DISCLAIMER: Please understand that I am talking about torture in fictional narratives, not in real life. If you stumbled upon into this blog by accident, notice that this is about literature, movies, TV (think Game of Thrones), make-believe games, and so on. This has nothing to do with politics, human rights, or moral philosophy. If you cannot understand that, or just don't like to read about the subject or find it distasteful, please ignore this post.
"Interrogating goblins by torture seems to be creepily prevalent in D&D games. Anyway, it’s not necessary, because goblins will always tell you everything when threatened with torture, no Intimidate check necessary. They’ll mix in 20% malicious lies, but they’d do that under torture as well." - source
I don't like player characters torturing people in my games (I don't allow torture against them, too, but that is not what this post is about). It's not that I have a weak stomach for the suffering of fictional characters; I enjoy splatter films as much as the next guy (and FWIW I even think there might be a good argument of gory violence being more responsible to put on film than some kind of sanitized PG-13 violence when bad guys get shot and die without bleeding or suffering, as if violence was a nice, clean thing to do).
The problem is that torture quickly becomes a pointless, gruesome exercise.
A player character can torture another character for three main reasons: sadism, punishment/revenge, or information gathering. I have never seem the first one in my games; the second one is rare, and usually ends quickly; the third one is the problem.
In any brutal, lawless setting, medieval or otherwise, there will be plenty of PCs that are willing to resort to torture to get information, specially against foes that have attacked or murdered other people in the past, or might do so in the future.
The justifications are not that important; once the line is crossed, torture becomes just another tool for the PCs.
After that, every time a prisoners is captured, you go through the same process: torture is described until the GM thinks it is enough and then the NPC talks (true or not) or clearly demonstrates he will die before talking. Where is the fun in that? There is little creativity, no excitement, no risk, no surprises.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons for the characters to avoid torture:
A) Someone in the group (player or GM) is uncomfortable with it, or it goes against the tone of the campaign; so it is just forbidden (maybe not even villains can torture, or player characters must all be people that would never do that).
B) A character has some kind of alignment or personal code of honor (or, I don't know, basic human decency) that prevents it.
C) Torture is a crime and has legal consequences even when murder is not (during wartime, for example).
D) Many NPCs are immune to torture, and they prefer to die than to tell any secrets about the guy they work for.
E) Torture brings some kind of mystical corruption or the wrath of the gods against those who perpetrate it.
F) Torture causes mental problems to the torturer.
G) There are other social consequences for torture - you will lose face (and allies), and now your enemies now will be more willing to torture your loved ones if they get captured.
H) Torture is useless because after a while most victims will say almost anything to avoid suffering, even if they have to lie or invent things they know nothing about.
I) Torture may kill the victim, making information impossible to recover (or maim the victim in unintended ways, making the crime very easy to prove).
Not all of those work for my group.
"A" is a very personal matter; in my "Game of Thrones"-like setting, villains are not above torture, for example, and everybody in the group is okay with most fictional violence (of course, you should be SURE that everybody on the table is on board before messing with such themes). "B" depends on the characters; it may work for most of the group, but not necessarily for all the characters all the time, and specially not for all the character concepts one might be willing to try. "C" depends on how willing characters are to obey the law - and, in most of my campaigns, the answer usually is "not very much". "D" is a bit ridiculous (unless used for special cases) - where does anyone finds thieves and villains that are so loyal and courageous?
"E" may be a bit of a cop-out - does humanity need some outside force to learn the obvious fact that torture is evil? - but the idea could still be interesting as horror; maybe the tortured souls come back as undead, or awaken demons that lie below. The players should be aware of the possibility beforehand, though, or it will fell like you're trying to teach them some lesson.
"F" is potentially more interesting, specially in character-driven campaigns where violence and madness play a significant part, like Call of Cthulhu and other games with sanity mechanics (check this for D&D - it is meant for the victim, but torture would surely affet the torturer somehow...). The best game about the subject that comes to mind is Unknown Armies, where perpetrating any kind of violence will make you more resistant to it, but also more callous (and, eventually, psychopathic). Still, these kind of mechanics are not for every game, and not for every setting.
"G" works quite well for my games. Even though it is also an "external" force to the individual character (but not to humanity itself), it makes players consider other aspects of the setting - NPCs, reputation, honor, and so on. Torture becomes a reason for shame, as it should be: it now must be kept secret, and torturers will be shunned. Villains get a tool the heroes cannot use without becoming villains themselves in the process (on the other hand, allies may turn a blind-eye if the tortures have other uses). And even foe may now claim the moral high ground over the PCs.
In short, resorting to torture makes the character less self-confident; it becomes a power other people may have over them.
"H" is also interesting to consider. If the victim is highly motivated to tell exactly what the torturer wants to hear, how can the PCs know the victim is telling the truth (or even knows it) at all? Most NPCs should quickly tell anything a torturer wants to hear to avoid further harm (in many books and movies, the character will allow himself to suffer significantly before lying, in order to make the lie more believable).
The only situation where torturing a character could yield useful results is when the truth can be checked before the prisoner is released ("Where is the treasure? If we don't find it, you'll suffer more!"). But this is not much different than intimidation; the pain only makes the threat more imediate and credible.
There are another, more interesting ways of making threats, specially by knowing the person being threatened. For a self-righteous man, blackmail could be worse than physical torture, for example. Or, if you captured an exotic monster, showing it to a captive might make him talk in no time - even if the creature is actually harmless. Deception may work well too. An example that comes to mind is what Jaime Lannister does to Edmure Tully in the book A Feast for Crows (or in the Game of Thrones TV show).
Again, this makes the characters engage with the characters and setting instead of just randomly cutting body parts until everyone is bored or sickened.
This way, torture becomes a tool of intimidation - so you don't necessarily need a specific game mechanic for it. This is how torture is handled in the Book of Vile Darkness, for example.
"I" is where game mechanics might becomes useful.
Now, you certainly don't need to have torture in your games, but if you do allow it, it seems to me it should include the possibility of real harm. This reminds the players that torture is gruesome and dangerous, but also includes a risk-reward mechanism to it: the more violent the torture, the more effective the intimation, but the higher the chance of death (or permanent injury, if the victim is someone who must be kept alive).
It also opens the possibility of having villain NPCs specialized in torture (which is to say, specialized in causing pain WITHOUT harming the victim), torture devices, or smart PCs that can threaten effectively WITHOUT using torture by resorting to creativity, deception, etc.
If you want to resort to die rolls, here are some mechanics to go with it.
Old-school D&D (or any other version):
There is a very easy method for this: the "subduing dragons" rules in AD&D. Decide the damage you want to inflict - say, 3d6 - and roll for it. If you take 50% of the victims HP, he has 50% chance of talking. If you roll too high, the victim dies before taking. Repeated attempts, if allowed, should be progressively harder.
Or just bypass HP completely: choose a number form 1% to 99%, and roll twice: the first to see if the victim survives, and the second to see if the victim talks.
In any case, even in failure the victim still gets a death saving throw to avoid death, and a spell saving throw to avoid talking.
From the torturer's point of view, you may gain advantage in the Intimidation roll, but roll Medicine to avoid killing the victim in the process.
From the victim's point of view, you may make a Constitution saving throw to avoid a failed death save (or permanent damage, etc), and a Wisdom saving throw to avoid compliance (succeeding three times means you will never break in the present situation).
Combining these two ideas: make the saving throws as described above, and BOTH the DCs is defined but how violent the torture is (i.e., it is the same DC). The Constitution save gets a bonus equal to the torturer's Medicine skill, and the Wisdom save gets a penalty equal to the torturer's Intimidation skill (or Deception, if using lies instead of pain).
Give advantage or disadvantage according to the nature of the secret being kept (and loyalty, etc) and the "creativity" of the torturer (for example, showing snakes to someone with ophidiophobia will be very efficient).
Should you roll or describe?
Making it a simple die roll allows you to use this without describing it (and thus making it happen on the background); I personally prefer to be gory and make clear that this is an ugly thing than to pretend it is a clean, efficient thing to do. If this problem comes up, I would use both descriptions and dice rolls (to add danger and unpredictability), but you mileage may vary.
What do you think?
Is this useful? Is the subject too heavy for RPGs, or for my blog? Would you ever allow PCs as tortures or victims in your games? Do you have any interesting stories to tell? Let me hear from you in the comments.
Images from "Berserk" by Kentaro Miura.