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I'm about to start a new arc with my characters and I'd really like it to begin by having them be kidnapped. It would be easy for me to just do this by fiat and say that "You are knocked unconscious by a dart to the neck!" But that feels a little like cheating.

If necessary I think I can get them to split up, but what items or abilities could I use or tweak to quickly knock my characters unconscious while still giving them the feeling that it fit within the rules of the game?

EDIT: Currently my characters are level 6 but I think this question could apply to all levels.

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Have you never seen star wars? Trap them in a big net. Doesn't matter if they've got the force, they can still get caught in a net. –  zzzzBov Feb 24 '13 at 8:00
How tough's the party? –  deworde Feb 24 '13 at 9:02
I'll add this to the question but they're level 6. –  Mykroft Feb 25 '13 at 14:10
For the curious. After reading the answers presented to this point I think I'm going to go with the easy way out and just have the wake up already kidnapped. The drama of the scene I'm trying to put together really relies not on the method of the kidnapping by the motivations behind it. (The kidnapper isn't really that powerful he just has very damaging info on the party.) There's some really good ideas here for where to go with future plot hooks once I'm through this intro to a new arc. Also it will induce a certain paranoia about securing their house, which should also be entertaining. –  Mykroft Feb 25 '13 at 14:32
@Mykroft Being able to say the players wake up already kidnapped is part of the rules. They're the rules that lay down the GM's control over what happens in the world. It's not cheating or an easy way out, it's just not the same rules the players have to follow. –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 2 '13 at 11:35
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9 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In terms of how to do this, F. Randall Farmer's answer gives you some brilliant ways in, but how exactly to do it depends entirely on the strength of your party. The fact is that any in-game knock-out effect I can think of allows for some form of save, and is thus vulnerable to them passing it. That dart's not going to have much effect on a guy with rock skin, for example. At which point you either have to change the plan or add more force.

As far as it goes, I would personally plump for a good old Sleep spell, cast on them while they were already asleep and thus vulnerable. But you're still going to have to change the details of the spell to railroad them. Alternatively, unspecified mystically-enhanced drugs are a reliable way to go, especially as they're not bound by annoying issues like turn limits. But at the end of the day, it's just a dart to the neck via a roundabout route.

However, remember that anything that would kill a player can actually be said to have merely gravely wounded them, like for example, a knife in the back. Thus, just start a fight, aim to take a player down to 0, and then before anyone can heal him, he gets snatched by the kidnappers. This tells the players that "dying" here is expected, and quickly wipes them out by attrition. At worst, one escapes, and ends up having to track down his comrades.

One critical thing that isn't mentioned in your question is what your party is used to, and thus what their expectations are. The fact you're worrying about bending the rules is interesting, as there's no limit on the number of by the rules ways to incapacitate players.

The critical issue here, as other answers have described, is that you absolutely have to make your players "lose" to get them to this point. By definition, a capture contains an event that is bad (at least superficially). For example, "Your ship gets destroyed/you fall in a deep pit/their guys kick seven bells out of you"

Now, none of these things are actually losses, they're merely doors on the path to adventure, so the important thing is that the players realise that, for example, managing to work out who's kidnapping you, or being taken prisoner without losing your stuff, counts as a win in this event.

This is fine, if your party has previously encountered "survivable loss states" (e.g. areas where they lose but can continue). Generally there are a couple of ways this gets introduced.

  1. Your current case, where the DM wants the party to lose in order for the plot to progress as planned (the Classic "Railroad" plot as demonstrated here)
  2. The party loses in a way that ruins the fun, so the DM re-writes the effect so you survive but in a weakened state (in jail, badly injured, as a spectral wraith)

Note again that neither of these things are bad, unless they're done badly (for example, the DM gets frustrated that the party's not "losing right")

However, your question suggests your party are used to victory or death situations, where losing literally kills the party atmosphere as well as the adventurers themselves. Which is why you're now looking for a "justifiable" way to have them lose.

In this case, you have to judge your group and decide how best to "lead them to the loss". There are three basic variations on this:

  1. As Brian Ballsun-Stanton suggests, simply warn them in advance. This kills the suspense, but also kills the frustration, as they know what to expect. The only issue is if your party is the kind of party that will attempt to deliberately frustrate your plan by refusing to surrender, or trying dirty invisibility tricks to escape. But at least then they're aware of why "rocks fall, everyone is captured"
  2. Make it very clear that they're supposed to surrender. You must make them aware that surrender/failure is an option, and in fact the preferable one. If the surly hill barbarian then chooses to charge the massed ranks of the Imperial army, lugging his unwilling companions behind him, that's their choice, and you can enjoy beating them into submission.
  3. Make failure the more entertaining option. Use your player's vices and virtues to put them in situations where they can't possibly win. The mystical damsel offering a cup of drugged wine, for example. Or the illusion of a tiny puppy about to be squished by a rock, where the rock is no illusion.
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Ask them nicely. There's no uncertainty in the outcome of this encounter, therefore it's not interesting to resolve via chance.

You, as DM, should either dictate or negotiate. There's no point in resolving it in game via the false illusion of choice and skill.

Given that this is a narrative structure, negotiation can lead to character development, whereas most players will feel unhappy if their models of world are violated by "no, you astonishingly heroic heroes were just captured by fifteen waves of ninjas."

There is no good way to do this in character. Most players will avoid making decisions that are obviously trapped. Therefore, the best way is to say "Look, I'd like to bribe you each with a plot token. In exchange, I'd like to start off with you kidnapped, and I'd like to work through with you how your character was kidnapped to explore the nuances of your character and in what situations he or she would make bad decisions that are bad enough to lead to their kidnapping.

The plot token is worth one declarative statement about the world that is subject to veto from the group (not the DM). If the group vetos, they get their plot token back.

To unpack this, 4e is designed for two significant combat outcomes when in goblin dice mode: the players win and the party dies. In order to kidnap the party in combat, consider the flowchart here. You'll effectively overwhelm them with monsters until they all "die" and then say "just kidding, you're captured instead." Here, there is no interest nor possibility of "success." And therefore the question should not be asked.

When in skill challenge mode, the same thing is true. You have a known, fixed outcome: the party is kidnapped. Therefore, there are no interesting choices.

Simply put, the best outcome is to arrange the narrative situation to highlight and enhance aspects of the characters with the players' connivance. The players get rewarded, get spotlight time, and get enhanced characterization

In this answer, I don't quite understand how the "plot token" works. What kind of things can you do with it?

A plot token is a unit of value representing the capability to "change the game."

In effect it represents a narrative reward or narrative change that a player can introduce because she's interested in that. So, a trivial example is a player spending a plot token saying "We have a castle."

Now, this represents not the actual events, but the impulse behind the narrative events. In the "we have a castle" token, it's likely that the DM will either run a few sessions establishing why and how the castle was captured or work with the PC to narrate the same thing, depending on other planned events.

What this means is that players, in exchange for not making a fuss, can change the world to be more interesting to them. Plot tokens generally aren't exchanged for things of mechanical value, but for narrative things of plot interest. They are a way of demanding "I want this to happen" or have happened. It gives players some storytelling control and influence over the world, just as you, the DM, are assuming control over their characters with an equivalent plot-debt of "You get captured."

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I would add that I actually experienced this situation.. from a player point of view. GM asked me if I was ok starting the game kidnapped, with the others trying to free me. I accepted, and fun was had. –  Scrollmaster Feb 24 '13 at 2:54
I've talked about this type of situation before, here. In my experience, players like to feel they have choices, and by asking them beforehand and letting them in on it, they'll be much more likely to have fun with the situation. –  thatgirldm Feb 24 '13 at 7:02
I don't think you necessarily need to bribe them (although I'm interested in your plot token idea, and would like to hear more on chat) –  deworde Feb 24 '13 at 8:26
@deworde For one way of implementing the plot token idea, see a post on my blog: Directed. –  Magician Feb 24 '13 at 13:31
A skill challenge can have a fixed outcome of kidnapped with a variable of 'smuggled some tools', didn't get strip searched etc. –  GMNoob Feb 24 '13 at 13:52
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Not Every Encounter is Combat

There have been encounters designed to capture parties since the earliest days of roleplaying. I've done it twice already in 4e - no negotiation required.

  • The False Floor: About halfway thru Goodman Games' The Sellswords of Punjar, there is a large pit trap that is large enough to capture the entire party. In my case, even though it was possible to avoid the trap (detect, stand elsewhere, disable the human triggerer in the rafters) it did it's job admirably - with every member sliding down a chute into a cage, suspended above a river, 30 feet below. Some of the best roll-playing I've seen getting out of that mess. Note: Even if some only some of the players were trapped, the others would have most probably had to follow to help their friends out...but see my section at the end of the post for more on that.

Here's a photo of the cages from my play-through: Sellswords of Punjar

  • The Shipwreck: Nothing quite like losing your to a giant sea serpent to constrain your starting options. Goodman Games' Isle of the Sea Drake starts exactly that way, and though it doesn't strictly "capture" the players, it certainly could be easily adapted to do so.

Photo of my Sea Drake attacking a different ship later in the same module: Isle of the Sea Drake {Full adventure thread w/pix}

  • Overwhelming Odds: Back in the 1e days, I started an adventure once with each party member being separately kidnapped. Nothing like a group of 6 Ninja's jumping your level 1 character, doing "non-leathal" damage to give him/her a unscheduled nap. This allowed each character to be introduced to the story from their own point of view, and one or two of them to manage to hide something useful on their bodies...

Sometimes a Success Result is Capture

I don't agree that every result in 4e is "Players win or TPK" at all. Capture is a plot result, but it not always a "lose". What resources remain and relationships are developed as part of the capture determine the quality of "success" for this type of encounter.

Honestly, most of the time my parties face clearly overwhelming odds, they surrender - since they've learned that it is easier to escape capture when you are conscious than to fight hopelessly and end up waking up naked in a cel.

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+1: Brian's answer is good because it highlights an essential issue with the entire concept. This actually gives examples of where that concept is made to work. –  deworde Feb 24 '13 at 7:42
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I'd start it after they've obviously been kidnapped. Anything else feels like one of those bad video game cut scenes where you KNOW you'd have done something different except the narrator put you there. Starting after a kidnapping is fine. I wouldn't force the situation that way.

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If the players have watched any movie in the past 50 years, they should know that if heroes get captured, they gain some benefit by being imprisoned and always escape. Promise them those things.

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It depends on where you would like to trap the characters. Obviously a plain daylight trap is much harder to execute than, say, an underground cave-in which leads them to a one way trip directly into the trap (say, an ORC stronghold). You can also use cultural stigmas to impose unheard laws which the players are unaccustomed to, such as death penalty for pressing on flowers. Captives don't always have to be overwhelmingly stronger, they might also represent the law-of-the-land which, when you escape from, you become a villain, so you have to resolve this without violence.

So I suggest you put the kidnapping or trap as part of the story by barring all other means of escape.

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"they might also represent the law-of-the-land which, when you escape from, you become a villain, so you have to resolve this without violence"... Yeah, there's an inherent flaw in assumptions here which you might want to consider. –  deworde Feb 24 '13 at 7:43
@deworde it's life :-) –  pwned Feb 24 '13 at 11:23
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I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned one option which seems obvious to me.

Start the arc with them already captured, with no idea why or how and make it part of the story to find out why and discover how.

I've been involved with some great nonlinear stories where you start in the middle, but as you progress on in time you also find out things which progress you back in time too, so the story played out in both directions at once. I've even played through some of these past scenes as a series flashbacks where it is clear how the story is going to end up, but not necessarily clear how you get there.

Also, don't be afraid of taking chances. If they are playing in a game you are running, they must trust you to run a fun game for them. Suspension of disbelief and trust in your GM are essential elements of a good role-playing game.

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I disagree with Brian Ballsun-Stanton. You don't ask permission to the players to attack them during the night or if it would be ok to have a trap here and there in the campaign. Just do it.

Best way is to actually ask yourself why X individual or group want to kidnap the players. The motivation will explain why they put X amount of resources to do so. Also why alive? So this way you know how much effort/resources X faction is ready to spend to kidnap them.

Next step is to "spend" those resources/effort by actually planning the encounter. Do this the same way you would plan an encounter with an XP budget. The difficulty of the encounter represent how desperate (or resourceful) faction X is. You want them to be kidnapped but you don't have to railroad them into it..plan the situation. Ambush them, poison them and target their Fort defense or have people wait for them with nets. If they defend themselves efficiently, have a plan B. If a couple of guys is not enough..maybe there's 20 of them with a wagon waiting for them around that corner over there.

If they succeed at a couple of attacks and skill checks before inevitably end up kidnapped, at least it feels like it was a fair fight and they tried something. The key here is the motivation of the kidnappers.

The other way would be to start like in Elder Scroll: Oblivion (I don't know why I'm in jail but here I am)...just tell them they were kidnapped and start the game after the facts. You can describe the players what happened and leave the details to them. Tell them one morning a group of soldiers knocked on their door with a warrant and ask them if they defended themselves and how it went until they inevitably got caught. Do they remember anything?

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"before inevitably end up kidnapped, at least it feels like it was a fair fight and they tried something": How can it possibly feel like a fair fight if they'll inevitably lose? That's the definition of an unfair fight. It would at best feel like necessary railroading, and at worst feel like a godawful grind to try and escape, unless they realise that they can't possibly win. (Actually, at worst they come up with a convincing way to escape, and you have to resort to "rocks fall, everyone is captured") Second idea is much better. –  deworde Feb 24 '13 at 7:25
I know right. DMing in many games is more of a social experiment than a shared adventure..DM forcing situations on players and watch them finding solutions like monkeys trying to get the next banana. I'm just suggesting that by sending them enough challenge they will end up kidnapped..unless they never fail a single roll which is statistically improbable. –  MrJinPengyou Feb 24 '13 at 13:11
@MrJinPengyou You say: "DM forcing situations on players and watch them finding solutions like monkeys trying to get the next banana." This baffles me - aren't all encounters like this, then? –  F. Randall Farmer Feb 25 '13 at 3:58
@F.RandallFarmer Ever since I read about the principles of Dungeon World I realized that every other games empower the GM with the agenda of killing or playing with the PCs. Anyway that's my perception of things. It's open to discussion and the comment section wouldn't be the place for it. –  MrJinPengyou Feb 25 '13 at 12:56
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If it's a relatively realistic world--in that if they decide one day to march to the castle of the evil king and take his throne, that they will be summarily killed by legions of the king's soldiers--then you always have the option of actually giving them a choice. If the bad guys can come up with a foolproof plan, yet can plausibly not be utterly invincible so the PCs can win later, great! If capturing the PCs seems outside the capability of the bad guys (or the bad guys would have to outclass the PCs by an unentertainingly large margin), then you might want to rethink the scenario, or at least be prepared for what happens if some/all of the PCs escape.

If it's more like a video game with plenty of forced plot points and restrictions on what you can do (and very little exposure to unwinnable challenges), then I'd suggest that you just do it. Don't make them roleplay anything that they can't win and which will bother them. It's supposed to be fun; if describing exactly how their character tries to flee and is beaten in the end is not going to be fun for them. If railroading is likely to bother them greatly, get their consent first.

Keep in mind that you can introduce custom poisons and the like to do the job. For example, suppose there's a herb cleverly named sleepweed that applies a -10 penalty on checks to wake up from a sleep. Maybe they're invited to a banquet where this is used in a sauce. It doesn't taste like anything in particular, the people present at the banquet have no idea it's there, and the florist used deadly nightshade in the bouquets on the table that ends up confusing detect poison spells. (Indeed, you can even play out a scene where one guest notices the poisonous berries and a row ensues over whether it is unsafe to have poisonous berries as decorations on the table.) For a higher powered campaign, maybe the bad guys have a portable portal--like a mirror on wheels, which they can roll over the sleeping characters and transport them directly to a dungeon cell.

With the aid of things like this, you can probably kidnap the characters anyway, so why not give it a good try instead of railroading?

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