Last night my players got to do some, ah, enhanced interrogation while wearing smug smiles, and I found myself pondering how far we can come from our real-life moralities when we play. The Warhammer world is constructed so that you really have nothing to lose from torture. The only possible question that can arise when confronted with a chaos mutant, greenskin or cultist is will it work, because there’s no chance you’re going to allow them to live – their mere existence is a slight against very real gods, and a genuine threat to the moral order. In fact, the in-game morality is such that last night the PCs were presented with a moral quandary that in the real world is very hard to imagine. They had to consider allowing a chaos mutant to live, because it (and it really was an it) had information they needed, but was unobtainable by any other method.

Such is the Warhammer world. Having subdued – at great personal risk – 7 quite vicious mutants, and being aware that they were part of a bigger scheme, the PCs needed information. One of the vanquished foes’ mutations was a sentient tattoo on his chest[1], which spoke to the characters and offered to tell them everything it knew if they would help it live. Because it was a mere tattoo on an unconscious body, they couldn’t torture it or interrogate it in any way. Offering to let a mutant live is not normally an option, because the mutant knows that people won’t stand by their word. But in this case the PCs suspected they had a big plot to uncover, so they agreed. And such is the nature of the Warhammer world that the Tattoo informed them that in order to help it they had to cut off the limbs and head of its host body, so it could “grow its own.” This subsequently turned out not to be correct, and after a day the tattoo died, but the PCs thought the tattoo understood its own situation so were willing to oblige. Nonetheless, their dilemma was the exact inverse of that which we sophisticated moderns are used to thinking about.

Subsequently they caught a ring-leader of the plot they were investigating, and there was not a moments hesitation in laying the boot in. Not for a moment did they consider the obvious problems with torture, viz:

  • It’s wrong
  • It corrupts the person doing it
  • It doesn’t work
  • It radicalizes your enemies

In warhammer none of this matters anyway. Nothing you do to a real physical representation of ultimate evil can be “wrong.” These people aren’t products of culture or environment, they’re products of dark and corrupting magic whose fate can only be death. It can’t corrupt the person doing it, since destroying and torturing objectively evil creatures elevates you in the eyes of society and your own gods. And the forces of chaos cannot become more radical, so there’s no value to thinking about its social consequences. The only time these risks might apply is when you get the wrong person, but if they’re mutated they are by definition not the wrong person. The only thing wrong with that question is the use of the word “person.” This is a pretty repugnant worldview, but when you play warhammer you’re throwing yourself into it with a passion. So the only relevant question is “does it work?” Which brings me to the point of the post:

How do you handle torture in your gaming?

I noticed years ago that players have a tendency, when dealing with the forces of evil, to promise clemency before they get the information, and then to kill their target anyway. Alternatively, they torture the target for information but the target knows they will kill it when they’re done. In either case there is no incentive for the target to provide any information, unless we live in a world where torture is assumed to work even if the final outcome is death; but torture surely never works when the victim knows they will receive no clemency, especially if they have any loyalty to a cause. So in order for the torture to have any chance of working, the NPC has to believe it will survive. So my rules for torture in game are as follows:

  • First of all, a skill check of some kind is essential. There has to be a risk of failure, it has to be challenged against the targets fanaticism and toughness
  • This skill check can be stunted, that is the players can attempt to improve its chances of success through tailored torture. This requires descriptions, which can be a bit icky. Do you allow descriptions?
  • I don’t usually hide the roll, but if my players are the kind of people who can’t resist using information their PCs shouldn’t know, I do
  • The PCs are welcome to break the promise they make at the beginning of the torture process, e.g. to say they are going to let the target live but then kill it. However, if they do this very often they reduce the chance of success in subsequent interrogations of unrelated targets in the future, because a) I need a way to control this kind of behaviour from a believability point of view and b) I figure that the more they do this, the less sincere they’re going to be when they make their initial offer to subsequent targets – lots of nudges and winks and looks exchanged that the target will quickly understand
  • Fumbles and the like lead to misleading or wrong information

I also in some games (e.g. Warhammer) allow for the possibility of insanity or other dubious consequences of the regular application of torture. Even against “chaos,” it corrupts the user. In my Compromise and Conceit campaign a central character was a torturer, and immune to that kind of thing, and in general the infernal nature of that game meant I didn’t need to apply immediate consequences to these actions; but in any case the players all worked out near the end that their PCs were going to hell in the long run. That’s probably punishment enough…

Another thing I commonly do when dealing with cults is give their members a built in (and often messy) suicide effect when forced to reveal sensitive information. “It’s in the…” *pop*! I especially like to do this if my players are getting lazy and using the “bag and torture” approach to every problem. It encourages a bit of lateral investigation.

What I try to avoid at all costs is an environment where torture carries only rewards (getting the information) and no downside (the mutant gets to live, the PCs go slowly mad or turn to chaos themselves, etc.). I think of this as a way of balancing the real world repugnance (and impracticability) of torture with its in-game acceptability (and effectiveness). What’s the point of playing warhammer if you don’t get to fry the odd mutant tentacle? But at the same time I have a game world to balance, and future adventures to plan, and if torturing a target as a shortcut to solving the case means you have to leave a chaos mutant alive, then maybe the PCs will think twice about it. Mutants (and GMs) everywhere rejoice!

fn1: The original scenario calls for a chest with a second face embedded in it, but I decided to lift the idea of the The Tattoo from Mieville’s Kraken instead. The players spent the day referring to the resulting mutated torso as irezumi san, “Mr. Tattoo” or irezumi kun, which is the diminutive/friendly alternative to “Mr.”