You scan the terrain, looking for an escape route, surveying the damage of your party as they all lie battered, bruised, and beaten by the oncoming force. The enemy’s scouting report was priceless as they knew precisely where you would be most vulnerable to their attack. But it is clear they wish not to kill you as all of your companions still lay breathing. Their captain pushes passed his comrades to the front line and addresses you cordially, commending you and your party for the gallant effort and ferocity in battle. However, he offers a choice of surrender in assurance no harm upon your capture will come before you. Although his superiors did not indulge the reasoning for seeking out their capture, he swears of his warrior’s oath that they will receive no pain including proper nutrition. He looks at you for your response. And with your eyes narrowing and the grip of your sword tightening, the captain knows your choice is to seal your fate. He sighs at this, understanding as a warrior your reasoning behind your decision but saddened by it. The rest of the enemies are signaled to finish the job.
As a GM, and even as a player, there is one thing that I really enjoy experiencing in a session: captured as prisoners. I seem to be one of the few out there who plays RPGs who enjoys facing adversities and hindrances to my character throughout. Although I do enjoy finding power eventually through the struggles, I hate being handed gifts of power too easily and often. One thing that really strips the character down to his core is being held prisoner. It’s a fascinating concept that basically never occurs in RPGs. People who play RPGs tend to not understand that although your character can die at any moment, if your character is alive, no matter what happens, the campaign continues. They often feel that if anything ill happens to their characters, they automatically lose the character and either hand it over to the GM or throw it in the trash. This is not the case. Ever. It should be preached more often by GMs to their players.
This always leads to the “fight to the death,” mentality that drives me nuts as both GM and player. If your character triggers a trap that ends the character in a perma-death, you aren’t going to be too happy about it. You lost that character. It’s gone forever unless the game offers a resurrection spell of some kind. Otherwise it’s gone. If you go up against a giant and you are killed because it dishes an obscene amount of damage on a critical to your head, your character is gone for good. It’s not coming back.
So why in the world would you deliberately choose your character to be handed over to the GM, permanently, to avoid being captured? It is ludicrous at best.
Some of the most amazing stories ever told involve prison breaks. The Count of Monte Cristo immediately comes to mind. Movies such as The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape and TV shows like Mission Impossible are filled with excitement and suspense. These are just as exhilarating as any other action moment in a RPG. For some reason, the majority of players I’ve faced at conventions and at home are against it.
I’m not completely ignorant in realizing that players feel their freedom of choice and power in the game suddenly becomes limited and in control of the GM. However, this is but a moment – the moment they are captured. From that point of actually being captured it immediately shifts back over to the players’ control. It is entirely up to them to break themselves free. They are always in power of their actions and abilities to get out of danger, including imprisonment. Just because you are in a cell, doesn’t mean you can’t get out. There have been hundreds of prison breaks throughout history, some successful, some not. So it is not out of the question for characters that are built to be larger than life to be successful at it as well. A few things need to be taken into consideration, however.
First, players need to be told up front, before the campaign or adventure begins that unless their character is completely permanently dead with no chance of resurrection, the game will not end. Explain that throwing their characters away foolishly should be reconsidered. You don’t have to come right out and say “if you guys get in over your head, surrender.” I would never plan a session where my idea for a story is to overwhelm them to capture them for a prison break. I would, however, gauge encounters correctly with intelligence where it is necessary. Humanoids may not want to just randomly kill. Those with intelligence may not want to know why the party is in this area or why they are trespassing into their home country. Not every monster is meant to kill, especially those with above a low intelligence. Curiosity can be more powerful than hostility.
Approach a possible surrender moment with dialogue. Don’t expect players to surrender or yield when your villain merely points a sword at them and demands for their surrender for no other reason. Describe to them the need to capture beyond questioning. Perhaps it is only for the enemy’s protection to make sure the party isn’t a true threat or their intentions are good. Use the idea that there is a greater foe in the vicinity, but they must be cautious with the party to make sure they won’t attack, so they are taken prisoner but treated better than a typical prisoner would be. Sometimes you can use NPCs to convince them to surrender such as when that NPC is captured or threatened to be executed if the party does not surrender.
But when this rare moment occurs, make sure you give them a great experience as prisoners. Be flexible on their actions, reward them on their choices. If they are stumped, give them hints of what they could do to get out (a loose stone, a hairpin, a lazy guard). Make sure they are able to retrieve their gear! Or, if the gear isn’t particularly amazing such as a longsword +1 (devilish longsword), place replacement items that are slightly better than what they had in various places during their escape. Reward them with new information that might pertain to one of the character’s story arcs or the overall campaign story. Give them an ally for future encounters. Have them stumble upon a secret that the group that captured them are unaware of (underground tribal fortress, abandoned temple, holy relic that is buried in an unmarked grave). And finally, make it heroic and suspenseful by keeping the pace high. Once they are out of whatever is holding them imprisoned (cage, magical barrier, etc.), speed up pace by having them constantly chased or followed. Guards will quickly discover them gone and begin searching. They might be spotted and chased for a bit until they lose their tail. Give them a scene where they feel they have to catch their breath for real when the scene ends and they are safely out of harm’s way.
Generally being captured will never happen as too many players loathe this for some reason. Perhaps give them homework to watch a few prison break movies such as The Rock, Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz to see if it sparks any interest. If they talk about how clever it was for the escape to happen, then it might be something to consider in a future encounter instead of creating a TPK.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.