Over time, as an adventurer adventures, the probability that they will end up imprisoned for some reason approaches 1. For my newest group, their luck ran out in our last game, and they found themselves locked in a bland stone cell, without their equipment, in a part of the dungeon they had never explored before. Which was necessary, since there were actually no prisons in the dungeon before they managed to put themselves into a position where the bandits had significant motivation to lock them up.
Once I had my players under lock and key, I realized that I faced an interesting game mastering challenge. In most respects, being locked in a cell isn’t significantly different from any other problem PCs must deal with. Certainly the trappings of imprisonment are familiar: locked doors, hostile NPCs, and crazy plans. But there’s an important, and potentially game damaging difference: the players can’t give up. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter how hard a given obstacle or puzzle is, because the players can always walk away from it, and seek adventure elsewhere. But when the players imprisoned, walking away is the challenge. If it’s too difficult, the players may become frustrated.
There’s also danger in making escape too easy. After all, the players ought to believe that their prison would have been able to hold most people. Just not super awesome adventurers, like themselves. It would be agency destroying to simply allow the players to escape because keeping them locked up is boring. If the players feel as though their escape was handed to them, then they’ll justly begin to wonder whether they’re being railroaded through scripted events.
This didn’t turn out to be a problem in my specific case. The players relied on a few prison escape cliches (faking sickness? Rly?) but took some creative steps to make it convincing. They earned their way out the door, and have struggled tooth and nail through room after room, gathering a hodgepodge of equipment, and trying to find their way out. But had they been a little less creative, or given up a little sooner, being imprisoned could have turned into a problem. So as an exercise, I thought I’d work on a few different solutions that could be used to either believably aide the characters in an escape, or to outright release them, without letting them entirely off the hook.
They Were Unprepared It’s unlikely that most jailors would really know what to do with an adventurer. They may think they’re tossing a few troublemakers into the clink, never suspecting that their prisoners are a master lockpicker, or a cleric who can call upon the magics of their god. And even if the players demonstrate their abilities prior to their capture, it’s unlikely that a local sheriff is going to know what to do about it. It’s not as though they have antimagic cells handy on the edges of civilization!
It would be silly if every jailkeeper were unprepared, of course. More civilized areas will have more sophisticated holding facilities, and ought to be more difficult to break out of.
24 hours to catch the REAL killers For one reason or another, the players could be released from captivity on the condition that they complete a task for their captors. Most likely, there would be no reward for this task other than freedom, and possibly amnesty for whatever landed the players in prison in the first place. (Of course, it’s still possible they’ll be told not to return to town). There are a number of ways you could do this. A just court could offer to let the players out on parole, on the condition that they take care of a local goblin problem–or better yet–pay a tax on any treasure they haul out of the local dungeon. If the players are held prisoner by an evil character, they might be commanded to perform an assassination or theft.
And, of course, there’s no reason the release needs to be officially sanctioned. If the guard who is protecting the players is in great need, he or she may be willing to release the players in exchange for a favor. It’s unlikely the guard would do this lightly (as they would no doubt lose their job, and possibly be imprisoned themselves) but if their spouse was captured by the devilbear, or their father murdered by Kranos The Red, then the guard may be willing to risk their freedom in exchange for a favor from some powerful adventurers.
The B Team If the players have hirelings who were not captured along with them, then the GM can allow the players to take control of those characters for the purposes of mounting a daring rescue operation. It may be difficult if the hirelings are significantly lower level than the PCs. But then again, escaping from a heavily guarded cell when you have no equipment or spellbooks severely hinders a character’s abilities. Fully equipped characters who are trying to get in rather than out may have better luck than their higher level counterparts.
Pulling a Skyrim Sometimes events completely unrelated to the player’s situation can work out to their advantage. It’s likely that anyone who is powerful enough to have a dungeon to keep people in, is disliked by some people. Maybe those people are, themselves, powerful. If a full scale battle breaks out while the players are imprisoned, it’s a good opportunity for them to slip out in the chaos. Maybe they can convince their captors–or their captor’s attackers–to let them out so they can help in the fight. All the while the GM can roll each turn to determine if a catapult or flicking dragon’s tail opens an escape-sized hole in the cell’s wall.
If all else fails, it’s unlikely that anyone will be paying too much attention during the battle. So the players can attempt the noisy stuff which would normally attract guards.
Skipping Out on the Long Walk I’m a little dubious about this last one. It has the potential to be exciting, but there’s also an implied threat here which the GM will be required to act on if the players don’t make good on their escape: execution. A public beheading, for example, puts the players in a do-or-die scenario where any plan is a good plan. And once they’re out of their cell, opportunities to escape will doubtless present themselves. If they’re marched out onto the streets, then if they get away, they can disappear into the sidestreets quickly. Or perhaps they’d prefer to go a more dramatic route and attempt to shoulder the executioner in the chest when he raises his axe to strike.
I’m curious to know if this is how other GMs approach imprisoned players, or if there’s a different approach entirely that I haven’t thought of.