Interrogation–a valuable player skill.

You want to be helpful to your game group? Develop a level of skill and comfort in asking an NPC questions. Sounds basic, but you’ll be a rock star in most game groups–this is harder than it looks.

One of my occasional players has a thing for torturing captured prisoners. He doesn’t know what he wants to ask them, and if he does ask and say no, he’s got nothing else in his tool box. So he shrugs, and starts hurting them, only vaguely interested in getting any further use from the prisoner.

Other players will capture a prisoner, then look at each other and me with a quasi-desperate look, paralyzed. What do I do? What do I say?

This assumes you can even get a prisoner. I had a group where a catch-phrase was “Which dead goblin do you want to question?”

This goes far beyond prisoners. Some players get tongue-tied asking a barkeep or town guard basic questions about where things are, they want a roll to replace even basic direction of conversation with NPCs in a tavern, and so on. Learn to ask questions of anyone in the game environment. Your GM and fellow players will appreciate it.

Here is some basic guidance.

Decide what you want to know. Think for a moment about what a target might know that is interesting to you. Do you want to know how many guards? The layout? Who hired a group? Sure, that’s easy. Think a little further ahead of time, to build your toolbox. Where were you supposed to meet after this? How did you find out about us? Who do we talk to about hiring thugs? If you really truly don’t want to know anything, then think about whether or not you have a place to put the prisoner, or a reason, before you take one.

The obvious and distasteful option. Torture and menace. If you plan to beat the prisoner, figure out ahead of time how that works in your game system so you don’t accidentally do something you’ll regret. How does pain work in your game system? Is the system really granular enough to calculate the effects of removing a fingernail? Do you WANT it to be? But really, let’s get past torture.

Build a variety of levers. How can you imply targets cooperated whether they did or not, so their people will be a danger to them? What might your targets want? Money or some other inducement may be effective, maybe even flipping the prisoner on your foes as a double agent. Do you want to play good cop/bad cop? How about using the prisoner to set up a meeting with the prisoner’s boss? Offer a trade of information? Seduction? Sympathetic ear to the underappreciated help? You want to have a handful of tactics you’re prepared to use so whatever situation arises you have a way in to get the prisoner’s cooperation.

Let them protest too much. Be sure to give the prisoner room to screw up. Let the prisoner draw conclusions, and if possible, blurt those conclusions out loud. Then play with that. Listen for when the prisoner says more than the prisoner means to–in protesting that they don’t know what you’re asking, they may deny things you haven’t asked about, giving you a fresh direction to pursue. If they don’t know who you are, they will assume you are from some threat they are familiar with, giving you some insight into a useful approach with this prisoner and possibly others. If they are scared to death that the mob have sent spies and scouts, then you can decide whether to pretend you represent the mob, or offer an alliance against the inevitable mob incursion, or whatever.

The Favor Bank. Consider it an investment in karma. When you treat prisoners well, maybe even help them get what they want as a result of their capture, you never know when that will come back around. Likewise, if you torture people, if you beat them, menace them, destroy their lives… well, people don’t appreciate that. Nor do the people who care about whoever you casually destroy or maim. You get some psychopath that thinks its fun to torture in a role playing game, fall back on pragmatics; we don’t need this kind of heat, my religion doesn’t allow this sort of thing, we need him to be able to walk, etc.

The Metagame. Game masters generally want players to figure out enough plot to continue, and maybe get ahead. So, if you are clever in your use of interrogation, you create a way for the game master to give you information the game master already wants you to have. The game master is happy because you earned it, you are happy because you’ve probably saved some violence and legwork, and the other players are happy because now you have a better chance of overall success. And if you can do it without getting your hands dirty, so much the better.

This has little or nothing to do with what is on your sheet. Even if you’ve got the Interrogate skill or something like it out the wazoo, if you as a player are unprepared to request and receive information from people, you’re a few steps behind in a game that is even vaguely interactive and clever. Even in a hack and slash dungeon, if you take a prisoner who knows the area, you are a step ahead if you can find out more.

For further guidance, enjoy a wide selection of popular culture! May I recommend Burn Notice (Michael Weston is the patron saint of spies), or White Collar, Spy Games, and I’m sure you can find more. Good luck, and happy gaming.

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