Torture Techniques: Destroying Your Players (Safely)

I’ll start by saying this blog is absolutely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you get squeamish at all, if you dislike any sort of torture scenario (physical or emotional), if you aren’t interested in visceral scenes in gaming, or there is any other reason torture makes you uncomfortable to read about as a person THEN PLEASE STOP HERE NOW. There will be more blogs in the future. However, I’ve had several people request a blog about the various techniques I’ve used in the past to torture characters in LARPs. A lot of these techniques are hands on and require touch consent before going into the scene. All of them require safety tap outs and not all of them will work for every game. But, I’ll try to get my mess of wisdom in making your players cry, writhe, and scream on paper. There may be follow up guest blogs, as I know a few other experts in the matter, but here’s my advice.

Safety Standards

ANYTIME you are starting a specifically torture-oriented scene in a game, it is vital to set down safety rules and checks. Even if the game does not regularly have these things in place, it is up to you as a responsible storyteller to put them into any scenario which could put your players at emotional or physical risk. When entering the scene, if ALL of these mechanics have not been explained before the game, make certain they are outlined for your player and clearly understood before proceeding. If your player uses any of these safety mechanisms, immediately stop the scene, check on your player physically, remove any restraints, help the player sit up slowly, and help bring them back to the real world.

(Also: Some of these techniques call for blunted, actual metal props. Check all your props before the scene to ensure they are functioning safely and are FULLY BLUNTED across the entire length of the prop. If you are using a violet wand, please check it for being on the lowest level setting and only turn it up with player consent.)

Verbal Scene Stop: In kink circles, this would be called a ‘safeword.’ In LARP circles, it’s often called a safety mechanic or cut word. No matter what you call it, you should choose one word that is not in genre or character for the scene and if the player speaks that word, all action ceases. No questions, no hesitation.

Physical Scene Stop: In the Stanford Prison Module that I helped storytell and NPC for the Dystopia Rising LARP many years ago, they used a physical tap-out mechanic. No matter how the character was restrained, a single arm was left crossed over their chest with one hand just below their shoulder. If the player wanted the scene to cease, they tapped their free hand repeatedly on their chest. While I don’t necessarily recommend THAT position for a tap out (arms can get uncomfortable being crossed), using a physical tap-out signal as well as a verbal scene stop is a wise idea to add two layers of protection in any consensual torture scenario.

Stoplight Mechanics: Many games use the more nuanced ‘Stoplight’ mechanics to add some on the fly negotiations to a scene. This simply means if a player says green, they want MORE of what is happening; if they say yellow, the scene should slow down and not progress beyond where it is; and if the player says red, all action ceases. I do not personally like to use stoplight in my torture scenes because I want as little scene interruption or coaching as possible (unless it’s a full stop), but some other STs enjoy this system.

Safety Supplies: Always have safety supplies on hand in case something goes wrong. For me, this is an unopened bottle of water, a flashlight and a minor first aid kit. The water is given to the player immediately after tapping out of the scene, as a way to check on them physically and help bring them back to reality. The flashlight is also a good thing to use for grounding. The first aid kit explains itself. Better safe than sorry when doing such intense roleplay.

Soft-Stop Pass Out: My favorite torture safety technique is reminding the player being tortured that they can always pass out in scene if they’re not enjoying it for any reason! soft stops can be super useful.” – Sadia Bies of Event Horizon. I really like Sadia’s comment here because it’s a way to tap-out without breaking character. If it’s used, however, there just needs a mutual agreement between the player and storyteller that if this is used, all torture will cease the moment the character passes out.

Physical Torture Ideas for LARP

These won’t be for everyone. Please, only run scenes to your level of comfort and prop ability.

Sensory Deprivation: I always start my torture scenes by sensory depriving my PLAYERS of at least 1-2 senses. My best torture scenes begin with the players completely blinded and wearing noise-cancelling headphones piping in white noise. In more simplistic scenarios, a solid blindfold is enough to do the job, as long as the player can see absolutely nothing (light included) through it. The removal of a sense to a creature that is quite visually oriented will put the player off kilter and make their character more open to being vulnerable and scared in the scene. Removing two senses is so disorienting that, often, even the most simple things done after are completely unnerving to the player.

Restraints: Learn. Safe. Ties. Look up good knots on the internet or, at least, make certain you are using knots or cuffs that don’t actually restrict blood flow. A good rule of thumb is if you can get two fingers beneath the tie, that is enough to keep the blood moving without the player being able to weasel out of the restraints. Unless the player objects, absolutely do restrain them. Do not leave it loose enough they can get out without your releasing them. The ability to actually fight back against restraints without breaking them makes a scene viscerally more real for the player portraying the character. Wrists aren’t the only things that can be restrained. At LARPs, I often like to restrain ankles because boots will protect the player from injury more than delicate wrists. Restraining around waists and chests also works well, as long as there is always ONE part of the body free to tap out and you are practicing safe ties. If you don’t know how to do safe ties, there are a thousand videos on the internet. (And, in general, LARPers have a lot of crossover with the kink community. Ask your friends!)

Blunted Tools in Ice: I like to keep a deep container of ice water on hand for any of these scenes. In that container I’ll store all sorts of things — dulled blades (A butter knife is great), spoons, forceps, metal chopsticks. Anything that is metallic enough it will get uncomfortably cold when stored long enough in ice water. Then I use those tools to to create various torture-like sensations on the player’s body. An icy-blunted knife can easily feel like skin cutting open even when it’s just a light touch. The back of an iced spoon lightly snapped across bare flesh is enough to feel like being stung or hit far harder. Iced forceps drawn across skin as they are opening feel like skin being pried open. Get what tools you have around and experiment on yourself! If it feels weird when you KNOW what is coming, how do you think the player feels when they aren’t expecting and cannot see it?

Dripping Sensations: Cold water dripped on bare skin repeatedly for a long while can be quite uncomfortable. But I’ve gone beyond water (depending on what the player has consented to) to the sticky sensation of thick, fake blood. Are they being covered in something more gross than blood? Without being able to see, the player has no clue, and the sensation is enough to make the skin crawl.

Burying Someone Alive: Not literally, no. But if you want to create that sensation, get the player in a box or coffin. You can even do this just beneath a blanket, but you need to make CERTAIN there is an open air area around the player’s face/head so they can still easily breathe no matter what you put on top of them. This is why I prefer a box/coffin like area. Then start throwing blankets onto the box trapping the player. Blankets, clothing, anything heavy and repeated. It both feels and sounds like dirt being thrown on a coffin. I first learned this technique back in my Dystopia Rising days and I remember using piles of NPC clothing on a prop coffin to truly terrify a player. I never leave them in there too long, though, since this can be a truly panic inducing experience. Remember, safety before drama, always.

Sound Play: If you don’t block out their ears, locking players in a pitch black room and creating sounds around them in places they are NOT expecting, the sorts of which they don’t understand or recognize, can be downright terrifying. My favorite example of this is shoving a player into a janitor’s closet which they were certain was empty (it wasn’t), and the slow realization they were trapped with a hissing thing in the back corner. Was it another ST? A rat? Something worse? They had no clue and they said it was a truly terrifying experience.

Cutting Visuals: If the player isn’t blindfolded, having blunted knives sitting in a dark container (so no one sees that the ends are sitting in fake blood) is a wonderful way to shock them when an actual line of blood appears across their flesh as you are cutting lightly. Michelle Stagnitta taught me this at Dead Legends and I love it as a technique. If I’m doing simple visual cutting in a scene, I like to ask the character where they want to be damaged. My NPC will make the character pick their own torture. Or, conversely, I’ll pick out parts of their bodies I know are important to the character — a face for a courtesan, a hand for a sword fighter, a finger for a gunner. Make them watch the physical damage happening to the most prized part of their body.

Elaborate, Visceral Props: Props to the old Dead Legends crew for this set up, because I am desperately wanting to use it again. Pie crust makes great skin and actual pig intestines (or simply sausage parts in fake blood) are not that hard to get. If you want to put the time and effort into a highly elaborate scene, you can do a full torture surgery right in front of a player’s eyes. Make the ‘torso’ out of a fairly deep cookie sheet. Fill it with fake blood and organs. Cover it with a pie crust and prepare to set it on the player’s body. Once you have the player laying back and restrained, prop their head up just enough and put some blankets (or in modern times surgical covers) over the crust so it looks like you have a surgical set up going on. Then go with your blunted knifes, slice open the chest cavity, peel back the ‘skin’ and start removing things from the interior right in front of your players eyes! This scene might be as much torture for the onlookers as it is for the character themselves. I like to do this in front of loved ones and make them choose which body part is taken out next. (Anything to drive the emotional torture home as much as the physical torture.)

A long story short, there are a whole lot of techniques to torture characters while still being safe with players. For your least amount of set up with the most amount of bang, I suggest the basic sensory deprivation and then strange sensation play. If you plan to use any of these, make certain you have consent to touch first and all the above safety mechanics in place. As we go into the Halloween season, good luck torturing your friends, folks!

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2 thoughts on “Torture Techniques: Destroying Your Players (Safely)

  1. Britt Burch says:

    When using violet wands always ask about heart conditions and pacemakers. 😬 Also don’t be opposed to making larp torture props, quick release safe. At Dead Legends I carry leather wrist restraints that have the functional buckle for aesthetics, but also built in quick snaps that can be pulled at any time. The chain is a comfortable length given to the pc/npc as well so they may even themselves quickly unsnap themselves. Triple checking consent is a thing, as well and continued checks during, it can be something as small as a tap on the shoulder and a head nod. Having a pre discussion before any torture scene, setting down what’s expected from both ends, re confirming how and what’s available for the player to end a scene immediately, and def water, a clean cloth, and possible easy quick snack, I think are a good start to a proper scene set up.

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  2. Tug Brice says:

    So coming at this from the perspective of someone with a psych degree and more than a few years of research on the topic, there are a few things you need to know.

    What you are proposing isn’t simulated torture or “torture roleplay”, it’s actual, honest to God torture. The techniques you are talking about, especially the first three (sense dep, restraint, and cold) are extremely effective when applied properly (or improperly, as it were). I realize that there is a lot of crossover with consensual play in other domains, but the fact remains that these are real techniques that have the potential to go sideways very quickly, especially in a setting where there is confrontation and hostility, even if it is just roleplay.

    The thing about torture is that the effects don’t always show up right away. Someone can be fine, and then a trigger can hit and suddenly they are a mess. An inexperienced subject could try to power through because they don’t want to be seen as “weak” even in a no-judgement setting like LARP and do themselves unintentional harm, not to mention the damage that could be done by someone attempting to perform these things without the proper experience. All it takes is one bad knot and you’ve got a full blown panic attack on your hands, even from someone who doesn’t have anxiety.

    Another aspect that people don’t consider is that this isn’t just dangerous to the subject, but also to the interrogator. Unless you are a psychopath, doing harm to others doesn’t come naturally to humans. Seeing others in distress can cause distress in ourselves, and even moreso when we are the source of that distress. We all know that things can seem dangerously real when roleplaying sometimes. That is, after all, the point of all that immersion. And as much fun as it may seem to mess with your friends, when they are screaming and being tortured, whether real or mock, it might be more than you are expecting, and are prepared to handle.

    I seriously cannot stress enough how potentially DANGEROUS this is, even in a consensual setting. If you ARE going to do this, just… be extremely careful. In addition to a discussion beforehand as the previous commenter suggested, all the physical safety discussed in the article, I also suggest that at least two other people who are not involved in the scene be present (preferably a ST/Marshall and someone with medical training), and that these individuals do verbal check-ins with all parties at fairly short intervals. It may break immersion, but that is so much better than anyone getting hurt.

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