RPT#214 – Prison!
A Brief Word From Johnn
Daily Free Games Question
Last week I posted an advertisement for Daily Free Games (the ad also appears this week after the Readers’ Tips section). I try to only advertise great companies and RPG products. Quite often I’ll have a chance to test a product or service first before giving the green light to appear in the ezine.
I haven’t had a chance to try the games at Daily Free Games, but they sound very cool and the people who run the site are very customer service oriented and are on top of things.
I’m just curious if anyone visited the site and tried any of the games. If so, what did you think?
A Slow Death
Last week’s Brief Word about a character illegally bleeding to death in a D&D module introduction encounter drew a whole whack of responses. Thanks to everyone for your creative solutions.
My intent was more to discuss the concept of shaping the rules to suit my preferences as a first step of campaign development, but the emails were appreciated! My apologies for not getting my point across better.
Anyway, I’ve finished reading through Unearthed Arcana and Arcana Unearthed, and I am now starting to document all the house rules and variants I’d like to use. I’m really just looking to make a few tweaks rather than doing a re-design– otherwise I’d probably be better off trying out a new system. I’m keen on using the D&D rules because my job and writing would benefit from expert familiarity with them, plus I find the combat rules suit my wargamer tastes. 🙂
Someday I’d love to play and/or GM Hackmaster and Hero 5th. Plus, GURPS 4th Edition was recently announced to be in development. If only I could win the lottery and have time to play them all!
Though I’m getting ahead of myself by a few steps in my campaign creation process, I’ve started pondering what my game world secret will be. I want there to be a “race to find the uber-thing” that the major powers are engaged in.
The participants’ (powers, villains, minions, allies), tactics, and politicking involved with the race will serve as a major campaign arc regardless of whether the PCs choose to get involved or not. It’ll be an easy tool for me to generate background events and various side-plots as the campaign unfolds in whatever direction the players choose.
I’m stumped as to what the uber-thing is though. “Dead god body parts” has been done before. So has “trapped demon”. It’s gotta be something worth the attention of deities and such and can be hidden or buried deep under a city of giants. Any ideas?
Have a great week.
I admit it. Most prison encounters I’ve GMed have sucked. Maybe that’s the best deterrent for PCs who don’t respect the law? “Hey, don’t kill him guys. If we do we might go to jail–and we know how boring it is in there!” 🙂
However, a few jail sessions over the years have stood out as being quite good, so I’ve tried to encapsulate what I think made them successful below for your benefit–and mine ;).
- Try A Wee Bit Of Planning
The number one reason why I’ve GMed so many unsuccessful prison encounters is lack of planning. In my experience, most jail time has come as a surprise during the game:
- The PCs break the law and the law wins
- The PCs fall in combat and an easy way to bail them out was to have them captured and put in jail
- The PCs let themselves be caught as part of a rescue attempt or for some other unexpectedly cunning reason because they figured it would be easy to break out again
The lack of good design consideration caused me to rely on assumptions, cliches, and previous encounters I’ve run, which resulted in the same old boring set-up. The PCs are suddenly in jail. What to do? I know, I’ll put them in a 10′ x 10′ dank cell and see how they react. Lame.
Here are some solutions to consider:
- Plan out a few jail designs and environments in rough form, “just in case”. Put your notes in a clearly marked place in your GM binder or in an easy-to-find spot on your computer. If you do this, remember that you might not need these notes for a long while if the PCs behave themselves (or don’t get caught). Be sure to make your notes clear and their location memorable.
- Watch a few jail movies, such as Brubaker, The Green Mile, Escape From Alcatraz, etc.
- Read some books on the topic. A “prison” keyword search at Amazon brought back several results. For fiction, try this link:
At the very least, it would be a good idea to note a few ideas and themes on a piece of paper for future reference. You want to record a hook or idea that would make a gaol different or unusual to avoid the 10×10 cell rut I fell into.
More planning advice is included in various tips below.
- Anticipate Your Players
The party has been thrown into the royal donjon. What are they going to do? Give yourself 10 EXPs if you answered escape. Like a fool, I kept throwing the PCs in jail and then passively sat back and waited to see what they’d do. I was waiting for a cunning plan or a cool new approach to react to. I didn’t think ahead and anticipate what the players would actually do (which was the same thing every encounter), no matter how many times previous they’ve been locked in a cell.
So, let’s make a list of what your players will most likely try to do once they’ve been incarcerated:
- Pick the lock
- Bend the bars, bash the door open
- Search for secret doors and exits
- Trick the guard(s)
- Attack the guard(s)
- Use magic to find or blow a way out
- Use a special ability, familiar, or power to get out
- Chat with the guards, pump them for info
- Chat up their fellow inmates
- Try to contact the outside world, summon help
You could almost call this a PC standard operating procedures list. It’s not original, but what would you do if you were playing? The characters need to discover the parameters and limitations of their new environment. They assume the campaign’s not over and that there must be some way to escape or leave. So, they have to try all these options to learn the configuration of your puzzle.
Now that we have this list available to us in writing, we GMs are empowered to make the next jail encounter more entertaining. We know what the players are going to do! At least, initially. We can anticipate their actions and decide ahead of time what will happen (luck factor aside) and why that will be fun to game.
- Maybe the cell door is an animated object and the PCs are attacked if they come too close. That’ll catch them by surprise! It’ll offer a nice, unusual way for them to hack their way back to freedom as well.
- The guards are golems. Try tricking one of those!
- The previous inhabitant, now a rack of bones, left a clue about escape. This guides the PCs to solve a puzzle to escape. But why didn’t the prisoner escape himself? Another mystery…
- Create A Challenge
A great way to make prison interesting for players is a trial or challenge. Make them fight for something or struggle against some type of force instead of stewing in their cell. This will distract them from immediate escape, create some entertainment, and hopefully keep the story moving forward. They don’t call it con-flict for nothing!
Create a reason for the challenge. Why should the PCs struggle? What’s the reward or payoff? If there’s no purpose, it’s just like a wandering monster encounter, and that might frustrate the group.
- Proof of innocence or truth
- An early release or chance for probation
- Gain acceptance amongst the prison population
- Win favours from the guards
- Avoid further hardship
- Gain information
- Right a wrong or exact vengeance
If it suits your current game state, move part of your plot into prison. Change things so the next part of the adventure takes place on the Inside and can only be solved or advanced within. This will encourage the players not to flee right away and gives you a chance to explore an interesting new game setting.
Examples of ways to hook your plot into a prison adventure:
- The PCs are contacted by another inmate bearing a meeting demand with a king pin prisoner. Apparently, the king pin has information the PCs will want to hear.
- The warden summons the PCs and gives them a quest.
- A fellow prisoner earns the PCs’ sympathy and he begs them to help him out.
- The corrupt warden and cruel guards motivate the PCs to stay behind and “take care of some business”.
- A friend or contact of the PCs wants to take advantage of their presence within “the system”, perhaps with a side plot or information quest.
- The PCs make a new enemy or rival who constantly sabotages their escape attempts.
To summarize, if the PCs have wound up in jail, give them another conflict besides escape. Turn the situation into an adventure.
- How Will The PCs Get Out?
This little bit of planning will save you a lot of headaches down the road: plan in advance how the PCs can get free. If the PCs wind up in jail unexpectedly, then pause a moment and make your decision. If you don’t plan to catch-and- release, boredom awaits as the PCs go through their standard break-out operations and you GM without direction.
A good first question to ponder might be, do you really want the PCs in jail? Was prison just a quick solution or an unexpected session development? If jail-time isn’t what you want or if it will hurt your game for whatever reason (session pacing, time line requirements, preparation, etc.) then allow the PCs to get out quickly and with little mess. What’s the use in prolonging a situation you don’t want? Let the first successful lockpick attempt work. Have a patron or friend arrive with bail. Put a secret tunnel in the rear of the cell.
If you do want the PCs to remain inmates for a little while, then you need to plan out why their other escape attempts will probably fail. If you don’t want to railroad the PCs, then consider what obstacles are present that will make other methods of escape difficult.
One time, I was prepared to let the PCs escape with a successful lockpick check. That failed. Twice. So did the bend bars, lift gates check. So did all the secret door search checks. The party was left with no options left and I was flabbergasted at their bad luck. So, we were stuck. Learning from the experience, if your plan for the PCs’ escape involves luck, then be sure to consider what will happen if the luck is all bad.
Once you have a PC exit strategy formed, plan backwards from there to insert clues, consistency, and entertainment value.
- Where Is The Adventure?
Whether the PCs are in jail for plot reasons or because of their own doing, be sure to do a game-check: where is the adventure?
If it’s the players’ fault for putting their characters in jail, it might be tempting to let them stew for a bit and “punish them”. I know I’ve done it. After slaying the sheriff and a bunch of guards for no apparent reason, I’m happy to let the PCs suffer for throwing the adventure off track so badly.
However, this is not a good way to react. Put aside any ill feelings and breathe some life back into the game by adding some adventure to the prison segment of the session. This solves a number of problems–possibly even the initial reason for the PCs’ illegal shenanigans. Your game can never go wrong if it’s fun.
If the story brings the characters to jail, then do what you can to make the experience as interesting as possible. Even if your plan is to run a single encounter where the PCs glean some information, bust another inmate loose, or advance the plot somehow, do what you can to spice up the setting and the events within.
Donjon encounters are generally few and far between, so do everything you can to “celebrate” the event by adding some exciting adventure.
- Consider The Social Life
One of my repeated mistakes is putting characters in solitary confinement. I lock them in an empty cell with some mouldy straw, rusty manacles, and skeleton of previous inhabitants. Wow, that’s a guaranteed recipe for boredom.
Prisons are generally full of people. Therefore, there should be tons of opportunities to roleplay, add social conflict, and create political intrigue.
- Smuggling. Prisons are naturally scarce on a multitude of items and materials. Inmates won’t accept this idly. They’ll use whatever influence they can to get the stuff they want.
- Rebellion. Prisoners won’t stand for being abused, especially when game rules give them lots of personal power in the form of hit points, skills, or special abilities.
- Dominance. Prisons will have social hierarchies and privileges for being the guy at the top.
- Rivalries. Prisoners will hate each other and/or have rivals. The PCs can be pawns in vengeance games, form rivals of their own, or become the targets for illogical attacks.
The trick is to allow for the existence of a prison population and to let the PCs interact with it. A prison population will often consist of more than just inmates too! Consider the following NPC possibilities:
- Administration staff
- Medical staff (clerics, surgeons, nurses, herbalists, whatever)
- Maintenance staff (janitors, repairmen, craftsmen)
- Contractors (for building additions, major projects, and special tasks)
- Wizards and techs conducting special experiments
- Services staff (mail pick-up and delivery, supply delivery, etc.)
- Visitors (to see inmates or staff members)
Every NPC is an opportunity for a small or major side-plot. Each NPC could be a source of adventure. Avoid making prison a sterile gaming experience and add a social element by introducing NPCs.
- Add Space
Being stuck in a 10′ x 10′ cell *is* boring. For your next donjon, add some space. Let the PCs wander around and explore. Even if everything is locked down and under supervision, having places to go and things to investigate adds to the overall interest level. Adding different areas gives the characters places to hide, meet in private (with each other or with NPCs), wage combat in different environments (with different tactical considerations), and engage in various encounters.
- Warden’s office
- Guard’s lounge
- Exercise or sports area
- Crafts area
- Guard towers or defense areas
- Medical rooms
- Visitation areas
- Administration offices
- Punishment area
- Prison Set-Up
In fantasy campaigns, magic can create a lot of problems for guards and staff. A teleport, fireball, rock to mud, or simple charm person spell can make any gaol vulnerable. In addition, extremely high abilities, such as strength or agility, can test the best-made prisons.
If I were in charge of a fantasy world prison, I might consider some of the following ideas:
- Hire high-level NPCs to act as consultants. Keep at least one type of each spellcaster on the payroll at all times. Hire security consultants who keep up with the latest abilities (i.e. in D&D terms, skills, feats, and prestige classes).
- Immediately assess all prisoners upon admittance. Use consultants and specialists to identify powerful inmates, spellcasters, special abilities, and anything else that might compromise security.
- Have spellcasters cast whatever detection and analysis magic is available. Detect magic, curse, poison, disease, alignment, etc. The more the administration knows about their prisoners the better they’ll be able to control them.
- Strip prisoners of all magic items and equipment.
- Create a sturdy facility far away from civilization. Avoid locks for the most part and use stone, force, or other spells to seal exits.
- Hire tough guards. Golems and other constructs might make good guards, as would various intelligent monsters that would be willing to do the work.
- Arm the guards well. Any powerful weapon in the guards’ hands become potential weapons in the prisoners’ hands, so be careful. Some possibilities are:
- Fierce, trained animals
- One-shot magic items such as potions
- Poison and disease (whose antidotes are administered regularly in the food to keep prisoners dependant)
- Ranged weapons
- Ranged magic items (to keep them out of reach)
- Having spellcasting guards sure would help. Flip through your spell options and consider how each spell could be used for security, detection, deterrence, attack, and so on.
There are a few other options, from a game world point of view, that might make sense. However, they also might suck the fun out of the game for your players. So, consider the following ideas with caution:
- To prevent prisoners from casting spells, I’d hire spellcasters to tell me what to do. And they’d probably advise cutting the fingers or hands off, cutting the tongue out, and keep the prison free of a specific list of materials (spell components).
As a player, I’d hate having my PC chopped up. But, for the administration, it would be a simple and wise procedure followed by a minor healing spell or potion. Once the prisoner has done his time, he gets a regeneration spell…or not. Depends on the society.
- Consider casting curse on tough prisoners. Alternately, any ability-reducing spell would work. Heck, if the administration is unscrupulous, certain undead creatures might be employed to drain prisoner’s of their levels and abilities.
- Check out the special abilities of NPC and PC classes at high level or experience. A high level warden might have powers perfect for keeping prisoners quiescent.
- Cursed items are often ideal for prison use. The helm of alignment change might be perfect for keeping a captured thieves’ guild master from trying to escape.
To reiterate, be careful when you consider nasty, but plausible steps a prison might take to keep high level inmates in check. Your ideas might seem logical, but ask yourself if they’d be fun to play.
For example, it might make sense to you that the warden is secretly a vampire who sucks the life out of prisoners for fun, profit, and power. during the first night, he appears in each PC’s cell and attacks until they’re almost entirely drained. Defenseless, the characters cannot put up much of a fight.
However, just as the dismayed players start to reach for their character sheets to crumple them up, the PCs are approached by a guard who tells them there’s a way they can get their lost life back. Thus, the characters have a quest and a purpose. The campaign has a villain and an adventure. And the players have hope and get some enjoyment from playing low-level PCs again for a little while.
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- Using Food To Add Flavour
From: Jeanne Renaud Jalbert
I like to research old food (pre 1850) that isn’t much made anymore but was a staple during their time. I add it to the menus at inns and taverns. Next game, I’ll be bringing some cooked samples of the food (just the sweet stuff, nothing too fancy). It should be fun when you get to dine on what your characters are eating.
A net ring of medieval cooking:
Medieval and Renaissance Eating Utensils and “Feast Gear”:
- Encouraging Roleplaying
From: Jeff W
Like most groups, it’s sometimes–okay, pretty much always– tough to get my players immersed in role-playing. Self- consciousness is compounded by OOC joking around. While always good-natured in my group, the joking makes it tough to sustain a serious RP mood, even when the joking isn’t directly about the RP in question. I’ve struggled with ways to encourage RP. Most I’ve read are subjective and too prone to cause hurt feelings. I think I’ve come up with a good compromise solution.
At the beginning of every session, make 20 poker chips available: 14 white, 5 red, and 1 blue. Each time someone does some great RP, any OTHER player (i.e. no nominating yourself), including the GM, can nominate the RPing player for a draw from the chips. If the GM agrees, the RPer gets a chip at random.
White chips are worth 25 XP, red 50, and blue 100. (I play D20, but the rewards can be adjusted for any game system. The idea is that they be relatively small, but not insignificant.) At the end of the night, turn in your chips for your bonus XP. The only other rule is that only one chip is available every 30 minutes or so.
I think this has a real shot at encouraging some drama or other coolness. I think I’d be pretty liberal awarding chips at first, then tighten up and start being a little more demanding. What do y’all think?
- Culture Naming And Greetings
From: Josh Messerschmitt
First off: the Roleplaying Tips ezine has saved my game- mastering butt on innumerable occasions. Keep up the good work, Johnn!
Something I tend to do in my games: make certain cultural groups have distinctive names. Beyond the general “tone” of names, I’ll give certain tribes/clans different name components.
Elves, for instance, all have fairly melodic and smooth- sounding names, but elves of the Nendarath clan have names that end in -en, such as Lendoren, Mannurien, and Fandelren. Other clans have different endings, such as the Rennir clan, whose names end in -al. If the above had been Rennir, they would have been named Lendoral, Mannurial, and Fandelral.
Few in my campaign world are fool enough to take the name ending of another clan as it tends to lead to swift retribution from the impersonated clan. Outcasts are usually stripped of their clan ending, or, for particularly bad guys, given the -azoth derogatory ending. Fiirnazoth is a really, really nasty NPC in my campaign. He’s an outcast elf, in case you didn’t figure it out. 😉
A trick I try, especially with dwarves (who are somewhat secretive about their women in my campaign), is to make female names have a distinctive ending, in addition to the clan ending. In my campaign, if you hear two dwarves discussing Ralkharran you know they’re discussing a female (-ran) and someone of the Bekhalv clan (-har- happens to be their ending), even though they would never refer to Ralkharran as she or her.
I got this idea (and more generally, the idea for this whole naming schema) from Japanese culture, in which the female names often end in -ko. This doesn’t have to pertain to a particular race; it could be a particular city or nation.
What value does any of this have? Roleplaying, I say. I’ve given a more-or-less complete list of name extensions to the more culturally-educated of the PCs so they can quickly figure out someone’s heritage just from their name. It’s priceless when the players who run the two fighters look over at the wizard just after an introduction to see if there are any special customs they should pay attention to in regards to this new NPC.
Which brings me to another subject: courtesies. I’ll refer to Robert Jordan’s The Eye Of The World. In it, a couple of the main characters come up to a group of Tinkers, whose precepts are unimportant for the sake of this tip. Their introduction:
Tinker leader-guy: <presses both hands to chest and bows> You are welcome to our fires. Do you know the song?
Visitor: <same bow> Your welcome warms my spirit, Mahdi, as your fires warm the flesh, but I do not know the song. <Note: Mahdi means seeker, the man’s title>
Tinker: Then we seek still. As it was, so shall it be, if we but remember, seek, and find.
Now, this introduction would not have gone over well with any non-Tinker group, but with the Tinkers, it’s the only thing that’s appropriate. So too, in my games, there are certain courtesies that are appropriate with certain groups.
When greeting a Wood Elf, the proper ceremony goes “May you be sheltered by the grace of the forest and upheld by the hand of nature,” if you’re greeting them in a forest. If outside the forest, the proper greeting is “May you be preserved and sheltered by the hand of Ehlonna, until you return to your home.”
Moon Elves have “Night’s blessing be upon you, until to the night you return,” if it’s daytime, and “May your eyes see in the night as others see not in the day,” if it’s night.
These are some of the simpler courtesies in my campaign; in towns on the border of the desert, there are exceptionally complex rituals speaking of water and whatnot. The courtesies can vary from region to region, country to country, and town to town, depending on the kind of world the DM wants it to be.
If I have failed to note a particular greeting to my culture whiz wizard, I’ll roll a knowledge (culture) check for him, and if he succeeds, I’ll pass a note to him with the correct phrase on it. If he fails, I’ll give him an incorrect phrase, and then have fun roleplaying the awkwardness that results.
The other players think it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread when their wizard comes out with big, involved courtesies, and rib him unmercifully when he says something horribly wrong and gets them all chased out of town. No joke, it happened once. He used a greeting that would have worked on the enemies of the particular tribe the PCs were visiting, and the response was unpleasant, to say the least. The PCs had to work around that one faux pas for several more sessions in order to get the information they needed out of that tribe. They also had to go and heal up for several days after their rapid expulsion from the town.
Now, this style won’t work for every group. In fact, it’s had a bit of mixed success with my own. But it has also leant a great feeling of cultural diversity and cultural identity to my campaign. It’s wonderful when the elven NPC gives her name, the wizard gives the proper courtesies for the NPC’s specific clan, and the surprised and pleased NPC invites the PCs to share her fire and talk. It’s also fun when the wizard screws up and the players wonder why the horrified expressions on the villagers’ faces slowly turn to anger and rage. That was a moment I’ll remember for a good, long while. *DM’s wicked grin*
- Street Names & Planet Names Resources
From: Julia Pope
Here is a great list of street names to use for your next city:
Here’s a resource for sci-fi games:
It has the names of actual minor planets, most of which would easily work as planet names in a sci-fi game.
- Article On Humour In FRPGs
From: Kelvin Goh
Wizards of the Coast has a rather interesting article on humour in D&D games. Here’s the link:
- Instant PC Battlemat Counters
We recently came up with a great method for keeping track of combat on a battlemat, since most of us are miniature- challenged.
We downloaded some of the PC Portraits off of the Wizards of the Coast’s D&D site, and, using the magic of Photoshop, we resized them to 0.8 inches on a side and added the character’s name. Then we cut them out and ran them through the laminator, trimmed them down to 1″ squares, and voila! Instant PC counters!