Heroes being captured is something that happens a lot in adventure stories with villains, but less frequently in RPGs. (Unless you’re Leenik Geelo and your go-to plan is to be captured on purpose) Most gamers refuse to accept defeat and will fight to the death instead of being taken prisoner. Many GMs, however, balk at killing a character or railroading their players by forcing a capture. My advice is to do the former not the later. If your players outsmart the antagonist and find a way out of the ambush and avoid capture, good for them! However, if the Antagonist has them dead to rights and your players refuse to surrender, killing, maiming, or knocking unconscious a PC may be in order. Though you should probably appeal to the player. Ask them what their character would really do in this situation. In the heat of the action, some players forget they are playing characters and do what they think is right or would ‘win’ instead. However, fighting to their dying breath is the right character decision for many player characters. So make sure you are aware of that and plan accordingly. With that said I am going to talk about how to run a “players are captured” set piece. This is different from a ‘players are imprisoned’ set piece I’ll get to one of those later.
The PC have been captured and are being held in a temporary or makeshift cell, something not designed for long term holding. This could be in something like a prison wagon, (Dragonlance, Way of Kings, Game of Thrones) a cage, a holding cell in a police station, locked in the basement, or simply confined to their quarters.
Reflection and Escape. Getting captured means something went wrong (unless you have been capture on purpose). Encourage your players to reflect on what got them there; in character. Finger pointing and party tension may ensue, but this is fine. If the party was a well-oiled machine then it wouldn’t be in this predicament. Scenes like this can allow players to push their characters past the status quo and develop some real interpersonal relationships and angst. Something that can lead to great character moments later. Don’t allow the scene to devolve into too much hostility. Intervene with a guard or some other occurrence. (this could be the players’ unspoken plan all along) The players should soon turn to planning how to get out of this situation.
The threats in a scene like this are rather simple, Guards, each other, sometimes the elements, maybe thirst and starvation.(though this isn’t a dungeon cell so the last two are unlikely. The players will probably be held in this manner for less than a few days) Always, however, the overbearing threat should be “what is going to become of them.” Don’t have a villain guard or NPC state this outright. Let your players just think they know, or their imagination come up with their own scenario.
Escape. How to facilitate it and not make it obvious. First thing. Don’t leave them naked in a room with one door and bare walls. Make sure the places they are stuck in has objects. A bed, sheet, straw, stones, a few random other things, and maybe things they were able to hide well within their clothing. Decide what is in the room (or each room if they are not in the same place) beforehand. Tell the players the obvious things from the get go, but make sure there is at least one thing they would find by looking around. You don’t even have to have an idea on how to use these random items to escape because I bet your players will come up with an idea or two.
Also be sure to describe the surroundings outside their cell in great detail. Make sure you and your players have the same mental picture this will go a long way to alleviate you as the GM having to shut down a player’s great idea, because “actually, the door swings out.” That said if the player does have a really creative idea… Well gosh darn it, throw your mental map out the window, because you bet that door swings in and not out.
Persuasion, charm, and other social skills could also come into play if there is a lackey guard. Make these checks really hard.(not impossible) The PCs aren’t long term inmates that have developed a rapport with the guards. They are people recently captured by the guard’s employer, on purpose, and expected to be dangerous. The guard would probably no longer be employed, or maybe not alive, if the players escape on their watch. That being said Bluff or other engineered situations to fool the guard may be employed to great effect. The nature of a scene like this means the guard is probably just a soldier or some other servant simply just assigned to this task. Not someone trained or practiced at guarding prisoners.
Tinkering, Listening, coordination, Streetwise, Subterfuge are other skills that might be employed in a scene like this.
Say Yes, with complication. “Is there something I can use as a pole?” “Yes, you see a broom leaning up against the table outside the cell. Its’ about a meter and a half from the cell bars, just out or reach” Don’t give your players the moon, but do allow them some potential. ( If they grab the table leg and give it a jerk, they may get the broom to fall in the direction of the cell)
Thwart their first escape attempt. OK, this one is tricky; if the plan is solid and wasn’t anything even on your radar. Let it happen. However if the plan relies on a lot of chance and probability, then throw a wrench into the mix, maybe dinner is brought in an hour early.
Remove players from the scene and bring them back. Maybe they are being interrogated, or tortured. Having players come and go from the cell really changes things a bit. It makes timing important, it allows the players a chance to acquire other items to aid in their escape, it puts a countdown on the breakout, and can help advance some of the story.
Throw in an NPC or two. Maybe the players aren’t the only ones captured. Or the prisoner is really a plant for the villain. Adding others can complicate the scene and change your character’s actions. Avoid however the NPCs being wizened sages that know how to escape or broken men with no will to go on. Make them interesting but not entirely helpful.
Don’t be afraid to advance time. Most likely the players will be trying to escape from the moment they know they’ve been captured. Instant escape attempts shouldn’t work, everyone is still on high alert, relay this to your players and force them to have that reflection time described above. Escaping capture usually relies on waiting for the right opportunity. Let hours go by, but advance time to those opportunities. Meal times, people coming and going from the cells, or simply when it gets dark.