2019-06-12 Torture in Games

In a recent episode of his podcast Daydreaming about Dragons, Judd Karlman talked about torture in role-playing games.

I prefer a different solution based on the fact that torture doesn’t work. If you need a book to tell you so, a quick search online finds Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation by Shane O’Mara. But there are countless other sources that will tell you the same thing.

There are only four kinds of people who claim that torture works:

  1. dictators who want to degrade their opponents and don’t actually care about the truth of what their victims say
  2. wanna-be dictators who will say anything to make them look dangerous
  3. stupid people repeating what dictators and wanna-be dictators have told them
  4. people in the employ of any of the above

All of them psychopaths: no empathy, no friends, exploitative, power hungry.

Back in 2016, I said how I handle torture in my games:

Torture: I ask the players what they want to hear. Then I say that this is exactly what their victim is saying after the maltreatment. And if they want to go into the details, I tell them I don’t want to hear about it. Ugh!

That’s it. Whatever you want to hear, that’s what victims of torture tell you. When you think they are lying, they will confess to lying and tell you something else, trying to guess what you want to hear, anything to make it stop.

And if you want to talk about it at my table, I shall be happy to never play with you again. Uuuugh.

I think anybody who who has read anything about concentration camps in Germany, Armenian death marches in Turkey, the Spanish police torturing the separatist activists, the French soldiers torturing their prisoners in Algeria, the US torture prisons, the torture of prisoners in the Near East, the Russians torturing rebels in Chechnya, the torture of prisoners in China, and on and on and on, should know that it doesn’t work like it does in American TV. 🤮

Anyway, I’m with Judd: please think outside the torture box. Just do something else instead.



Oh dear, thankfully I have never had players that wanted to torture an NPC beyond some threatening or the patently ridiculous. Whew. I don’t think I would play with those people long or often after that.

Jennifer 2019-06-14 06:53 UTC

You know how it is. It starts with the suggestion of mild abuse and some chuckling at the table, and escalates slowly. It took me a while to realize what was happening, to see the normalization of torture. I think it was at that time that I heard somebody else relate a similar story from their table. Perhaps it was Harald, I’m not sure. And that opened my eyes and from then on I decided to fight the normalization of torture at the table: stop the conversation before it escalates, saying that I didn’t want to hear it. And as soon as I said my magic sentence and added that we all know torture doesn’t work, the issue is gone. Everybody wakes up from the torture fantasy and agrees, of course it doesn’t work, and the game changes direction for the better. And then it’s never brought up again. Phew! 😅

– Alex Schroeder 2019-06-14 16:40 UTC

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