Monday, August 4, 2014

What to do with captured PCs

Over on The Lands of Nandame I wrote some comments about what to do with captured PCs.

I wrote a whole article about this back in the Pyramid 2.0 days, called "Digging Yourself Out of a Corner." It's lost to wherever Pyramid 2.0 articles are now.

My advice is simple at its core. Make sure the players know this is the progression of outcomes, in terms of best to worst.

1) Victory
2) Capture
3) Death

If Capture is actually worse than death, the PCs will always try to fight it out until they die. Why play dead, surrender, negotiate, etc. when doing so is always worse than trying to pull victory out of the jaws of death? So make sure it's better than death even if it's worse than victory.

It's okay if the NPCs describe capture as a fate worse than death, and it can be miserable for the characters, but it must be fun for the PCs. Make them groan, wish they'd won, but have a war story to tell that doesn't end with "and then we all died and made up new guys." True story - I had PCs captured by slavers, once, after a disastrously handled combat. Basically more half the group decided to quit the game. Two guys wanted to keep playing. I had them sold as slave-soldiers; this suited one PC and made the other miserable . . . but it suited both players. So it worked out well, and we played "slave-soldiers" for a while until they eventually escaped. The alternative would have been to start over with new PCs.

In short, make capture interesting.

One bit I especially liked in Vornheim was the advice to make the legal system more interesting. To quote myself - "One piece I especially liked was that adventures in town generally mean breaking the law, so the law has to further the adventure not bring the game to a screeching halt."

Capture and legal consequences go hand in hand - having the cops grab you and punish you for your crimes is just a specific case of capture.

So what can you do with captured guys?

First off, no matter what the NPCs said - "Kill them all! No prisoners!" or "Take them to be eaten by the bugblatter beast!" or whatever - don't kill them all. If you do that, #2 is as bad as #3.

Next, you don't have to take all of their stuff. Players hate this intensely, in my experience. At least consider letting the NPCs give some or all of it back, or ransom it back to them, or sell it to someone the PCs can retrieve it from.

What you need to do next is figure out what the NPCs want.

What do the NPCs want?

Figure out what they want more than some PC corpses on hand.

Money? They can ransom the PCs for more than they are carrying. If the PCs need to borrow the money, let them - and if they borrow it from another NPC who they'll need to pay back with adventurous quests, all the better.

Sacrifices? Have the captors send the PCs off on a quest for sacrifices.

A quest object? Maybe they need something done that's very dangerous, maybe certainly fatal, and the PCs can be sent to do it.

Information? Maybe the PCs can spill the beans on something, and that's so valuable the NPCs will let them go.

Help? Remember Angel Eyes and Blondie? Blondie is a captive, but his captor wanted his help.

Amusement? Maybe they want you to be their team in the annual bloodsport tournament, or to see if their death traps work, or to otherwise do something that's funnier when it's not you . . . and it's often easier to escape when this is going on.

Remember, the NPCs needn't be bloodthirsty, and equally they needn't be happy with the tradeoff - it only matters if it makes some sense to them and it propels the game forward.

Clever NPCs might want to, if they basically let the PCs go in exchange for stuff, ask for a no-retaliation promise. Maybe they heard the story of Julius Ceaser and the pirates, and figure, why let them go if they'll just turn around and rob you back for the ransom? This can make the world more interesting, as the PCs will have NPCs they resent but promised not to attack.

Don't forget third party intervention

There is always someone out there who wants what the PCs have, or can do. The captors might have no use for the PCs, but they might need something that NPC has. The PCs can be bargaining chips and traded for something they don't even have.

"Sold as slave gladiators" is this, in a nutshell. The captors want money, the buyers want tough fighters, and the PCs want to not be dead.

A mysterious NPC is great here - the bandits have you, but now some mysterious wizard comes and buys you off of them, because they want money and he needs something done.

Divine intervention is a bit over the top, but hey, what if the bad guys do sacrifice you to their demon-god, and then the demon-god says, "Great, thank me you're finally here! I have a job for you, and then I'll restore you to life."

Also, think of any 3-way sports deal - I want player C, but you don't want player A. So I trade player A for player B on some other team, and then trade player A to you for player C, and all three teams got something they wanted. A multi-group shuffle of trades can make the whole being captured thing a way to find out about other groups. The orcs capture you, and trade you to the hobgoblins for money, who trade you to the bandits for weapons, who trade you to the merchant's guild in return for their bandit prisoners . . . and the guildmaster has this, uhm, private manner he needs help with, and you owe him.

Hey, they got away!

And yes, you can just have the PCs have a chance to escape. That works, especially if they get aided by the beautiful daughter of the bad guy, like in any pulp novel.

Long story short? When the PCs surrender or get captured, make it a springboard to new and better adventure. It's okay if it costs them more than victory, it should. But don't make it so bad the game ends just as if it was a TPK. Capture should always be preferable to


  1. I think DF makes this tricky because gear is so important and it's at least twice as hard to justify getting out with lives and stuff as with just lives. (Or with just their stuff, it has to be possible to make that fun somehow.)

    On the other hand, I think Kromm's on record that gear is easy come, easy go so maybe Vryce could recover his career after loosing... what, $40K in gear?

    1. Probably 2-3x that in gear for Vryce, at this point. I'd be surprised if he has less than $100K, especially counting Gram (which is basically priceless, as much as I could potentially price tag it).

      DF is less tricky than it appears. If the PCs have to choose between "die, and make new PCs" and "keep these PCs without stuff" I know my players would choose the latter, with regret. The trick is making it clear that every defeat isn't automatic death, or automatic loss of all gear. Otherwise they'll be certain to fight to the death imagining that any loss equals a total re-start of the game. If the players see "loss of gear" or even "partial loss of gear" as the same as death, and there is no swaying them - then they are essentially agreeing all fights are a game of chicken with the dice. That's foolish in a game where gear can be bought or sold, lost or found, and replaced or destroyed as the adventures go along.

      But unless they take Signature Gear, their gear is only theirs as long as they can hold onto it. Those with Sig Gear can rest assured it'll make its way back to them, which seems fair to me.

  2. You call them snowflake.

    Ask Tim of Gothridge Manor about it at your next game session with him.

  3. GURPS provides an ok rules mechanic built into the game for this.

    Extra Life with the 25 points coming out of exisiting points.

    Been breaking the law in a fantasy town, rather than waste a powerful adventurer they put a geas on you to be forced to go clear out the nearby ruins (-x points) or not to undertake lethal violence within a certain distance of a town (remember that from OOTS)

    Lost to a powerful enemy... maybe they take everything you own (wealth) and demand you pay more (debt)

    Maybe they make an example of your allies, contacts.

    If the consequences of circumstances like death are about 25 points in GURPS you can almost run a no death campaign.

    Or even give players the choice. Ok you were captured by the baddies they sentence you to death or reprogramming? Which would you prefer? Or the chance for escape gives them an enemy, or a social stigma.

    1. Well, 25 points for a pre-purchased Extra Life that lets you come back from the dead, once. I'd be hesitant to value a life at 25 points, or in points at all.

      After all if you lose your PC, you lose everything invested in it. Yet if you believe you're going to lose everything anyway, you may as well keep fighting.

      Some of the examples you give I'd use, but others, I'd want to be 100% sure the players saw them as fates better than death. Capture and reprogramming? "My guy would choose death." Geas? Done that - it better not be too harsh, or the game might grind to a halt as people have a quest they can't solve and don't want to solve. Loss of wealth and allies? Again, do the players see this as better or worse than death?
      If they see these as worse than death, they'll fight. If they see them as a reasonable way out, they'll work.

      I once had PCs in real, real trouble - so they were geased to be unable to use weapons and/or kill anyone, under pain of punishment from the god of the temple they messed with. I put what I felt were neon "go here!" signs towards a place I'd repeatedly described as a barren wasteland where even the gods had no power, and naturally had a way out of the geas in there. I couldn't think of a bigger hint.

      The players? They retired their characters and wanted to play a different campaign.

      I think the big takeaway from my experiences with these things is that it doesn't matter if the fate is actually better than death. It matters if the in the calculus of "the coolness of and time investment in my paper man" vs. "the costs to keep him" that the PCs think the cost is reasonable. If they don't, capture is only going to happen if you absolutely force it, and they won't enjoy the experience. Having it be something the players hope doesn't happen but accept as part of the fun when it does takes some balancing of their calculus.


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