Tabletop Highlight: Interrogating Prisoners in D&D

Now that my campaign has reached what I would call “mid-level” and the players have gotten a handle on how to play the game, I’m starting to see them use new approaches to delicate situations. Previously, they’d just kill everything and figure out what to do afterwards (though that still happens sometimes). Now, they’ll actually plan how to kill everything and sometimes actually stop one step short of killing everything by just knocking everything out. This means they sometimes have prisoners and now need to practice interrogating prisoners. They’ve had a few instances of interrogation previously, but there’s a big difference between interrogating a grunt and interrogating a commander.

The time they interrogated a commander, a politician who had been working with their enemies, they had a lot of trouble. I, however, had a lot of fun. He was a sorcerer with a high intelligence, so he was able to use a combination of his charming personality, people/manipulation skills, and specific wordings that were always technically correct to avoid the truth compulsions they had set up. Eventually, they figured out how to trap him enough that he’d admit to something. Except they forgot about teleportation magic so he just ran away and went into hiding. Since he was a priority target who had a lot of information they wanted, it was easy to justify expending the resources they did.

During a much more recent session, they captured a few mooks and their mook leader. They managed to keep everyone alive and accepted the surrender of one of the less-combative troglodytes. After getting them out of the dungeon entry way and back to their camp, they set about doing a basic verbal interrogation of their prisoner, relying on Sense Motive skill checks (thanks to the addition of a DM PC support-only Bard to balance their party) to ascertain truth. It worked well for them because what they overheard prior to attacking this troglodyte and his companions led them to believe he was an unwilling stooge to a much bigger threat. They were eventually able to win him over with kindness, gentle words, and a good Diplomacy check from the party’s rogue.

Thankfully, they were able to keep the second interrogation tasteful. Though it’s not like the rogue had much choice, given that the paladin was looking over his shoulder. Still, they managed to solve their first problem without violence and learned enough to be able to prioritize their actions once they went through the door into dungeon proper. Unfortunately, they immediately used that information to plan violence and a hostile exchange with the other troglodytes and kobolds. It worked out alright for them in the end, since they were up against a bunch of low-CR (challenge rating: the difficulty of a particular monster or encounter to be used in comparison to a party’s equivalent number) monsters and only a couple of higher-CR monsters. Using the narrow hallways and a pit trap, they manage to isolate the various bits of combat and deal with the situation in such a way that most of the mooks got to live. Which they were then able to interrogate, much more easily this time since they’d already shown them all the spectre of violent death when the paladin obliterated the kobold captain in a single round.

Personally, I dislike violent interrogation. I would have a hard time walking my players through any kind of torture scenario because I have a hard time dealing with violence against helpless people. I don’t mind inventive torture, like the time one of my players invented taco bell and used the resulting–and revolting–mish-mash of rats, field grass, orc “cheese,” and acid splash (the 0th level spell) slathered between hardtack biscuits to successfully convince a captured orc to spill the beans. The character truly believed he was giving the orc a tasty snack. It was too back the rogue (who was the only who spoke orcish) had a bit of a sadistic streak, letting the poor addled wizard believe the orc was begging for additional tacos. Heck, if you can make a good intimidate check and are a convincing role-player, you can make a pile of wood shavings look like a terrible torture. You don’t need to skin someone while they’re still alive, using a cleric to continuously restore their hit points, in order to get answers.

Even outside of the disgust I feel at that stuff, there’s plenty of real-world examples, especially in modernity, of violent interrogation being not only useless but actively unhelpful. Better to befriend a prisoner and get them on your side than to make them beg for mercy and make up whatever they think you want to hear. Most D&D doesn’t go that in-depth, but I don’t mind putting in the extra work since it discourages unscrupulous behavior and creative thinking. Better a creative, challenging player than a blunt, simple one.