"I can't believe it!" David fumed. "How dare they take me prisoner under a flag of truce? Don't they respect the ancient right of parley?"
"Well, Dave -- player of Rashean Bantecou the Magnificent Bandit Captive," Samantha taunted, "these are bandits we're talking about here. You know the old saying that there's no honor among thieves."
"That's a dirty lie!" said Michael. "There's plenty of honor among thieves, but it stays among thieves. It's professional courtesy, and it doesn't extend to those outside the trade."
"The point is," Ally said, "that one of the party is a prisoner, so now what are we gonna do? We could ask what the bandits want for his safe return. If 'honor among thieves' makes Mikko an insider, he can be our negotiator, to make sure they don't double-cross us."
"Or we could just leave Rashean to rot and have David roll up a new character!" said Samantha. "Or we could taunt the bandits until they kill him and throw his body to the dogs, then collect the remains and get him raised. It'd probably be cheaper than the ransom anyway." She rolled her eyes at the stony glares from across the table. "Geez, I'm kidding! Let's try to bust him out, or at least make plans while we wait to see what the bandits do."
"Good thing I brought my GameBoy." David prepared to sit through a few hours of captivity while the rest of the party went on with the game. . . .
WORDS TO THE WISE
Who gets captured? Is it the entire party, several people, or just one character? Are allied NPCs captured? If not, how do they react to the capture?
What do the players do when a character is captured? How much time will you spend roleplaying the prisoner's experiences? Do you separate the players? Do you have something for the player of a captured character to do?
How do they get captured? Avoid inescapable traps or situations; try to take captives within the normal rules if at all possible. Try to anticipate party abilities that might be used to avoid capture.
Why do they get captured? What is the motivation for capture rather than a fight to the death? Is it because the battle is meant to be nonlethal for some reason? Is it for information, ransom or other monetary gain, or a plot device?
What about the stuff? What does the prisoner get to keep, either on her person or after ransom? Are items useful for an escape possible to find or acquire? Are any possessions lost permanently? How hard is it to find the prisoner's stuff?
A captivity scenario brings some special considerations along with it. As David's situation illustrates, taking prisoners is hard to pull off without ruining someone's fun. Roleplaying games aren't like books or movies, where the action keeps moving while some characters are captives. In a game with people running the characters, a PC becoming a prisoner usually interrupts whatever else is happening, taking precedence over other party goals unless there are unusual circumstances. David is basically out of action for the immediate future, unless the DM wants to play out Rashean's interactions with his captors, or perhaps let David run a party NPC. In any case, the party is now split, and either David can sit and twiddle his thumbs while the rest of the party does stuff, or else he roleplays the captivity while everyone else sits around and waits.
Unless the whole party gets nabbed, a prisoner PC means you have to deal with a split group of characters. You might even have to physically split up the players as well, so David can't make escape plans based on what the rest of the party does -- information that Rashean Bantecou doesn't have. If you keep the players together, they can try not to use out-of-character knowledge overheard from the other group, but it can spoil the atmosphere of uncertainty and desperation that you ideally want when PCs are captured. So if you're writing imprisonment into your adventure, give advance thought to how you want to handle the resulting split focus it creates around the game table.
Beyond group dynamics, however, DMs should carefully consider the events leading up to imprisonment. First of all, who gets captured? One member of the party? Multiple members? Everyone? And how will allied NPCs react to their own captivity, or respond to the captivity of party members if they themselves remain free?
Second, how are the PCs captured? Classic D&D prisoner adventures like the Slavers series were designed as one-shot tournament adventures where you expect things to happen for no other reason than that they are "in the module." The party is drugged, gassed, ensorcelled, surrounded by enemies, or overcome by some other unavoidable whammy that leaves them at the villains' mercy. They get captured, and they just have to suck it up and deal. In an ongoing campaign, however, such DM fiats are more objectionable. They may work once in a blue moon, but in most cases the players should feel they had a chance and a choice, that you were not just railroading them. Use nonlethal damage, paralysis, poison, special tactics like bull rushes, disarms, or grapples, or even simple intimidation by enemies to get the party to submit.
Third, why? Why capture enemies instead of killing them -- usually the more expedient course? Some reasons an antagonist might take prisoners include:
Information. Maybe Rashean's bandit captors secretly work for the evil sorcerer Hazar-Enan, and he wants to know why they wandered so close to his evil ninja training camp. Capturing someone to obtain information works especially well if the PCs are involved in an ongoing hit-and-run operation, as in a supermodule like Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. The villains want to learn about the adventurers who have been a thorn in their side. So they capture a party member to interrogate or torture for information about the group's strengths, weaknesses, allies, safe havens, or future plans. The captive might be kept indefinitely, tortured and/or killed, turned to the side of evil (by magical control, possession, or even simple bribery), or even replaced with a shapeshifter. If the entire party is captured, the PCs may be completely separated, held in a common area and taken off separately for questioning, or interrogated as a group.
Plot Device. Perhaps Rashean is the last descendant of an ancient bloodline and Hazar-Enan wants to use him to gain access to the family's magically sealed treasure vault containing the dreaded Eye of Ezion-Geber. In short, "We need you alive for [insert plot reason]." The prisoners might eventually be killed, but right now the villains need them alive for some nefarious scheme. Its nature might be a mystery, or the Evil Overlord may laugh maniacally and taunt them with the entire Diabolical Plot, knowing they could never escape the Slow-Moving and Easily Avoidable Death Trap.
Ransom (or slavery). Maybe the bandits decided to bag Rashean just to see what they could get for him, either from his rich friends or in the slave-markets of Rimmon. Use of ransom as a motive for taking prisoners requires a certain common understanding of honor, battlefield etiquette, and trustworthiness within the world of the campaign. If it is expected that prisoners can be ransomed, battles will often stop short of killing, as surrender is an accepted part of battle rather than a suicide pact. A combatant may yield with the expectation of being able to ransom herself and her possessions according to reasonable and accepted standards.
The opponents aren't really enemies. Maybe Rashean's "bandits" were actually bounty hunters trying to haul him back to Duke Makir of Kadesh to stand trial for his sale of a fake magic item to the duke.
The PCs might be in trouble with the law in a generally good society where the authorities try to capture lawbreakers and bring them to trial for their crimes (real or imagined) rather than kill them immediately. The PCs' legal troubles might be legitimate, or could result from the influence of a secret villain (vampire, doppelganger, evil vizier, etc.) manipulating the law enforcement people in the area.
A final question about being captured is, what happens to the prisoners' belongings? If ransom is sought, does accepted practice within the campaign world allow captors the right to keep anything, or must it all be ransomed along with the hostage? Can they hold particular items back or declare them spoils of war? Setting ransom issues aside, do prisoners have access to anything that can help them make their escape? In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords begins with the characters stripped naked, but you don't have to go that far. You do have to decide what can be recovered; some items may be taken or sold and hard to get back. Other stuff may be stored in the closet right next to the character's jail cell.
There are a hundred other details involved in taking prisoners, including how closely they are guarded, how friendly the guards are, how talkative their captors are about why the capture was made, how difficult the captive's bonds (or cell doors, or whatever) are to escape, the consequences of failed escape attempts, and even whether all captives will be treated alike. A prisoner scenario is difficult to do well, but it adds a different feel to the gaming session and can be an exhilarating experience for the players -- with a sense of real danger for their characters that they don't always feel when it's only a matter of life and death.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife Judy, his daughter, Meshia, his son, Allen, and his dog, Bear. He is a full-time homemaker, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in another.