The idea of lines and veils is one that is relatively new to me. From the beginning of my role-playing experience I have always played with people that I knew well. My fellow players and I have always had a good feel of what was too extreme for each other and we were able to quickly adjust if necessary. The biggest jar was when I went to college and my new fellow players were guys I’d only known for a few weeks. Torture has never been something that I’ve thought was important in a game and the people I’ve played with felt the same way. But, if listening to the Walking Eye podcast (and gaming podcasts in general) has taught me anything, it’s that almost every group of players plays different from the way I do. Most game systems, especially the older and more main stream ones, don’t deal with some of the more extreme aspects of the world. Sex and torture are two of the areas that generally get glossed over, though violence in general is at the core of most of them. While I’m sure that there is a sex RPG out there, I haven’t seen it and I’m not sure I want to, but I have seen one focused on torture.
Speaking of one of the podcasts that has taught me how wide the world of role playing is, Torture the RPG is dedicated to Fear the Boot. I suspect that this would horrify many of members of said podcast, though, knowing them, there is an almost equal chance they would judge it based on their “no bad fun” position. In any case, the game was inspired by a discussion the guys on the podcast had about torture and how to deal with it within a larger game. This game probably grew out of a feeling that I’ve had before, where a single small idea won’t leave me alone until I explore it and write things out. The sort of “but what about…?” thoughts that won’t leave you alone even if you don’t want to think about them.
The game is, given its topic, mercifully short and simple. This is no extensive description of the topic with modifiers and tables of different devices and strategies. Instead, it is a quick, narrative game. It’s also designed so that it can a standalone game, though I have to wonder at the drive to simply play a session of torture.
The game can be incorporated in the appropriate points in a different game as part of a larger campaign. As designed, it is not meant to incorporate or utilize the rules from these other games, but is rather intended as becomes a sort of minigame. In fact, the author suggests that the rules NOT be used with another game system because the balance of this game will be upset. I would have to disagree with this point since it means that every character whether PC or NPC would have the same chance of success and failure. Basically, it would be as easy to get information out of a lowly kobold as a hardended Jedi master. Instead, I would suggest this system would form a great framework to be modified by a GM for their own game using the stats and modifiers from their favorite game system.
The game is heavily story based and, as such, the characters involved are an integral part of the mechanics on both sides. Even if one of those characters is an NPC. A cardboard cutout of a bad guy is not only not going to provide an interesting game but will, to a very real degree, make it impossible to have a game at all. As such, character creation, while simple comes first.
I won’t get too deep into the mechanics, because there aren’t a lot and it would be difficult to describe them without giving them away. But, they hinge around 3 secrets. These are the 3 bits of information that the victim is trying to hide and the 3 bits of information the torturer is trying to get out of the victim. These secrets are not of equal weight and they increase from a minor secret that is almost meaningless up to a medium level that is worth getting and hiding and a final secret that everything else hinges on. Fortunately for the victim, these secrets are doled out in that exact order, as well. Each time the mechanics demand that a secret be given up, the next level of question is revealed starting with the minor secret and working up to the bit one.
In addition to the set number of secrets, there are a set number of rounds in the game. There are 5 rounds and each round has a name that reflects the way the situation is escalating. This means that the system is weighted so that both sides have about a 50/50 chance of succeeding as a torturer needs to get all three secrets to truly succeed while the victim can give up 1 without failing and the second secret is sort of a draw for both sides.
Each round is further broken into 3 stages. This begins with the victim summary, which is essentially the player playing the victim describing the victim’s mental, physical and emotional state. Each side then rolls and adds some modifiers and the higher score is the winner for the round. If the victim wins, he keeps his secret. If the torturer wins he learns a secret. The final stage of the round is a collaborative narration of what happens in that round based on the victim summary and the results of the rolls. That collaboration is very important in this game. In fact, the last thing said in the game reinforces that it is very important that no one overstep the boundaries of comfort of the other players and that the players should work together at each stage to make the game interesting.
At first glance, it seems the game is mechanically weighted toward the torturer as he gets a bonus every round after the first to reflect that the torture is getting worse. However, there are actual bonuses that each side can choose to use as well. These reflect both mental and physical things each side can do to aid them in a round. Each has its own value and the victim gets 1 more and one more that is bigger than any that the torturer gets. While these factors mean that there is, theoretically, some strategizing that can be done by each side, I suspect that most games of Torture the RPG take the same path with each side simply using their growing bonuses with each succeeding round. Then again, less obvious strategies become evident the more you play even the simplest of games. Then again, it would be kind of weird if torture became enough of a factor in any game to play this game enough times to actually develop different strategies.
Torture the RPG deals well with one of the aspects of many game worlds that commonly gets glossed over. After all, many characters lead lives of violent conflict, often in setting with opponents who are particularly savage. This combination almost guarantees that someone would get tortured at some point if there was any chance of being captured. Of course, whether or not this is something that actually needs to be addressed in a game is a matter of some debate but a matter of debate that would be up to each group. And an argument could be made that a person, even a character isn’t really defined unless he is put to the test and torture is, by definition an extreme test.