How often does a player at your table want to do something – in character – that is morally apprehensible and blatantly evil? It doesn’t happen often in my games, but it does seem to come up every once in a while. When it does and the action is questioned by the DM or the other players, the player whose character is taking the action usually says something like, “I would never do this, but my character has no issue with it.” I realize that fantasy RPGs provide an escape from reality and you can play any kind of character you want, but I think it’s important to know where to draw the line.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that there are some things that are deemed acceptable in the context of D&D even thought most players would never condone or support such actions in real life. For example, slavery in the context of D&D isn’t usually seen as a big issue. Killing is also given tremendous latitude if the creature or person on the other end of the sword is evil. Theft is perfectly acceptable and is essentially what the majority of adventurers do to earn their loot. I guess it really comes down to the context of the situation and the justification for these actions. If killing an entire tribe of Orcs will make the nearby city safer for “civilized people” then the act of genocide is seen as acceptable and even heroic.
Lately the despicable act that has reared its ugly head in my games is torture. In a lot of the encounters during public play the PCs had the opportunity to ask NPCs questions. In some cases the NPCs are friendly and will cooperate with nothing more than a polite request or a few gold pieces. But when it’s a villain or monstrous NPC, someone who clearly does not want to share information with the PCs, a lot of players have their character get violent and resort to torture to gain the information they seek.
I think the problem is that many players believe Intimidate is the torture skill. They think that if an Intimidate check is required they have to follow it up by inflicting bodily harm. If the check fails, if the person provides information the PCs don’t believe or if they simply don’t know the answer, the PC using Intimate will more often than not proceed to torture the respondent.
When I’ve had this happen at my table or I suspect it’s moving in that direction I often remind the PC asking the question that they should act according to their alignment. Good PCs are unlikely to resort to physical abuse to solicit information. If the interrogator is evil or unaligned I will then look to the rest of the party. After all, they’re a team and the action of one will reflect on the actions of all. I find it hard to believe that any good aligned PC would knowingly let the less scrupulous members of the party beat a prisoner senseless just to get information out of him. Yet I’ve seen this happen more and more in recent months.
Intimidate is a Charisma-based skill. It’s about imposing fear and often about subtlety. The threat of violence is an acceptable way to use the Intimidate skill, but the actual act of striking or stabbing someone to get information out of them is not. When a character begins crossing that line I will increase the DC. If the act clearly conflicts with their alignment or the party’s overall alignment I will again increase the DC. I don’t believe that Intimidate (or any skill) should be an automatic failure just for trying it, but I do think that sometimes the DC can be out of your reach.
In order for a subject to reveal informant following an Intimidate check there needs to be a plausible reason for them to give in (at least plausible in their own mind). This is where fear plays an important part in any Intimidate check and the Charisma part comes in. A threat to do something awful if they don’t talk is a way for them to avoid potential torture (which I hope few PCs would actually carry out anyway). If you’re already torturing them they have no incentive to reveal what they know since it’s safe to assume you’ll kill them anyway. A person under duress will often tell you anything to make the pain stop, usually incorrect information or what they think you want to hear. In fact using torture to solicit information may reveal bad intel which could lead to other problems down the road.
If a PC does resort to unnecessary acts of violence and torture to try and garner information from a suspect, there should be in game consequences for this PC and the party. Heroes gain a reputation and if your party is known for mistreating and torturing prisoners then others will start to treat you differently. People who might normally help you with an easy Diplomacy check may become tight-lipped. The more you torture your prisoners and the more brutal the acts, the less others will want to help you. All social skills will become harder. If one PC is the torturer he’ll likely face the worst of it, but everyone in the party will be painted with the same brush and find checks more difficult.
Fantasy games are supposed to be a fun way to escape reality and become a character unlike anything you could possibly be in real life. From the Wizard who hurls fireballs to the Knight who slays Dragons, your imagination is the only limitation. So if you want to play a character that is cruel and gains perverse pleasure from inflicting pain and torturing the helpless who am I to judge? I’m the DM – that’s who I am and I will judge. There needs to b a line at the gaming table and as the DM it’s up to you to make it clear where the line is. Treading it on occasion may be acceptable but crossing it at every opportunity is not. So the next time players decide that they want to use Intimidate and feel that cutting off fingers or stabbing out an eye is the way to accomplish this, strongly discourage such behaviour even if it’s deemed to be just in character, and remind them that Intimidate and torture are not the same thing.
Have you run into similar issues at your table when PCs want to use Intimidate? How have you handled it? Where have you drawn the line? How would you deal with a party who resorts to violence and torture (basically extreme brutality and violence) whenever they have to question prisoners?