Handling Prisoners in Savage WorldsPosted: July 14, 2014
The heroes grabbed the villain and tied him to a chair in a closet. They tried to intimidate him — and then when they didn’t like his blustery response, they smashed his face in. After the rough stuff was over, the villain gave them all of the information they wanted (in truth, they easily could have got about 90 percent of the info just from talking to just about any longtime resident of the city, but whatever. Proper police questioning technique is a post for another day).
When the villain was done sharing all of the information he had, the honourable holy Paladin of our group announced that he was going to slit the helpless villain’s throat.
At this point, a reasonable outsider starts asking, “Who is the hero and who is the villain, again?”
I certainly questioned it. The Player tried to rationalize it by reminding me his character worshipped Crom, a god of war. I replied by noting he doesn’t worship a god of cold-blooded murder — which is a whole other thing, at least for the non-hippie set. In the event, my intervention wasn’t necessary — one of the other Players saw where the situation was going and promptly got in the bloodthirsty Player’s way.
I should mention before we go further that I typically provide a lot of incentive for heroes to talk to villains, or just about any NPC. Clues to their next quest are everywhere. Often, the villains need to be subdued first before a conversation starts, though. That’s where the trouble sometimes begins.
Prisoner-handling techniques worthy of an Al Qaeda hostage taker have come up a few times already in various campaigns with various groups. Usually, at least one of the Players recognizes that something is amiss, but they don’t always try actively to prevent it. (The “I was just trying to fit in” defense can be pretty disappointing in these circumstances).
I’m not really down with it. Sometimes in this situation I’ll remind my Players that there is an official Bloodthirsty Hindrance (Major), defined thusly: “Your hero never takes prisoners unless under the direct supervision of a superior… Your killer suffers –4 to his Charisma, but only if his cruel habits are known.” I tell them that if they proceed with a summary execution of a helpless prisoner, they will take this Hindrance immediately. If I’m feeling particularly horrified, I’ll tell the Players they’ll also have permanent -4 disadvantage on all trait rolls (yup, all) by virtue of another Hindrance I made up on the spot, Guilty Conscience. That’s not officially in the rules, but I figure if I’m going to intervene to save a campaign by moralistic railroading, there’s no point in half-measures.
That is what I figure I’m doing, BTW: saving the campaign.
Our campaigns are very much story and roleplaying based — indeed, there have been several sessions with no combat, just description and dialogue between Players. The overriding assumption of all of my Savage Worlds campaigns to date is that the characters are hero protagonists (That’s not quite the same as being Heroic, an actual Hindrance that guides certain characters to not abandon helpless folks to their doom if they can possibly help). The heroes don’t have to be nice — but they do have to play by a certain rule of good storytelling.
Now, we can all agree that in a game, a prisoner who has already surrendered isn’t a combatant. Initiative cards and dice have already been set aside. An agreement has been made: “I won’t give you any more trouble and you won’t kill me”. The villain can still try to resist interrogation, but whether or not they give you the info you want, heroes shouldn’t kill them. Heck, real heroes shouldn’t even saw their arm off.
On the other hand, being a prisoner is not necessarily an escape clause from certain death thanks to the heroes’ higher morals. It’s common in adventure stories for a villain-prisoner to give away some important information, try to lull the hero into a sense of complacency and then try to literally backstab the hero when he’s not looking. At that point, the prisoner has once again become a combatant — and assuming the heroes are quicker on the draw, the villain is going to lose. Plenty of stories end satisfyingly that way.
“But what if the villain doesn’t try to backstab his way out of the situation?” our Players ask. “What if he just sits there and stews until he is rescued by the evil cavalry? Or what if our characters just have to physically move on and can’t quite figure out where to stow him in the meantime?”
Well, if that happens, is it really that bad? The villain and the heroes will be following an eternal tradition of letting the bad guy get away, so you can have an even better rematch later on.
How many times has Batman rescued the Joker from certain death, only to chase the maniac down in a white-knuckled scene later on? How about the latest James Bond flick, where he lets the villain live, bringing him back to MI-5 headquarters, only for them to meet once again in a huge battle back on his own home turf?
If Players slit the throat of the villain when that villain is helpless (mostly just as a safety precaution) they’re not just killing the villain — they’re killing the possibility of the next exciting chapter when their heroes get to go toe-to-toe once more, finally bringing the bastard down in a blaze of heroic glory.
So be heroes. It’s more fun that way.