Torture Should Not Work in Dungeons & Dragons

ThePlanarDM

Villager
http://theplanardm.com/torture-should-not-work-in-dungeons-dragons/

Torture doesn't work in real life. But in #DND games, the PCs' primary means of gathering information often is leaving one enemy alive and then torturing them.

In this article, I explain why torture why it shouldn't work in Dungeons & Dragons, and how we can discourage PCs from torturing prisoners.

Here's the summary:


  • People say whatever they think will help end their torture.
  • People are terrible at detecting lies, so torturers don't can't effectively separate truth from lies.
  • Even in a game with magic and superhuman abilities, torture shouldn't work, because bosses would know this and stop sharing information with underlings.
  • Unfortunately, the rules of 5th edition D&D encourage keeping a bad guy alive and then torturing him for information.
  • I suggest several ways the DM can discourage torture by adjusting gameplay mechanics and how their world reacts to the PCs.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Torture doesn't work in real life.
Agreed. It is a highly unreliable way to get information.

But in #DND games, the PCs' primary means of gathering information often is leaving one enemy alive and then torturing them.
Says who? I mean, did you do some massive polling, or something?

The 5e rules have no mechanics for torture. There is an Intimidate skill, but looming over someone with implied threat of violence is not torture.
 

aco175

Explorer
Torture does work in real life. When I served, we were told that everyone breaks and will say anything they know eventually. You only need to hold out 24 hours before the information is not a valuable. This mostly was true for troop movements and composition, of course other information is good for a longer time.

In fantasy D&D now, torture can as hard or easy as you want it. It can be like puzzles where you just have a player control everything or roll a skill to determine if you solve the puzzle. You can roleplay the Intimidation check, or just roll the skill. Generally I just have the captured person tell some things to get let go, but my players play the game where they will let the guy go if they give some information and not just kill the prisoner after. The PCs also tend to demand that people surrender if they tend to be good races like humans and gnomes, but not goblins or orcs.

You can make it so torture does not have a place in D&D. Maybe skim over it so there is no detail or discussion about how it works. You can make it part of the backstory and not part of the action. You can also have it in places you need to go to and be the hero. When Samwise needed to go into the tower of goblins to rescue Frodo (who was being tortured). Portray the torture as evil and the 'good' PCs need to combat this. Similar to slavery in gaming. You can also go extreme and have a campaign fighting giant bugs or undead that cannot be tortured at all and not have to worry about it.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
While I agree that torture is far too common in many games, I don't agree with your reasoning on the mechanics encouraging it or your solutions for curtailing it.

Your position on the mechanics seems to be one in which the players are asking for or declaring that they are making ability checks, which the rules do not allow. The DM is always the one who asks for ability checks, when the outcome of the task has an uncertain outcome and a meaningful consequence for failure. So even if the players set about torturing someone, the DM decides in all cases whether there is a roll, not the players. Thus, the DM can simply say the torture doesn't produce any useful results, no roll.

It's helpful to examine the reason this is such a common trope in D&D and I would suggest it's because of meaningless fights and a lack of information. The players, faced with a fight with intelligent enemies, might rightly assume there's a good reason for the battle and that the motivation for trying to kill their characters is useful information. Someone sent them, for example, or they are part of a hidden plot the players assume must be uncovered to get to the next plot point. This information is not revealed in the fight and so they keep that one poor sap alive to work him or her over after the battle is done.

So, what's a DM to do? Well, I would suggest that the DM share information more freely. The PCs' assailants might announce their motivations right out of the gate e.g. "This is for sticking your nose where it don't belong - the Black Spider will not be stopped!" Then have them smacktalk and drop information throughout the fight. Alternatively, anyone who surrenders can just give up the info after the defeat, not wanting any further trouble. Other clues in the fight might also be useful, such as the kinds of weapons the enemies use or markings on their gear. Someone might have a diary or a letter that provides the necessary information. And so on.

Ultimately, I put this issue on the DM more than I do the players. Many DMs like to hide their plots so well that players see torture as a tool they can use to uncover the plot. And many DMs forget that it is they, not the players, who decide when dice are rolled. Bearing these two things in mind, torture is easily taken off the table as a necessary or viable path to getting the information the players need to continue with the plot.
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
Before this thread gets contentious and gets closed, can I (a humble board member, not a moderator) put in a request that we NOT debate whether torture works in real life, and confine ourselves to talking about in-game situations?
 

jaelis

Explorer
I have not found torture to be at all prevalent in my games. I think perhaps this depends on who you are playing with?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Before this thread gets contentious and gets closed, can I (a humble board member, not a moderator) put in a request that we NOT debate whether torture works in real life, and confine ourselves to talking about in-game situations?
Absolutely. Folks, let's not get into a discussion on real life torture, please.
 

TheSword

Explorer
This is a complicated issue and not as simple as the OP makes out in article. Firstly the women accused of being witches were being accused of imaginary crimes by people who had a vested interest in obtaining a specific result... a confession or testimony against others.

That isn’t the same as wanting to know how many men are stationed at Castle Black, where there the individual is not being punished because the torturer has an agenda beyond getting truthful information. Where information can be acted on quickly and verified then it is effective... for instance Jack Bauer’s case of where is the nuke hidden. 30 minutes after extracting this information it can be verified and the torture continue if found to be untrue.

What a DM needs to do to make these situations become unnecessary (if that’s what they want to do) is make the information not easily verifiable and have clear goals and reasons why the victim wouldn’t just spill the truth.
 

ThePlanarDM

Villager
If you haven't run into this problem, great--my goal with the article is to help people who have experienced the problem find a way to solve it. And no, definitely have not run any scientific polls or controlled studies. But I have listened to a ton of different actual play podcasts and played in many games, and while many counters do not result in physical or mental torture at the end, it's come up enough that I view it as a trend or common tendency.
 

Ragmon

Explorer
Why shouldent it work? Most interaction rolls are abstract anyway.

Roll Intimidate, *success*, you torture the target for "X amount of time" and get some info you were searching for. On a *fail*, the target gives you the incorrect info. As DM make it a hidden roll.
 

Dausuul

Legend
The OP missed one other thing that makes torture highly effective in D&D: The zone of truth spell. Unless the enemy has access to extremely high-level spells (glibness), zone of truth is an infallible lie detector. Even if the target makes their saving throw, you know they made the saving throw, and you can cast the spell again until they fail. Their only defense is refusing to talk*, and torture is real good at breaking that defense down.

I ban zone of truth anyway due to its capacity to wreck intrigue plots (along with its little brother detect thoughts), and I encourage my players to run heroes instead of vicious murderhobos, so I don't run into this issue; but if playing by the book, it is the torturer's best friend.

[size=-2]*Giving evasive answers is equivalent to refusing to talk. Unless the DM is extraordinarily skilled at dancing around the truth, it's really, really obvious when someone is trying to dodge a question. The PCs will just demand a straight answer and tighten the thumbscrews until they get one.[/size]
 

jaelis

Explorer
If you haven't run into this problem, great--my goal with the article is to help people who have experienced the problem find a way to solve it. And no, definitely have not run any scientific polls or controlled studies. But I have listened to a ton of different actual play podcasts and played in many games, and while many counters do not result in physical or mental torture at the end, it's come up enough that I view it as a trend or common tendency.
That seems quite reasonable, but your OP includes a much broader statement that "the rules of 5th edition D&D encourage keeping a bad guy alive and then torturing him for information." If that isn't something you are setting out to defend, you might not want to include it.
 

TwoSix

Lover of things you hate
Personally, in my games we have never tortured a prisoner. We just call it enhanced Intimidation checks.
 

Bitbrain

Adventurer
I always thought it was most effective to kill them and consult their corpse via speak with dead.
Except that according to the player's handbook "the corpse is under no compulsion to offer a truthful answer if you are hostile to it or it recognizes you as an enemy".
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Speaking of real-life torture...

BAYYYYYY-BEEEEE... SHARK! DO-DO-doDO-doDO...
BABY SHARK! DO-DO-doDO-doDO...
BABY SHARK! DO-DO-doDO-doDO...
BABY SHARK!

You are all welcome. :)
 

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