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TL;DR - due to poor planning on my part in my sandbox-esque game, a party of four Level 5s (fighter, warlock, non-healer bard, wizard) is about to wander into a high level situation and I'd like them to not die while still letting them accomplish something.

Here's the situation.

The party recently emerged from the Feywild to find that two months had passed on the outside. They ended up near the capital city. Okay, cool. I prepare some rumors they can dig up so they can help find out what they missed. One character in particular has a lot of backstory in the capital, so we hashed out some of the relevant NPCs.

In an attempt to set up and highlight how tensions are escalating in the kingdom with the threat of war on the horizon, as well as to set up an NPC Big Bad later, I let them find out that some people around the capital have been "disappearing" on order of the Queen's Spymaster because they were suspected of being spies for the enemy empire. The Queen herself has been rumored to be ill and has definitely become hard to get a hold of. One of the NPCs who disappeared was one of a character's school friends, who we'd hashed out the existence of between sessions.

Now, these disappearances were all on trumped up charges. The character who'd spent the most time in the capital actually is a spy for the enemy empire and would know this. She was adamant - and correctly so - that her friend was innocent.

What I expected to happen - and this is on me - was that they'd hear that the second most powerful person in the kingdom had a direct hand in these events and get out of town. The entire group is Level 5. I expected this entire setup to be set dressing for stuff they'd deal with later. It's not like they don't have a lot of side quests and leads to chase down elsewhere.

Instead, they resolved to do whatever they could to rescue this girl and get to the bottom of the situation.

Here's what I know that they have no feasible way to find out at this point:

  • The Queen's Spymaster has defected - she's orchestrating events to deliberately try and undercut faith in the government as well as generally sow chaos
  • She's not operating in the good faith the group assumes she is. This is not an innocent mistake or paranoia they can assuage.
  • The Queen's Spymaster is actually one of the six heroes of long ago legend and is thus a Level 15 assassin living in secret.
  • The Queen herself is not even in the city at this time, and (as a high level sorcerer) she's left a simulacrum in her place to help allay suspicion.
  • The group has rolled really badly on Perception checks to see if they're being tailed and they are, in fact, being intermittently tailed.

    I don't want to punish them for jumping in to this plot with both feet. I don't want to stonewall them from finding this missing girl since they're super invested in doing so, and they know she's still in the city.

How can I help arrange things so they have a chance of succeeding while still putting them in a reasonable amount of danger?

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    \$\begingroup\$ A friendly reminder to anyone trying to answer this question that answers are expected to adhere to our community standards of Good Subjective. That means providing adequate support for any claims or suggestions you make, whether by referencing your experience (or that of an expert you're citing) or by citing game rules/guidelines designed to handle a situation like this. Please do not simply throw out "here's one method!" answers if you cannot back them up with experience or rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Xirema Jan 14 at 16:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate that you hadn't intended this story to play out now, but what are the elements that make this plotline fundamentally unsuitable for the party? Is it just that the planned events and encounters for it have higher level enemies or need higher level resources? \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Jan 14 at 17:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see a lot of backstory here but I don't see what the problem is. Why can't they just continue playing? Why do they need intervention to save them? \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Jan 15 at 1:35

15 Answers 15

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Telegraph the problem in advance

It sounds like the real danger here is that the group might communicate sincerely with the spymaster, and this could lead to the spymaster killing them all. You can avoid this by letting the group discover evidence that the spymaster is treacherous -- perhaps people they talk to can complain that the spymaster is using trumped-up charges and doesn't seem to care about anyone's actual guilt or innocence.

Alternatively, you could have the group's door kicked down by a collection of guards sent to arrest the PCs. The group wins the battle and then they have to decide what to do next. This might lead to them going back to your original plan of getting out of town quickly.

Remember that NPCs often don't have a good estimate of the PCs' combat ability, and (especially for the first fight) they might not send enough guards to be a real threat.

Scale down the levels

Many of your problems are caused by your decision that the NPCs involved in this fight are super-high-level. You can just decide otherwise. Maybe those six heroes of long ago have gotten rusty since they stopped adventuring. Maybe the spymaster is now a CR8 assassin (from the monster manual). (Or you could build the spymaster as your own boss battle.)

Let them do a jailbreak

If the group decides they want to do a jailbreak, you should let them do a jailbreak. The spymaster probably isn't personally guarding the jail, so the group can have battles against reasonable NPC opponents.

You can encourage the group to do a jailbreak by letting them find out what jail is holding their friend. They're probably researching that anyway.

(source: I've been the DM for multiple runs of a campaign where the group is battling against the leadership of a small town, and I played in the start of the Hell's Rebels campaign where the group has to organize a jailbreak.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Was about to answer with the jailbreak myself. This is imho a good save for any TPKs with at least semi-civilised enemies. It also showes the Group that they aren't allmighty, and if they loose some magic Items also puts a cost on "death" (or if they recover them not, depending on whether you want a cost or not) \$\endgroup\$ – Hobbamok Jan 15 at 9:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Hobbamok I think in this case the jailbreak Dan recommends is the PCs outside the jail breaking a third party out of jail. But having the PCs be captured if combat goes poorly is also an option. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast Jan 15 at 9:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BBeast oh, yeah it probably is, I misread that then... So that would mean that they avoid the "guaranteed TPK"-NPC alltogether, until theyre ready, nice approach! \$\endgroup\$ – Hobbamok Jan 15 at 9:56
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Don't waste a valuable resource

These are 5th level characters. As pawns they are well above the norm.

When they confide in the Spymaster, rather than kill them, she uses them. Turns her considerable skills and resources into framing someone else. Someone who is a threat to her. Maybe a minor noble she can't kill directly. She helps the party find the 'culprit', and lets them kill him. Now they are her scapegoats if needed. And they trust her.

As for the person they are looking for, brainwash them as part of the frame-up. But maybe allow gaps in the brainwashing for the party to find the truth.

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Give them new contacts and resources to make the impossible plausible

This suggestion is twofold: the new contacts and resources can highlight how difficult this plot sequence is (possibly giving them a nudge to save it for later, or at least making them more cautious) and can also direct the plot in ways that won't be so deadly for the party.

I use this technique often when my players' plans put them in extreme danger, such as attacking an implausibly difficult target. They encounter a new NPC in some plausible way, and that NPC describes something that they themselves have personal knowledge of which indicates how implausibly difficult their plan is.

If possible, that same NPC can suggest a better course of action which makes the goal more plausible:

You'll never be able to fight off the entire garrison to get to the Council Chamber! But I did stumble across an old smuggling tunnel underneath the complex once. It's still dangerous, too dangerous for me to hazard, but I'll tell you everything I know about it, if you could just help me out with one trifling thing first...

I've also had moderate success using NPCs to deliver lists of requirements for a plan to come off successfully. These items point out specific dangers, along with suggestions about just how dangerous they are, and give the players a chance to plan around them. I like this approach because it converts unstructured plot development (PCs just want to do whatever and hope it works) into a more orderly sequence which is easier for me to manage as a DM.

And ultimately you can't control what your players do, so they may dive headfirst into a woodchipper anyways. Even if they're unhappy about the TPK they've contrived, they can't say they weren't warned.


De-emphasize combat

Combat is a popular element of D&D games, but it's also the area in which PCs being underpowered is most relevant. If PCs get into a fight with too-tough opponents it may not be feasible for them to do anything but lose, and the consequences may be severe (if not necessarily fatal).

Making it clear that combat is a bad option can be tricky-- PCs are already remarkable individuals in the D&D setting and the game exists for its players, and so players often seem to feel that challenges which are impossible for "regular" D&D denizens are probably do-able for them.

On the other hand, you have unlimited scope to devise challenges which are not combat related at all. If a challenge was originally designed to be a big fight with difficult enemies, maybe it could be replaced by a brief window of opportunity for action. Maybe the party needs to curry favor with someone influential enough to provide that opportunity in the first place, again changing the dynamic away from overpowering an opponent. The generic failsafe is that a problem can only be addressed or avoided with the aid of a MacGuffin-- perhaps it weakens the spymaster enough that he is a suitably difficult opponent for your PCs.

The biggest benefits of changing the challenge type are that it is easier to create things that are hard but still possible for the party without nerfing a major plot element, and it becomes easier to impose non-lethal consequences for failures. You don't have to explain why the spymaster is an ancient legend and holds a dangerous position despite being effectively a level 6 Rogue. And if the party can't pull off rescuing the girl, then she doesn't get rescued. Yet. The party lives on to try more things in the future.

I use this as a part of campaign design generally, and to adjust scenarios on the fly for narrative reasons and it works well. I have not used this technique in a scenario like the one you describe, but it should work similarly well to help you get around otherwise impossible narrative obstacles.


Gate main content away from the party's immediate goals

I do this all the time in my games. Your PCs have indicated a specific goal which leapfrogs some of the other content you've planned, but don't have complete knowledge of the scenario that you've planned. As far as DM planning upsets are concerned, this is an awesome situation to be in. You just need to devise intermediate content to satisfy the players' immediate aims so that they don't feel their efforts were worthless.

Their current thinking is to gather more information on the situation in the kingdom and, possibly, stage a jailbreak. You are in a position to decide what resources are available to conduct that investigation, and what information the party can glean from them. You can continue to provide set dressing and set up story events for down the line while putting fatal actions out of reach. They can learn all about Queen's simulacrum, and/or the spymaster's defection, and/or the spymaster's true identity, at your discretion. But if the spymaster is out of town, or has gone to ground, then the party has no way of instigating a fight they will almost certainly lose. That can all be multiple sessions' worth of content!

I use this approach for heavily planned content that I don't want player choices to disrupt, lest the entire campaign story unravel. The PCs' possible actions still develop the plot and can still produce rewards, and they're still in the driver's seat, but their choices are circumscribed enough that they can't rush into an unwinnable situation.


Roll with it

At the other end of the spectrum from gating content, you can just let the players loose with whatever schemes appeal to them and then make sure you have a plot-advancing outcome ready for when they lose. The classic example of this would be to allow them to attack the spymaster, with whatever approach they prefer, but have the spymaster leave them alive after defeating them.

Maybe the spymaster wants to interrogate them to figure out who's trying to disrupt their plans. Maybe the spymaster wants to use the party in some intriguing plot, which won't work if they're dead. The PCs can still fight, maybe even win, but losing isn't the end of the game for them. And if nothing else they'll have firsthand knowledge of how unready they are to fight the spymaster for real.

I like this approach but feel that it's easy to overuse. If the players frequently lose high-profile fights but survive with relatively little consequence it takes a lot of the tension out of combats, especially boss fights.


Force it

My least favorite technique, but it's nonetheless a tool in the DM kit. If you really need the party to not tackle this situation yet, you can guarantee that they don't. After all, in-game you run the universe. In D&D it's even bigger than that-- you run the multiverse!

The party can be kidnapped and brought to the other side of the world, taking the spymaster and framed friend out of the picture for a while. They can be blasted into another plane of existence by chance events, or the designs of some not-yet-introduced NPC. While they're strolling around the countryside, the city itself could be magically sealed off and impossible to enter until you're ready. You could even go the full Dallas and have the "city" that they're in be a cunning duplication in a demiplane. It's messy and often unsatisfying, but when you need players to not poke at a plotline you can make sure that they don't.

If you do choose to use this approach, don't go halfway. Players can be tenacious, and simply introducing a strong plot element (say, a ban from the city making it all but impossible for the party to operate there) may inspire them to try being extra stealthy rather than prompting them to wait a bit longer.

In the (thankfully) few times I've felt compelled to use this option I have, there is a minority of those cases where I've managed to do so smoothly. I've had success with powerful, influential NPCs that are able to orchestrate events in such a way that the PCs cannot refuse, and the NPC comes off as dominant or overbearing or just really, really powerful. And even though those cases made the railroading feel fairly organic to the plot I had to adjust the remaining story to allow for the PCs to kill, destroy, or badly humiliate the NPC that treated them that way-- doing so quickly becomes a very important goal to the players, in my experience.

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Gestalt Henchmen are an option

In addition to the other good answers, I've run into similar situations as a DM (darn those adventurous players!).

It's not always possible, but you might be able to temporarily boost the party's strength by lending them henchmen. What you do is have the party encounter some friendly NPCs (or, at least, NPCs who see the benefit of teaming up to conquer a mutual problem even if they're not exactly "friendly" in the classic sense).

You could run the NPCs yourself but that's a headache (believe me) so, instead, create very basic character sheets for the NPCs like you see for creatures in the Monster Manual. Then, hand these character sheets to the players. They now have an NPC to control in addition to their character.

For example, after the fighter takes her turn, the player then turns to their NPC buddy card and sees that it's a Barbarian. She can use the barbarian to make a couple attacks of its own and intercept some baddies that would have attacked her fighter character. Mechanically, you've given the fighter two more attacks and some extra HP, let alone whatever abilities the NPC barbarian can use to help.

By giving control of the NPC to the player, you've taken the burden of managing a bunch of NPCs off your own shoulders and given the player a "toy." The trick here is to try and figure out how big of a mismatch there is between the party and the encounter and create NPCs to help fill the gap.

The NPCs can also create new quest threads or help redirect the party if they're starting to get really lost. "Hey, we'll help you do what you want if you help us do something in return."

It's important to make clear:

These NPCs are willing to help the party accomplish some very specific goal/task. They're not interested in anything else. So if the party wants to try and abuse their new buddies' help, the NPCs tell them they're not interested and to come find them when the party is ready to tackle the stated quest.

What you're doing is setting boundaries for the players using narrative instead of rules. This is important because the players need to know that the henchmen are temporary and that their departure isn't arbitrary.

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Reorder your story / change circumstances

Similar to "Gate main content away from the party's immediate goals" from Upper_Case's answer, but I guess different enough to warrant an own answer.

Ultimately you decide who guards the girl, where she is, who guards here at the moment the party arrives & what happens if they free her (or fail to do so). Before playing it out, it is all "in your head" only, just because you had a story in mind does not mean you cannot change it ad hoc. Call it "soft railroading" if you will; Whatever the players do, they will arrive at a similar point in the story (within bounds).

For example, the Spymaster could have a moderately powerful henchman guarding the girl (= new boss, doable for the party) after whose defeat the party will gain a bit more insight into the entire scenario. The henchman may even escape with the party now having to track them down, meanwhile uncovering the larger network / conspiracy of the Spymaster.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is exactly what I was going to say. Why would the spymaster be directly involved in transport/holding of a low profile prisoner? It would be minions doing that and the spymaster at some remove. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim B Jan 16 at 10:45
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I love sandbox games, and it sounds like a wonderful adventure you're creating. The best part about sandbox games is that the story can be changed quickly. The worst part about sandbox games is that, well, the story must be changed quickly.

I learned a trick a few years ago that works incredibly well.

When the party gets emotionally charged to accomplish a goal that you weren't expecting them to have, find a way to bind their goal to your next prepared chapter.

In this case, your players surprised you with their motivation to rescue their NPC imprisoned friend and "get to the bottom" of the situation. I don't know what you were planning for the party to do next (all you said was for them to "leave town" and that they had lots of side quests), so I'll make up an example here to illustrate. Let's say you expected them to leave town and investigate the Skull Ruins. You've spent weeks preparing the Skull Ruins for the adventure, and now the party wants to do a jailbreak. They are doing the story "out of order" and if you just run the world as you created it, they could die. It's time to add a twist.

To align the goals, you want to tie their goal to find their imprisoned friend to your goal to get them into the Skull Ruins. When your mind looks for alignment, I think you'll find it's straightforward to come up with solutions that create alignment. For example:

  • Some of the prisoners have been transferred to a holding dungeon
    outside of town called the Skull Ruins, and a prisoner matching the
    description of the missing NPC friend is among them.
  • There is a secret entrance to the town dungeon, and a rescue would be perfectly accomplished by first braving the dangers of the Skull Ruins.
  • They hear a rumor that their captured friend escaped and ran for her life, and was last seen heading to the Skull Ruins.

Once I grasped this concept, I stopped viewing my role as a "world simulator" and saw my role more as a "goal aligner". Once I changed my thinking, it became very easy to re-align players to move into story content that I had created and to guide them through the story chapters in the way I wanted it to unfold. The wonderful part is that the players felt successful, accomplished, and were having fun while believing that they were in charge of their choices the whole time.

Let us know how it turns out. I can't wait to hear about how the Spymaster gets defeated and the sorcerer Queen's deception is revealed.

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Kill the hostage

Seriously. You have a beautiful setup here for when the group approaches the Spymaster, for the Spymaster to flip out and have the entire group arrested and forced to watch their friend be executed.

After the execution, the group should be sent out with a "scouting party" intended to execute the rest of them. This party should underestimate the group's capabilities, and be easy to overpower and get away from.

In turn, this will place the Spymaster as a direct enemy to the group, while maintaining plausible deniability on behalf of the Queen. More importantly, the attempts to kill the group will pit the group against said Spymaster, and hopefully push them in the direction of this kingdom's rivals (as you intended). After all, the party has some pretty valuable information now. The Queen's Spymaster is the one orchestrating the disappearances and getting people executed.

But is the Queen in the know?

I've run similar scenarios in my games, and I find that sometimes the silver lining you get away with is actually just the razor sharp edge of overwhelming power putting you in your place in the world. Feeling helpless is good for a party on occasion. If they feel like everything can be overcome than the world isn't immersive.

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Now, these disappearances were all on trumped up charges. The character who'd spent the most time in the capital actually is a spy for the enemy empire and would know this. She was adamant - and correctly so - that her friend was innocent.

...

The Queen's Spymaster has defected - she's orchestrating events to deliberately try and undercut faith in the government as well as generally sow chaos

These two facts, put together, allow a solution, since the Spymaster and this character are on the same side. Assume the Spymaster knows this, either because the enemy empire told her directly, or because she's the Queen's Spymaster.

So, the Spymaster talks with this character alone as a fellow spy and asks her to stop messing with this operation or do a job for the enemy empire. (Here, plant these incriminating documents in that guy's house. Glory to the enemy empire!) This allows that character to know the Spymaster has defected, and allows them to have a frank discussion where other important info could be leaked, plus negotiate getting the friend released as payment for a job.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice idea. However, the Spymaster will not intentionally make herself vulnerable, so for the plot to work, she must have something in hand that forces the PC to not reveal her role (she wouldn't make herself vulnerable). Things that may work could be drug addiction, threats against the PC or his friends ("anybody reveals me and this woman (that you love) dies"), being on the same side (or just being led into believing that). \$\endgroup\$ – toolforger Jan 15 at 13:51
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Killing is not always the solution

I used to play a permadeath MUD, with full PvP. We quickly discovered that while it was easy to kill a weaker character, it's not very fun. What we often did was beat up characters unconscious or near death then get them medical help.

There's also some squick to killing intelligent beings that are much weaker. Someone might kill an orc, a soldier, but not a troublesome preteen.

Underestimate the party

A level 5 party would be too easy to kill. This kind of work is usually delegated to the interns. Someone at that level has a lot of things to deal with, and the lesser problems might be left as a training exercise or outsourced as pest control.

Another option is to use them as lab rats. Instead of just coming in with an artifact weapon and wiping them all out, they could be used to test a new trap design, or framed for some other crime. You can play with all kinds of deception/persuasion checks, toy around with the heroes.

The spymaster might even let one character in on his secrets and bribe/blackmail/persuade them to backstab the rest of the party. What's the threat? After all,

Give them plenty of warning

They might not realize what they're into. One narrative trope is to set up the power level of the enemy. You can have a heroic badass get their butt whooped by the spymaster. Maybe before a confrontation, have a hero come in and save them, which seems like a cop out.

You can even a little drama like having the assassin beat him with a chair or some other tool he's not proficient in, and then swap in his signature weapon if the fight is not going his way.

You can use non-combat skills. Have the villain gaslight some major characters just to hint how experienced he is.

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When I'm running games, especially sandbox games, I divide the world into two things "fixed points" and "planned points".

Fixed points are things the players have seen, done, read, experienced in some ways. They are only subject to change within the limits of the game world. (For example a village they visited before may be over-run by bandits or burn down or expand - but it wouldn't just vanish and never have existed).

However anything the players don't know about is subject to change. I do have plans and maps and a good idea what is out there. But until it's observed it isn't fixed in place. The important thing is the story you are telling and how that develops, not complete devotion to a map I drew before the first game session every took place.

In the example you give, the players have no information as to what is there so either change what is there or provide the information. Either way once they do have the information it becomes a fixed point.

In a sandbox world it's not my responsibility to make sure that every threat is level appropriate - part of the exploring nature of the world is finding things too strong for you and coming back later. But what is my responsibility is making sure that such things are appropriately telegraphed. In the real world there are all sorts of cues that can be used to work out the threat of a situation. In the D&D world you have to be rather more blatant but there are plenty of ways to telegraph the threat level or make sure a more level-appropriate threat is encountered first and use that to deliver a warning about what is likely ahead.

But of course if it's called "Dragonmount" and the local villagers all tell tales of the dragon sure to waken soon and the ground is rumbling as you approach. When a group of kobolds you defeat at the base of the trail all tell you their dragon master will awaken soon and take vengeance upon the land.

Well then your players deserve to get eaten when they climb the mountain and enter the cave.

But if they just climb a mountain and get eaten. Well that's not fun, and makes for a weak story and will discourage exploration in future (if they even keep playing).

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In my current open-sandbox campaign that I'm running, I have a similar situation where the players have wandered into an area that's a bit higher than their current paygrade. Our L3-5 adventurers have stumbled upon the lair of an Ancient Green Dragon twice now, and both times have managed to escape with their lives mostly intact.

What happened in my game:

Before the game officially started, I had run a session of Microscope with some of the future players to help build some lore for the area they would be exploring. This is where the dragon was introduced, so when the game started they already had some knowledge of this character.

Several sessions in, they discovered one of the secret magical paths in the sandbox world, and it happened to be one that brought them right to the dragon's lair - right to the treasure room, in fact. Because of the history session, the players quickly guessed that this was the lair of a very specific dragon and knew upfront that it was Bad News. The dragon wasn't home at that exact moment, and once the players finished deciding if they were going to steal anything or not (they happened to be hilariously paranoid about touching anything), I broadcast the imminent return of the lair's owner and they wisely made good their escape while they could.

A number of sessions after that, they found their way to the lair again but this time from an overland route. This time the dragon was home and was able to identify the characters by their 'stink'. However, until they made any hostile moves (or any advances towards the treasure), the dragon had no need to initiate combat - it had no reason to see these creatures as a threat. By the time one of the players made a move for a powerful relic, they had spread out enough that only one of them was caught in the dragon's breath attack. The character died - in the traumatic-no-death-saves-dead kind of way - but the rest of the players were able to make good their escape and also get their friend back by cashing in a favour with a deity they had done something for previously.

The Takeaways

  • Build up the character offscreen first: In my game, the players had a some grounding in the dragon's existence and nastiness thanks to our pre-game history session, and their first trip to the treasure room did a great job to set certain expectations. In your case, you have a legendary adventurer - Do the bards sing songs of their exploits at the tavern they're staying at? What would the citizens of the city say if they overheard the players planning?

  • Let the players know they're in hot water: The players are being shadowed but don't know it? Let them know! They don't have to see their shadow to know they're being watched . In my case, the wingbeats of a returning dragon clearly told our heroes that danger was approaching. In your case, you could be a bit more direct and sinister - a threatening letter in their underwear drawer, a severed horse head on their blanket, a black spot handed to them by a blind stranger, etc.. If the players have been that bad at their perception checks, give them something to freak out about!

  • The PCs are (initially) beneath notice: Your spymaster is a very important and busy person - there's no reason for them to get personally involved in the affairs of the players. Build up their reputation and keep them offscreen as much as possible until the players do something that stands out. Besides, how important is that one specific prisoner to your spymaster? If they're a "one of many" then there probably aren't any special protections on that specific jail cell, and the spymaster probably isn't watching over the cell personally. If the spymaster has their country’s 500th anniversary to plan, a wedding to arrange, a wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it, they're swamped!

  • Guide the players to an exit plan: In my case, I was able to show the players a secret exit from the treasure room well in advance of the players encountering the dragon, so they knew how to escape once things started going badly. Additionally, their previous work for a powerful entity gave them a one-off favour that they could use for a resurrection. Both of these could be applied to your situation, too. If you can, guide the characters to something that would let them know about one or more escape routes from the prison ahead of the raid. Additionally, if you give your PCs a chance to do something for a powerful cleric in town before their raid on the jail you'll be giving the players a chance to recover if things go fatally wrong, and such a favour is not something they would be able to easily get a second time.

  • Give players and NPCs goals that aren't murder: In my case, there was a specific piece of treasure that the players were after, in yours it's a prisoner. The dragon was arrogant and bored, your spymaster is busy manipulating the politics of multiple kingdoms. None of these goals involve killing as a required step, keeping that in mind lets you delay the onset of a one-sided combat until there's a chance the players can successfully run away.

Good luck, and have fun!

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The Players have 2 motives: 1) save friend, & 2) reveal conspiracy. Unless I misguess, 2 is a derivative of 1. The players are concerned for an NPC's safety, a treasure trove of future mischief for the DM. Leverage that to make sure they go for the friend, not the conspiracy.

I ran a Star Wars game where I was trying to push the PCs offworld and misunderstood their affection for a throwaway NPC. They decided to murder the Moff (my BBEG - your Spymaster) and then rescue their buddy, and were ignorant of how underpowered they were to do this. To get what everyone wanted, I set an early date for public execution (the next morning). Another NPC suddenly became part of the planetary resistance, literally the next person they talked to - a black market merchant they knew & wanted to get grenades from. He admitted, after a social check, that the resistance needed those to assassinate the Imperial Officers who would come out for the execution. The characters volunteered to help, but the resistance agreed only on the condition that the PCs smuggle some resistance family members (also on the execution block) to safety afterward. The resistance start signal came while the Moff was still en route, but it was now or never! The PCs staged a daring "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" style Rescue From The Gallows, which led to a run & gun to the starport, where they had to immediately shuttle the "Now Safe NPC" & the families offworld, where I wanted them in the first place. They even managed to snipe the planet's Imperial Governor in the process.

They ate it up like Opium Cake and thought it was their idea to boot. Plus I could get them to do absolutely anything later on, just by having the "Now Safe NPC" ask them. And I was planning on throwing her away, she didn't even have a last name yet.

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All of the current answers are valid answers...it depends upon how you as DM want to spin the situation and what direction you want the game to go. You should leave the party free agency to go in whatever direction they would like -- just nudge them away from a TPK situation unless they force you to.

You can let the players attempt to plan a jail break -- and give them hints that at level 5 they might not be powerful enough to pull it off just yet by direct confrontation and might need to either wait or find a different route. Or, scare them off a direct course of action.

Though, make sure you give them the hint enough so if they decide to not do enough research and ignore the warnings, then you could implement a more drastic option should they try. -- E.g. they are captured during the attempt and blackmailed, shipped off to a slave labor camp (and need to escape), or need to break themselves out of prison with some NPC help. Though, I would temper the severity depending on how clueless and hair-brained they were...a well researched bad attempt would be less punished than a we ignored every opportunity to do research and blindly rushed to storm the prison,.

You can run the NPC routes...either as a side-quest option or as direct support. E.g. The I'll help you out, but, I need your help with something else or since you had said the party blew a few perception rolls about being tailed, have an NPC contact they are meeting warn them about being tailed and give them 'help' in getting information. This option offers the most opportunities for interactions and non-combat abilities...and things like reputation, social skills, research , etc.

The Spymaster could use her tails and the PC's trust to further her ends by muddying the waters and pointing the party onto a rival suspect (either innocent or guilty depending on how you want to play her) and have them unwittingly further her goals -- and give the party an additional reason once they find out to go after her.

You can also emphasize the non-combat game aspects...the social and sneaking and magical that allow other characters to shine...as they gather information. Like using disguise and slipping into the jail to recon it (maybe under a legitimate reason), or forging documents to further things. Or, researching the disappearances in the court's records. Maybe in those you can influence the party's thinking/focus...say hmmm, a breakout would be tough unless we could do this or looking at the disappearances the court records show that certain people were suspiciously involved with the victims.

It's a setback and opportunity on your end as a DM, a setback as your players picked the option you least wanted them to , but, an opportunity because you can steer them on a different course (or a longer course to the same ends).

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A more direct and simple approach. You say the city is a high level area? These outsiders are not welcome in the city because politics.

Remove them by force

There are 4 PCs in this party, so have a 4 of guards turn up with stun sticks, beat the party unconscious then arrest them. The stun sticks deal temporary damage and stun you for 1 minute.

Give the guards multi-attack and the the stun stick a DC15 con save to avoid being stunned for 1 minute.

Then have them shoved in front of a judge, and deported back to where they "should" be.

They will undoubtedly swear revenge and return later when the area is more level appropriate.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried this out? This very much seems like pure idea generation because I can think of several problems with this plan including the PCs trying to fight, trying to take the stun sticks, etc.etc. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 15 at 15:03
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Let the party wipe...

"Suddenly, you all wake up after you hear (one character) scream in their sleep! It was all just a dream.. an eerie premonition of what might come if you don't (go a different direction)."

Put the party back into the past a safe distance away from the wipe scenario, basically giving them a free "do over".. and if they end up in that situation again.. oh well, wipe them for real.

Sounds like a cheesy tactic, but.. hey, if you're a starting GM, then it's ok. Just be honest with the players. Tell them Out-of-character that you didn't expect them to get into this mess, so you needed to get them out without being a "bad GM" and making them take the fall for your mistake by murdering them. This will underline that you're trying to be fair, but you are still human and make mistakes. A GM can't foresee everything.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "so you needed to get them out without being a 'bad GM'" - I don't see how opting for this course of action stops you being a bad DM. There are many options available that don't include rolling back time. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jan 15 at 21:54