You’ve Got to Know How to Ask

This post is about a very thorny subject in gaming: what does it take to get information out of someone who doesn’t want to give it to you? I’ll be attempting to address this point within both LARPing and tabletop gaming, as I feel that the visceral immediacy of LARPing intensifies the issue somewhat. There are interlinked issues of information control, the grimdarkness of the setting, the players’ and DM/NPCs’ conceptions of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” mind-control magic, and whether there is any valid way to threaten PCs that will get them to back down. Since this is an issue in both tabletop gaming and LARPing, I’ll be alternating between referring to DMs and Plot arbitrarily.
Also, a caveat to the whole discussion: nothing that I’m going to discuss here is necessary or helpful if the DM and the players can easily come to consensus on the issues. Rules exist to guide the flow of play when the sides of a conflict can’t agree, or when uncertainty in the outcome is desirable. This is doubly true when applied to rules governing social encounters (or, in the case of interrogation, anti-social).

What can the PCs do to get information the NPC doesn’t want them to have?

  1. Diplomacy Checks: If you’re not careful with the Diplomacy skill in 3.x or 4e D&D, it becomes awfully similar to mind control, to the point that a bard allowed to open his mouth can (theoretically) stop combat with any sentient foe, even at early-mid levels.
  2. Mind Reading/Control: Being able to read or control a villain’s thoughts is often carte blanche to wreck the rest of the villain’s plans. This is obviously a lot of fun for players and rewards creativity about as thoroughly as one could want.
  3. Bargaining: From the DM’s perspective, this is the best one, because bargains can have costs. By this category I mean to imply either a Bribery skill separate from Diplomacy, or a non-dice-based dialogue that leads to what our legal system might call a meeting of the minds.
  4. Trickery: Some percentage of the time, the Bluff skill or some quick thinking lets PCs trick NPCs into revealing information they had not intended to reveal.
  5. “Enhanced” Interrogation: Either through description (some tabletop games and every LARP I know about) or skill checks; typically Intimidate but sometimes a Torture skill (as in Hackmaster).

When can the DM just say, “I don’t care how high you roll, this guy is more devoted to or frightened of the guy he would be betraying”? The DM has the option of pricing the DC out of the market, since most skill systems include a way to define something as “impossible.” This sometimes fails to take into account all of the bonuses and situational modifiers that PCs could stack up to reach those DCs. There can be a lot of additional debates about DMs asserting this level of control over the course of the narrative; railroading is the less charitable term. My personal feeling is that as long as the DM shows restraint and does not insist that all of the NPCs are too (fill in quality here), this is probably okay. If the PCs have been stymied a few times by hardline loyalists, let them find a weak link in the organization. Including “these guys are known for not giving up information” as part of the exposition on the group (preferably before the first serious conflict) can do a lot to help it feel fair, because at least that way they can make other plans and they don’t build up expectations that are going to be thwarted.

The big problem with this – and with any rules for social interactions – is that a significant percentage of the players I’ve met over the years believe their characters should never be forced into any action they didn’t choose, even if those players habitually force NPCs into actions that the DM didn’t choose. I am one of those DMs who thinks this is a strange view of the game, but I tend to accept that PCs will feel that this ruins their fun and don’t do it.

I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but I’d love to see D&D drop Diplomacy/Bluff/Intimidate/Sense Motive and shift to something more like SIFRP’s more nuanced system. Each individual roll of the Intrigue takes a little more effort to set up, with figuring out the exact skill, modifiers, and resistance that apply, but I found it appealing. That system has the benefit – such as it is – of no magical healing or resurrection, and more or less free ability to inflict permanent Flaws on those you have defeated in combat. Of course, Song of Ice and Fire is about as well-known for its bleakness (if not Warhammer 40K-style grimdarkness) as any setting ever written.

Okay, so there are some problems with skill-based questioning in tabletop games. What about non-rules-based questioning in LARPs? Hypothetically, NPCs are governed by their personal interpretations of their briefings, which will often instruct them as to where they stand on the loyalty-to-boss/self-preservation spectrum. There’s a bit of a divide, though, for NPCs played by the Plot member who wrote them; since no one assigned the role to the Plot member, there’s no distance from the role being someone else’s creation, and the person playing the role isn’t really answerable to anyone but the other Plot folks. (Maybe there’s a similar feeling when the director also acts in a film?) In such cases, it’s especially important for the Plot member to check ego at the door. (This is explicitly not a shot at anyone I know or have heard about – I’m just noting an undercurrent in my own thoughts as I’m playing a role I’ve written, or am writing on the fly.)

I have heard anecdotes of torture scenes from various games; in one particular case, a PC was the victim and the bad guys were trying to extract information. The one I’m thinking of here is actually a MUSH, but a lot of the principles of live-action play apply here. Despite that game having an explicit Willpower mechanic, one player insisted that his character would not break under torture, no matter the extent or duration thereof. This gets into a whole field of other problems, such as players and Plot not being able to agree on what the “badass level” of the character is. Can a player just decide that she is an uber badass who fears neither death nor pain? A character who is constitutionally incapable of backing down is great for power-fantasy gaming, but that really kind of needs to be a single-player game. Otherwise, the DM is in the position of trying to force the player to take threats seriously; in my experience this can only lead to dick-waving of the worst order. The thing is, of course, that the Nuclear Option is always on the table for the DM. I feel that the player is to some extent obligated to carry out some doublethink: while they should portray a compelling and (in most games) heroic character, I feel that they are obligated to approach the setting and the threats therein as though they were real – that is, to suspend disbelief.
There are also those times that PCs decide to torture NPCs. Obviously, most NPCs aren’t there to seem heroic, and don’t need to show how badass they are by withstanding torment. If they did, they’d risk upstaging the PCs; even NPCs that are badass and should be awesome should take it easy on that front. But that isn’t the serious problem; the problem is that especially in a live-action environment, player use of torture does kind of permanently darken the character’s and the game’s tone. I believe that even players who regard their characters as shady or hard-edged still feel… grimy, after a scene of describing the horrors they are wreaking on this other character. In brief, it draws the game toward either “wandering band of sociopaths” or “town full of sociopaths.” Look, I said upfront that this was some ugly stuff, right?
There’s also an outright bizarre belief, among players who would consider such tactics, that they might succeed in gaining useful information. There might be arguments about how real and gritty this is, to which I can’t help but point out that actual interrogation techniques of this kind are good for confirming what you already know, and for securing confessions that may or may not have any basis in fact, but that’s kind of it, and those aren’t the ways I tend to see it used in games. Oh, and another thing – actual “enhanced interrogation” takes a lot of time and patience. It’s not the kind of thing you’re going to finish in a single episode of 24. DMs can probably feel justified in informing players that breaking down the target’s will might take weeks of work that occupies most of their time… don’t have you have kind of timeline to worry about?
Anyway, let’s sum this up by saying that I don’t like for PCs to torture NPCs as the most pragmatic means of gathering information, and I don’t like NPCs torturing PCs because there’s almost no way to make the scene cool. Dust to Dust has thus far stopped at alluding to one; we told the player, “The bad guy has been performing bizarre kinds of experiments on you, etc., for a subjectively very long time. When the scene starts, the villain is out of the room. Play it kind of however you like.” We had an excellent result from that, which I credit half to that player’s personal style meshing well with what we wanted from the scene, and half to the game “fading in from black,” if you will, to show the results but not the process. Also, the player went nuts on bruising, dirt, and wound makeup, which did a lot to sell the scene to everyone.
So what about mind-control magic? Many games have Suggestion or Charm spells that, as written, should make life awfully easy for the inquiring party. Every argument that one can reasonably have about player autonomy is heightened with the introduction of mind-control magic. Mind control (much more convincingly than brainwashing) is literally de-protagonizing: when a comic book writer wants to turn a superhero into an antagonist for an issue or two, mind control and brainwashing (basically, the supernatural option and the mundane option) are the go-to solutions. Seriously, the more time you spend in the comic-book world, the more likely you are to be someone’s mental puppet. There are players in the world who don’t mind fighting their friends for awhile; one of the most thrilling events of my LARPing career was a span of eight or twelve hours in which I was playing a bad guy who looked exactly like my character, which for my intents and purposes was the same as being mind-controlled. Others don’t see it that way, and find the concept of mind control as deeply disturbing as anything that the game could do to them.
The problem that I’m concerned with here, though, is that mind control has such varied uses: information-gathering, infiltrating an organization, gaining an ally (and removing an enemy) in the midst of combat, or any other way players can think to use someone with absolute loyalty whose physical well-being is explicitly not useful. There’s an argument to be made, then, for including limited-duration mind control (possibly with some added paralysis) so that it is really only useful for information-gathering, on the principle that this both attaches a mechanical cost to the effect, and lets Plot sharply discourage the use of torture. On the other hand, this offers nothing to the player that finds mind-control effects to be game-ruining or outright triggering.
One interesting solution I’ve heard comes from Forest of Doors, in which the Etiquette skill has the ability (once per day) to discern “what the proper or expected action would be in that situation.” To curtail the use of force to extract information, the staff interprets this definition to include how best to get information from an individual. Players are much more careful when it comes to expending a per-day ability, and the marshal’s direction points them toward bribery, flattery, threats, actual force, or whatever else.
I do look at this as an argument for pushing charm person and suggestion to higher spell levels in D&D, and maybe trimming down the duration or adding further limitations. The current limitations of “only things you’d do for your best friend” (common to Charm effects in other games as well) are strangely subjective, given that the spell’s usage represents force as a solution to a problem. I’d probably be happier to see low-level magics not completely ignore the game’s skill system. That should be the province of higher-level magic that represents both work and greater opportunity cost.
This post has now meandered all over the place. In closing: I haven’t presented a solution, because I don’t know that there is one, beyond this: players should believe in the world, and probably also avoid playing characters that would engage in casual torture, unless everyone is on board with wallowing in the grimdarkness of it all. DMs and Plot committees, in turn, need to plan their plotlines around victories in many kinds of fights leading to the defeated NPCs yielding information to the players. In general, I would recommend instructing those NPCs that will fold to do so while the threat of force remains implicit, or is restrained to threats. It’s okay to have some NPCs that won’t talk, but remember that when stymied, players will try to solve their problem in unconventional ways… so don’t stymie them excessively when it comes to gathering information from defeated enemies.
I’m open to other suggestions on how to handle this, including ways it has worked in other games.

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