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.
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!