Handling Prisoners in Savage Worlds

1949 film noir “Knock on Any Door” ...item 2.. Man, 20, 'bashed boss's wife and daughter to death with cement block (27 December 2013) ...item 3.. Chet Baker - Best Of Chet Baker ...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.



5 Comments on “Handling Prisoners in Savage Worlds”

  1. Theatre of Pain says:

    I enjoyed reading this and I see your point. I like the idea of having an ongoing antagonist to challenge my players, whenever we find time to play anyway.

    One of the aspects I used to loathe in roleplaying games was the whole idea of character alignment. The thought of limiting my players or myself as a player based on being Lawful, Chaotic, Good, Neutral or Evil was very distasteful, especially when it came down to, “You can’t do that because your alignment won’t allow it.” I eventually threw out alignments all together and reminded the players that they were supposed to be the good guys. Sometimes the greater good meant taking the villain in to the proper authorities so that justice could be served and sometimes it meant recognizing that the only justice to serve the greater good meant killing him before he could do any more harm. I would sometimes make the villain impossibly charismatic or sympathetic. This would lead to some great roleplaying as it forced the players to really examine their characters and the ultimate decision on how to best handle the situation.

    Now just as a question of curiosity, I would like to know how much control you feel the Game Master should have over his campaign. I spoke with a friend of mine recently about another roleplaying system and he said that one of the things he loved most about it was that it gave the GM complete and total control over the campaign. He pointed out that if an NPC was too important to kill, then the NPC couldn’t be killed. It was that simple. How do you feel about that? If you have grand designs for a recurring arch-nemesis and your players think of something that is going to take him out of the game permanently, how do you handle it? Does it make a difference if the players came up with an eloquent plan to take him down or just got in a couple of lucky dice rolls?

    • Re: “He pointed out that if an NPC was too important to kill, then the NPC couldn’t be killed.”

      That’s come up once or twice. The best trick is to incentivize the Players to keep the NPC alive. He’s got the key that the Players need — not just to solve a temporary campaign problem (eg. how to get into a locked safe five feet away), but some overriding goal that the Players want to achieve.

      VILLAIN: “If you kill me, you’ll never know who really killed the President… but I can take you right to the guys who did it.”
      HERO: “How do I know we can trust you? You’ve already tried to kill us.”
      VILLAIN: “If I was really trying to kill you, you’d already be dead a week ago. Someone’s put you on the wrong trail, son. I’m more valuable to you alive than dead.”
      HERO: (Staring up at the sky with frustration mounting) AAAAAAHHHHHGGGGHGHH!!!

      If you give the Players clear incentives that make the story more interesting — and they’ve got any roleplaying chops at all, they’ll gladly go along with it (usually). In the case described at the top of my post, one Player was going rogue, but the other Players did realize in time that it would be a bad idea to commit murder in the closet.

      When I run games, I generally know what plot points the Players are going to cover from beginning to end. The ending is always in my mind. That said, you provide enough choices to Players that they have the illusion of free will. They never realize that all roads ultimately lead to the final destination.

      • Theatre of Pain says:

        I like the “key” scenario but I usually have multiple ways to find it. The villain may be the fastest and easiest way and he may swear that he is the ONLY way but there will always be other (often more dangerous) options. Even though I may point the players from point A to point E, it really doesn’t matter to me if they take points B, C, D and/or Z to get there. Now if the villain is really important, I try to keep him out of the direct line of fire; the man behind the curtain puling the strings. But at the same time, if the players manage to burn down the curtain and cut the strings, I allow them the freedom to play it out however they like and adjust my campaign as needed.

  2. noblespirits says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the article…
    However, one thing to remember is that in most fantasy games the players often see themselves as judge, jury and Executioner. A group will encounter evil antagonists multiple times, orcs, trolls, intelligent undead, for which they have open license to kill. Most players lump the evil cultist who sacrificed 5 innocent people into the same category. If a campaign starts mixing signals (it is okay to kill orcs on sight but not humans) it can get confusing.

    • Theatre of Pain says:

      This is especially true in a setting where there aren’t so many black and white areas as there are grays. Which is more evil? The Devil that was summoned or the one who summoned him? What if the summoner was trying to seal the gates of Hell but mixed a sacrificial virgin’s blood with his angelic bone powder? It was still an evil act to a lesser degree and it’s often entertaining to watch the players try to decide what to do with an NPC in such a situation. Do they help him correct his mistake and seal the gates in the name of the greater good or do they kill him for meddling in dark magics and unleashing a new evil on the world? Moral quandaries are fun aren’t they? *evil grin*

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