Roleplaying Ramble: Torture

So last night I was at the LURPS panel discussion for mature themes, and super appreciated the input from the lovely panel (seriously I have notes that may get typed up at some point and got some chewy ideas to ponder).  Anyway one of the questions was on torture scenes, and various ideas came forward and I offered some thoughts and examples, but thinking about it I kind of wanted to write something to set my ideas out.Now primarily this is about running torture in LARP although a lot of its portable across to table top, not necessarily from a mechanical perspective but more from a roleplaying perspective.

First you need to answer the big question: “Why torture?”  It’s not something to be taken lightly, and unless you’re going for a two fisted pulp adventure aesthetic or James Bond spy thriller or whatever you should think seriously before including it in the story.  As a Ref having NPCs torturing characters should be a serious choice doing things too them that has the potential for long term consequences.  As a Player having your character torture NPCs should be something that again is a serious choice, choosing to physically and psychologically harm someone should have serious consequences on your characters mind.  Letting Player’s characters torture each other is also going to create strong rifts and feelings within the player base.  Also keep in mind that torture is fundamentally not as effective as interrogation and rapport building, torture is not the ideal tool of professionals to extract information, it is a terror tactic.  As an information extraction method torture is the quick and bad route of trying to learn something that you hope the person knows, anyone who actually wants quality information will go the long, slow, interrogation route.

The points were made from the panel that you need to do this in small groups, 1-1, or 1-2 ideally, everyone needs to be committed to the scene, it can’t be a casual thing just thrown in for flavour, you need to either trust the other person already or be very confident that you’re good at reading peoples reactions, and ideally you should try and give warnings in the brief that this sort of thing may come up and try and have a Ref present to help remind people that this is a game and they always have an out of taking a breather from the scene.

So this is a LARP, its not real life, you need to not make it antagonistic us vs. them or there’s a danger of someone getting carried away either the torturer ramps up the threat too much and makes someone uncomfortable or the victim invests too hard in the scene and stresses themselves out – you need to have a clear idea of why there is torture and what its point is.  In all cases you need to ask yourself if everyone involved in the scene are willing to do torture based roleplay that may produce strong emotional reactions from those involved and stands the risk of OOC stressing people out more than they signed up too.

Why Torture?  From a roleplaying perspective:

  • Victim: Someone enduring physical and emotional pain/stress
  • Victim: Wanting to perform a torture-healing-recovery arc
  • Torturer: Wanting to explore the lengths/depths your character may go to in pursuit of their goals
  • Torturer: Exploring depravity in character and either loss of humanity or regaining it

Why Torture?  From a narrative and gaming point of view:

  • Take away the privacy of information, the torturer learns something and its no longer hidden
  • Take away the ability to do things, someone tortured may suffer physical or emotional harm that lasts longer than the scene, a good specific example given to me by Alex is: Threatening to take out the eye of the expert archer – this leaves them without good depth perception, essentially threatening a strong ability the character has in a temporary or permanent manner.  Many injuries in a lot of fantasy LARP are less specific, but this is one with a specific outcome that can give a character a new direction or a new goal (to regain their powers, take revenge, etc).
  • Take away resources, a lot of roleplaying features characters with beyond natural physical healing powers, however going through torture will deplete a characters reserves of healing/magic/whammy or whatever, depleting a characters ability to do things changes the power balance of the game
  • Take away time, if your party (or even just a couple of members) are being held and tortured they can’t be working towards other objectives, so even if the torture is unconnected its a threat to achieving their objectives

How to torture? In a gaming mechanical sense

Now this is roleplaying so people hopefully understand that they’re not actually in any physical harm, and hence it may be hard for them to get into a torture scene.  You need to judge how comfortable they are with threatening behavior and its totally okay to ask someone before playing the scene like that.  It’s probably a good plan to have a Ref on hand to watch things more objectively, and its totally okay for someone to not want to play out a torture scene or want to try it and safeword/cut/break/tap-out/lookdown out half way through – all of these are okay, although keep in mind that sometimes its hard to realise that you’re not doing so good in a scene and everyone involved should occasionally try and find a way of doing a check-in with each other.  If someone does need out of things then you should take a moment, get whoever had to pause the scene a glass of water or something and chill everyone out.  Remember its okay for the person playing the torturer to find this hard and feel like they’ve done nasty things and need to relax and reconnect with people afterwards, needless to say its also okay for an observing Ref to also ensure they’re okay with things, Refs are not immune to emotional reactions to seeing things played out.

So you want to generate the roleplaying/emotional reactions talked about above, and you’ve checked that the Players and Refs are all okay and gotten a rough idea of what style you want to do things in so here’s some ideas for how to play out a torture scene:

  • Purely mechanically: The torturer, victim, and Ref sit down and the Ref outlines the mechanics of pain and other methods inflicted on the victim, their stats are consulted, some kind of contested roles or other game resolution occurs – the Ref arbitrates what happens, the victim hands over whatever information is extracted, takes note of how much damage/san effects/etc they took and leaves the room to engage in the roleplaying after the event.  The use of mechanics can feel more fair but also can give an emotional distance for the player.
  • Purely verbally: The torturer and victim take their places and the torturer simply describes their actions to the victim, roleplaying ensues but no one moves closer, no one plays it out at all, people sit at a sensible distance its its just “And then this happens” and the victim verbally describes their response but doesn’t physically embody it
  • Some interaction: The torturer and victim engage in more embodied roleplaying of the scene, the torturer menaces the victim with safe implements at a very safe distance, perhaps engages in safe contact with them on non-threatening parts of their body.  The victim responds as if in pain or discomfort, the two go back and forth to create the scene and the victims responses with the Ref arbitrating system effects of damage or effects that compel answers.  The player is then let go to carry on the emotional after effects in roleplaying terms.
  • Generating physical tension: Like some interaction above but if everyone wants too the torturer will attempt to generate more tension in the scene for the victim to roleplay off – with the goal that the victim can then respond in kind, and the two can generate an emotional back and forth.  This is risky because it can encourage one-upmanship, us vs. them, going too far, panic responses, and also strong lingering emotional reactions afterwards from all participants.

How to torture? In a practical roleplaying sense

So how does one go about generating tension in a LARP torture scene?  One of the panel members suggested it was hard to create tension with a rubber knife and this is true and probably good and healthy because it shows that the roleplayers have faith in all the participants that they’re not in physical danger and are safe :)

Some suggestions I’ve used and seen in the past include, from the Ref and setting point of view:

  • Ref: Think about the environment and props: What style of torture do you want, do you need a cool “electric shock” prop with LEDs or sparks then source one.  Do you have access to some LARP safe weapons that could be used to threaten?  – The smaller the better because you don’t need anything too big.  If you have several you can have your torturer do a “showing the tools” style introduction.  Are you going to “restrain” them to a chair?  Get some rope or chain to loop carefully around their wrists or ankles when they’re in the chair (but know what you’re doing with it).  Do you want to go all government agency?  Get a desk lamp to shine in their face in a dark room and (if the victim is okay with it) a black pillow case to put on their head (V for Vendetta anyone?).  You don’t need many props, go minimal if you can.
  • Ref: Narrative powerlessness: An additional suggestion by Lucie – One thing that will effect the whole torture scene is the relative power in the setting between the victim and the torturer.  If the torturer is themselves, or belongs to a group, that is substantially more powerful than the victim or their group then they can probably securely hold the victim for an indefinite period of time without rescue.  This can totally change the whole dynamic, the victim will be faced with powerlessness and hopelessness as their fate will rest almost entirely with the torturer and their decisions about freedom and chances of revenge are slim to none.  However if the victim or their group is at least as powerful then they have the hope that if they can at least hold out long enough then they’ll be rescued before handing over the vital information.  This can provide tense time based roleplaying where the torturer is “breaking” the victim on some kind of Ref agreed process and the victim’s group is racing to free them before they break.
  • Ref: OOC Power Imbalance: (Another one by Lucie) When selecting Players to be torturer and victim pairings keep in mind the OOC power imbalance between them.  For example if your torturer is male and victim is female then this can play into a lot of powerful social scripts which can make your roleplaying more tense and increase the potential for a bad reaction.  This isn’t to say you can’t do it, but it’s something to be careful of.

From the point of view of the players who are being torturer and victim:

  • Torturer: Physically project threat: This is all about body language, make yourself big, or mean, play on cultural values that are associated with nastyness (cold as ice torturers are a trope), play brutal or refined, there’s a lot of good literature sources for threatening characters.  Bond villains, Disney villains, Hannibal Lecter, Croup and Vandemar – steal good stuff and use it shamelessly.
  • Victim: Physically project helplessness: Are you supposed to be chained to a chair?  Then hold onto the chair and don’t accidentally lift your hands.  Be careful of your joints and don’t strain yourself, but work out how you can struggle without breaking the “restraints” you are under.
  • Torturer: Violate physical politeness: This will go further than you think.  Get inside peoples personal space, get close to them, do it in front of them, do it behind them, alternate your voice between loud and soft, bang your hand on the table in front of them, address them badly and insultingly.  If they’re on board with being made physically uncomfortable then do tricks like be in their blind spots or the edge of their vision with your LARP safe torture tools, if something is unclear what it is then it being shiny latex is less physically apparent and you can get more of a reaction from the player doing the victim role.  If your roleplaying agreement is okay with it you can touch them – not in a “muwhahaha I’m torturing you!” way, but it increases the sense of torture violation if you can just rest your hand on their arm or whatever while they are “restrained” and can’t stop you, it demonstrates the asymmetry of power in the scene.
  • Victim: Let yourself get into the reactions: Be aware that you’re doing it, but let yourself be sad, or hurt, or shocked or whatever.  The more you can feed back into the scene to yourself and the torturer the more they can get out of it.  The point of this physical roleplaying is to spur on your autonomic nervous system to a stress response in a controlled manner and environment, so go for it.
  • Torturer: Threaten more than the character.  Remember from discussion of narrative points this isn’t just about hurting the character its about challenging their objectives by taking information or preventing them from acting.  You can always bring in threats to external figures (their friends and family) or their group, property, businesses, reputation.  If a victim character doesn’t fear pain due to various supernatural healing measures or just being a Big Damn Hero then if everyone is on board with going for a highly charged emotional interaction then go for the links they have with outside entities.  It’s trite and tropey but “We’ll burn the whole village down women and children all  – and it’ll be all your fault muwhahahaha” can be effective against a hero in a fantasy world who doesn’t want that laid at their feet.
  • Victim: Carry reactions back into holding: Since its common to have a whole player group captured and tortured one by one (or in small groups) then when you’re sent back into holding/prison/whatever before the next person comes in then you can carry these emotional responses back and spur on more roleplaying from the others in holding – they’re locked in a room with no information but you’ve been outside so on a meta level they probably want the information you have (layout, number of guards, number of torturers, questions asked, etc) to try and solve the issue and escape but you’ve just had your character tortured so you’ll still be carrying those emotional responses back and wanting care, reassurance, healing, comfort, etc. It gives you a chance to emotionally bond and strengthen group ties through caring and shared suffering.
  • Torturer: Body Horror: If your player likes to play with body horror and you’re good at descriptive language then use this to your advantage, touch them with a LARP safe implement then describe in close detail what it is the torturer is doing to the victim with it, add in lashings of extra physical descriptive details if the victims player wants to use these to help spur their reaction on.
  • Victim: Begging and Pleading: If you decide your character has broken a little bit then you can engage in begging/pleading for mercy from your torturer.  These are actually kind of hard to pull of smoothly as they can get a bit repetitive – that can be okay but try and let it go on a while and vary it up.  Plead for your life, plead for mercy for friends/family that are being threatened, if you really want to play at being broken offer to sell people out (Do it to Julia anyone?) and keep things fresh.
  • Torturer: Never threaten what you can’t deliver on: (Well more be careful doing it) If you’re going to threaten to do X to the victim then eventually you’ll have to be able to deliver the roleplaying experience of it, use threats as a method of giving the victim’s player time to work themselves up and prepare themselves for something and also a run up to check-in and for them to safeword.  Torture scenes often feature stuff like breaking fingers, cutting off ears, blinding someone, or removing mobility (Misery anyone? – youch) but if you’re building a torture scene towards some sort of longer term physical injury for the victim’s character you’ll eventually have to deliver on it or they may feel cheated by the scene.  It’s okay if their companions rescue them before hand but the Ref’s can’t okay something like say hobbling and then not have it as the finale of the scene or it may rob the scene of its emotional arc and ending.
  • Everyone: The scene is never about what the scene is about.  This isn’t torture this is roleplaying, the Ref’s already know the information the victim has, the torturer isn’t going to physically hurt the victim, there won’t be long term injury, and no one will follow up against their friends and family.  What this is about is exploring power, helplessness, ruthlessness, inhumanity, emotional bonds, and physically roleplaying hardship.

One example of how all the above fits together in a slightly unusual way is to think about The Firefly episode War Stories.  Now in that episode there is a torture scene with 4 participants: Wash, Mal, Niska, and some pain-causing flunky.  Now we never really see the intense torture stuff, that’s all totally irrelevant to the scene, its just straight up not needed.  There is awesome interaction and conflict between Wash and Mal, with Niska being in many ways a narrative device to spur on this conversation and character growth, he has his own goals but he’s playing the “Refined villain of taste” trope who doesn’t want to get his own hands too dirty with the torturing.  This whole scene could easily be played out with fade to blacks in the pain causing torture elements with instructions to a player to “scream a bunch you’re in pain now” and then cut back to the juicy stuff – the argument about the nature of the relationship between Mal and Zoe and how Niska is threatening to do to their friends aboard the Firefly what he is doing to them here.  He knows that Wash is the weak link and the scene revolves around the Niska/Mal and Mal/Wash conflicts as two separate things.  Niska pressures Mal partially via torturing Wash because his reputation as terrifying was impugned.  Mal pressures Wash (to keep him alive) by suggesting he has a sexual relationship with Zoe.  Wash knows that he’s the weak link being used to pressure Mal, but he’s also envious of the bond that Mal and Zoe share.  It’s not about the torture, this scene isn’t really about information, it’s a power play between Niska and the Firefly crew and exploring the Mal/Wash/Zoe interpersonal issues.


So yeah, that’s a bit of a random grab bag of ideas.  To conclude basically be sure you know why torture is in your roleplaying and what its for.  Work out peoples comfort levels and what they want out of the scene.  Remind people of the various ways your system uses to intensify, slow down, or stop a scene that’s going on, check in with people.  If the players doing torturer or victim roles, or the observing Ref look too uncomfortable then the others should check in with them and make sure everything is groovy.  Work out how you’re going to run the torture scene – and it’s okay to run it differently for different players or just not torture some of them.  You can do it mechanically, verbally, a little physically, or a bit more physically.  You can concentrate on the after effects in the holding area with the rest of the players, you can torture people in pairs and let them interact and work on their issues via that, or do it individually.

There isn’t a one size fits all but be careful with each other and remember its okay to need some decompression time afterwards and a chance to renormalise interactions between the people who were playing torturers and victims.


Additional Reading:

Leave a Reply