Interrogation in ‘A Time of War’

Due in part to moving to a new city and starting a new job as the head of a newly created department, I have fallen woefully far behind in the actual play reports for my ongoing Mechwarrior PBeM. Much has happened since the last report, but this week has brought about a kind of scene that I have been looking forward to since we first started talking about trying the system. As the game has now been running for almost 2 years (20 months) I am forced to admit that it would not be inaccurate to state that I have learned something about patience in my time in Asia. We are using the rules for the 4th edition of Mechwarrior, Catalyst’s ‘A Time of War RPG’.

Today, one of the players (Lucas ‘Cool-Hand Luke’ Rom, Agent of SAFE) will be launching into an interrogation attempt versus an intelligence operative technically in the same organization, but very much on the other side. Given the nature of the campaign as envisioned, capture and interrogation of someone (PC or NPC, Marik, Lyran, or other) was very much a matter of time. While the amount of time is a bit of a surprise, the time has finally arrived. Am I ready for it? I guess time is involved there as well, as only it will be able to tell.

As this is a PBeM, one of the barriers to satisfying play is the lack of the subtleties of verbal interaction that two comfortable roleplayers can bring to a scene like this. Discourse in this format is very much ‘I go, then you go’ and that is less than ideal outside of combat and dramatic speeches to inspire the awestruck troops. To that end, I have been thinking about how to add the right kind of engagement and drama to an interrogation should one come about. To be honest, after a few months of fiddling with ideas, I decided to run it the same way I would if we were all around the table, just with larger swaths of time represented in posts than would be stated face to face. Simpler is often better.

With that in mind, each time a potential to deal with captives, or to be captured came about I would look over the resolution systems presented in the core rules, and read over interrogation and wonder how I wanted to run such a scene in the campaign. This post will be looking at the methods I ultimately decided upon.

The Straight Roll

As those who know me and/or read this blog may know, I am not always satisfied with the support offered in game systems for the application of intellectual or emotional force. So often it comes down to a simple roll with pass/fail results, and the GM is left the task of interpreting it. As we are likely all aware from boring experiences in our gaming pasts, not everyone can do that, or do it consistently. When each gunshot is given loving attention by most systems, but a tricky interrogation comes down to a single skill roll and the handwaving of the hours required for such a scene to actually take place, the player who built that interrogator and got off on imagining the interesting social conflicts they were going to engage in in play is totally hosed. I wrote about this yesterday, so let me direct you there and just state here that when this happens, in essence the game and the group are saying that the chosen niche skill is important, but not actually important enough to include in the game session. While I definitely do not support making spotlight time for characters, that does not mean I discourage characters from taking it when it is their due. Things should be earned, and things earned should not be minimized by the active or passive disinterest of the gaming group.

As written in the A Time of War core rules, the Interrogation skill could be interpreted as being open to resolution as a basic skill roll. In such a case, the target’s Will is used as a modifier as are the conditions during the interrogation, the methods employed, the time taken, and so on. Logic, and consistency apply. What this gives us is a quick means to resolve the action, and the GM can use description and engagement with the player to narratively work through the selection, evaluation, and implementation of modifiers. Rather than breaking from the scene to have some private math and chart time behind the screen, the GM can utilize the player as both sounding board and scene painter to bring the specific traits that define this particular interrogation scene and determine the relative difficulty of successfully obtaining believable information from the target. This highlights the skill, the player has control over how the scene takes shape as much as their character would, and when the roll comes, it feels like more than just a required step before the GM drops a pronouncement. Although this is still a single roll resolution mechanic, the underlying assumptions of task resolution in the Battletech Universe are all about the judicious application of appropriate and justifiable modifiers representing the corresponding strengths and weaknesses between the antagonist and protagonist. It is most definitely not a generic resolution mechanic.

Example:

In the early days of the campaign, the group captured a woman they suspected of being a Lyran agent that they knew had tried to kill them. I had expected them to interrogate the woman, but this task was instead handed off to NPCs to do offstage. Curses, foiled again. In such a case, I felt it was very appropriate to resolve this scene with a single roll, with using the interrogator as the active party and the traits of the prisoner, ‘the hot Ms Goetz’ as modifiers. In that case (full resources, no time pressure, medical assistance available, highly trained interrogator) each point of success above the target number translated into one piece of correct information the interrogation team was able to glean and verify. In different circumstances, I would feel comfortable in interpreting results as each point of success above target as being information the examiner felt to be true and leave it at that.

Had our secret agent PC, Lucas Rom, chosen to interrogate the prisoner himself, I would still have chosen to use a straight roll for this scene. I would have based that decision on the fact that the group was fairly certain by that time that she was not involved in anything immediately relevant to his mission, and because he was burdened with the initial establishment of the campaign’s resistance movement. Keeping things restricted to one roll with player involvement in how the interrogation would be carried out, would have added the right atmosphere of ‘important to me, but not central.’  The character will be engaged in the task, but it will be just one of many important tasks they undertake in the course of this sequence of time.

When the situation was first presented to the player at the beginning of the scene the interrogation roll would have looked something like this:

2D6 + Will Attribute Modifier of 1 + Interrogation 3 + Collected Damning Evidence worth 2 (GM Decision) – Goetz’ Will 6

I would set the stage for the roll by stating that now that the investigation has turned up significant evidence implicating her in capital crimes, as well as a paper trail back to her employer (either of which will get her killed) the prisoner was being readied to be taken to a small, dark room to await questioning. The character would then be asked to review the conditions of that room and the basic outline for the interrogation. If he had chosen force, then Fatigue penalties would come into effect both as a positive factor for his roll, but also as a limiter on how long the target could endure questioning. Likewise if he had chosen strong force, the likelihood of the target losing consciousness would significantly decrease the amount of information obtained, while increasing the amount of time taken to get it. If he had chosen to resort to his forte of deviousness and misdirection then further modifiers would be added. These mods would be decided upon as they relate to the conditions for conning her, not on their expected effect on her. In other words, the modifiers would be based on whether or not conditions suited that approach or not, and chosen from the skills modifiers chart.  The final step would be to decide how tough a nut the target will be to crack. Again, once decided based on my knowledge of the NPC’s background, and the insight shown into her character by the player, I will be able to apply that from the chart.

Assuming a fairly straightforward approach for this example using the base designation of modifiers listed above and assessing Goetz as a target of average resistance to interrogation, the roll for Rom would be 2D6 vs a Target Number of 9.  Not the best odds. As the character reviews his notes and prepares to open the door to the room, the player might ask for, or I would offer a chance to revise the plan in order to provide more pressure on the target. He might decide to leave her in the interrogation room under bright lights with no food or bathroom breaks for several hours in order to wear down her resistance and increase her fear of the compassionless enemy (add Fatigue penalties). Either way, once the roll is made, any successes will feel well-earned, and the whole scene will serve to further establish the character.

The Opposed Roll

The description of how to resolve tasks in the core rules, in addition to the nature of interrogation suggest that this sort of scene might be handled by an opposed roll. This will take more time, add more tension, and will definitely reveal a lot about the character of each participant. It carries the atmosphere of “Important. Period.”

To frame this scene would work in the same manner as described above for the straight roll, but with the understanding that there could be multiple rolls if desired, that each roll would cover a specific amount of time, that tactics could shift from roll to roll, and that both characters would be trying to achieve a goal rather than one being active and the other passive. This would be chosen in the case of a great deal of intel being sought, and the certainty that a long battle of wits and wills was in store. Daily or per session goals would be established, and the time frame might be set in months. Ultimate victory will be something to boast about. This opposed roll would be set up like any other with success determined by one party gaining a significant enough Margin of Success to achieve their ends.

It should be noted that this roll would normally be conducted as a single roll. This approach could help demonstrate that the target of the interrogation is important and has character elements that should be brought forward, but that the task itself will not engage the character to their full capacity, or that they have finite time to devote to it. In our campaign, this is the situation that the player of Lucas Rom will find himself in as we play this week. He has but a few short hours to try to wrest something from his captive before he has to mount up and take his mech into battle. He will be fully engaged with his prisoner, but will only be able to lock horns with him for so long before the interrogation must come to an end. What the player does not know is whether or not the prisoner knows that their time together is limited.

In both cases, the rolls need to be set up to reflect the reality of the other character. Opposed rolls do not need to target identical traits in order to be carried out. While we will retain the need for Rom to work against the prisoner’s Will, we could set the prisoner to have to contest with a different attribute of Rom’s depending on the approach he takes. We might apply Intelligence as a modifier if he takes on the role of an investigator with all the cards, or Charisma if he sets up a good cop/bad cop scenario. Similarly, Rom might choose to create a tableau of each sparring with the other and so have it be Will that serves as the biggest obstacle for the prisoner to overcome. Of course, with a limited time-frame, that last option seems an unlikely choice without additional persuasions. This is where engagement with the player brings out the details of scene, setting, and character which makes some sessions memorable enough to endure for decades.

Example:

In this scenario, Rom has captured a SAFE agent. This character has been through a pretty extreme firefight, suffering injuries and racking up a great deal of Fatigue. Fatigue in excess of his Will will play into Rom’s favor as will any injury modifiers. Rom may exploit these in a number of ways, such as offering sleep or medical aid in exchange for leniency, or he might go over and jab his finger in a bloody spot to probe for shrapnel. Who knows? Rom lacks time and resources to control much of the environment, is tired himself, and is on a real time limit. These all suggest that I should apply the ‘bad conditions’ modifier, particularly as the agent, as an agent, stands a good chance of having been prepared for this sort of thing. As we discuss the set-up of the scene, I can weight the modifiers in my mind, and shape something appropriate and tailored for this specific scenario. One thing that must be remembered in this approach, however, is to be careful of applying modifiers for the same thing twice. A simple example would be in trying to decide on applying a penalty for ‘bad conditions’ and applying a modifier for difficulty because the agent has had training to resist interrogation. This could add a penalty of 3 or more to the roll. Are these two conditions related, or significantly different enough to both apply? In the end, in the thick of things, you will need to decide. It won’t always be as clear-cut as this, but just remember that you are building a model of a situation with the modifiers, not building a weapon with which to whack the player.

Let’s say that Rom tries to win the man over to his way of thinking rather than try to outwit or outlast him. That might give us initial rolls that look like this (note to BF Wolfe, Rom’s player: these are not your opponent’s actual stats):

Rom                2D6 + Will mod 1 + Interrogation 3 – Fatigue 0 – Bad Conditions 2 – Target’s Will 5 vs 9     (2D6-3)

Target            2D6 + Interrogation 2 – Fatigue 2 – Injury 1 – Rom’s Charisma 4 vs 9                                         (2D6-5)

As above, I would then engage the player in determining how Rom might swing things even further in his favor. As both are agents from the same intelligence agency we can cancel out any penalties we might have wanted to apply based on their resistance training and so keep the modifier chain as simple as possible. Assuming because of the time pressures, that Rom just decides to roll with things as they are we would roll both characters’ dice versus targets of 9.

  • If both men fail then we can interpret that in a number of ways depending on how the roleplay actually flowed, but we can conclude that both swallowed some of the others’ lies, and no one came away with any useful information about the other. If either were to roll a 2 for this roll, we could interpret that as the false belief in success and go on to other things.
  • If both men beat 9, we need only look at the difference in their rolls to see which one comes out on top. Both will achieve some degree of success, but one will walk away with the actual victory. In the case of an interrogation, this might not become apparent to the character until later when they have had the chance to verify the intel. The difference between their Margin’s of Success will also shape how great a victory has been earned. This will never be a complete victory, as both achieved some measure of their goals.
  • If one succeeds and one does not, this is a complete victory for the successful character. As before, the difference between their rolls will determine the degree of success (the Margin of Failure adds to the victor’s Margin of Success).
In conclusion

A Time of War is not a rules lite game. That said, applying its elegant core mechanic is actually easier than the string of modifiers might imply. Once I recognized that the flow of modifiers was similar to that of Battletech, I could start making rulings with real confidence and with a comfort about the consistency, number, and direction for modifiers to be applied. Dispelling my belief that a game like this had to be fundamentally more limited or harder to run social conflicts than a more open system like Ubiquity was helpful, too.

This exploration of how to run interrogations so that they all have weight, but could have varying impacts on time and attention both in the story and in the group, helped me quite a bit with getting a grip on how I wanted to approach implementing the spectrum of social interactions in Mechwarrior. Having the one simple “roll 2D6 and add mods” mechanic be able to provide such flexibility and depth with the full support of the rules (no house ruling required) is a tribute to the work done on the game by Catalyst, and a real gift to an old and opinionated gamer such as myself.

Comments
One Response to “Interrogation in ‘A Time of War’”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    nice. 🙂

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