Overall the goal of these scenes is usually to get the PCs the next bit of information to keep the story moving forward. You should plan to finish the interrogation with the PCs having a new bit of information that drives the story forward.

Involving multiple PCs

Having multiple people involved in an interrogation is a great idea. There's a reason that Good Cop - Bad Cop is such a popular trope. Multiple people means multiple brains working to catch the prisoner in a lie or think of exactly the right questions to ask. It also allows the party to find the person most suited for the task at hand.

Involving other skills

This is really the bread and butter of good interrogation. Using the right skill to instil fear into the prisoner is key to success. Maybe against a low intelligence creature a display of magic is enough to make it think twice about lying. On the other hand, a captive wizard may be terrified when your barbarian tears his spell book in half and begins to eat some of the pages. Just about any skill can be used to inspire fear in the right circumstance. Someone with 8 ranks in Craft: Soap Making and a small bottle of lavender may begin describing in detail to the prisoner how he will render down the victims fat and mix it with ash from his bones to make a lovely scented bath soap if he doesn't give the party their information.

What to do if he still won't talk

This situation is going to come up in two broad cases.

1) The GM doesn't want to give out information on X just yet.

If this is the case, then you want to make the interrogation go as quickly as possible. The NPC should be ready and willing to show he knows nothing about the situation and if the party presses him he cracks easily. Few parties like spending 45 minutes intensely questioning someone to get nothing in return.

2) The PCs roll absolutely terribly and/or ask all the wrong questions.

This situation happens a bit more rarely, but is frustrating for everyone involved. When this happens, you need to get the PCs back on track as quickly as possible, especially if this prisoner is their only lead. Their could be another NPC that bursts into the room with another clue or the prisoner could offer to take a bribe or give up the information in exchange for his release. The biggest thing here is to make sure that the party still has some sort of trail to follow. Most groups don't enjoy having a trail go so cold that it ends up being an unsolved mystery. Above all else our games are about having fun. If your players look bored and lost, throw them a bone.

TLDR: Interrogation is about convincing the prisoner that the best course of action is to tell the interrogator the truth.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a followup to the "Preventing the Yes-No Loop" section, I suggest watching some crime dramas on TV (such as Law & Order). Very often, the person being interrogated doesn't know what the cops think they know, but when pushed they break down or lose their temper and snap out something that points in a whole new direction for questioning. For example, something like: "I don't know! I DON'T KNOW! Why do you keep asking me that!? Melvin always handles that stuff." Cops look at each other, then ask, "Who's Melvin?" \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Jan 6 '15 at 3:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice Answer, but I think you are too much focused on instilling fear as the primary motivator. Bribing the suspect or offering him a good deal, bright future, witness protection... All incentives to talk. If you read about modern police interrogation tactics, positive incentives usually work better to get people to confess. \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Jan 6 '15 at 10:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, you seem to focus on fear of pain specifically. I assume one can instead use fear of losing one's job, losing one's friends, being jailed, being deported, and so on? Especially since fear of pain still leads the PCs down the path to torture. \$\endgroup\$ – Jakob Jan 6 '15 at 12:33
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There's basically two types of interrogation.

Factual Information

Where is the secret passage into the fort? How many troops are there? Etc.

Finding the answers to these questions isn't actually entertaining or fun. The best way I've found to handle this is to simply skip the interrogation. "Using the map we got from the scout, we avoid the sentries easily..." etc.

This avoids a couple of problems right out. First, we don't have to have the PCs play jackbooted thugs and go through the moral nastiness of violence against helpless people. Second, we don't have to worry about the players having to second-guess whether the answers you're giving them are legit or not.

This is how a lot of adventure fiction does it - they skip it and the information is assumed to be passed on.

Motivational Information

When you watch a police procedural, or a crime thriller and there's an interrogation scene, the really interesting part is the personalities and motivations involved. To be sure, the facts are being tested and pushed back and forth, but the real entertainment is watching how the characters interact with each other.

If you want to make conflicts out of it, then success isn't "I know this fact" but rather "I know this guy is lying because he's scared." "She's covering for someone, but I'm not sure who." "He hates that guy. He's being civil, but there's bad blood there." and so on.

These situations actually rarely come up for a lot of RPGs because few scenarios deal with the ugly interpersonal dramas enough to make this a way to go.

Dogs in the Vineyard has a nice set of rules which start with the advice to the GM that most NPCs want to talk to the PCs and basically tell them their side of the story that's favorable to them, and, when the NPCs lie, that the GM should just say, "He's hiding something." without even rolling the dice.

Reality and Torture: Torture Sucks

Since at least WW2, we've had good information that torture doesn't reliably provide good information. It typically gets people to say what they think will stop the pain, which can be quite incorrect information (well, actually we can look back to witch hunts and the Inquisition as great examples of people confessing untrue things while under pain). Torture typically works more as a form of intimidation and terror by making examples of people.

If it's a modern game, with PCs as trained professionals (military, spies, etc.) they should know this and understand that torture will break their subject and the odds of ever getting good info will pretty much disappear. Or if the character has any kind of interrogation, detect falsehood, detect motivations, etc. type skill above a novice level, they should also already know that torture is not particularly effective.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ in some games, that moral nastiness is part of the point, a big focus in WoD for example is about your characters loss of integrity and increased willingness to be the monster. \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Jan 6 '15 at 4:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ also worth noting in that same game, it's probably not a good idea to avoid the roll, because it lessens social character skills. \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Jan 6 '15 at 4:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, but the questioner poses heroes acting as villains as an issue - a problem to stop, not a place to explore. \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 Jan 6 '15 at 6:26
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Well, an interrogation without torture is basically a mind-game. One person has to pick at the other's mind until they make a mistake and say something valuable. It's safe to say that every intelligence agency in existence has tried to find a way to extract information from a target without resorting to the messy business of locking them in a room and causing physical anguish; the CIA famously started a top-secret project in the 50's in order to adapt mind-altering substances for this purpose and beyond.

From this, I think it's again safe to say that most people don't know how interrogate others without resorting to torture, like they see in movies and video games. This is a problem, but not one that's unsolvable. You need to start thinking of interrogations as social encounters and not "one question followed by bickering," as shown in your question.

What's that mean? Well, if your players don't show any incentive to start thinking in this mindset (because I know a lot won't think of this right away), then you need to suggest to the players with high Charm/Bluff/Social Skill Equivalents that torture isn't the only option. Once the character(s) in question with Good Social Skills(tm) decide to approach the target, they'll have to start thinking creatively for themselves, unless you really want to hand-wave it off to IC knowledge and a roll. They have to say things like:

Player: "I want to chat him up over a few drinks, make him get a good impression of me. rolls Charm successfully How drunk do I think he is?" perhaps roll Scrutiny/Sense Motive/Equivalent here

GM: "You've been talking for over two hours. It costs you five gold pieces, but by your count, he's had over a dozen. It seems like he's comfortable around you."

Player: "OK. I think he's ready, so I want to steer the conversation towards his commander. "

GM: "That's safe enough, I won't have you roll. He begins to complain endlessly about long hours, little concern for the men..."

Player: "Good; he doesn't like him. Alright, I'll ask him about his work. What kind of tedious tasks is the commander assigning him?"

GM: rolls for the NPC to remember not to talk about such things in his drunken state; he fails He mentions this ridiculous [MacGuffin] that the commander's ordered him and his comrades to guard...

Player: "That's all the information I needed. I wait for him to finish talking and take my leave."

If your players simply do not care about this kind of in-depth social encounter, then it's very hard to pull off a "non-torture interrogation." I suggest you look at Dark Heresy's implementation of the skill, which involves asking questions, rolling the skill, and assigning truthful answers to those questions based on the degrees of success on the roll (in their case, it's a d100, and a DoS is awarded for every 10 over the threshold to succeed) as a sort-of guideline; something like this makes the mechanical side of it a little more interesting in place of the interesting-ness you get from role-playing. Even though DH's Interrogation skill was designed with torture in mind, I think it's a good starting point for a solution that makes non-torture interrogations more interesting. Hope this helps.

EDIT: Also, check out Skiptron's answer, he definitely knows how to put into words both the actual steps involved in roleplaying the target as the GM here, and how to properly motivate players to go down the non-torture path better than I can.

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You can also play up the reasons why people don't just torture folks for info today. It's generally frowned upon and the interrogatee has family/friends who might get some pay-back. Have the NPC state this upfront, "My brothers will come after you if you hurt or kill me!" and let the players decide their fate. Even lowly goblins might have a few kin who have favors to call in. This can curb all sorts of homicidal player actions. Also have NPCs that ARE released alive (and relatively unharmed) show up later on to some benefit for the characters, basically incentivize the behavior you want and penalize the behavior you don't (but allow the players full understanding of the consequences and let them decide the course of action).

If the interrogation is an impromptu one that you didn't plan for (they grab some random guard for example) these could be boiled down to a simple roll based on their stated actions. No need to drag it out with role play if it is just tedious and you don't have a good plan. I've had good luck aborting torture sessions by just having NPCs demand some money or whatever for the info, so the players switch to barter mode instead of torture mode.

Also, lie. Have the NPC give out all sorts of great sounding info that happens to be totally wrong and possibly even hazardous to the players (he gives them a "secret" entrance which turns out to be a trap built for this very purpose). Again, reflect on what makes interrogations (and torture) not so effective in the real world.

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While I have enjoyed the other answers quite thoroughly for the reality, aspect, I think there's a metagaming problem that needs to be resolved first: Consequences. In Mechwarrior 3e they simply state that if you resort to torture and fail, you accidentally kill your quarry. In other games, I believe the Book of Vile Darkness in D&D 3e (but I have to check to be sure) gives you methods of torture that also gives a penalty to the interrogator for their willingness to believe anything. Interrogation is over when the captive passes out/dies or the interrogator decides to stop. Most players see rolling and RP as a merry-go-round of roll, receive response, and if they don't accept the answer (or don't like their roll) they either try again or failing that send in the next character for their first attempt.

Plus, even if the dice aren't what keeps them going, players feel like they are in a vacuum. Nobody comes to rescue/silence the captive in most cases, they aren't accountable to most law enforcement for anything, and even with a ticking clock there's a certain time dilation that occurs through storytelling that gives players entire minutes to respond to a split second and a few months alike. The minutiae of every day life gets lost.

  • What are the players not doing when they have this captive?
  • What are the conditions for the captives...
    • Food?
    • Shelter?
    • Health?
  • Is anyone in the party untrustworthy with this captive?
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