This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.
MONDAY NIGHT. Cornered by pit fiends, Oleander the halfling rogue (played by Peter Schaefer) decides to go down fighting rather than surrender. Agents of the Vost Miraj (the Dragovar Empire's spy network) recover Oleander's corpse, raise him from the dead, and trap him inside a giant hollow cannonball aboard a docked Dragovar warship. Zarkhrysa, the Vost Miraj leader, wants to fold Oleander's spy network into hers, and so she offers him a deal. In exchange for his spy network, she'll release Oleander from captivity and help the PCs avoid future entanglements with the Dragovar Empire, which currently views them as terrorists and traitors. Oleander isn't ready to relinquish control of his guild, but he doesn't let on. Left alone to consider Zarkhrysa's "generous offer," he uses one of the abilities of his epic destiny (Thief of Legend) to "steal" his giant cannonball prison, effectively teleporting it away. Once freed from captivity, he sneaks off the warship and runs naked through the naval district of Io'calioth. Oh, did I fail to mention that the Vost Miraj took all of his stuff?
hen the going gets tough, most player characters would rather die than surrender, and that's a pity. The classic jailbreak scenario is a staple of fiction (it happens all the time in James Bond movies), but it's tough to pull off in a D&D campaign. You can't exactly blame the players for making it difficult, either: To surrender means to place your character's destiny and magic items firmly in the hands of the Dungeon Master, and speaking frankly, not every DM is accustomed to dealing with that situation when it arises.
A Dungeon Master who designs an encounter specifically to capture the PCs is, in my opinion, wasting time. Players know when the DM is angling to subdue their characters, and they will exhaust every resource and exploit every rule to ensure an altogether different outcome. I never build encounters designed to paint players into a corner where their only option is surrender. Let's face it — as long as characters have the option to go down fighting, surrender always seems like the less heroic choice. More players would rather shout "Never surrender!" than "Never say die!" In light of this reality, I try to create challenging encounters that, based on number and level of the enemies, might be more than the characters can handle. (I say might because it's hard to predict how clever tactics and good dice rolls will affect the outcome. I've seen a lucky run of critical hits turn a battle on its head in a matter of rounds.) My hope is that, over time, I can change the party's default motto from "Never surrender!" to "Live to fight another day!" But I still have a long way to go before surrender becomes anything but a last resort.
Neither my Monday night group nor my Wednesday night group has ever surrendered in its entirety. Both groups have experienced TPKs, and I've managed to capture as many as three PCs at once in the Monday game (recently, at epic tier) and four PCs at once in the Wednesday game (way back in the middle of the heroic tier). I occasionally capture a stray PC, but almost always because the PC was knocked unconscious or killed first. That doesn't count as "surrendering" in my book. Still, it does happen once in a blue moon. Two weeks ago, Nick DiPetrillo's epic-level warforged artificer surrendered to Dragovar authorities when he didn't have any obvious means of escape. But then, most of the warforged's magic items are built into his body and not easily removed. In other words, the character had very little to lose by surrendering. Nick's two previous characters had considerably more gear to lose, and they would sooner die than be taken prisoner (and perish they did).
It takes a great player to view surrender as an opportunity for fun instead of a punishment for failure, and it takes a great DM to realize that surrender can be the catalyst for some awesome heroics and memorable campaign moments. If you can get a player character to surrender, you've achieved something quite special: You've gotten a player to place his or her trust in your storytelling skill and temporarily relinquish control of his or her character's fate. The absolute worst response is to brutally punish the player for that decision and make him or her regret letting the character be taken alive. Before you can expect characters to surrender, you have to convince your players that surrendering isn't a fate worse than death — no easy feat, but I think I'm making some headway convincing my players that surrendering has certain advantages. The trick is to convince them that the following things are true:
Surrender doesn't mean the campaign's over.
If your players know in their hearts that you won't use a character's surrender as a way to punish "bad play" but as an opportunity for the character to reverse his or her misfortune in some fantastic way, they won't regard surrender as the end of their characters' adventuring careers. Even if they don't like to admit it, D&D players understand that fictional heroes are supposed to have ups and downs. Nothing is more heroic than watching a character overcome a great disadvantage, especially when he or she must rely on his wits and skills instead of a plethora of all-purpose magic items. Depending on the situation, you might need to take steps to expedite the character's escape by fabricating a serendipitous occurrence (such as a careless guard leaving a prison key within easy reach) or by allowing NPCs or even the gods to intervene on the heroes' behalf. Bad things happen to PCs all the time, so it's often a pleasant surprise to see something go the party's way by sheer DM fiat. I tend to adopt this helpful mentality whenever the characters are split up and I want to reunite them as quickly as possible.
Items lost should be regained eventually.
For many players, nothing sucks more than losing hard-won loot, particularly magic items that add bonuses to defenses and attack rolls. If a PC surrenders, I make it a point to reunite the character with his loot (or treasure of comparable value) at the earliest, most plausible moment, even if it means helping them escape. When Jeremy Crawford's human wizard was captured and hauled off to the island prison of Zardkarath, he was stripped of his gear. Well into the voyage, a sympathetic NPC lurking aboard the prison ship (actually Bruce Cordell's retired character, Melech) helped Jeremy's wizard break free and showed him where his magical gear was stored. Once he was reunited with his gear, the wizard was able to take care of himself and teleport off the ship.
Magic items aren't all that important.
Would it ruin my campaign to deprive the heroes of every magic item in their possession? Surely not! Putting aside the fact that D&D characters are much more than the sum of their magic items, I like to think that I'm a fair and fun-loving DM, and naturally I would balance the campaign accordingly. There are a handful of magic items that are actually fun to use because they inspire creativity (hats of disguise, for example), but most items don't define a character in the ways that truly matter. Peter Schaefer's epic-level halfling rogue, who escaped captivity two sessions ago, has been running around without gear (and scant little clothing) ever since. Although there's a lot of cool stuff Peter would like to get back eventually, he's not exactly on death's door. Oleander's recent misadventures have forced the character to rely more on his skills and his colleagues and less on magic items. It's been an entertaining couple of weeks, not just for Peter but for everyone else at the game table, and Oleander has a new quest: get his stuff back!
Capture should come with a reward.
Have a captured character learn something important while in captivity. Let the character encounter a potential ally. Give the character a chance to interact with his captors in a manner not normally possible. These "rewards" pay off in terms of story and character development. When Baharoosh, Stan's dragonborn rogue, was captured following a botched assault on a Dragovar stronghold, he was delivered to the Vost Miraj, handed a quest, and released. In effect, the Vost Miraj gave him a choice: Complete this quest for us, or we'll hunt you down and kill you. In their arrogance, the Vost Miraj made the classic blunder of thinking they could control the hero through fear. Meanwhile, while in captivity, Baharoosh discovered that the Vost Miraj was working closely with an imperial vizier named Sezerivian to eliminate one of his political rivals. This kind of information wouldn't normally find its way into the party's hands, but Baharoosh's capture unearthed a campaign secret that resourceful PCs might exploit in the future. When all's said and done, I've rewarded Baharoosh for being captured, not punished him.
As mentioned earlier, I don't recommend building encounters specifically designed to capture the PCs. It's better to let players come to the conclusion that surrender is a viable option, if not the most desirable outcome. I can take steps to make the surrender option more palatable, including making my villains less interested in murdering the heroes and more interested in taking them alive, or throwing wave after wave of threats at them until battle fatigue sets in. However, such approaches are rarely successful. Here are two other approaches I've tried, with mixed results:
Divide and Conquer: If a player isolates his or her character from the rest of the party, that character suddenly loses access to a lot of party resources (buff spells, healing, beneficial auras, and whatnot) and becomes measurably weaker. Personally, I'm ruthless when it comes to punishing players who split the party. (Just ask Wil Wheaton!) My bad guys focus their attacks on the isolated character and attempt to cut off all means of escape by closing doors, blocking line of sight to other party members, and using powers that hinder movement or reduce the number of actions the character can take on his or her turn. Once the character is subdued, I can try to bully the other heroes into surrendering by threatening violence against the captured character. More often than not, the remaining players write off the captured character and continue fighting for their lives, but the idea of surrendering is at least discussed.
Player Absence: If a player is absent and his or her character is "in play," I believe it's within my power as DM to use that character as a plot device and have the character surrender in the face of insurmountable odds (if for no other reason than to keep the character alive until the player returns). In a recent example from the Monday campaign, Matt Sernett was absent for one session, and his human fighter was captured and hauled off to a jailhouse for his alleged involvement in criminal activities (actually, there was nothing "alleged" about it). The other PCs were in no position to do anything, having already fled the scene, so it wasn't a stretch to say Matt's character had simply surrendered. One week later, Matt was back, and a sympathetic NPC helped Bartho escape captivity, which led to a brief yet harrowing wagon chase through the streets of Io'calioth (the Dragovar capital) and ended with Bartho flinging himself into the harbor, activating his seahorse figurine of wondrous power, and swimming away.
Under normal circumstances, the option to surrender should be a player choice, and some players will never surrender regardless of the assurances you make that their characters won't be screwed or forever deprived of their hard-earned loot. For some players, 'tis better to die with sword swinging than to give up one's blade to an enemy. So be it. That doesn't prevent you from turning a TPK into a future jailbreak scenario. Which reminds me: At some point, I'd like to talk about nigh invincible epic-level heroes and the challenges of taking down an epic-level party. Sounds like a worthy topic for a future installment. In the meantime, if you haven't submitted your entry for last week's contest, get cracking! The deadline is fast approaching.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Previous Poll Results
Which of the following old-school dungeon maps do you like best?
|Maure Castle Dungeon
|Tomb of Horrors
|Temple of Elemental Evil
|Caves of Chaos
|Tomb of Amun-Re
|Original DMG Dungeon
|Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
|Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl
|Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
|Hall of the Fire Giant King
|Halls of Quasqueton
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #58
Hey DMs: What do your players think of the "surrender" option?
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.