This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Twenty Eight on 2nd November 2022.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
The heroes being captured is a fairly common trope in most adventure stories. Princess Leia on the death star, Merry and Pippin in Lord of the Rings, the dwarves in The Hobbit, or James Bond…practically always.
It’s usually used in the story to present an immediate problem for the heroes to overcome, and to showcase their capability when they don’t have all their resources or weapons available. It’s also sometimes used as a way to move the plot forward; either a villain will monologue at the heroes and divulge their plan for ultimate domination, or the heroes come across vital pieces of information while imprisoned, either from other prisoners or in the course of their escape.
However, pulling off the same thing in D&D is really hard to do. There are three problems attempting it as a DM. The first is capturing the players. The second is keeping them captured, and the third is getting them out.
We’ll start with capturing the players. Problem number one has to do with D&D itself. In most games, there are very few situations where the characters will encounter a group of bad guys and there’s an expectation other than “subdue and defeat them.” Even if you have a game where negotiation and pacification are options, you’re still operating from the idea that the players will defeat the opposition. If the goal is to capture the characters, that’s not true, and a lot of people will conceptually or literally fight against that.
It’s similar to the situation with a boss showing up in a scene. Many groups will have at least one if not more people that will throw everything they have at defeating the boss, even if it’s not objectively the best option. Those same people will be desperate to defeat or escape the encounter rather than surrender or admit defeat.
That’s also why you often have to find an excuse for, and show up with, an objectively ridiculous opposing force. As previously mentioned, when push comes to shove they aren’t going to hold back and conserve resources; they’ll burn their spell slots starting with the highest and remember every random one-use magic trinket they’ve ever been given trying to beat or escape from the opponents.
There are a few different ways to overcome that; anti-magic fields are wonderful for those situations, you just have to find a reason for one to be there. Spells like hold or dominate person can work, but they’re one counterspell and a good roll away from failing. The surest way to succeed though, is to have enemies that can take the punishment and still be a threat, either because they’re that tough or because there are enough of them to soak the attacks up.
An obvious risk with this approach is that the stronger members of the player group will last much longer than the weaker ones in the party. It’s key to remember here that any creature can be knocked unconscious during combat, not just NPCs.
In the Player’s Handbook under the section “Dropping to 0 Hit points,” it also specifies that a stable, unconscious creature at 0 hit points regains 1 hit point in 1d4 hours unless they receive another form of healing. So if a character is knocked out, the baddies have a while to deal with them.
But the risk, of course, is that a melee attack may not be what brings the characters to 0. If you don’t want to deal with character deaths, make sure there’s some sort of healing on-hand for the characters. You can also use that as a point of dramatic tension; the character will be healed or stabilized as long as the characters lay down their arms and surrender. Now if the characters decide they didn’t like that character much anyway and leave them to bleed out on the floor you still have options, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Assuming that at least one or two of the characters survived, you have to contain them. This, again, is very hard to do. Characters have a huge array of tools and abilities designed to help them get out of tight places, literally or figuratively.
In what I’m sure is a surprise to no one, KayDee has a regular system for this. She calls it the…BDSM principle.
First, “B” is for Blind. You don’t literally have to blind the characters, but there are a lot of abilities and spells, particularly teleportation ones, that rely on being able to see. Whatever location the characters are locked into should not have a bunch of windows and peepholes to look out of. Or if they do, the landing spot for those should be no better, or even worse, than wherever they start with.
“D” stands for Detection. The prisoners should not be left completely alone, free to do whatever they want in the cell. The intensity of this can vary depending on whether you want to allow them an escape or not but we’ll discuss that in a minute. The point is that if the characters start trying to literally saw through bars, someone should be able to hear it and stop them.
The “S” in this case means Strip. The characters should not be thrown into jail wearing their magic armor, with their enchanted weapons strapped to their back. Unless you have an alternate way to nullify all that, the characters should go into jail in their underwear and all their fun toys get locked up somewhere. That occasion is also a good time to tell all the spellcasters to look at their classes’ rules and remind them that, yes, they actually *do* need more than just their own bodies to cast most of the spells while you throw their component pouches and magic foci into a locked cabinet.
Finally you have “M,” which is Magic. You have to consider how much, if any, magic is involved in imprisoning the characters. You also have to figure out how the jail in question deals with prisoners that can use magic. Anti-magic fields have already been brought up. You could also pull a Guantanamo and set up the conditions so it’s nearly impossible for the characters to take a Long Rest. Runes and magical monitoring spells like Alarm are also things to consider. A detention facility in Eberron, for example, is likely to have almost all the security and surveillance systems a real life one would, just most of the electronics would be replaced with magic. Arcane Eyes make great security cameras.
A note on architecture. First of all, remember the floors. Dirt floors are just asking for a druid to wildshape into a mole and dig their way out. Similarly, figure out what the ceiling looks like. A deep hole with inward sloping walls is really tough to get out of unless there’s a monk that can just run up them and out to freedom.
One of the things directly related to the design of the detention facility is what you want to have happen to the characters while they’re in there. Mostly, the question you have to answer is; are they going to escape? The answer to that determines the answer to a lot of questions about designing the jail. If being captured was mostly just a way to get them inside the villain’s stronghold and they were supposed to break out, then the facilities should be challenging to defeat but not insurmountable. If the characters are definitely supposed to stay put until the next plot development, then feel free to go full-on maximum security. As help for the players, though, you should give some sort of subtle hint about which way things are going. If they have a possibility of escape, you might bring up weaknesses characters notice or obvious problems that might be exploited. But if they’re supposed to stay put, their initial investigations should run up against literal and figurative hard walls. If they persist you can figure out how to handle it, but they should be able to get a hint from you about what you’re expecting.
Even if they’re “supposed” to stay put, however, consider contingencies for what happens if the characters do escape, and figure out how you want that to play out.
One possibility for designing a detention center is to repurpose a puzzle room. After all, the premise of most puzzles in dungeons is to prevent characters from proceeding forward unless they have what are effectively keys. If you can find one that makes sense as a prison setup and its difficult enough that your group won’t solve it too quickly, or will need to reacquire tools they’re missing through other means to craft a solution, that can provide a way to hold them in place and also provide a means of escape without worrying about having to do it yourself.
Also, an aside, if there were characters you accidentally killed (or the party “accidentally” let die on the floor), the prison is an easy excuse to introduce their replacement character or characters; have them already be there as other prisoners. Or, if you’re feeling really generous, you can have the dead character arrive after being resurrected by the enemy; I’m sure the characters won’t find that suspicious at all.
Now taking a break and talking to players here. If you listened to the beginning, you know being captured is often used as a way to move the story forward. That means it’s not always in your best interests to resist it as hard as you can. As we’ve already stated, the DM can and will kill your character. They have a built in, plot supported way to introduce a replacement if they need to, and if the story needs you to be captured, that’s probably what’s going to happen.
Which brings up the next point; if your DM is trying to capture the party, it is very unlikely they suddenly decided they’re sick of the game and they want to stop everything. They have a reason for doing it, and it is mostly likely a reason that involves moving the story forward. Fighting against it down to your dying breath not only might lose you your character, it’s sort of like going up to the local job board in town and ignoring all the quests the DM lays out to go get drunk at the bar, where you punch out the first person who asks “hey can you do me a favor.” Sure, you’ve proved the DM isn’t the boss of your character and successfully avoided every plot hook thrown your way, but you also aren’t getting to experience the story.
If that reasoning is too metagame-y for you, consider the character you’re playing. Are they likely to fight to their dying breath simply to avoid being captured even against overwhelming odds? It is very possible the answer is yes, but are they also going to ignore the pleas of their comrades who may not be ready for their heroic last stand?
Similarly, is there a reason your character might go along with it? If every other opponent has been trying to kill you and these suddenly want you captured, would the character be curious about why? Is that maybe enough for them to go on and be willing to surrender?
It is your character and you play how you want, but make sure you’re considering the consequences, both in and out of game. After all, how many movies start out with someone being arrested or captured only for them to end up in front of an enigmatic, powerful figure who offers them a job?