Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Are PCs So Hooked on Torture?

I'll assume most players do not have repressed sadist tendencies, so why is it that nearly every RPG encounter that ends with one or more prisoners in the custody of the PCs invariably leads to threats or acts of torture in an attempt to gain information useful to the party?

Heck, I don't even see Good Cop, Bad Cop play out. It's usually Bad Cop, Homicidal Cop.

I know PCs are built for combat, and maybe that builds in the presupposition that violence solves all the problems in RPGs.

I've seen this tendency in all types of groups, all genres of rpgs, and I've been guilty of it myself.

Your thoughts?


  1. Here are my thoughts on the matter...


  2. I have been wondering the same thing.

    I don't get it. It's not the rules or the character builds, it's the players.

  3. Because there is this misperception that torture is a fast and effective way to gain information. And players do not want to waste time with careful interrogations, they want the information NOW, by gum, so they can get on to the next part of the adventure.

    Never mind the truth about torture, they just want the information quickly and to move on.

  4. Maybe it correlates with the fact that in movies 99 times out of 100 most viewers believe that if the bad guys fell into their hands they would beat the shit out of them until they talked. One of my favorite movie moments was in Commando, near the beginning, when Arnold capped that dude that was giving him the low-down. Arnold heard just enough and blasted him. No anguished moment of realizing he was now the bad guy's ponyboy. He took control, and maybe that's what the torture is about. Control. Something that is in short supply in the "real world".

  5. I agree with seaofstars. At least since the inquisition (but probably far before) we've had this crazy idea that torture is the most expedient and effective method of revealing the truth. This myth not only fuels pretty much every action/adventure film and television show (which in turn are primary inspirations for rpgs), but also the activities of our own governments.
    Looking at the political discourse concerning torture over the last decade - the ticking nuclear bomb scenario is a popular argument for advocates of torture (and that would be just as applicable to the average D&D adventure)- its hardly surprising that players fall into this behavior.

  6. A couple reasons come to mind:

    1. few people actually know how to interrogate.

    2. asking for information seems to *never work*. I even saw an experienced cop (IRL, not 'high-level PC') try to do it during a Hangout game and get nowhere.

    It's dead easy for the DM to decide there is no reason for the captured opponent to give anything up, so it quickly becomes evident that a reason needs to be provided.

    Safe passage? Why should I trust you? Gold? You'll kill me and take it back. Immunity to prosecution? You're the one prosecuting me, this amounts to safe passage.

    This is possibly because there is little or no societal backup here. It's the same reason it seems most fights go to the death with no quarter given -- there are no provisions for survival if you surrender. If there is a policy and practice of ransom or the like you actually can see people surrender, since they can expect to keep (probably most of) their stuff and walk away.

  7. Wow, I think David really hit the nail on the head here: "Control."

    Even ignoring that most players lack control over substantial parts of their lives (school/work/etc), the truth is that the DM is in control of the game and the natural tendency is to resist that control.

    Is torturing every captured enemy nothing more than a backlash, or symbol of rebellion?

  8. I think it comes down to three things

    1) We know NPCs are fictional, therefore there is no empathy to stop your fictional character from doing things that you would never do to a real person

    2) Lack of real "cues" to let you know the person is telling the truth. I've had to stop interrogation scenes before and flay out say "the NPC is telling the truth" because the players did not believe the NPC because they were reading my facial expressions, not the NPCs

    3) Bad DMs. Bad DMs have helpless NPCs get all cocky and tricky on PCs, and once the PCs are fooled once the players will inflict hell on everyone to make sure it never happens again.

  9. I was an interrogator in the SPecial Operations Community for six years. Here are my thoughts:

    1.) seaofstarsrpg is right. It's a pretty common misperception. I don't know how many times I've had people who were not interrogators suggest some heavy manners. The problem is, when you torture someone, you're not always getting the truth, you're getting what the victim thinks will get you to stop torturing him. In my games, if the PCs torture someone, the chances of them getting good information is slim.

    2. David is right. Too many people think Jack Bauer is a good interrogator. He's not. Fact.

    3. Keith is also good on some points. Effective interrogation requires emotional leverage--and that lack of true emotional investment (gaming being a largely theoretical endeavor) is why fights go to the death and why a more realistic interrogation sequence is ineffective.

    4. StevenWarble is also spot on.

  10. In my experience because some dungeon masters insist on making their NPCs remarkably tight lipped and obstinate. No amount of diplomacy, promises, conversation, bribery, threats or reason will persuade them. Finally the players erupt in an explosion of frustration and violence. Of course the players also usually misinterpret the situation and overestimate their own powers of logic and persuasion: nonetheless the end result is often the same.

  11. I'm reminded of a line from Reservoir Dogs (paraphrased): "If you beat on him enough he'll tell you he started the goddomn Chicago fire, that doesn't make it F***ing so!" or thereabouts.

    Also it was mentioned that fights in RPGs are almost always to the death. I once played a character who was a damn good swordsman, and whenever he was clearly winning a fight he always offered his enemy (whether it be a major villain or puny sword-fodder goblin) the chance to surrender, even though that meant less exp points. This offer was never taken up as far as I remember.

  12. I haven't seen a lot of the whole group going in on "bad cop, homicidal cop." What I do see a lot is another manifestation of the "always that one guy" problem. Always one guy yelling "charge!", always one guy who has to be a dick to the king, always one guy who wants to torture the prisoners. And quite often that lowest denominator gets to determine the party's action, just by virtue of the GM playing things out logically.

    I did see one thing recently that blew me away: a PC was pumping some random innocent villager for rumors in a tea house, and the GM was saying in character, "ah, if only I had a meal, and another drink to go with it," and another player lost patience with that and walked up and smacked the npc. I thought at the time pimp-slap-man was "real roleplaying" to the extent of blowing a sure thing and stepping on another guy's scene, but talking to him later he claimed he really thought the guy was holding out and this was the way to speed things along. Everyone else at the table got that the GM was just playing out a petty bribe, but it's a lesson in how not everyone picks up on cues the same way, especially filtered through an rpg.


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