The Alexandrian

Untested D&D – Interrogation

November 26th, 2014

Jack Bauer from 24

Interrogation checks are made to resolve the controlled questioning of prisoners or suspects: People who have (or who believe might have) a reason to withhold information from you.  Obtaining information through other forms of social interaction (questioning witnesses or chatting someone up at a social soiree, for example) is certainly possible, but may not be the right fit for these mechanics.

When interrogating a subject, the questioner can choose one of two approaches:

DIPLOMACY: These are “soft” methods of interrogation. Manipulation, seduction, a building of trust, a promise of quid pro quo.

INTIMIDATION: These are “hard” methods of interrogation. This doesn’t cover actual torture, but it does include aggressive techniques, threats of violence, and the like.

The appropriate interrogation skill is used to make a check against DC 10 + the subject’s HD + the subject’s Wisdom modifier. On a success, the interrogator gains one piece of information. Additional interrogation checks can be attempted, but each additional check applies a cumulative +2 modifier to the DC of the check.

After two failures, the interrogation will provide no more useful information. (The subject has broken down or their lawyer has shown up or they simple have no more useful information to share.)


Each interrogation technique can be escalated to the next level:

BRIBERY: Diplomacy-based interrogations can be enhanced with bribery. If a sufficiently large bribe is offered, the interrogator gains a +10 circumstance bonus to their interrogation checks for the rest of the interrogation. (Alternatively, you could use these advanced guidelines for determining the efficacy of a specific bribe.)

TORTURE: Intimidation-based interrogations can be escalated to actual torture. This involves inflicting actual physical damage and pain. (Or possibly inflicting the same on comrades or loved ones.) The target must make a Will save at DC 10 + the damage dealt by the torturer. If the subject fails the Will save, the interrogator gains a +10 circumstance bonus on their next interrogation check. (Of course, they can continue torturing the subject in order to gain the same bonus again.)

Both of these techniques, however, represent a gamble: Under the temptation of bribery or the desperation of torture subjects may invent information or say whatever they think the interrogator wants to hear. There’s a flat 25% chance of false information when giving a bribe. There’s a cumulative 10% chance of false information when using torture. (So after torturing a subject for the third time, there will be a 30% chance of false information.)


A couple of other skills can be useful in interrogations.

BLUFF: Subjects can attempt to provide false information with a Bluff check. If the check fails, however, the interrogator has seen through their lie and can immediately attempt another interrogation check with a +2 circumstance bonus to get the truth out of them. (All of the modifiers from their previous test still apply.)

SENSE MOTIVE: Sense Motive can, obviously, be used to opposed a subject’s Bluff checks. It might also be useful for determining what threats or promises would make for the most effective intimidation or bribery (offering a circumstance in accordance with the guidelines for aiding another, but perhaps inflicting penalties if the check goes awry).

OTHER SKILLS: Other skills can also be used situationally to aid the interrogation check. For example, demonstrating a bit of legerdemain with Sleight of Hand might impress a social contact. Or a Knowledge check might produce information that would endear an expert. Use the guidelines for aiding another to resolve these checks.


An interrogation team can play good cop / bad cop by switching their interrogation technique (from Diplomacy to Intimidation or vice versa). If their first interrogation check after the swap is successful, they can negate a previous failure. (This will allow them to prolong the interrogation.)

It’s exceptionally difficult to play good cop to your own bad cop: Apply a -10 circumstance penalty to the first check of an individual interrogator after the switch in approach.


Kenneth Hite has a technique he uses in investigation games: When the characters have gained all the information they’re going to get from a scene, he holds up a sign that says “SCENE OVER” or “DONE”. The statement cues the players to let them know that there’s no reward to continuing the ransack the apartment, while using a sign is less intrusive on the natural flow of the scene (so if there’s something they still want to accomplish in this scene of a non-investigative nature, the scene can continue without the GM unduly harshing the vibe).

The core of this interrogation mechanic is designed to do something similar: It’s sending a clear and specific “we’re done here” message to the players, allowing you to perform a clean cut that keeps the pacing tight.

It also has the added benefit of answering for the GM, “How much information does this guy really know?” in situations where that isn’t immediately clear. (This is a question I frequently struggle with when some random mook gets interrogated.)

Collectively, that’s why the difficulty cranks up after each question: I want the mechanic to terminate the interrogation for me.

You might also want to check out my Advanced Rules for Diplomacy. And my thoughts on Social Skills and PCs might also be of interest.

Check This Out – Son of Thor

November 25th, 2014

In 2011 I posted the Ruined Temple of Illhan here at the Alexandrian: It’s an old school dungeon crawl based around the Neo-Norska Pantheon and the supporting mythology I created. The centerpiece of of this mythology was Illhan, the eldest son of Thor. Illhan led the Eight Sons of Thor and Three Daughters of Hel to fight the legions of Nidhogg, the Great Serpent of Shadow. He was notable for wielding a hammer in each hand and his primary holy symbol was a pair of crossed hammers.

A few days ago, I was linked to this amazing piece of art entitled “The Son of Thor”:

Son of Thor - 0BO

This isn’t a direct depiction of Illhan, the Son of Thor. (It’s some other son of Thor.) But if you were going to use the Ruined Temple of Illhan, this piece of art would be pretty cool to use.


Sometimes it takes years for your brain to puzzle things out.

For example, I wrote Revisiting Encounter Design way back in 2008. The basic thesis was that you should generally abandon the new wave fetish for My Perfect Encounters(TM) and embrace a more flexible method of encounter design that would emphasize faster-paced, strategic-based play.

The four major tenets I argued for looked like this:

(1) Design most 3E encounters around an EL 2 to 4 lower than the party’s level.

(2) Don’t be afraid of large mobs (10+ creatures) with a total EL equal to the PCs’ level. The common design wisdom is that these creatures are “too easy” for the PCs. This is true if you’re thinking in terms of the “common wisdom” that sprang up around misreading the DMG, but in practice these types of encounters work just fine if you’re looking for fast encounters and lots of them.

(3) Encounters with an EL equal to the PCs’ level should be used sparingly. They should be thought of as “major encounters” — the memorable set pieces of the adventure. It actually won’t take very long before the expectations of your players’ have been re-aligned and these encounters leave them thinking, “Wow! That was a tough encounter!”

(4) And that means you get even more bang for your buck when you roll out the very rare EL+2 or EL+4 encounter.

(The general philosophy of this advice, it should be noted, is widely applicable beyond D&D. In Feng Shui, for example, it means “keep a healthy supply of mooks flowing through your scenario. In Shadowrun it means not letting a ‘run bog down into a single giant melee; keep the action on the hoof by making it possible for the PCs to cut their way rapidly through waves of security. And so forth.)

Most people seem to have grokked what I was selling. But there was a smaller group of people who insisted that I was wrong: That if they built an encounter with sixteen CR 2 creatures that the PCs would take a lot more damage than if they used a single CR 10 opponent. In fact, I still get fairly regular e-mails to this effect six years later. And I could never figure it out: Running the math on hypothetical scenarios regularly confirmed what years of play and hundreds of game sessions had taught me. It certainly wasn’t impossible for the mob of CR 2 creatures to out-perform the CR 10 creature, but in general the fighter was goign to rapidly cleave through the mooks or the wizard’s fireball was going to rip them apart.

Were the people e-mailing me fudging dice rolls to toughen up the weaklings? Did their players just have no idea how to use mass damage or area control spells?


It took six years, but then I was driving down a highway in Wisconsin the other day when epiphany finally hit me: These are reports of anecdote. And the problem with anecdote is that it selects for the exceptional and the unusual.

You don’t remember the 19 times that you used a CR 10 monster against a 10th level party and it took a few rounds to take it down while tearing out a few large chunks of hit points from the group. Instead, you remember the time that the party faced a single tough opponent and miraculously chopped his head off in the first round of combat.

Similarly, you don’t remember the umpteen times that your wizard casually fireballed a group of mook orcs and cleared ‘em out without any hassle. What you’ll remember is that one time that a horde of kobolds left the PCs screaming and fleeing in terror.

It’s also likely that the actual numbers aren’t actually being looked at in these anecdotes: “Remember that time that the six orcs in area 4 were a lot tougher for the party to take out than the demon in area 10?” Sure. But were those actually EL equivalent encounters? Or were the orcs all CR 8 (for an EL 13 encounter) while the demon was CR 10?

None of this is a problem, of course, unless you start using the exceptionalism of your anecdotes as a guiding principle of scenario design. You want your scenario to be exceptional, of course, but you won’t achieve that if you’re expecting the statistically exceptional in every encounter.

(Of course this is another advantage of the encounter design method I advocate for: By increasing the number of encounters experienced, I increase the number of opportunities for the memorably exceptional moments to happen. Sometimes that will be the result of improbable math; sometimes it will be the result of clever and unexpected play. That’s the beauty of a non-deterministic medium.)

As I mentioned last week, the script is the foundation of our work at the American Shakespeare Repertory. In preparing our scripts, we try to find the right balance between preserving the clues of performance and meaning preserved in the original texts, while still benefiting from the insights gleaned from 400 years of scholastic study. We’re also looking to create a document which is easy to use in both rehearsal and performance.

The script of our first production, Macbeth, is fairly representative of the process.


I start by pulling a base text, which is usually taken from the Moby Shakespeare public domain ASCII text versions hosted by James Matthew Farrow. My primary reason for using a base text is to avoid needing to re-type the entire script (which I know, from previous experience, would greatly increase the likelihood of error). I treat the base text as if it were a faulty document in need of proof-reading, and the master copy I’m comparing it to is the original versions of the play published during Shakespeare’s lifetime or in the First Folio of 1623.

In the case of Macbeth, that means the version of the play printed in the First Folio. (If the First Folio had never been published, Macbeth, like hundreds of other Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, would have likely been lost to the world.) In order to access that text, I refer to both the printed facsimile edition that I own, or to one of several photo facsimiles available online. (Like the one hosted as part of the Furness Collection by the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, which you can view here.)


My goal, however, is not to produce an exact duplicate of the First Folio in modern text. (If I needed that, I could simply buy the The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare in Modern Type.) While I find it fascinating to study the original documents on which our knowledge of Shakespeare is based, that study also makes me aware of how imperfect those documents are. They are documents in need of repair, and for 400 years brilliant, talented, and insightful people have been working to make them better.

In order to tap into that accumulation of knowledge, I reference a lot of different sources: The Variorum editions of many plays (including the Variorum edition of Macbeth, which can be viewed online) provide an invaluable insight into early scholastic traditions, while a collection of more modern editions (such as the Arden, Folger, and Oxford editions) with a variety of supplementary reading provide the rest.

But while I want to take advantage of this accumulation of knowledge, I’ve also found that most modern texts can suffer from that accumulation of knowledge: In some cases, editorial errors have become scholastic traditions. And many of the things done to make the texts “accessible” actually obscure Shakespeare’s original intentions.

So in working from my base text for Macbeth, I am “reverting” it to the original text of First Folio while applying what I refer to as the Principle of Minimal Emendation: I will only alter the text when the text doesn’t make sense as it stands.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this principle applies to punctuation: While many editors are careful to wield nothing more than a scalpel when considering which words to change in the text, virtually all modern editions have punctuation which bears only the slightest resemblance to those found in the original texts. And while we certainly have plenty of evidence that the type-setters responsible for creating those texts may have also played fast-and-loose with Shakespeare’s punctuation (at best), it’s also true that a shift in punctuation can also create large shifts in meaning.


Once I’ve fully prepared a complete version of the script, I still need to prepare a conflated version of the script for our production.

Shakespeare’s plays include dozens of characters. (Macbeth, for example, includes thirty-nine different characters.) While it’s certainly possible to cast a different actor for every role, this is rarely done. It wasn’t even typical in Shakespeare’s own theater. (Our own reading of Macbeth featured only 16 actors.)

Instead, modern productions will reduce the number of actors required through three techniques:

Doubling, in which a single actor portrays multiple roles throughout the play.

Conflation, in which the lines for one character are given to a different character (in order to eliminate a role from the play).

Cutting, in which entire roles are simply removed from the play.

Our conflated scripts feature a combination of all three techniques, although we rarely resort to outright cutting (since our desire is to fully explore the texts).


We’ll be providing digital copies of all our scripts, starting with Macbeth, in both conflated and unconflated forms:



It’s certainly easy enough to find Shakespeare plays online, but while these editions aren’t proper scholastic editions (they’re quick, dirty and effective instead of being fully reviewed), we believe that our scripts are particularly valuable for those looking to stage the plays. (Our script for Romeo & Juliet, for example, has already served as the basis for four full-scale local productions.) In particular, we find these scripts valuable because they indicate how they’ve been altered from the original texts.

In the case of Macbeth, please note that:

1. All emendations have been indicated to with [square brackets].

2. Speech headings have been silently regularlized.

3. Names which appear in ALL CAPITALS in stage directions have also been regularized.

4. Spelling has been modernized.

5. Punctuation has been silently emended. (Although only in a minimalist fashion, as described above.)

(Intriguingly, even these minimal procedures can still have a significant impact on meaning. For example, the character that we casually think of as “Lady Macbeth” virtually never appears as such in the text itself. She is almost always referred to as “Lady” or “Wife”. The subjection of personal identity into societal role can have a profound impact on how we interpret her actions and her motivations.)

Originally posted September 9th, 2010.

Shitty People Are Everywhere

November 21st, 2014

Probably the most interesting thing about #gamergate and #notyourshield is how clearly they demonstrate the ease with which movements without centralized organization can be trivially stigmatized by selectively focusing on extremists within the movement.

You saw the same thing with Occupy a couple years ago and you’re going to see a lot more of it: The rise of mass social media platforms allow large, populist, grassroots movements to spontaneously organize… but they also mean that literally any crackpot within that movement has access to the loudspeakers.

You can argue that this is a “no true Scotsman” fallacy, but it’s more of an open question: There are going to be crazy Scotsmen. You’re going to have to decide whether you’re going to write off every single Scotsman because of the crazies or whether you’re going to consciously develop a better and more nuanced filter.

And before you make that decision you should take a moment to reflect on this: All of those ideologies and movements you self-identify with? They’re full of crazy people, too.


Your immediate response to that may be, “There are no crazy people in my ideology!” And, frankly, that’s part of the problem here

Human nature gravitates towards fierce tribalism: We filter out or subconsciously minimize the bad behavior of people in our own groups, but we instinctively cherry-pick the bad behavior of groups we don’t identify with and quickly assume they’re representative of the entire group.

For example, you may be among the people who consider #gamergate to be nothing but a bunch of misogynists throwing around death threats. More power to you. But let’s apply the same standards to a few other groups:

Michael Bay receives a lot of death threats for making shitty movies. (Particularly shitty Transformer movies.) Does this mean that everyone who dislikes a Michael Bay movie is a terrorist?

During the George W. Bush administration there were a lot of Democrats who sent him death threats. Does this mean every single Democrat is a scumbag? Do the death threats received by Obama make every single Republican a psycho?

Christian Ponder and his wife were digitally stalked and repeatedly threatened with death because Christian Ponder isn’t a great NFL quarterback. Does this mean that all football fans are assholes?

RPGPundit is an asshole… does this mean that D&D 5E is terrible? Does it mean that people who play RPGs in general are assholes?

When you dip your brush in tar you can choose to paint carefully with it or just spray it around the room without care. The first question you have to ask yourself is whether or not that’s fair to the people you’re tarring. The second question you have to ask yourself is whether or not you, personally, are being best served by surrendering to these tribalistic instincts: Is your life richer or better because you’re vilifying entire ideologies for the actions of some of the people who profess belief in them? Or are you robbing yourself of a deeper and richer understanding of the world around you?


The other thing to consider is the degree to which the tar-spraying is directly contributing to the problem. And #gamergate actually provides a great example of how this tribalism senselessly escalates.

There are a lot of narratives that can be constructed around the origins of the #gamergate movement, but for our purposes I’m going to start by looking at one of the earliest controversies involving Zoe Quinn: Her accusation that the Wizardchan board harassed her.

Zoe’s version of this event is relatively simple: Two anonymous users on a site with several thousand registered users posted messages which were hostile towards her and misogynist in general. She then received phone calls which she assumed came from the Wizardchan users. Her conclusion was that the entire Wizardchan board was targeting her for harassment.

Some people have questioned Zoe’s truthfulness. Some people have claimed that she deliberately manufactured the “crisis” in order to generate free publicity for her game. But the only thing required for this situation to exist is simple tribalism: Zoe (and her supporters) identified the Wizardchan board as being the “other”, saw the bad behavior of a few, and decided that it must be representative of the entire board.

Of course, it doesn’t end there.

People from Wizardchan put together a series of compilation rebuttal images attempting to demonstrate that the bad behavior was not representative of the board in general. These images then attempted to “turn the table” on Quinn by accusing her of all sorts of bad behavior and then culminated in this:

So, when she saw the posts, she saw the perfect opportunity to get what she wanted: like many before she used those to make up a situation where she was the victim of harassment, hoping to get pity and, by proxy, fame and recognition.

And then goes onto a list a number of other women who have reported abuse in order to cast doubt on all their claims.

As we previously assumed that everything Zoe Quinn said was true, let’s now assume that everything the Wizardchan defenders claim was true: Why should that suddenly villainize the entire class of “women who claimed game-related abuse”?

Well, for the exact same reason that Quinn attacked Wizardchan in the first place. Only the polarity has been reversed.

In this, we can see how this tribalism needlessly escalates antagonism: Zoe attacks a community because of the actions of a few members of that community. The members of that community, being attacked, react by attacking the entire group which Zoe is only one small part of.

Fast forward several months later and we can see the exact same dynamic of Mutually Assured Tribalism continuing: The anti-GGers claim that the death threats coming from other anti-GGers must be “false flag” efforts because they would never do such a thing; the GGers claim that the anti-GGers who are being doxxed must be faking it because no true GGer would ever do such a thing.

Deny the bad behavior of your own tribe. Seek out the bad behavior of other tribes. It’s a vicious and painful circle unless you can muster the willpower to rise above it.


This, however, leads to another excellent example of tribalism at work: The loud and self-righteous claims that, “If Group X wasn’t really for killing kittens then the members of Group X would stop other member of Group X from talking about kitten killing!”

There are two major problems with this. First, it’s built upon the false expectation that the members of Group X possess some sort of godlike power to control the voice of everyone else in Group X. (In the era of mass social media there’s simply no reason to expect that to be true.)

Second, in practice it’s generally just a slightly more sophisticated manifestation of tribalism: You are ignoring the people in Group X who are disavowing the bad behavior of their “comrades” because you’re subconsciously cherry-picking the bad behavior. (This often takes the form of rationalizing away the disavowals using some variation of “they’re just pretending; after all, we know they’re all bad guys, right?”.)

The fun part is that this really ramps up the tribalism: Since you’re open to the good stuff people on your “side” are doing, you acknowledge all the people on your side disavowing the bad behavior. Then you see people on the “other side” claiming that nobody on your side is disavowing the behavior. Clearly those people are lying… and since you stigmatize the entire group based on the behavior of the few, they must all be liars. So you call them liars and… oh, hey. Now you’re one of the guys engaging in bad behavior. (Which, of course, means that everyone on your side engages in bad behavior, which results in the other side… Rinse. Wash. Repeat.)


Shitty people are everywhere.

Does this mean we should ignore them? Or tolerate them? Or wink at their “little indiscretions” (which are actually horrific more often than not)?

Absolutely not.

But we also shouldn’t empower the assholes to discredit entire ideologies through the mere fact that they self-identify with those ideologies. And that remains true even if a particular asshole is expressing their jackassery through the ideology: Someone claiming that all men should be murdered doesn’t mean that women suddenly no longer deserve the right to vote. Reprehensible people making criminal threats against Anita Sarkeesian’s life because her videos aren’t very good don’t make her videos immune to all criticism.

Of course, none of this is going to make the shitty people go away. In an era of mass social media, the megaphones are too cheap, too readily available, and too easy to hear. But you’ll improve your own life by keeping your mind open (instead of locking whole swaths of humanity out of it). You’ll improve the public discourse by continuing to contribute to it (instead contributing to tribalistic feuds).

And I think you’ll also find yourself a lot less angry and depressed at the world around you. Because while there may be shitty people everywhere, there’s not nearly as many of them as those trapped in tribalism would like to think.



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