Editor’s Note: this post is a preview of sorts of the topic for the next episode of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast, Season 10 Episode 18. You can hear it live on Friday, October 11th, at 8:30pm Pacific Daylight Time at happyjacks.org/live, or look for it on our feed later in the week.
Prisoner. Players hate to hear that word. When the GM says “prisoner,” the players hear two words: Plot Complication.
How often do we have games where every wounded foe is coup de gras’d when the fighting ceases? It’s happened in plenty of my games. Sure, they might torture them for information first, but in the end, in nearly every game, the prisoners get their throats slit or have a sword plunged through their hearts.
It’s a shame, really. There are many interesting directions a story can go if we can just figure out how to get the players to take prisoners, rather than slaughtering them.
But how can we get players to relent and not be the sociopathic murderers we all know and love? Here are a few ways:
One. A moral code. Perhaps one (or more) of the PCs are morally against killing those who cannot fight. Perhaps they will fight until their foe is down or unarmed, and then they no longer consider them a combatant.
I remember an episode of Black Sheep Squadron, where Pappy Boyington and his Japanese nemesis shot each other down. Once on the ground — outside of their airplanes — they were suspicious of each other, but in the end, they spent their time swapping rations and even concealed each other when their rescue parties arrived.
Perhaps it was the camaraderie of fighter pilots, or maybe it was two pilots who — when faced with their opponent in person — found it difficult to kill them. Either way, it made for a compelling story.
Maybe the warrior refuses to fight a properly armed or capable opponent. The slaughter of such a fine opponent is not a fitting death. Maybe it’s simply a matter of one person facing another helpless person and showing them mercy.
Two. Legal Ramifications. The Geneva Convention (actually the final of four treaties) was established after World War II, and dealt extensively with the rights of prisoners and wounded combatants. It created a framework so that all signatories of the United Nations would be legally bound by the Convention.
Perhaps such a legal structure can exist in other settings. Perhaps the various monarchs of a fantasy world agreed to such a treaty, signed in blood, where their sacred honor would be called into question if they did not follow the treaty.
Perhaps that nation of which the PCs are citizens has such laws to protect wounded and imprisoned combatants. Punishments could be quite severe. Soldiers — aware that such laws might protect them if they were to be captured — consider following such a law in their own best interests.
Three. Value of the Prisoner. If the PCs’ own moral code and the law aren’t enough, maybe the prisoner is more valuable alive than dead.
Perhaps the prisoner knows something. Perhaps it’s a bit of knowledge they have, but they aren’t even aware of its significance, so even under torture, they wouldn’t even know to divulge it.
Perhaps the prisoner is a relative of a powerful ally off the party, and slaughtering them would damage the party’s relationship with that ally.
Maybe the party needs the prisoner to do something. Perhaps the prisoner is the only person who can recite a certain incantation, or maybe the prisoner possesses a rare skill that the party (or the party’s patron) needs.
Perhaps the prisoner is the witness to a crime, and the party needs their testimony in a court.
Then the fun begins…
Once the party is resigned to keeping the prisoner alive, you can use the prisoner for many different plot hooks.
Keep Him Safe. There’s always the chance that someone (maybe even the prisoner’s own allies) wants the prisoner dead. The party must not only keep the prisoner secure, but they must fight adversaries who want to kill him.
He Tries to Escape or Escapes. Perhaps the party wakes up to find the prisoner gone. Maybe they need him (because he’s valuable) and then starts a manhunt to get him back. Or the prisoner might be a capable assassin, and now the party has to watch their backs. Are they being followed through the forest? Maybe the next time they sleep, they’ll find their throats cut.
He Turns Out to Be a Nice Guy. Maybe members of the party strike up conversations with their prisoners, and he tells them tales of his peoples’ plight. For the first time the party hears the tale of how the war between their nations started, and how the other side is merely defending themselves. Can the prisoner convince the party that they work for an evil despot who is causing terror and suffering in the prisoner’s homeland? Is he telling the truth? Is he lying?
The party may discover that the prisoner is a victim of circumstance — a soul who has been forced to do evil to save his people, his family, his ailing grandmother.
Prisoners (if kept alive) can provide all kinds of interesting story twist, and in many ways, those twists can be their own rewards — if only we can convince the players to let them live…