The great escape: designing scenarios for imprisoned characters

Several classic Dungeons & Dragons modules, such as In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords and Skarda’s Mirror, place the task of escaping from imprisonment before the heroes. Apart from adding drama to an adventure’s story line, imprisonment as a plot device forces players to be more creative with their characters’ abilities, since player characters (PCs) are typically stripped of wealth, equipment and weapons before being locked away. Deprived of the devices that they normally use to circumvent in-game obstacles, heroes must improvise solutions from materials at hand or role-play more intensely in order to accomplish their ends.

Reasons for imprisoning heroes

Whether or not it is the intention of the Dungeon Master (DM) to see the heroes in chains, there are reasons why a villain would choose to imprison heroes instead of killing them outright.

First, nearly everyone of consequence in a fantasy Medieval society is worth more financially alive than dead. Our history is filled with situations where a monarch, noble, aristocrat or clergyman was held for ransom. Heroes in a D&D game, regardless of experience level, are persons of consequence: what church wouldn’t pay for the return of an acolyte cleric or young paladin? What wizard wouldn’t pay for the safe return of his apprentice? Wouldn’t wealthy families or communities that benefited from the actions of rogues or fighters be willing to contribute toward the release of their heroes? Even if the answers to these questions is no, villains certainly have much to gain by asking – and the time it takes to send messengers to ask can provide the heroes time to make an escape.

Second, even if ransom won’t be paid, powerful heroes can make valuable slaves, especially for powerful owners. Imagine the satisfaction an evil cleric of Orcus would feel at having a paladin of Bahamut as a slave.

Third, since imprisoned heroes aren’t going anywhere soon (in the opinion of the villain, at least), there’s no point in killing them. Villains don’t spend much coin on prisoner comfort, so the expense of leaving the heroes to rot in jail is minimal. The heroes can always be dragged out of the dungeons if they’re needed at a later time, and there is the possibility that years of imprisonment may leave them more favorably disposed to serving the villain, particularly if they are offered freedom in exchange for their services.

Thus, whether the DM overwhelms the heroes with an encounter designed to result in their capture or if what was intended to be a climactic encounter goes horribly wrong for the party, the DM can arrange for the player characters (PCs) to awaken in chains.

They’re in prison. What now?

Regardless of whether the heroes are taken to an actual incarceration facility or secured in “improvised” imprisonment, there is almost always some sort of routine governing how prisoners are fed and guarded. That routine, which can be learned by the heroes through observation or from other prisoners, will assist the heroes in their plan to escape. The DM must therefore prepare a routine for the heroes to exploit, by considering at least the following:

Guard shifts and changes. Are there any particular times when the guard is lighter or less vigilant? Are some guards more sociable with the heroes than others? Are the guard shifts especially long, meaning reduced vigilance toward the end of a shift? Does anyone check on the guards between the start and end of their duty periods? If not, an escape at the beginning of a guard shift may not be detected until the start of the next shift.

Alarms. Is there a formal system for placing the prison on alert? if there is, make sure the players become aware of it.

Food, water and medical attention. Since the people who guard prisoners and those who cook/feed them are seldom the same individuals, it may be possible for heroes to overcome the “serving staff,” allowing one or more heroes to escape by switching clothes with a hapless servant.

Interrogation. Although it may not provide an escape opportunity, the villain may plan to interrogate the heroes during their stay in his jail. Clever players may be able to gain more information from than they provide to the villain in these cases.

Visitors. depending on where the heroes are incarcerated, they may be able to have visitors. If they are prisoners of a lawfully-crowned king in his capital city, for example, they may be entitled to visits from family, friends and charity workers while they await trial (which could be an extremely long time). These visitors could be sources of information about the “outside world,” or even sources of implements that could be useful during the escape.

Equipment storage. The items taken from the heroes had to be placed somewhere, and it is safe to assume that the PCs will seek out their equipment as soon as they are free from their bonds. Typically, mundane items are taken to an armory and/or arsenal, while magic items are usually found in the possession of someone with the ability to identify their properties.

Moderating the escape

Providing the players with the basic information above will eventually lead to their developing an escape plan. Since there is no way for a DM to know in advance what the players will devise (unless a session happens to end right before the attempt), the DM must improvise this segment of the game. Fortunately, the information the DM has about the routine, coupled with maps of the area, can assist in offering a believable response to the heroes’ actions; after all, the DM knows how many guards there are, where they eat, sleep and work, where the heroes’ equipment is stored, and the various routes of escape.

It is also important to keep in mind that, although the DM may have a particular method of escape in mind when designing the adventure, it is better for a reasonable, player-engineered method of escaping to work, so that the players will take greater pride and ownership in the story. If they feel that they must guess at what the DM wants the heroes to do, they will feel cheated, and justifiably so.

If the free-form nature of moderating a prison escape seems intimidating – and it can, especially for DMs who like to be fully prepared for everything – it helps to make a brief outline of a few scenarios that the players may choose and pre-define, in a few sentences, how the villains would react to each.When the players talk fondly about their escape months later, the DM’s work will be rewarded.

Lastly, remember that it is possible for heroes to be imprisoned multiple times during their careers, and each period of incarceration can present a more difficult challenge than the last, forcing both the players and DM to improve the quality of their efforts.

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2 comments on “The great escape: designing scenarios for imprisoned characters

  1. […] is less likely to mean anything to player-character heroes – it’s their business to make daring escapes, after all – heroic treatment of enemy prisoners may impact how those  prisoners respond to […]

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