Running an AD&D Imprisonment/Escape game

Classic scenario - PCs enter into a portal | board some sort of vehicle or mode of transportation | walk into a dark room and BAM - next thing they know, they wake up and they're bound/gagged/locked in a room.

No, we're not playing 50 Shades of WooHoo... but we are entering into a place where there can be real pain for the DM as they try to adjudicate how to run a game where the PCs amount of agency got limited real fast... or did it?

Similar to a heist scenario, an imprisonment/escape scenario can have a lot of pitfalls. PCs can find themselves in a no-win. They can analyze themselves to death over hours of "what-if'ing" what to do. Or the DM can paint themselves in a corner with X must happen, then Y, then Z. Avoiding a railroad is hard but it's key. 

Back when I was planning out my games for GaryCon 2020, I wanted to start running games outside my comfort zone. A heist was a perfect way to do that - and I found a great framework to do that in. "Kidnap the Archpriest" by Skerples provides a really slick framework that puts all of the agency into the players' hands by doing three things:

1. Focusing on the resources that the PCs must spend to plan a successful heist: money, information and time

2. Executing the heist against a schedule framework

3. Getting away afterwards

I've already done a podcast episode on running a heist in AD&D, I do highly recommend listening and then going out and buying the KtA module. It's fun and it's extensible, as I'm about to explain. 

Quick spoiler alert to my Etinerra players. A bit of the curtain is going to be pulled away, to explain what I did over the past two games.

So the players are imprisoned. The objective is to plan a successful escape, execute the escape and then deal with the aftermath. The players are faced with a lack of information, a perception of having no resources, and an unknown amount of time before Something Bad Happens. It's a puzzle.

The first resource available to them was another prisoner. A source of information. Plus, they can spend time as a resource to collect information. What's going on around them? What do they see/hear? Does it seem like there's a rhythm or schedule of events going on around them? 

Just like a heist, I had to come up with "What Is a Day In Life At The Prison Site?" and come up with a schedule of events. It looked something like this:

I planned out 15 days of imprisonment. There was a flow to the day. I knew what the guards would be doing, where they would be, and so on. For all the NPCs there, I had general flows to their day, and which NPCs were present, and which were not. 

I scheduled out when certain interrogations would happen, on which days. 

I had a map of the prison area, and keyed the schedule to that map. 

Each of the major NPCs had certain motivations and traits that the players could explore, if the opportunity arose.

For example - one of the NPCs is Sgt Waylon. I had three traits about him, all generated from the AD&D DMG pg 100 - personality: forceful, disposition: insensitive, nature: hard-hearted

So when Waylon is the "Sgt in D5", that means he's close to the prisoners, and that drove several interactions that the PCs had with a charmed guard who kept going to Waylon with requests to do nice things for the prisoners. 

This didn't take all that long to prep, once I had a rough idea of how the schedule went.

So now I could provide the PCs with a lot of information, all depending on how they went about collecting it. They could just listen and learn over days... but time was ticking. An initial interrogation of one of the PCs gave them that bit of info. Now they had to balance urgency with the need for information.

They made use of their NPC fellow-prisoner. They charmed a guard and got info. They made friends with a drudge who delivered their "food" and sanitation buckets. More info. They built their plan. They discovered they had resources aplenty to execute their plan, it just took a bit of creativity and observation.

Once they had their plan, then it was execution time. I didn't have to "roll" for success, I just told them the results of their actions as they did it. They got out of the cell with a casting of warp wood, when the guards were out mustering for the morning. They managed to find their gear after a frantic search of the prison floor. They found the secret passage to the well shaft. They used their other spells to fly and be invisible

So how did I run the actual escape? By making REAL time as much their enemy as game time. 

When I'm running a dungeon crawl, I've taken to implementing turns as real time 10 minutes passage, unless they perform an action that costs turns, like searching for secrets.

So, we went to real time turns during the escape. I knew that mustering would take about 3 turns, 30 minutes. They had 30 minutes to escape, find their gear, find the secret passage and get out, before the guards finished their morning muster and returned.

If they wasted time by trying to discuss, that was the clock ticking away. If they wanted to explore, that consumed real minutes as I described what they found. And they were fully aware that this was happening because I laid out in clear terms what I was doing with the clock.

It. Was. Glorious!

They managed to not only escape, but the dice favored them heavily with the guards' response. I used the good old 2d6 reaction roll. Rolls at the low end meant the guards and mages had their act together and were organizing effectively, which would make the PCs escape more difficult. Rolls in the middle meant disorganization and some obstacles (like guards coming to the well to get buckets of water while the PCs where huddled in a passage that looked into the well-shaft 30' below the guards!). Rolls to the high favored the PCs with utter incompetence.

Man, I rolled more 7s, 9s and 11s during the escape, then ever before. I rolled every turn until they were out of the area.

Now, of course, they're dealing with the aftermath. They had to abandon an NPC that had been captured with them, but imprisoned elsewhere. They're in unfamiliar territory without a single clue to the nearest civilization. It's winter and cold. 

I was glad for the KtA framework to hang all this off of. Having a schedule and an approach allowed me to just answer questions and "run the clock" as the PCs solved the puzzle. No railroading, no "you have to do it XYZ" - they came up with their own approach. I have no doubt another group would have done it completely differently, but I would have ran the game the same way.

So in the end, although it might seem like I had removed all agency, I just shifted the style of game to play and they had all the tools they needed to play the new game. And they succeeded brilliantly.

Now we'll see what happens next. 

What do you think about this approach to putting the PCs into an imprisonment?