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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It's Torture, Playing OSR Style...

This blog post isn't about right or wrong.  It's not about good, or evil either.  The way I approach torture in-game is not about my personal beliefs or my moral compass (assuming I have one), it's about two basic concepts, role-play methodology and a mechanic.  In other words, what is the PC doing in order to extract the information they seek, and how does the target of this behavior react?

  1. 1.
    the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.
    synonyms:infliction of pain, abuse, ill-treatment, maltreatmentpersecution
    "acts of torture"
  1. 1.
    inflict severe pain on.
    "most of the victims had been brutally tortured"
    synonyms:inflict pain on, ill-treatabusemistreatmaltreatpersecute
    "they have tortured suspects in order to extract confessions"

In OSR play, the player doesn't simply declare that he/she is looking for traps and then rolls, instead the player tells the DM that he is searching for traps and (more importantly) the methods being used to do so, and THEN a roll is made to determine success or failure. The Old School Primer by Matt Finch does a great job of explaining this difference, as below:

The Pit Trap (Modern Style) 
GM: “A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.” 
John the Rogue: “I check for traps.” 
GM: “What’s your target number for checking?” 
John the Rogue: “15.” 
GM: Decides that the pit trap in front of the party is “standard,” so all John has to do is roll a 15 or better. “Roll a d20.” 
John the Rogue: “16.” 
GM: “Probing ahead of you, you find a thin crack in the floor – it looks like there’s a pit trap.” 
John the Rogue: “Can I disarm it?” 
GM: “What’s your target number for that?” 
John the Rogue: “12. I rolled a 14.” 
GM: “Okay, moving carefully, you’re able to jam the mechanism so the trap won’t open.” 
John the Rogue: “We walk across. I go first.” 

The Pit Trap (Old Style) 
GM: “A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.” 
John the Roguish: “We move forward, poking the floor ahead with our ten foot pole.” 
GM: Is about to say that the pole pushes open a pit trap, when he remembers something. “Wait, you don’t have the ten foot pole any more. You fed it to the stone idol.” [if the party still had the pole, John would have detected the trap automatically] 
John the Roguish: “I didn’t feed it to the idol, the idol ate it when I poked its head.” 
GM: “That doesn’t mean you have the pole back. Do you go into the corridor?” 
John the Roguish: “No. I’m suspicious. Can I see any cracks in the floor, maybe shaped in a square?”
GM: Mulls this over, because there’s a pit trap right where John is looking. But it’s dark, so “No, there are about a million cracks in the floor. You wouldn’t see a pit trap that easily, anyway.” [A different referee might absolutely decide that John sees the trap, since he’s looking in the right place for the right thing].
John the Roguish: “Okay. I take out my waterskin from my backpack. And I’m going to pour some water onto the floor. Does it trickle through the floor anywhere, or reveal some kind of pattern?” 4 GM: “Yeah, the water seems to be puddling a little bit around a square shape in the floor where the square is a little higher than the rest of the floor.” 
John the Roguish: “Like there’s a covered pit trap?” 
GM: “Could be.”
 John the Roguish: “Can I disarm it?” 
GM: “How?” 
John the Roguish: “I don’t know, maybe make a die roll to jam the mechanism?” 
GM: “You can’t see a mechanism. You step on it, there’s a hinge, you fall. What are you going to jam?” 
John the Roguish: “I don’t know. Okay, let’s just walk around it.” 
GM: “You walk around it, then. There’s about a two-foot clearance on each side.” 

It's obvious the difference in play style here, and this play style permeates OSR style games throughout, which brings us to the topic at hand, torture.

Assuming you allow torture as part of your game-world/game-play (and if you don't for whatever reason maybe you should stop reading here, because it could become offensive if you're easily outraged) the question becomes, how deep down the role-play rabbit hole do you go, and how do you resolve such behavior?

In my games I love good role-playing, and an incident involving torture can add much intensity, emotion, and yes even humor to a game session.  Like much OSR play, this is usually a situation where I will blend rolls with rulings.  The victim has X amount of resistance before he/she/it gives in or gives up (expires) which I attribute to a few factors but chiefly CON.    The Torturer has Y amount of CHA to oppose this, and the modifiers I determine based on the role-play. It sounds complex, but it's really far more quick-n-dirty.

Glokta, the Inquisitor from Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy

Let's say there is a goblin with some information the party believes useful, but the goblin is loyal to his mates and has no reason to give the intel up.  The goblin has a CON of approx. 10 (this is a ruling, completely arbitrary, as I have no stats for a goblin) and Barg the Fighter has a CHA of 10, so they are evenly matched here.  Barg needs to roll under a 10 on a d20 (since there is no formal mechanic for this) in order for the goblin to give up the info.  Maybe the Goblin is more scared of Skel the Orc leader of his band of misfits, then he is of Barg, so I decide to give the goblin a +2 to resist, so now Barg needs to roll under an 8.  Barg smacks the goblin up a bit, but not worse than his mom used to, so no bonus there.  The player (Barg) rolls a 15.  No good.  The goblin remains quiet.

The player seeks a new tactic and lets the DM know that Barg has decided to up the ante by sliding his serrated knife into the goblins knee.  Ok, now we are getting somewhere.  This will negate the goblins 'fear of the boss' modifier, so we are back at 10 as the target.  the player (Barg) rolls  an 11.  No good.  Lot's of screams but no info.

Now the player decides that Barg is gonna lay it on thick.  He decides that a very hot blade near the goblins eye, or in it, will do the trick.  This is really awful stuff, and the goblin knows that Barg has come to a point of permanent bodily disfigurement.  I change the modifier to a +4 and the player rolls, getting a 9.  Bingo!  The goblin screams, then begins to tell Barg everything, even things Barg never asked about.

maybe your players carry a torture kit?  Like thieves tools only hurtier...

There are other ways to handle this OSR style.  AD&D1e has Subdual (which you may have seen used against Dragons perhaps), which involves doing non-permanent HP damage to a target in order to make that target pliable.  the DM could easily apply this game mechanic to torture damage in order to determine the point at which the target reaches a point of compliance.

I know that there are alot of DMs who do not use or allow torture in their games, but I have to say, in my experience it is often very common for a player to engage in this behavior, so those opposed should either be clear at the start of a game, or not get their nuts in a knot when a player brings it up.  Given the nature and setting of most games, it seems perfectly reasonable to me.  To ME.

Do you have a method, mechanic, or process for determining the efficacy of torture in your game?


  1. we had a couple try to interrogate a goblin. sadly, they didn't really know anything more sophisticated than 'beat him until he talks' and ... uh... the dwarf had an 18/98 str (first edition.) He punched the guy and i said 'do you pull it?' 'Naw' said the dwarf's player. 'let him get scared of how strong i am.'.
    ... the goblin had 2 hp. the dwarf did something like ... 7. i ruled his head just freakin' exploded.
    Good times.

  2. The thing to remember about torture if it's not very effective at getting reliable information. So, sure, they may learn something but it could turn out to be totally wrong.