Interrogating prisoners in a D&D Game

Joan of Arc is interrogated by The Cardinal of Winchester in her prison, by Paul Delaroche

Essentially, there are two situations where interrogation might take place during a Dungeons & Dragons adventure: when the heroes are captured, or when the heroes capture an enemy. Both situations turn the game from a battle of might to a battle of wits; the captor seeks to learn precious information about a foe, and the captive seeks to delay, mislead or otherwise prevent the captor from obtaining it.

Some Dungeon Masters (DMs) may be inclined to resolve whether or not a captured foe shares information based on a single intimidate skill check. Others may opt toward structuring an interrogation as a fourth edition skill challenge, with the number of skill check successes dictating how much information is shared. A handful of DMs may decide to remove the dice completely from the equation, and allow the quality of the role-playing to decide how much information is gleaned by the captor.

Regardless of the mechanics behind determining the success of an interrogation in a D&D game, the process normally includes at least some role-playing – but what types of questions should be asked, and how should they be asked to maximize the chances of a truthful answer?

Fortunately, there are time-tested methods, apart from torture, that an interrogator can use to coerce or trick a captive into sharing information. And to obtain that knowledge, the weary DM need only turn to the U.S. Army’s Interrogation Operations Subcourse IT 0606, published in 1995 and subsequently released to the public, which provides general guidelines on the conduct of interrogations, as well as an overview of how interrogations fit into intelligence work as a whole. It is from this manual that the following suggestions were drawn. They work equally well for DMs questioning captive heroes, or for heroes who need to interrogate their enemies.

Role of the interrogator

The manual provides a more succinct and complete description of the interrogator’s role than this writer could produce. It reads as follows:

“The interrogator must appear to have more information than he actually does, break down a cover story, and place many small items together to catch a prisoner off guard and surprise him into revealing the truth. He must know when to adopt a gentle, nurturing approach and when to appear hostile, inquisitive or menacing.”

Thus, an interrogator needs to know what stance to take in order to get the most information from his captive. While the intimidate skill check mentioned above may be one way to get information, it doesn’t turn the captive into a robot that recites everything the player wants to know, and may not even lead to the real answers a hero is seeking if the wrong questions are asked (see below).

Preparing for the interrogation

The manual goes into some detail about how a successful interrogator uses knowledge of human nature to help manipulate a captive into knowingly or unknowingly cooperating. It states:

From a psychological standpoint, the interrogator must be cognizant of the following behavioral principles. People tend to–

  •  Talk, especially after harrowing experiences.
  •  Show deference when confronted by superior authority.
  •  Rationalize acts about which they feel guilty.
  •  Lack the ability to apply or to remember lessons they may have been taught regarding security if confronted with a disorganized or strange situation.
  •  Cooperate with those who have control over them.
  •  Attach less importance to a topic about which the interrogator demonstrates identical or related experience or knowledge.
  •  Appreciate flattery and exoneration from guilt.
  •  Resent having someone or something they respect belittled, especially by someone they dislike.
  •  Respond to kindness and understanding during trying circumstances.
  •  Cooperate readily when given material rewards such as extra food or luxury items for their personal comfort.

A second preparation step may be necessary if more than one prisoner is taken – separation. In field operations, prisoners are separated by military or civilian status, as well as by rank among military prisoners. Separation prevents subordinates from simply agreeing with whatever their better-informed leader is saying, and it also prevents captives from knowing what other captives have revealed during questioning. A skilled interrogator may use that uncertainty and lie to a captive, stating that another captive told him something in an attempt to get the captive being questioned to confirm a theory.

When an enemy is captured

Step 1: Be mindful of the “critical period.”

The manual explains that “The most critical period for an EPW is from the moment of capture until the first interrogation is conducted. During this time, the prisoner is still overwhelmed by the shock of his capture. The insecurity of not knowing his fate makes him vulnerable to the interrogator.”

While this period of time is less likely to mean anything to player-character heroes – it’s their business to make daring escapes, after all – heroic treatment of enemy prisoners may impact how those  prisoners respond to questioning. A party that kills first and asks questions later will probably have limited success questioning any survivors.

Step 2: Asking the right questions.

Since it’s unlikely that a captive will volunteer information, it’s imperative that an interrogator asks the right questions. The “right question” does more than ask about missing information; it is phrased in such a way that a captive may end up volunteering more than the interrogator thought. The manual offers the following guidelines on questions to avoid:

  • Leading questions require the EPW/detainee to answer Yes or No. They do not elicit narrative answers. They also prompt the EPW/ detainee to answer the questions in a way he thinks the interrogator wants to hear it. Although normally avoided during the interrogation, they may be used to verify facts, to pinpoint map locations, or confirm information obtained during map tracking.
  • Negative questions imply the EPW/detainee should reply in the negative and sometimes confuses or leads the EPW/detainee to provide false information, as in the example, “You aren’t in the 1st Company, are you?” Negative questions should never be used during an interrogation.
  • Compound questions are actually two questions asked at the same time, for example, “Before you were captured today, were you traveling north or south?” They are easily misunderstood, and may confuse the EPW or force him to give an ambiguous answer. Compound questions are never used during an interrogation.

Of course, some suggestions for creating more effective questions are offered. The manual states that a good interrogation question has the following traits:

  • It uses interrogative. Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How are basic interrogatives used to form direct questions.
  • It requires a narrative answer, i.e., one which cannot be answered by a simple Yes or No.
  • This type of question requires the EPW/detainee to think about his answer in order to respond correctly.
  • It provides a maximum amount of information in the least amount of time, and the greatest number of leads to other information.
  • It is brief, precise, and simply worded to avoid confusion. The interrogator must keep in mind the EPW/detainee he talks to may not have the same intellectual level and some may be illiterate. Additionally, some words or phrases in English do not translate into a foreign language.

Step 3: Maintain credibility.

Typically, a goal of the interrogation is to develop a rapport between the interrogator and captive, to encourage the captive to share more information. Often this rapport is reinforced with the granting of food, better living quarters, privileges or other amenities to the captive. If a captor promises these things but does not deliver them when promised, the laboriously developed rapport will quickly disappear.

Bringing interrogation into the game

Questioning captive heroes shouldn’t be much trouble for a DM, as he or she knows what the villains are doing and what the villain doesn’t know and would therefore ask about. Players, however, may not always know what to ask – they may not even plan on taking a prisoner until an enemy suddenly surrenders. One way for players to make full use of an interrogation opportunity is to create a list of questions to ask an enemy that has surrendered, in the manner described as “SOP Lists” in this post.

Have you used interrogation in one of your games? Did they play out positively or negatively? Consider sharing your experiences in the comments section below.


6 comments on “Interrogating prisoners in a D&D Game

  1. Andy says:

    Well, er, we had a game of Hunter where we’d captured someone whom we suspected of being some sort of vampire. So one of the party members decides to cut off his fingers to get information, reasoning with the more lawful party members (like myself) that he can regrow them.

    I think our GM was a bit too lenient here, as the info yielded was pretty accurate and helpful.

    • Alric says:

      Cutting off fingers that grow back – *that* is inspired. “Temporary torture” is a clever way to circumvent alignment issues.

      And thank you for your visit, Andy.

  2. jass7m says:

    Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! I have a http://www.

  3. gainmax says:

    yes, in my opinion

  4. Paul B says:

    Very interesting! Though I think some example questions/scenarios would help illuminate the points you’re making.

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