How Do I Keep Torture Out of My Campaign?

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To the Mythcreant it may concern,

I’ve been running a D&D game for about 6 months now (several of those months have been online for obvious reasons) and it has mostly gone well. Recently, at a critical plot moment the players captured an NPC that they had hard evidence was part of an evil conspiracy. They then employed my most hated RPG combination of torture & the spell “Zone of Truth”. I tried my best to communicate the immorality of torture, but they felt it was acceptable to stop the conspiracy from causing more harm. One player even stated that Zone of Truth negated the unreliability of torture, seemingly implying that made it less reprehensible.

I didn’t let the players get the info they wanted via torture, because I didn’t want to endorse that kind of behavior. They ended up healing the captured character, recasting Zone of Truth, & then casting Charm Person. Some spectacularly bad rolls for the NPC later, they got the info they wanted, but I feel like they walked away still feeling like torture is a viable tool for them to use in the future.

So what can I do to further discourage this kind of behavior? Should I have said more in the moment? I don’t want them to just think “DM doesn’t want us to do this”. I’d like them to understand that it’s both immoral & ineffective.
-Prince Infidel

Hey Prince Infidel, Oren here, great to hear from you again!

Ah yes, the ol’ Zone of Truth/Torture Combo. Much has been written about this on ye olde internet, but I’m happy to take a shot at it myself. First, it is technically true that Zone of Truth, or any magical lie detector, does make torture a far more practical way of extracting information. Assuming the PCs know that someone failed their save, of course. That’s not really a defense though. I could construct a setting where magic is powered exclusively by the anguished moans of injured puppies if I wanted to, but I shouldn’t, because that’s awful.

Deliberately inflicting pain on someone who’s at your mercy is a horrible thing, and it’s not something we should be doing around the RPG table, for our own mental health if nothing else. Plus, we really don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of implications that magical truth and charm spells suggest. In such a world, people would be way more paranoid about information security, since anyone could be charmed into speaking at any time. It would be an entire world of spy vs spy. Not super conducive to most D&D games.

My first suggestion is to flat out ban Zone of Truth if you can. Beyond torture, it doesn’t really serve any purpose other than making social conflicts less interesting. It’s just not very fun to have courtly intrigue if no one is allowed to lie. However, this is just a preliminary step.

A more permanent solution is to not put the PCs in positions where they feel like they have to torture information out of someone in order to move forward. Give them other leads to investigate, let them find useful evidence in a prisoner’s pockets, or simply have the prisoner be willing to cooperate. If all else fails, you can let your PCs cast Charm Person until the prisoner fails their will save and gives up the info.

This will do a lot more than even the best reasoned speech against torture. Even if your players academically agree with you, they’ll likely backslide into torture once they’re frustrated and don’t know how to advance. That’s what a lot of the fictional characters they’re emulating do, after all.

Until you know you have a group that understands the evils of torture and why it’s wrong, avoid putting PCs in the position of even having to interrogate a suspect. Interrogations can be fun if handled properly, but players must be prepared to act with restraint and subtlety. Otherwise, they’ll just get frustrated when the information they want isn’t immediately forthcoming.

If you’re looking to convince your players why torture is wrong in real life, I can only recommend John Oliver’s segment from way back in 2015, if they haven’t already seen it. That’s a good place to start, and once they understand the basics, they might be ready to read some more advanced material.

Hope that answers your questions, and good luck with your game!

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  1. SunlessNick

    If someone breaks under torture to the point where they’ll say anything, they may no longer know true from false enough to be functionally lying – in which case a zone of truth may not help. Extend the unreliability of torture into the metaphysical.

    • Prince Infidel

      That’s actually a really good & interesting idea. Though having the torture last long enough or be intense enough for it to seem reasonable for the person to “break” is not something I think I could stomach. My players only had access to the person they captured for less than an hour in game, & they clearly thought torture would speed up the interrogation.

      Since then, based on Oren’s suggestions, I’ve made the enemies a little better at escaping &/or express that they might be willing to cooperate with the right incentive.

      Maybe I’ll drop some info into the world that they’ll come across as to torture’s metaphysical unreliability as well.

      • Guest

        frankly, I think you have solid grounds to declare that the level of terror and dread caused by the mere THREAT of torture is enough to overwhelm ‘truth/lie’ distinctions due to panic, therefore rendering “truth” spells irrelevant.

        that said, the simplest solution does seem to be making sure NPCs have an escape so the players simply aren’t given the option and/or banning torture outright.
        …and don’t let them get away with any ‘enhanced interrogation’ BS either.

  2. Bellis

    So this blog focuses on writing instead of RPGs but I think their wealth of knowledge and nuanced approach in their mission to fight against torture apologia are extremely helpful: https://scripttorture.tumblr.com/

  3. SB

    I remember one game where they’d captured a Mind Flayer and knocked it out. One player was set of torturing it for information. She argued her character was a Githzeri so it made sense. They argued about the ethics for about 30 minutes until the Mind Flayer woke up and Plane Shifted itself out of there.

  4. Grady Elliott

    Banning Zone of Truth doesn’t address the problem.

    I ban torture (and evil characters/actions in general) at “Session Zero” whenever I start a campaign. Problem solved; no torture. If one of my players wants to spend a spell slot on Zone of Truth, there’s no harm in that, but it’s a waste.

    A properly worded Suggestion spell (“answer all my questions honestly”) will last much longer and won’t leave the subject the option of remaining silent.

    • Adriano Tenório

      Exactly what I think. If the root of all evil is torture, banning tools to accomplish it won’t be a final answer. Banning TORTURE is the way to go.

      It’s the same for many other sensitive topics. If one’s not comfortable with sex or gore in-game, you don’t ban beds or visceral descriptions of violence. You ban the thing itself.

      As a side note, I don’t think the GM can make the players understand that something is morally/ethically wrong. Even if the players themselves wouldn’t resort to that it real life, they believe it is acceptable in-game for to various reasons, such as fantasy tropes, presence of violence as a recurrent tool to solve problems, etc.

    • geodesic

      that’s valid too if you prefer to play that way, although it can be limiting. my dnd group is fine with evil characters and villain protagonists, although we would all agree that torture is ineffective and wrong. for example, my current character is an extremely lawful neutral knight, who will always go along with the legal group leader, even when he receives evil orders. I find it an interesting challenge to play characters not being motivated by basic good-intentions

    • Sedivak

      That really depends on what you understand the role of the GM to be.

      One approach is for the GM to tell their story. Then you could forbid the players to do X and force them to do Y. In this case the campaign may feel as it is on rails and the characters are only there for flavor.

      On the other side there is the approach where the GM creates the world, the conflict, the clues etc. and lets the players do anything – manipulating them only with situational inputs.

      I favor this second approach. If I wanted my players to not torture somebody, I would beat them down with realistic consequences the first time they attempt it – like law enforcement problems, being outcast from polite society (perhaps being prohibited to trade their loot on the maket), being disowned by their guild/organization etc. Also (as I play under GURPS rules) the act of torture itself would likely bring fright checks, mental scarring and mental disadvantages to the torturers themselves.

  5. Kenneth Mackay

    There are always a few players who think of NPCs in terms of problem solving, rather than interacting with people.

    I heard of one whose standard tactic, whenever he needed to question a NPC, was to kill them, cast ‘Speak with Dead’ in order to compel full and truthful answers, then ‘Resurrect’ them afterwards. He was complaining that the GM kept making NPCs treat him as evil, when he was just being efficient!

  6. Dave L

    Depending on your players, simply flat-out tell them torture is an evil act and will mess w/ their alignments

    Any paladins or good-aligned clerics? They’ll have the most to lose

    • Prince Infidel

      Neither my players, nor myself are particularly invested in alignments. I mostly consider them descriptive rather than prescriptive. I’m also not a fan of removing a player’s abilities (or even holding the threat of losing their abilities over their head) unless there’s a major story reason to do so.

      We have a Neutral Good cleric (to a Lawful Neutral death god) but I don’t want him to feel like his powers might diminish or disappear because he displeased the DM.

  7. Dave L
  8. CJ

    I’m not saying I agree with torture of anything, but sometimes, a player/hero has to get their hands dirty. Though the hero is not the villain, and torture is never justified, only necessary, at very, and I mean, very rare times, we have to argue with the fact that the hero can never walk away from their adventure unscathed. The term, perfect hero, is falsified morally and justified moralism on the good guys side, each side has to make sacrifices, whether they’re willing to make them is the difference between victory and defeat.

    It is probably the reason why the bad guys are ahead in most stories, they’re willing to do what’s necessary, unlike the hero whose a greenboy and an extremely, Scott McCall level, moralistic character, hopefully not, I can’t stand him.

    • Bellis

      Except torture doesn’t get things done, it just makes everything worse. It doesn’t get information, it makes it MUCH HARDER to get information. It doesn’t get people to cooperate, it makes them hate you and oppose you more strongly than before. Plus (if you don’t care about the harm and trauma and possible death inflicted on the victim) it also traumatises the torturer and all witnesses. So even the most evil and selfish person shouldn’t torture, no matter what and no exceptions.

      You can explore grey morality areas and tough choices and getting your hands dirty in a lot of ways, but torture isn’t just immoral, it’s just plain ineffective on top of that.

      • CJ

        That is true, torture is ineffective as it’ll render the tortured catatonic in most cases, in lots of cases, the torturer is already lost and are on dark paths, examples being Joker, Ramsay Bolton, it doesn’t matter how evil or kind a person is, the reason behind it is absolutely nothing. People do things that don’t fit their character, the break the status quo, disturb the peace, whatever the saying is, or, like Alfred said from the Dark Knight, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”

        Which is true, some people just have no reason for doing the things they do, they just want to, like the Joker, create chaos and contradict the world and its people’s belief.

        • Cay Reet

          You can have villains torturing people for fun, profit, or other reasons. They’re villains – unless you want to redeem them, there’s no moral event horizon they can’t cross.

          The problem here is that a GM ran into their group wanting to use torture to get information from an NPC. This shouldn’t work and shouldn’t be seen as a valid way of playing.

          • Bellis

            You’re right, both of you, some people torture despite its ineffectiveness, maybe for fun.

            Others, in real life and in fiction, torture because they (or the authors) /think/ it will give them information or compliance. But fiction should not spread this misinformation by using torture to explore grey morality of the “doing what needs to be done” variety. There are many other options for doing grey morality.

  9. mysterious ghost

    Is there anything John Oliver doesn’t have a clip for?

  10. Muskrat

    I agree with people above who say that you just flat out ban torture and other offensive stuff in your game at Session 0.

    An increasing number of gaming groups have an “X Card” rule, which allows any player to play the X Card if something at the gaming table disturbs them. They don’t necessarily need to explain why if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Then the game is reset so the events that led them to play the X Card never happened.

    The GM is also a player and should have the ability to play the X Card if their players’ PCs do something that disturbs them.

  11. Rose Embolism

    A long, long time ago, I would have role played out horrible consequences to their actions. Later, I would say “Fuck it, blue bolt. Everyone lose 1d4 levels, and don’t do it again.” But now I’m simply willing to say “Game over. I don’t want to play with people who think torture is cool and fun.”

    Because honestly, that’s the bottom line. It’s a game, and I’m old enough to be selective about the people I game with, and to have standards for their attitudes.

  12. Erynus

    I never try to enforce morals in my games, but when my players involve themselves in unmoral actions, they will come back and bite their butts.
    In case of torture, if they happen to torture someone, he probably won’t have the info they need, they would cross paths with other way to get the info and probably follow the trail of that evil group of villains that torture people, just to realize they are chasing themselves (along with any other hero/adventurer in the city).
    It all began while we played Marvel heroes, by the rules it is forbiden to kill anyone, but my game was about the gritty spy world so assassinations happened. My players learned soon enough that they would have orders of magnitude harder times to carry out their mission, if law enforcement agencies were after their steps for a single murder.
    Just be prepared in advance and make it that torture is never an answer. If they get a prisoner they plan to torture, make it that that NPC won’t have the info. The third time they won’t even think about torture as it is useless.

  13. Oren Ashkenazi

    There’s an interesting pattern of commenters wondering why I didn’t just recommend banning torture outright. There are two reasons.

    1: I assumed that if that was an option, Prince Infidel would already have done it.

    2: This is a situation where it’s easier to remove incentive for a behavior than to simply ban the behavior. If you tell players “no torture” but leave them in a position where it feels like torture is the most efficient (possibly the only) way forward, then you’ve created an adversarial relationship between players and GM.

    • Lorenzo Gatti

      Also, the sort of players who consider torturing NPCs acceptable and effective are likely to react badly to a GM who bans it as unacceptable behaviour, for example:

      – by asserting their right to have PCs do whatever they want, on principle, to show the GM who’s in command

      – by teasing the GM with discussions about what is and isn’t torture (“I’m just putting the prisoner in a receptive mood”, “waterboarding is not torture: sea elves find it fun, and even sexually exciting”, “it’s not my fault if hungry rats entered the cell”…)

      – by resorting to even worse methods (e.g. indiscriminate massacre instead of torturing some enemy to find the others)

    • Hespia

      I think avoiding scenarios where torture feels like the best option is a great option, but against point 2 I think a GM banning torture would make the game collaborative while banning a spell seems passive aggressive and would make the game more combative.

      I think some players like to explore the limits of the world and narrative they exist in. If all of sudden ZoT isn’t an option but torture is and without a solid reason, it feels like the GM is trying to railroad narratives/behaviors. Players still have that curiosity of torture’s capabilities and a forced narrative to work against.

      Counter to that, the GM could have a conversation where they share that they aren’t comfortable with or accepting of narratives and characters that do torture. If the players understand and respect their GM, they shouldn’t want to push unwanted roleplay on them. This conservation also presents them a narrative challenge on creating characters that solve problems without torture and provides them with a why for things are the way they are in the world.

      I’m actually confused and surprised by the perspective that communicating boundaries at the table makes things adversarial. Setting and communicating boundaries it’s fundamental to fun and safe collaboration.

  14. Bellis

    I advocate for bribery/striking deals. The problem is just that in order for that to work, the players usually have to be in a position where they could also decide on torture, ie have the NPC alone to them. But the NPC doesn’t have to be captured or at their mercy completely. So if you want to avoid any situation where players would even /think/ of torture, you might still be able to give them opportunities for bribery. Maybe they can talk to the NPC in some place where they won’t be overheard, but would be detected if they injured them (say cameras that dont capture sound, or people in distant view but not within earshot, or the NPC will be checked on and noticed if they’re not ok too soon for the players’ torture-plan to work, etc)

    Like how Jane joined the Serenity crew

    Does not work for every situation, but it is one of many alternatives to move the plot forward. And it can be funny, which is a plus.

    • Prince Infidel

      Funny thing is, that’s what they did in the beginning. The first enemy NPC they captured, they bribed him & offered protection from the law in exchange for his cooperation. It worked & they managed to turn an enemy into a reluctant ally. Keith the thief is now a reoccurring NPC in the game & one of their most useful allies (in part because they make him money, in part because they went out of their way to treat him well).

      So I was really thrown when they decided to try & torture this enemy. Granted, months passed in the real world between the 2 events.

      • Bellis

        Awesome, I like Keith the thief already!

  15. Bubbles

    About the magic thing… I believe people have said on this blog that you shouldn’t have a magic system that rewards evil actions, and I would disagree. “Immoral things that can provide power” is a widespread theme throughout fiction, and I don’t think this always leads to a story actually encouraging such acts. Often, it is the exact opposite, in which the heroes must resist the temptation of using such evil means even if it would benefit them.

    • Cay Reet

      This is about an RPG campaign, though, not about a story. The spell exists in the system and can be used whatever way the players see fit – unless you put a hard limit on it as the GM.

      Personally, I would simply say ‘this isn’t going to happen – no torture in my games’ and leave it at that. Yes, as a GM you work with your players, but there have to be lines in the sand you don’t cross. Communicate that and see how the players deal with it.

      • Bubbles

        Okay, that makes sense. I agree that if you don’t want something in your game, you shouldn’t allow it. I might have been thinking about a statement made in a different context on this blog, whoops, but if it is, I’ll post there.

  16. Greg S

    If you want to maintain player agency, you can allow the torture/zone of truth combo, but just don’t roleplay out the uncomfortable scene. Basically the players say, “This is what we’re gonna do.” and you say, “ok, you do it – here’s the info you get from them.”

    I know that doesn’t address the actual reprehensibleness of the act, lso, if you want to discourage this kind of thing, you may want to include a “karma” mechanic. I’ve explained to my players that there’s a difference between being a sympathetic antihero and just being a jerk. I ‘m much less likely to fudge dice rolls for an unsympathetic character.

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