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Setting

I'm preparing for my first time as a DM in D&D 5e (as a player I have gotten to level 4 in 3 campaigns so I have a good grasp of the game, in my group everyone wants to have a go as DM and as players so we switch campaigns a lot).

My plan is to have a gladiator style story in a Roman-empire–type world. For the first session I was planning to have the players be captured1 and forced to fight in an arena from which they should escape2. From there they will have to flee to another empire. (Which empire they flee to and which route they take should give me enough to build a real story on and give them some influence over the story.)

1 How do I go about capturing the players?

Do I tell them before they make their background? It might make certain things easier example:

It would make sense for "the Romans" to confiscate some equipment which they haven't even used, that would be quite annoying. Should I just tell them to not prepare equipment, because it was confiscated?

On the other hand it could be quite fun as well to at the start of the session begin with a short story about how each player was captured and how they will have to fight against other prisoners.

Or should I maybe make it a real combat encounter? But for this I would have to make sure it is an unfair fight which sounds like a bad idea.

2 Main question: How do I make sure they escape?

My story relies on them escaping otherwise they would just be stuck in an arena for the entire campaign. I don't want to make this trivially easy but I still need to make sure it happens. The only thing I can think of is to provide many many was for them to escape:

  1. They could kill a guard guarding the gate while fighting in the arena, this would be a very public way to escape which could have some side-effects, like civilians helping or attacking them.
  2. They could steal the keys from a guard while he sleeps (maybe with the help of something like mage hand).
  3. And as a final backup: they could win their freedom as prize for winning if they just can't figure out they're supposed to escape.

Is there a better way to do this? Do I have enough opportunities to escape? Both real options seem quite miss-able. (Do you have any other ideas? Just letting the jailer forget to lock their cell seems kinda lame.)

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The first rule of RPG plots is that no plot survives contact with player characters. You cannot rely on players to do what you expect. If a puzzle has two solutions, the players will invent a third, and you will need to be responsive to that if you want to avoid the feeling of railroading.

Your main risks are as follows:

  1. The plot requires the PCs to be captured, but given the chance, they may evade capture
  2. The plot requires the captured PCs to attempt escape, but they might not even try
  3. The plot requires the PCs to succeed in their escape attempt, but they may fail
  4. You need the PCs to feel responsible for their own successful escape, but they not come up with a plan that justifies the success mandated by the plot

Have the campaign begin with the players already captured. Tell the players in advance that this is the starting premise of your game. It conveniently allows the PCs to keep their starting weapons and equipment (they're gladiators, so those are the tools of their job). This also explains how they know each other and prevents the very real danger that the PCs will win or escape from a fight they're supposed to lose.

Next, the PCs must be motivated to try to escape. If the players do not decide upon this spontaneously, you must create that motivation. Have an NPC gladiator give them a warning that the arena is planning to set the PCs in an unwinnable fight where they'll be slaughtered (against a golem, manticore or the like, as a grand spectacle), and must make a run to escape.

Let the PCs come up with their own escape plan, but if they're entirely clueless, have the NPC help (he knows how to escape, but needs the PCs because they're going to have to fight their way out). Be responsive to player ideas, even if you had something else planned.

If the players escape based on their own plan, they will certainly feel that they did it by their own wit. However, the next best solution is if they fight their way out, so that they feel responsible the success of their own escape.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ #2 seems unlikely, but I agree with all your other points. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 1 '18 at 22:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast nothing is unlikely with the right players \$\endgroup\$ – Pureferret Jan 2 '18 at 10:01
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My preferred method for doing something like this is thinking outside the dungeon: start the adventure after the player characters have escaped.

Begin the first session with a prologue outside game mechanics. Explain to the players that they have escaped gladiator slavery, and then ask them how they did it. Prepare some questions for the players to answer regarding their time in captivity and their escape:

GM: So, how did you break out of your cells?

Torvi the Bard: I used my seductive wiles to convince a guard to return Lisko's spellbook.

Lisko the Wizard: Then my Fire Bolt cantrip burned us a hole through the ceiling.

GM: Cool, did anyone notice?

Nuija the Fighter: Yeah, there was a bit of a scuffle, but we had the drop on them so we got through with little trouble.

GM: Did anything happen that you regret?

Raita the Ranger: I promised to help the guy in the next cell escape too, but we didn't have the time to get him out.

GM: Are you afraid they're still after you?

Nuija the Fighter: I won't admit it, but I'll probably be sleepless for a fortnight.

Arvo the Cleric: Yeah, I appreciate you doing my share of night watches too...

etc.

This accomplishes several positive things for your campaign: it gives the players narrative control over how they escaped, and with a suitable choice of questions, makes sure they did make it out. Ask questions how they escaped and what impact it had on the characters, not whether they escaped!

By narrating their shared backstory in turns, your players can form good bonds between each others' characters - "This guy watched my back while I was picking the outer gate locks" is a much more tangible relationship than the usual "You meet in the tavern". Finally, you can conveniently avoid the issue of issuing or not issuing gear - your PCs simply recovered it during their escape, so the players can generate their characters perfectly as normal.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This. It's like a game of and then where each player adds an element to the story. It will add reasons for them to depend on each other as well, and set up a fun group dynamic that encourages creativity, while simultaneously solving the biggest issue that normally arises from the "everybody is a gladiator" starting, namely, that the players don't REALLY have any common ground and you're likely to get some serious conflict. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Dec 31 '17 at 1:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ The only thing that feels a little weird with this method for me is that you are telling them they escaped but asking them how they did it. But it could work really well. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – fejfo Dec 31 '17 at 10:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @fejfo That's not that strange if you compare to the traditional DnD - there you tell the players their characters are adventurers (Fighters, Rangers, Wizards etc) and the players tell how they grew to be such :) \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Dec 31 '17 at 10:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @fejfo - Consider that D&D is basically a co-authored book. The DM creates the plot and world, and the characters are the actors. The DM has no control over them at all. So basically you write the story together, with a plot point being injected in some format through what are called encounters (these are not solely combat), and the characters deciding what to do, if anything, with it. Giving players some serious agency really adds to the game. For instance, if I have an elf in my games, when they run into elven stuff, I ask the player to describe it to everybody if I don't have plans for it. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Dec 31 '17 at 11:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I love this answer. The Angry GM has an article where he talks about how a scene should ask a Dramatic Question and provide some resolution to it. This seems like a scenario where the Question already has an answer, so making it clear that it's about how, not if, makes a lot of sense. \$\endgroup\$ – sevenbrokenbricks Jan 1 '18 at 17:18
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My answer is much simpler than the others. In my past gaming experience, I've seen players feel railroaded, and players that felt the world was incredibly open, and the biggest difference was this single overlookable thing:

How much detail the DM used for the world.

If you say:

You enter a room, and ahead of you, there's an Orc, who looks ready to attack.

Players will immediately sword the orc until it's dead, like they've done a million times in the past, and advance to the next room. Predictable, and incredibly boring.

However, if you say

The rogue, sneaking quietly, leads you into the doorway of a room 20 feet wide and 30 feet long with creaky wooden floors, scored grey stone brick walls, and at the top, about 10 feet up, a cavernous ceiling with stalactites, that appear slightly slimy. There are wide cracks in the floorboards, and below them appears to be roughly worked stone, probably mined out by cobolds. The boards appear only barely able to support your weight, due to rot. The walls appear to have been added later, in 1ft by 2ft bricks of an oddly marble-looking stone, which is cold to the touch. The walls appear well made, you suspect humans had moved in after the cobolds and attempted to make this into a home, ages ago. The warm moist air, and the rot and mold reveals that there must be an underground lake farther back. Near the front of either wall appears an incess in the stone,lined with wood, as if someone attempted to put the sembalance of a window there. To the left of the back wall is a rotted doorframe, open to a dark path, that appears well traveled. On the wall with the doorway you're peeking through, there appears to be a simple cloth war banner hanging, which, though tattered, doesn't appear more than a few years old. There's a surprisingly stable wooden bench/table near the center of the room, on top of what appears to be a red rug. The rug appears to have had an image on it, but is worn away to illegibility. There appears to be strands of a fringe on the rug that is mostly missing now. There are three unlit lamps hanging in a square from the ceiling, and another on the floor toward the far door. The right wall is lined with tall empty bookshelves, though the four bookshelves on the far half of the room have toppled toward the middle, on top of a shattered chair, and what appears to be a bit of shattered pottery. The left side appears to have a mostly-solid looking counter made mostly of wood, with what appears to be a very skillfully made stone sink inset. The counter appears to be covered in dried blood, with a scattering of animal bones and gore. The drawers beneath the counter are mostly open, and there's a few pots and pans remaining. There's also a few shards from the remains of a mirror in the sink. In the back right corner is a bedframe, which appears to be filled with hay, and an orc quickly fumbles his way awake, and grabs a chair-leg and swings it menacingly. He is wearing well-made pants with a tear in each knee, and a simple cloth shirt, but a surprisingly well made brown vest. On his vest is a small golden badge in the shape of a coin. Near the bed is a nice red beret. He yells out in Orcish "This is my place! Get out of my place!"

I've described the floor, walls, and ceiling, each different. There's several large objects scattered throughout the floor, and at least one interesting object on each wall. The monster wasn't just waiting for random adventurers, he was interacting with the environment (the bed), and has a reason for being here (his home? A temporary camp? Who knows?). What he wears differs from other orcs (high quality pants, vest, and baret, though torn, and a badge).

Now will your adventurers use the table to assist in combat? Maybe they can use the lamps? Or the bookshelves! Maybe the bard wants to calm the poor orc, and learn why he's here. Maybe the Wizard has to think twice about fire spells, because the floor and props are all wood. Or maybe he doesn't, because it's all wet and rotting. Maybe electricity can be useful, with all that moisture. What does the orcs badge and beret signify? Do they recognize the badge? What about the war banner? What happened to the kobolds who were here long ago, and the humans not so long ago? The PCs will find creative ways to use every detail you provide, and if you provide enough details, they find a way to use them to solve anything that needs solving.

So, when the players get stuck, describe everything in detail. Then describe those things in detail. And keep them different, and make sure to add one "interesting/usable" aspect to everything. The jail bars have to have a red bar, made of a different metal that spins, and makes a noise. Maybe it's a way out. Maybe it's a way to send a signal. Maybe it's a way to irritate guards. Maybe it opens up a story with a prisoner who's been here longer. Have no idea where you're players will take you. Just reward all interesting ideas with more plot hooks, and the players will be out before the second daybreak.

I like to keep a random name/background generator tool handy, and each time they decide to interact with an NPC, take 30 seconds to study the generated background, and then proceed. Does this NPC have a family? What does he like to do in his free time? What's he most afraid of? Is he a tattletale? Does he have a child he's kind of afraid of because he doesn't know how to be a good dad? Maybe he likes cats. Or bards. Again: The more details, the more interesting, and the more likely the PCs can find a way to use this NPC to solve their problem.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I am not 100% sure this entirely allays the OP's fears but this is a brilliant answer to any question a DM may ask. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jan 2 '18 at 11:13
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Don't Prep Plots, Prep Situations

What’s the difference?

A plot is a sequence of events: A happens, then B happens, then C happens. (In more complicated forms, the sequence of events might fork like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but the principle remains the same.)

A situation, on the other hand, is merely a set of circumstances. The events that happen as a result of that situation will depend on the actions the PCs take.

From your starting premise you can have an encounter with slavers that has a number of possible outcomes:

  1. The PCs are dead,
  2. The slavers are dead,
  3. The PCs run away,
  4. The PCs are captured,
  5. Something I haven't thought of.

As a DM you need to be comfortable and accept that only No 4. leads to the gladiatorial arena directly (2 & 3 may lead there indirectly as the player's investigate the slavers) and be ready to deal with whatever happens.

If you really want the gladiatorial contest then start your campaign with the PCs being gladiators. Then think of situations that apply to that:

  • Places: the cells, the training grounds, the arena
  • Prospects: How can one stop being a gladiator? Historically you could die, escape or earn your freedom.
  • People: guards, other gladiators, their owner(s), the audience
  • Objects: gates, walls, locks, keys, weapons, armor, spell books, materials pouches/focuses etc. where are they? how can the PCs get them? What are the obstacles?

You don't need to worry about how (or if) they will stop being gladiators: they do. All you have to do is think of the situations and offer them several routes to the next situation (which may be better or worse for them). If and when they do escape you don't have to worry about them not feeling that it wasn't due to their wit because it was!

You know your players so if you should tell them the opening premise or not is up to your assessment of which they would enjoy more. Personally, I would tell them because players hate being imprisoned - many would rather die and roll a new character.

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kviiri already gave an excellent answer. I'd like to provide an alternative, which may or may not be better, depending on your players.

The important thing to keep in mind is that you want your players to agree if you take control of their characters or actions away from them. This should be established on a meta level before the game starts.

Some games do this as part of the game mechanics, for example if the game contains rules for psychology, automatic fear responses, mind control or mental disorders. In such case, everyone understands that due to the game played, they might at times not be in charge of their characters.

D&D is not such a game, so you need to establish this deviation from the norm with the players. If the group is new to the game system or setting, or you are starting a new campaign, you can simply ask them if it is ok with them to play an introductory chapter, where you will guide them more strictly than usual, in order for everyone to slowly get into the game, try out some game mechanics (e.g. you want to use a short fight with two weak prison guards as a way to establish the combat mechanics), and bring the group together.

This is very common in computer games as a tutorial chapter, so many players will be familiar with a "guided introduction".

I generally found players to be very accepting of this kind of railroading at the beginning, as long as you are clear about it and assure them that after the introduction chapter, full control will be returned to them.

For example, I generally use this approach when starting with a new group and the game system does not provide a fast way of getting the group together. Nobody wants to sit around for two hours because one guy constantly decides to go the other way instead of to the plot point where the group meets up. Telling players up front that I excert some control over their players actions in order to speed up the game beginning and get to the actual campaign has always been well accepted so far.

I also found that players new to roleplaying typically welcome some guidance at the beginning, as they feel overwhelmed with the amount of game mechanics to remember and choices to make.

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Regarding your technique for capturing the PCs: The advantage of telling the PCs that their starting situation is as captives/gladiators is that they don't create a character that is completely irrelevant in the arena. For example, my experience has been that playing a wizard who is denied access to his spell book and the opportunity to scribe scrolls is very frustrating. Alternatively, you need to ensure that if a character is not penalised for their choices - following the wizard example, you allow access to their spell book under controlled circumstances so they can prepare spells for a magic fight. (I have played a wizard character who started the campaign as a slave rower on a corsair vessel and another wizard character who started as a press ganged sailor - in both cases the GMs made sure I was not penalised.) Equipment choice is not an issue - you can either tell each player they are getting a standard equipment package for their class or let them choose their equipment and give them the option to retrieve it when they escape.

Regarding how to let the PCs escape: Your players will come up with escape plans that play to their strengths, but it is impossible to predict these until you know what type of characters they are running. Whether it is slipping the keys off the guard's belt, attracting/seducing a guard or patron, beating up the guard in the tunnels between the holding area and the arena or socially engineering a revolt among their fellow gladiators, the PCs will come up with more plans than you can. It will be up to you to control the timing of the opportunities - for example, if they want to beat up the guard in the tunnels, make sure they are escorted by more guards than they can possibly overcome on each occasion until you are ready for them to escape. Then have them hear that a bout of 'flu has gone through the guard force and have them guarded only by one or two guards who are sneezing constantly...

As GM, feed the PCs intelligence through their fellow captives to facilitate escape options and give them objectives once they escape.

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If your players are okay with a little hand holding at first, then I'd start the game after they were captured (not much sense in making them play the capture if they actually can't accomplish anything). Then, create an NPC that starts the ball rolling on the escape plan or even facilitates the whole thing.

So if there's a thief and a bard in your players' party, the NPC can quietly ask the thief what he/she would need to pick the lock to the slave quarters and acquire it for them. Then, the NPC can ask the bard if they can sing the night watchman to sleep or distract him. Or if two of the characters are of opposing alignments or areas in the game, get them to stage a fight to cause a distraction so the NPC can steal the new cell keys/password from one of the guards. That way they get some small skirmishes or stealth assignments on the way out, but you can ensure they never come across enough guards to prevent them from escaping. You can even have the NPC killed or severely injured during the escape and have them ask the others to perform some task for them on the outside that gives them a direction to go from there and helps unite them as a party.

For their equipment, I'd have them write it out separately (decide what's fair/reasonable as usual) and tell them they won't have it right away. Then, during their escape, they can come across a storage room that contains the equipment they selected. Or after they've escaped, they can find an abandoned house or stash with the items. Maybe the downed NPC from before asked them to tell his brother what became of them and then the brother gives them the equipment in gratitude or to honor his fallen brother's final comrades.

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