How to Torture Your PCs in 6 Easy Steps

Posted on October 25, 2012 by


“Bad news for the character is always good news for the actor’

-Declan Donnellan, The Actor and the Target

In the Miranda campaign, the group spent considerable time trying to track down the realm of Shom, wiped from the memories of all living things, and impossible to map. They had to raise considerable funds to track down a mapmaker, who mapped all of existence in order to find the one place that did not exist. When they finally got to Shom, they had to explore two dangerous temples: The Temple of the Mind, and the Temple of the Soul, home to the two branches of the Illumians. The Temple of the Mind was a chance for me to explore traps, riddles, and encounters that had a different goal than “Kill all the monsters”. But, as a mysterious voice (the goddess Avandra) warned, the Temple of the Soul would be much, much worse.

In the temple the group had Soul Guides; each one was a manifestation of someone very important in their lives: teachers, father figures, ex-lovers, etc… The soul guides brought them through a painful process where they were forced to overcome dangerous obstacles. One room required a simple task: To dispose of something they cared greatly about. A fighting hand, an ancient rune, luck, a face, a memory, the heart of a soldier, and (maybe my favorite, because it opened up so much for the game), the ability to lie were all given up.

At the end of the temple, the soul guides turned on the group, attacking them in the final room. While they battled them they tore them down emotionally; I had written page after page of insults, trying to get as personal as possible to the characters. Every bit of self-doubt and character flaw was as exploited as I could get. The ship’s psion, Liam, was informed by his teacher that everyone would be better off if he hadn’t been so cowardly a few years back and just killed himself like he was tempted to.

This was definitely one of my favorite games to play.

I hate having characters be happy. The more I played Miranda, the more fun it became to torture the PCs: Forcing one to kill his father in a gladiator arena; burning down another’s home and library;torturing one and blaming the whole thing on him; etc… Kyle ascribes it to being a huge Whedon fan, which is partially true. But why do I love torturing them so? Is it just sadism? Yes. End of blog.

Kidding. The opening quote to this post sums up my feelings on the matter quite well: The worse off the characters, the more the players have to work with. And that’s what makes the stuff of heroes.

I feel like every character should be a phoenix of a sort, or at least brush against the Campbellian hero arch. All of the pain they go through is a growing experience. The should not be victorious at the end if they have not earned it; all of the pain and agony is what gives them the strength to defeat their final enemy.

Torturing the characters should always be done so for the sake of the character, in an almost paradoxical way. And the character should always be kept in mind–they should invite their own torture. Even their best intentions should, at times, bring about terrible consequences. But what should be avoided at all costs is the random torment, or the one that happens in a vacuum. Being mean for the sake of being mean is fun for no one. I’m not going to say I have always avoided this particular pit-trap; after the Temple of Soul, Tyler and I had to have a long discussion about something I basically forced his character into. It had no real purpose, and I admitted to the mistake. It only took a brief retcon to get things back on track, luckily, and it was a good lesson in overdoing something.

The other thing that should be avoided is mistaking personal attacks again the character with personal attacks against the player. There’s no better way to ruin a game, and a friendship, than going after the player. Granted, we often put a lot of ourselves into our characters, which can make the whole thing risky, but as long as we all remember the distinction, we can be safe.

Finally, I love hero stories, and while a dark ending can be good, after a campaign of suffering and agony, I love a happy ending for the characters. The heroes rise above all the terrible things that have happened to them to become heroes.

What is really comes down to is this: Without great obstacles and pain, there is nothing to overcome, and no chance for greatness. And yeah, you could just make those obstacles a series of higher-level encounters, but where’s the richness in that?

So, my basic rules for tormenting PCs.

1. Don’t allow the characters to be too happy or successful: trials and tribulations give the players more to work with, and make greater heroes.

2. Any torture must be tied into the character’s story and personality. Nothing should happen arbitrarily.

3. Do give them the occasional victory, some meager hope. Then rip it away.

4. For fuck’s sake, no women in refrigerators.  That’s lazy and boring. No one’s lover died in Miranda, and that was on purpose.

5. Never, ever, personally attack your players, only their characters. Be careful with the elements of the character that are close to the player.

6. When they earn it, give it to them. Natural and unexpected consequences happen. And give them the victory they earn, especially at the end. The pain must be for a reason, which is to shape them into heroes. Once again, nothing arbitrary.

Happy Tormenting!

Posted in: Metagame, Miranda