Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Impalement

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

I is for Impalement, and other gruesome forms of torture/execution.

Besides cannibalism and the thought of bungee jumping, I’m nothing freaks me out quite as much as impalement. I mean, it’s one thing to have a nail (or bullet) pounded into your brain…or be castrated and left to bleed out. Both these are horrific and traumatizing to the soul I’m sure. But being left to linger in suffering for hours, dying an excruciatingly painful death, unable to actually pass-out from the pain or loss of blood, every few minutes sliding deeper onto the stake and feeling MORE pain in different levels/layers of your body, being unable to DO anything about it…

Ugh. Double ugh. TRIPLE ugh even!

How will including impalement in one’s D&D game make your game “better?”

Um…that’s a good question. I’m not sure it does make your game better. Certainly, I’m not recommending impaling your player characters, nor am I saying one should provide graphic depictions of live impalements within one’s narrative.

However, in aid of ENGAGING one’s players, impalement (and other forms or torture) can serve two functions: firstly, it displays abomination (especially when such tortures are used to condemn or kill innocents or those whose crimes do not fit the form of “justice”); secondly, it should put the fear of consequences…not to mention the fear of de-protagonizing…into players.

For example, no player wants their character hung up on a stake to die (I hope not anyway!). KNOWING that this is a penalty in town X for crime Z (perhaps by prominently displayed “criminals” at the city gates) is one way to drive this message home to players. Also, most D&D campaigns are fairly uncivilized (that is, the imaginary world is…I’m not talking about unruly behavior at the game table!), and law and justice…even Lawful alignment justice may be hard and harsher than our 21st century society’s more “enlightened” penal codes.

After all, the law is The Law and Lawful characters, especially, should be aware of it. It will depend a bit on the edition you’re using and its particular interpretation of alignment…for example, I always considered Lawful Neutral types to be right bastards in AD&D…and yet “Lawful” in B/X is equivalent of ALL good alignments of AD&D rolled into one (Lawful Neutral would be straight Neutral in and Chaotic Neutral would be straight Chaotic). The LAW, however, should be as strong as necessary to maintain order in towns and villages so close to the edge of Chaos.

Whether or not impalement is a suitable offense for skirting one’s taxes and tithes is up to the individual DM.

As far as “torture as abomination,” that much should be a fairly easy sell…the time not fitting the crime, as it were. Historically, impalement was more often a terror tactic than a criminal punishment (natch) but it was also used as punishment for adultery (ow!), insurrection/treason, and witchcraft (the latter coupled with burning the stake upon which the victim was impaled).

This can certainly set up some interesting choices for characters to make…in a realm where the unjustly harsh laws exist, how does a law abiding citizen react to someone being condemned to death?

Hell, in a “magic poor” campaign setting with reactionary authorities, how do players keep their own characters from being burned at the stake or stuffed into the iron maiden?

What? You think the idea of such a setting ain’t "D&D enough," what with the default ampleness of clerics and wizards and magic items? Ever hear of Dragonlance? THEY were all about burning “witches” (false clerics, and wizards included)…at least according to the campaign background material and novels/short stories. And that’s an official licensed campaign setting for the D&D game; get your medieval punishment on!

Anyway, D&D is not an exercise in (or substitute for!) Amnesty International…it’s about roguish treasure hunters and fantastic adventure. But things that help engage the players in the game world APART from and OUTSIDE of the normal game mechanics helps create a richer experience. Imagine the characters defending an NPC (or fellow PC) in front of the Inquisitorial Court or the Witch-Finder General. Imagine having to plan a jail break for a companion sentenced to a horrible public execution (even for a crime that he most assuredly did commit…nothing says all executions have to be “unjust”). Imagine the player characters’ first impression upon arriving in a barony on the edge of the borderlands and finding several hundred impaled humanoids (orc and goblin) lining the road. What does that say about the ruler? What does it say about the state of affairs?

And what does it say about being a half-orc in this particular realm?!

As I said, there’s no need to go into gruesome horrible details of a character’s excruciating demise (be in NPC or PC)…but neither is there reason to shy away from the barbaric “justice” of primitive lands. Even though D&D is set in a "neverwhen" time period, we can still tell some things about it…for instance, people are allowed to walk the streets armed to the teeth, all a-clanking in mail. That’s not going on because it’s a particularly “enlightened” or “civilized” age that the PCs live in. Drive that point home!

Um…so to speak.
: )


  1. As someone who is going to be using witchunts in his next game, I shall take this impalement under advice and inflict said horror onto my poor, unwitting players :)

  2. One note - if it was done wrong (or right, if you have to burn them but want to be merciful) those burned at the stake would die of smoke inhalation before they actually burned.

  3. @ Simon: Right on! Me, too!
    ; )

    @ C'nor: Well, that's SOMEthing anyway.