deck of many tortures

A silly thing first, then a serious question, then Joesky tax.

I attended my second session of I6: Ravenloft last week.  (The rest of the guys have played several more sessions since my first bout of Shukenja-envy).  Naroia, playing a Kryptonian Assassin, decapitated vampire lord Strahd with a single strike.  Which apparently didn’t do the trick, but whatever, the guy’s going down.

Surprisingly, assassinating Strahd von Zarathustra was not the highlight of the evening, because our DM (“Naked Sam”) busted out a deck of many things.  I knew to stay away from it–I had seen Tavis mercilessly pummel the after school class with it last year–but I got peer pressured into drawing.  I wound up with +60,000 experience and was now Chaotic Evil, which just goes to show you should always give in to peer pressure.

But don’t give in the way these guys did!  It is not best practice.

  • Kryptonian F/M/T drew The Void, so his soul got stolen by a demon, and dragged off to hell.  But we remembered that souls can’t leave Ravenloft so must be in the castle somewhere.  I looted his soulless shell of all its magic items . . . just for safekeeping.
  • Kryptonian F/M/T’s player then grabbed a replacement character who drew The Void again.  That demon really likes collecting souls.  I am not sure who got this guy’s magic items, but I feel that I earned them.
  • Sensible Half-Orc lost all his magic items, got +50,000 XP which is total bullshit, gained the service of a henchman, and then his henchman immediately betrayed him.
  • Kryptonian Assassin couldn’t kill Sensible Half-Orc’s new henchman in single combat, even though it would mean gaining a new level.  But our assassin is now Chaotic Good.
  • Normal Magician lost all magic items and also lost 10,000 XP.

Painstaking game theory analysis confirms that the other players made the crucial mistake of drawing terrible cards.  Like playing a Cleric with less than 30,000 XP, this is simply sub-optimal play and they should try harder next time.  You’re welcome.

As a suitable reward for my skill, I also got a ring of wish.  That is how the game is played.  Who’s the Shukenja now?

the torture debate

Also that session, we had the age-old “What do you mean, you kill the helpless prisoners?!” intra-party feud.  There were these Witches who had been rendered harmless, but Sensible Half-Orc decided to kill them anyway despite my character having loudly sworn to protect them from mistreatment.  (This was before I became Chaotic Evil.)  It was, at least for a second or two, potentially a bad scene.

We avoided it because I respect Sensible Half-Orc’s player (co-blogger Charlatan), and also as a relative interloper in the game I didn’t want to make a gargantuan stink, as a colossal stink was quite sufficient.

But torturing and killing helpless prisoners seems to be an inescapable intra-party fault line within Dungeons & Dragons, even serving as a practical example of Alignment in the Moldvay Basic rule book.  But it’s actually kind of a serious problem, partially because it’s so revolting that there are bound to be strong feelings at the player level, which naturally creates a social temptation to break the taboo.  Plus some people might think that it’s the most sensible course of action given the fictional circumstances.  And all of this gets masked as “playing the alignment” of a fictional person, giving everyone some plausible deniability to stake out stronger positions.  It’s pretty much a recipe for coercion if not literal backstabbing.

I’m wondering how other groups / OSR bloggers / whoever have addressed this topic in play.  Our group avoids some stuff by explicit consensus: intra-party violence is on that list come to think of it, as is torture.  Other stuff seems to be handled by implicit consensus: I’m not sure a Thief has ever properly picked the pocket of a party peer.  But murdering captives, as distinct from torturing them, apparently is a live issue for us.

Given that Dungeons & Dragons will inevitably and repeatedly lead to these types of situations, and given that the rules of the game will almost inevitably lead to enormous tension at the table-level, I’m astonished that this topic is so rarely discussed.  To my knowledge, nothing in TSR-era D&D, Dragon, etc. ever seriously looks at this.  You see the “what do you do with Orc babies?” thing on places like RPG.Net sometimes, but even there it usually becomes a big messy thread (endemic to the venue, I guess).

Anyway, it ended up being no big deal, but I personally would have had more fun if it hadn’t occurred.  That’s probably as much my fault for taking an unexpectedly principled stand as anyone’s.

joesky tax: why are we fighting, anyway?

Perhaps the most common occurrence in Silver Age super hero comics is when two super heroes meet for the first time, they always get into a fight.  This is pretty much the super hero equivalent of the obligatory “assessment joust” in Arthurian legends.  This chart uses the Marvel Super Heroes system but hopefully is simple enough to work with others.

When a costumed player encounters a costumed super hero NPC for the first time, the player makes a Popularity roll.  If the player is part of a team, the player with the lowest Popularity should roll.

  • WHITE – NPC has no idea who you are, so you’re obviously a menace.  Fight!  Roll on table below at -3.
  • GREEN – NPC has heard rumors of you, but is intensely suspicious.  Fight!  Roll on table below at +0
  • YELLOW – NPC has heard of you, but doubts your ability and commitment.  Fight!  Roll on table below at +3.
  • RED – NPC respects you, but has a lot of work to do.  No fight, unless you start one by bothering or delaying the NPC.

On a yellow or red result, the NPC might become genuinely friendly if the player impresses him or her in some way.

Why are we fighting?

1d10 Roll Motive
0 or less NPC mistakes you for a new villain. NPC is probably snide and dismissive about it, too. Media may begin covering fight, which could harm your Popularity. NPC will be breezily apologetic if proven wrong.
1 NPC was alerted to weird phenomena… violently paranoid crowds, mountains appearing in street, cops & robbers mind-swapped, wildly levitating cars, money turns to liquid, etc. NPC blames you. Will fight until convinced this isn’t your fault, probably by a Reason feat. Villain… Loki, Mole Man, Silver Surfer, Diablo, Miracle Man, Enchantress, Tiboro, Leader
2 NPC is an impostor out to sully the original’s good name. All primary stats at -1 column, and powers crudely simulated by technology. Impostor may think the player is a fellow villain or potential dupe, respectively, and will try to team up instead of fight. NPC is really… Chameleon, Mysterio, Skrulls, Commie, alien, random bozo
3 NPC believes you’re an impostor (Commie, alien, android) or have been mind-controlled somehow. You’ll have to do something only the real you would do. NPC is primed to think this way b/c tracking down… Chameleon, Mysterio, Skrulls, Puppet Master, Purple Man, Demon Duplicators
4 NPC is mind-controlled by villain… Enchantress, Puppet Master, Hate Monger, Purple Man, alien, Commie. Villain is using NPC for a specific purpose, you just got in the way.
5 NPC is just an illusion created by villain… Loki, Baron Mordo, Mysterio, Mastermind, alien, Commie. Goal is to set you against the NPC later on, or to evaluate your abilities.
6 NPC is helping… army, scientists, SHIELD test new equipment, but your presence is screwing up the test. Dummy, do I have to knock you out of here?
7 NPC coping with super-angst and will lash out in grief, rage, or despair. Keep making Psyche feats at the start of each round until a green result, at which point NPC will calm down. No apologies, will just zoom away. NPC’s loved one stricken with rare blood disease; only cure is in… Latveria, Wakanda, Zemo’s South American fortress, Limbo, Asgard, Mandarin’s Chinese redoubt.
8 NPC has to attack you to prevent catastrophe (your girlfriend’s house is actually an alien egg, your car is a four-dimensional bomb, unless your HQ is destroyed villain will demolish city), no time time to explain! Villain… Mad Thinker, MODOK, Mandarin
9 NPC is acting under orders (Nick Fury, Thunderbolt Ross, Senator Byrd), media hoopla (J. Jonah Jameson, Red Chinese propaganda), or the suggestion of some other contact to arrest/capture you: the way you handled last case has serious implications
10 NPC thinks he’s the better man to handle this case or otherwise has precedence, so butt out junior, this is too dangerous for you. I said butt out!
11 or higher NPC wants to test player’s abilities for special mission together.

I’m not sure those modifiers all line up, but it’s a start.

10 Responses to “deck of many tortures”

  1. 1 Scott LeMien
    November 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Moldvay saved me from arguing with you on B28, bottom. You’re right. If the DM steers play by having the prisoners act fearful for their lives and cooperative about being spared, it’s fine. But if he (unfairly, perhaps?) lays the seeds to make you fearful of leaving them or just holds his hands up, he is forcing the players’ hand and steering play a different way. Regardless, he is steering play, I guess the choice is whether the direction is PC or not.

    In fact, I’m going to give up looking at new rulesets for a while and just concentrate on learning Basic, because, apparently, I forgot all these great rules are already in there. Moldvay has so many little gems in his rules, I really need to know it better than I did as a kid.

  2. November 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    I’ll send you my notes on weird rule implications.

    The B/X alignments track really nicely to the real-world torture debates our nation (all too unfortunately) had about terrorism suspects:

    LAWFUL: “Torture’s always wrong, but I’m open to getting the information some other way.”

    NEUTRAL: “What if there’s a delayed blast fireball trap and nobody has ESP memorized? Reluctantly we must torture.”

    CHAOTIC: “Torture-shmorture. I can think of lots worse treatment, and besides, they’d do it to us. Gotta show ’em who’s boss.”

  3. 3 Charlatan
    November 22, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Whoa, we jumped to torture! I think the coup de grace is squicky, but less so than torture. Maybe a 9 compared to a 10, but still.

    There’s a lot going on here. 1: A lines/veils thing. 2: A metagame thing. 3: A character alignment thing. Unlike Pendragon, the supporting fictional world of D&D has a different kind of baked-in morality. I’d be interested in talking through some options, like introducing a spell-like ability (I’d call it Vanquish) that was basically like a minor geas: You can accept surrender, seize goods, and demand either permanent abdication of the area or an oath of non-violence towards the vanquisher (or proxy). And present a table of effects of the oath breaking, ranging from some minor inconveniences sprinkled with more dramatic penalties. Likewise, I’d gen up a table of consequences for refusing to accept a surrender, ranging from NPC distrust to being attacked by a demonic embodiment of Wrath.

    I fall back on tables because 1) play grows into space defined by rules, and 2) there is a metagame issue here of the PC/DM antagonism- When you do not trust a surrendered foe not to attack again, you are not trusting the DM to accept your terms. A rule is an agreement between the PCs and the DM about how things will be adjudicated.

    On lines/veils: this is trickier. One of the challenges I always have with regard to evil characters (or even untrustworthy ones) is, “Why would anyone elect to adventure with them?” That is, once your PvP tendencies are revealed, why would anyone choose to go into a dangerous situation with you? And metagamically, once you start stealing my character’s stuff, why should I want to spend my evenings rolling dice with you when there are other people who won’t do that? NYRB wraps this all nicely up in the Coolness Policy, but it raises the question of stakes here: Is this a lines/veils thing that can be pushed “off camera”? Is this a Coolness issue, that (as appears to be the case) is really undermining people’s enjoyment of the game? If the latter, we need to take it up more seriously at NYRB.

  4. November 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    It didn’t really undermine my enjoyment of the game. It was a momentary in-character frustration which, on reflection, seems to be an unavoidable part of play and I believe has arisen on other occasions with other players. We cool!

    I’m happy having this be a live issue – I don’t think the Coolness Policy should be used for everything – but I wish we had better tools on how to deal with it.

    Part of the problem with an agreement is that most of our enemies are Chaotic, and under the rules are very likely to renege. I suspect that every group of people who have played Dungeons & Dragons have confronted this issue, if only briefly.

  5. 5 Lord Bodacious
    November 22, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    The “what do we do with prisoners” DM/PC dialog is like a game of chicken on a slippery slope (yes!). In my experience, most DM’s who are relatively aware of managing squick level will be pretty good about having their captives stay honest when defeated and spared. That said, PC party’s are much less trustworthy! PC’s seem break their vows of surrender much more frequently than DM’s.

    With this new layer of treachery in play, of course the DM will start to resort in kind, and monster/NPC oaths become more elastic, which leads to PC’s loss of trust and before you know it everybody is killing everybody and we’re all squicked out!

    This kind of transcends to the larger issue of PC/NPC faith in dealings. When NPC’s have something the players want (or are holding something over their head) we often have to make deals, vows, etc. I’m thinking specifically of the Evangelista/Golem episode – on multiple occasions we attempted (and occasionally succeeded) in betraying, backstabbing and deceiving the “evil sorcerress”. Despite this fact (and only because of some restrained DM’ing) she continued to act in good faith, until we basically were so ashamed of our bad behavior that we came around to accepting her terms.

  6. November 22, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Just nosing in and acting all high and mighty:
    Can’t the DM just make a blanket table rules that “defeated” enemies will never hassle the PC’s ever again. This kind of takes away from the consistency of any “gritty” fiction but would avoid any need to “off” sleeping opponents or kill prisoners for party safety reasons. A reaction roll can be used to gather information from prisoners with the understanding that torture gets no new information.

    It seems that the main problem is that we want vile things to happen “off screen” so we can have the possibility of dirty and gritty story elements, but we don’t want to see it or experience it at the table.

  7. November 22, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    The main issue is that the enemies’ alignment is known, and that alignment is Chaotic, and that means that there is little or no benefit to sparing their lives. Human beings spare captives’ lives for many reasons, but one of them is that there is the possibility that the captive (or his friends and relatives) will rethink their “taking captives” policy if you decide to rethink yours.

    Not so with goblins, at least in many campaigns.

    The other issue is that the goblins you’ve got tied up are often just one-shot characters. Even if they do go forth with good will toward you, unless you are likely to encounter them again, it’s not worth the risk if there’s any doubt that they might not.

  8. 8 Naked Sam
    November 23, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    In D&D, too, there is an inbuilt distrust toward any creature or potential NPC found in a dungeon. Doppelgangers, Ogre Magi, and other creatures with polymorph abilities abound. The game is set to create suspicion even in the weakest creatures encountered. Hell, that happens in Keep on the Borderlands where — [spoilers!] a prisoner turned away from the party turns out to be a medusa!

  9. 9 James Nostack
    November 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Yeah, this is definitely a debate that Gary & the Gang wanted groups to have. It’s all over the rules, reinforced by the alignment system and the “gotcha” monsters Naked Samurai mentions. It’s a pity there’s no “monster jail” where you can just drop suspicious-looking folks off at the pokey, to incapacitate them while you delve.

    Yes, but you guys made a deal with Evangelista precisely because she was so well connected that you couldn’t just kill her, right? Once you take violence off the table, you kind of have to negotiate. But my first temptation in D&D is always to smash & grab…

  10. November 23, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Doc Savage had a college for criminals, where he would use super-science to rehabilitate them. I had a great time playing a cleric in 3E who made it up to 23rd level with a vow not to kill; I got a lot of mileage out of taking captives and subjecting them to D&D’s many varieties of super-science along these lines.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2011

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