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In a game I'm hosted, the PC (there's only one) has just gotten captured by the enemy. This was part of a plan to give his NPC buddy some major characterization by the way she rescues him, but I've run into a snag.

What's the PC going to do while he's locked up? The NPC is going to have a series of verbal encounters (specifically, she's trying to get the bad guy to shoot missiles at her, then use the strength of the signals between the missile's guidance computers, the off-site telemetry stations, and the hidden base where the PC is being held to triangulate where the hidden location is) with the Big Bad, and for them to be very effective story-wise they'd have to be spaced out. I can't really think of a way to let the PC actually do anything during these spaces.

He can't escape, 'cos that'd break everything. I'd rather not let him try to escape, since I don't trust this player not to succeed, and I'd hate to have to pull a Deus Ex Machina just to keep him there. I've kind of run out of ideas with the bad guy interrogating him. What should I do?

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Learn the lesson that PCs come before your NPCs or story? – mxyzplk Mar 9 '13 at 15:35
How about hallucinations? Especially if he gets tortured for information and deprived of sleep/food/water. Since it's just him and his mind in there, maybe his subconsciousness tries to tell him important plot points. – Ravn Mar 9 '13 at 15:48
Talk to other prisoners, run flashback games, learn to sing songs about workin' for your money – Rob Mar 9 '13 at 15:50
Yeah, every GM love his pet characters. Players usually don't. Know why? Because watching a NPC doing all te job, being awesome, taking all the credit and saving while you rot in jail sucks. So, I'll rethink the situation, and make one more collaborative, let your NPC help the player, not do his job. Let her being awesome, while the player is also doing awesome things. If your NPC supports instead of doing all, maybe your player would love her too. – Flamma Mar 9 '13 at 17:15
"He can't escape, 'cos that'd break everything. [...] I'd hate to have to pull a Deus Ex Machina" Umm... you just did. Just because you pulled it preemptively doesn't change anything. – dlras2 Mar 9 '13 at 21:48
up vote 16 down vote accepted

There is no reason to have the PC do anything interesting while captured. He may look at the walls or if he's lucky they give him a ball like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. There is also no reason why the PC should know anything about the NPC staging his escape.

But there is no reason to have you player being bored 3 days just because his character is bored 3 days. If nothing happens for days on end, tell him so and move on. Pick up where the action starts and the NPC frees him. If the player is interested in the story, he will ask how that was possible. If not... then not.

If you want to let your player participate, maybe you could let him escape from his cell (not the building) and rig something to send a signal. Or lower some defense so that the NPC may find him. Maybe your NPC can slip in a message that she needs the baddie to shoot missiles at her, so your PC might "give up" the information about her "missile-weakness" during the next round of torture.

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The second paragraph was my first thought, but as I said, it'd mess up the pacing of things. I think your other answer is the best bet; I'm wondering if I can get him to figure out the NPC's plan himself... – Schilcote Mar 9 '13 at 17:45

Your player should be able to do something, no matter the scenario, or it's not worth it putting him there. If you want to give him something to feel useful, I can think of a few off the top of my head:

  1. Let him interact with other prisoners. He might get useful info, start planning an escape (if you don't want him to succeed make it something that's dependent on, say, a particular warden being there, and he's only there on a [weekday before the PC turns up], so he'll have to wait), or get allies, especially if they are rescued with him by your NPC.

  2. Allow him to resist torture/interrogation. This is very effective if your player thinks there's no help coming. Being captured yet still able to effectively spit in the eye of your foe can be very fun. Add some rolls behind your screen if you want, or let him just roleplay his resistance.

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I'm finishing off The Wheel of Time now that the series is complete. There's a character who spends the majority of two whole books in captivity, resisting torture and working to take her captors down from the inside; and those parts are some of the best character development I've ever read. – SevenSidedDie Mar 9 '13 at 23:24

Abandon your plans for the NPC's development and just skip straight to the scene where the next interesting thing happens to the PC (presumably freedom, or something leading to it).

Don't fret about your plans fizzling – keep the actual game (as opposed to the stuff hidden in your head that's only potential now) moving, and you will get another, better opportunity for NPC development all the sooner.

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+1. "What about the pacing" is just putting your story above the player's experience. Cut bait on a bad idea. – mxyzplk Mar 9 '13 at 18:07
@mxyzplk I'd argue that version of "pacing" is not even really pacing. The focus of pacing is your audience. – Alex P Mar 10 '13 at 0:01

Maybe you can let your player play the NPC while it saves the PC? Make the character sheet, give the player all the necessary info but no more, and feel free to even give him a script for the parts that need to happen, or take control from him at this points (warn him before-hand, but explain that you are only doing this because it's not his character).

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Give your player a reason to not even try to escape. Create some sort of subplot revolving around another prisoner, something that you know the PC would have to stick around for.

Maybe someone is in desperate trouble, or has information the really PC needs. They say that they can help the PC escape once their own mission is accomplished. (Maybe they're lying, or maybe the plan will seem like it failed until the NPC comes to the rescue.) The player will presumably trust that you won't screw them over for following an obvious plot hook, so as long as it isn't against their character and there's nothing else tempting to do, they'll take the bait and not actively look for other avenues of escape.

This gives them their own plot that's (mostly?) independent of what the NPC is doing. You could cut between the two plots like a TV show to provide the proper pacing. Ideally they'd somehow connect in an unexpected way at the end, but that might be hard to pull off. :)

A lot of people have mentioned that focusing on NPCs too much is bad for a game, but I imagine its hard to avoid all elements of that if you only have one player. Just try to pay attention to whether that player is getting bored or zoning out. ;)

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I see a lot of stuff here that's saying 'don't put the NPC above the PC' and while I agree with the general statement of it, sometime players rejoice at really cool NPC stuff, so I'm going to assume that you aren't in love with an NPC but instead want to add colour to your world and characters, so to give the players someone to care about because players often hate totally incompetent NPCs and see no reason to keep them around/alive. However, when you threaten someone who has been useful, cool and listens to them, they really care.

Having read previous suggestions, I think that if you don't want to do the 'flashbacks while in prison' method, then the best bet is to timeskip. Obviously this adds an issue if your PC's don't at any point ask the obvious (How did you rescue me?) question. Let me offer an alernative if that event occurs.

When the escape has happened, the tactic is so ballsy, it becomes a thing of legend. 'Pulling an [insert NPC's name here]' becomes a thing in setting. Then the players can ask what that means. And a random NPC can say 'didn't you hear what they did?' and relay the story of the rescue.

Of course, if your villain is still alive, they'll exact vengence on the NPC...leading to the players to return the favour, it becoming a story point where they can interact more.

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Nice first answer. +1! – SevenSidedDie Mar 10 '13 at 20:07
+1 sounds very reasonable to me. Welcome to the site! – LitheOhm Mar 10 '13 at 20:59

There are only three basic options here:

1) Your PC is doing nothing. Your NPC is going to do interesting plot things. So swap control - put your player in charge of the NPC until his usual character is rescued.

That gives you the opportunity to introduce whatever's interesting about this NPCs backstory in the briefing, while keeping the focus on the player.

2) Timeskip. If nothing interesting is going to happen (and your NPC doing fun stuff is most likely interesting to you, not your player), then move forward until something does. Pick up with the jailbreak; you can cover what your NPC did before then in flashback later. Or jsut by having people he offended in the mean time show up later...

3) Make prison interesting. Include information the player needs to extract from other prisoners (or for bonus points, his captors). Introduce interesting characters. Create plots around the prison. Make your player not want to leave.

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Neither PC nor NPC matter – only the player and you. So either offer him that NPC to play (he will do it differently than you planned) or skip to the PC being rescued.

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My first thought would be to skip ahead to the poing where the player next gets to do something (possibly with the NPC popping up at the prison either disguised as a guard or smashing a whole into the wall of his jail sail or however you planned on reuniting them). You can cover the whole how the NPC pulled this off as an email sent after your next session and your NPC can ask how your PC passed the time. If you want the PC to answer something other than twiddling thumbs, you can't go wrong with a classic: if he makes a relatively low DC listen check (or whatever your game's equivalent is), he hears someone digging... if he makes a relatively low DC spot check (again or equiv.), he can find a weak spot near where the digging is coming from, and if he makes a low DC slight of hand check, he can swipe a spoon to dig back... and then throw in the Count of Monte Christo treasure map or equivalent side story.

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