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The 4th level party got captured during a showdown with a major villain at the end of the last session: three of them (Warlock, Ranger, Priest) were rendered unconscious and the survivor (Bard) got trapped while trying to flee the dungeon. All four are now in captivity.

All four of them can cast spells, and the villain saw them doing so during the fight. He also saw that two of them have magical companions (it's 5e D&D, they are an Imp familiar and a Ranger's Primal Beast) that they can summon to help. He's a spellcaster himself, so he's intelligent and he'll be aware of the capabilities of an Imp familiar, which is a handy companion to have when you're planning an escape.

He doesn't want them dead: he wants to send them as slaves to the even more-major villain that he's working for.

As a clever person, aware of the escape risk posed by spellcasting characters with magical companions to help, I can't see any reason why he wouldn't just kill the two with companions and keep the other two bound and gagged, or even unconscious, until they're at their destination.

But this is a game, and we're here to have fun, so I'd prefer that not to happen. I'd prefer they weren't even gagged so they can, at least, hatch an escape plot. I'd also prefer not to have a deus ex machina solution, such as a rescue party arriving, for the same reason as it robs the PCs of their agency. It's more fun to come up with a plan yourselves. Ideally, I'd also prefer not to fall back on a tired old trope like "the villain is so arrogant he ignores your magical powers and leaves you unbound".

Are there some good ways I can give the players a fighting chance in this situation without making my villain look like an idiot, or taking away their agency?

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    \$\begingroup\$ With the packing and shipping of the PC's, what is the length of time they would need to be captive for in order to reach the villains manager? \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Mar 1 at 17:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fering a very long time. It's about 600 miles away. I hadn't planned for them to go directly from one to the other so I imagine some kind of handover to a middle man would be in order. Ideally I'd prefer to give them a chance to break out in this dungeon but if they can't, so be it. Either way I still need a reason for the villain to keep those with magical help alive. \$\endgroup\$ – Bob Tway Mar 1 at 17:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ D&D does have "antimagic", but in standard settings it's not easy to come by. \$\endgroup\$ – aschepler Mar 2 at 11:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this plot device supposed to be a rail car, or is the story flexible enough to accommodate them escaping? \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Mar 2 at 15:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GcL This isn't a plot device, and we're not on a railroad. It'd be far more convenient for me if they hadn't all been captured! \$\endgroup\$ – Bob Tway Mar 2 at 16:46
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How I handled this as a DM

I was aware of how difficult it is in swords and sorcery genre games to keep a spell caster under control/in prison, and not just in the current edition of D&D. This 2011 vintage Q&A illustrates the consistent problem that this has presented. But the NPCs and villains do have some tools with reasonable effectiveness.

From your comment, the party is: Bard, Ranger, Warlock, Priest, all at 4th level.

(it's 5e D&D, they are an Imp familiar and a Ranger's Primal Beast) that they can summon to help

OK, the Bard's awake and the other three start at 0 HP. Simply having allies amplifies the difficulty of keeping them in custody.

I had a similar situation where the party (me DM) captured an evil druid (CR 2) and wanted to turn him over to authorities (eventually, a very high level druid in another settlement). They were worried that the druid would, for example, wild shape into a spider and crawl out of his cell.

Keep the spell caster knocked out and under 24/7 guard.

Take away the components pouch, take away the material components (if any) and if need be strip the caster down to their undies or completely. That's step one of the precaution. Bind, and if need be, gag the spell caster (Bind and gag is a temporary inconvenienceif the PC is even modestly resourceful, and/or has compatriots with them).

The initial "keep him knocked out" method was that a guard or PC, when the NPC Druid would wake up (he'd been reduced to 0 HP, knocked out, bound and taken to a ship) would whack him with a club to reduce him to 0 HP again. Dreamland for 1-4 hours at this point. This required an investment of resources, in terms of a 24/7 guard and the willingness to keep whacking this prisoner on the head. They would then stabilize him to prevent death saving throw fails. Yeah, narratively, he ended up with a lot of bruise marks on his head.

Use a potion / poison that induces sleep/unconsciousness.

You have control of the NPCs, so either sufficient alcohol or something like it fed to the prisoner keeps them incapacitated or unconscious (Conditions, Appendix A). For example:

Essence of Ether (Inhaled). A creature subjected to this poison must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or become poisoned for 8 hours. The poisoned creature is unconscious. The creature wakes up if it takes damage or if a other creature takes an action to shake it awake. (Ref = DMG, also in the SRD page 204)

Or, just rub this on them if they won't drink or breath in the ether

Oil of Taggit (Contact). A creature subjected to this poison must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or become poisoned for 24 hours. The poisoned creature is unconscious. The creature wakes up if it takes damage.

Or homebrew a similar poison/drug using these for basic guidelines.

That prevents their being able to cast spells, since they can't take actions. While the party didn't resort to that, the first town that had this NPC druid in jail eventually did.

  1. The fighting chance
    This risks of the "knock out drug" include a few potential loop holes:
    • PC makes the saving throw and then fakes being knocked out - if/when this happens, the guards think that they are disabled when they are not
    • When the "knock out juice" wears off, the PCs wake up and, unless the Bad Guy's minions are very alert (perception check for the bad guys), the PCs have a chance to try to sleight-of-hand or stealth based action to get help, or have the imp or primal companion do something to open the chance for escape.
    • Use of the feign death spell in a situation like this (party has a cleric) may provide the party with the misdirection that they need to get an escape attempt underway.
  2. Inflicting the Poisoned Condition is another method with loopholes
    There are other poisons that induce the poisoned condition, such as pale tincture or assassin's blood (same place in SRD/DMG. Those two last for 24 hours if the save isn't made. While this leaves the PC with disadvantage on ability checks and attacks (Appendix A, Conditions, Poisoned) there is a saving throw which leaves a loophole. If you keep lacing their food and drink with this stuff, and thus keep the PCs poisoned, their efforts to escape will be hampered, but are not utterly voided as being unconscious does or incapacitated does.

How my first D&D 5e DM handled it

We were fed poisoned soup (DC 20 save) tried to fight our way out, got beat down to 0 HP, and were bound, gagged, and kept in a dark room; all equipment was confiscated.

So there we were, a barbarian human, a dwarf paladin, and a cleric human(me), level 6, bound, gagged and naked. We got on with our various squrmings around and try to undo the bonds working after we woke up from being at 0 HP; becoming unbound was not all that much trouble, but we were in an unfamiliar place and tried to sneak out. Multiple guards with pole arms (and with polearm mastery) were able to overcome us (My attempt at a command spell met with three successful saving throws - the dice hated me!) and knocked us back to nearly 0 HP before the NPC wizard showed up and put us to sleep. We woke up bound and gagged again, with two armed half elves with a serious case of negative attitude, guarding us in the dark room. When I began to talk to them my cleric got knocked out again. The other three party members were the ones who had to break us three out.

How I almost handled it for a different group: transporting statues

After two escape attempts, after which they were captured while trying to retrieve their gear, my Evil Boss lady threatened to turn the PCs to stone. She had some pet cockatrices. Once the PC is turned to stone, they won't be able to act until the Bigger Bad Guy unstones them at the destination.

The problem with this approach, turning the PCs to stone, is that it closes the door on any PC attempts at the escape. In my experience, escape scenarios can be a lot of fun. This is ultimately why I chose not to have the Evil Lady make good on that threat. If it fits your situation, though, turning the PCs to stone and shipping them the 600 miles (per your comment) by boat or cart reduces the overhead for the Evil Party considerably as the try to make the delivery of these slaves to the Bigger and Badder Evil party.

With the Imp and the Primal Companion, I as a DM would prefer to watch and see how they put those class features to work.
The Primal companion from Tasha's, which your party's Ranger has access to, does not require V/S/M to summon. If the Ranger is conscious, that source of assistance seems to be unsuppressable.


A word on the scope of your challenge if you are unwilling to render them unconscious or otherwise incapacitated. If you remove all of their material components and spell casting foci as a foundation for the challenge to your PCs as they try to escape, there are still a variety of spells available to them.
From this question (using PHB, Xanathar's, and Tasha's) the entire list of spells from all classes that are 'verbal component only' are:

  • Cantrips: Lightning Lure, Mind Sliver, Sword Burst, Thaumaturgy, Vicious Mockery

  • Lvl 1: Cause Fear, Command, (Compelled Duel), Dissonant Whispers, Ensnaring Strike, Faerie Fire, Hail of Thorns, Healing Word, Hunter's Mark, (Searing Smite, Thunderous Smite, Wrathful Smite) Zephyr Strike

  • Lvl 2: Blindness/Deafness, Blur, (Branding Smite), Earthbind, Knock, Misty Step, Prayer of Healing, Tasha's Mind Whip, Warding Wind

Since your party has no paladin, the compelled duel and smite spells are not available (in parens above); depending on your party's spell selections, some of the above are likely available for them to use.

For "somatic components only spells" for the four classes in the party:

Cantrip: Thunderclap, True Strike
First Level: Absorb Elements
Second Level: Beast Sense, Mind Spike

If they are able to use both verbal and somatic components, but no material components, there are an additional 45 spells that they have available among cantrips, first level, and second level spells. D&DBeyond Search is here. I am not going to list them all since I have no idea what your characters selected, but the number of spells that can help them escape is considerable.

The bottom line is that the point I mentioned at the top of this post - the sheer difficulty in keeping captive four spell casters who are not incapacitated or rendered unconscious - becomes layered and quite complex even if verbal and somatic components are their only options for spell casting.

The Heavy Armor Rules Mechanic approach

One way to deal with the bard, sorcerer and warlock is to make them don heavy armor that they can't take off per this fine answer - (which I suggest you take a good look at; good experienced-based input). Why does this work? If one is not proficient with heavy armor one cannot cast spells while wearing it. PHB CH 5, Armor and Shields

If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage on any ability check, saving throw, or attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity, and you can’t cast spells. (Basic Rule, p. 46)

An additional benefit to this is that attempts at stealth to get away will be at disadvantage if they are stuck in heavy armor.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent answer that is well supported with actual experience! +1 \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Mar 1 at 19:06
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Not an easy task! On the one hand, the villain is intelligent an experienced, so (s)he should render PCs completely helpless during the transportation.

On the other hand, you want the game to be fun in the first place, not «realistic»:

I can't see any reason why he wouldn't just kill the two with companions and keep the other two bound and gagged, or even unconscious, until they're at their destination.

But this is a game, and we're here to have fun, so I'd prefer that not to happen.

This is a good intention! It's what the official Organized Play website suggests:

Make decisions and adjudications during the game that enhance the fun when possible

This is also what the AL DMs guide asks the DMs to do:

Challenge Your Players. Gauge the experience level of your players, as well as what they seem to enjoy in a game and attempt to deliver what they’re after. Everyone should be able to shine

Spellcasters aren't able to shine without their spells. «You are naked, gagged and restrained. What do you do?» is not what people expect from playing D&D (unless they do, so ask your players first). I suggest you not to deprive players of their devices (spells, pets, etc). But how can you rationalize that in the context of the slave ship?

Give them an opportunity within a time limit

Spellcasting slaves are valuable goods, slavers shouldn't kill them! Instead, they use magical collars for inhibiting magic capabilities. Animal and magic companions are contained in their respective cages. There were no incidents on this slave ship... for now.

Party members have managed to get rid of the collars somehow (a third side helped them, maybe?). Now they have limited time to act, or they will be subdued and put back in chains!

What magic item these collars is, you ask? A homebrew one. You aren't limited by existing mechanics when worldbuilding. The villain could use his(her) very own spell for constructing them. Anyways, they are already broken so have no use for the party.

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Make a plot hook out of it

Other answers have addressed the mechanics of how to do this in a way that leaves the players the opportunity to escape, but is still something a competent and intelligent person might do.

But there's another aspect to consider, and that's why this is happening at all. I think this makes a great opportunity for a plot hook, used properly.

He intends to deliver the party to his boss, more or less. Make it clear this boss wants all of them, not just eliminated but specifically captured alive. Make it an explicit and direct order. Insinuate this isn't the first time such orders have been given. You yourself should have an inkling why (and it should be suitably ominous and tied into the villain's plans), but do not elaborate on why this might be the case to the players. Whatever's going on, none of the party's captors are in on any detail that doesn't raise more questions (ominous questions) than it answers.

It probably works best if the players find this out via overhearing guards talk or something, rather than by the villain monologuing. Maybe there's another, equally dangerous, NPC going along for the ride. Let your players hear their enemies complaining about how much trouble it is to keep such dangerous folks prisoner, make sure they know it's being done deliberately, and keep them in the dark as to why. Let them stew.

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An intelligent enemy will do things that will mitigate the damage that his captives can do by making it incredibly difficult to do. My villain did the following to characters to keep them submissive and not rely upon their class abilities (spells/followers) to easily escape.

  • Keep them exhausted - Never allow them to take a long rest. This makes the Ranger, Bard and Cleric not be able to regain spell slots; the Warlock may need a little more prodding so as not to benefit from the short rest. This prevents them from regaining spell slots so therefore nothing more than cantrips can be used once their higher-level allotment is used. Exhaustion has other benefits as well (reduced checks, etc.). Accomplishing this is a fairly simple task for any jailer and can utilize loud noises, physical prodding or a pail of water.
  • Keep them unaware of their surroundings. A simple hood over the character as well as being bound prevents most spellcasting (you can't actually target anything under these circumstances).
  • As for followers, the villain knows about them, but also knows how they work. "Keep an eye out for an imp (bat/rat/centipede) and a black bear. Shoot on sight and report any contact" should help with this. And if one of those creatures happens to die? Well, then the captured individual is not getting them back anytime soon (Find Familiar requires a ritual which can easily be disrupted like their sleep (as well as spell components) and beast companion requires 8 hours with an animal to bond to). Honestly, if I were an intelligent villain, I would just set up traps in the locations I would think these types of companions could help and go from there. Maybe additional guard animals to combat the companions, etc.

Note that the above makes it more difficult for the characters to escape, but not impossible. In situations like the above, I always plan out what the villain would do ahead of time and that's it. If the players think of a way around it, then they did. I don't say "oh, he thought of that too and it doesn't work" (well, I don't unless it was a complete miss by me).

This also does not stop the players from overpowering or outwitting guards at some point. Any good villain will tell you that minions usually are the downfall to their well-laid plans. With the above, you make it difficult for the party and they need to think outside of the box.

Here is another thought I had, but have never actually used: put some heavy armor on the players and then have that sealed shut so they can't take it off without the appropriate tools. Most spellcasters cannot cast in armor that they are not proficient in. With your group, the cleric may be the only who could. This allows them to talk and do whatever they wish in their cell(s) but not actually cast spells. And if they do escape with this armor? Sounds like some good protection during the prison break (taking spells away from some of these characters is taking all of their power) and an adventure to remove these contraptions sounds fun itself.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer, particularly the "stick 'em into heavy armor and weld it to them" suggestion. 😁 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 3 at 0:07
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Have the evil wizard leave the door open and cast an enchantment on the party - the first one to leave can just walk out the door, but the other 3 will instantly die (with some way out (something that could break the curse) in the possession of the evil wizard.)

In this case, every character can decide to leave at any time, but your team will have to evaluate their relationships and hopefully realize that they are all friends and none of them wants to trade their freedom for the lives of the others.

Or maybe someone just doesn't care and sneaks out while they're sleeping!

Hours of morally ambiguous fun!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Was this actually enjoyable for the table? I could easily see this going south. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Mar 2 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ How did your players respond to / overcome this particular challenge? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 2 at 18:32
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There are many options

The imp is easy to deal with - just kill the imp and don't allow the warlock access to 10 gp worth of charcoal, incense, and herbs or a brass brazier. Without access to the material components of the find familiar spell, the warlock can't resummon their imp.

Primal companion is more difficult. The ranger merely needs to take a long rest to summon it, and even if you restrain their existing pet, they can summon a new one that is not restrained. However, their pet must be summoned within 5ft of them, so the easiest answer is to make sure that the available spaces within 5ft of the ranger aren't useful places to summon a pet to escape with. For example, if they're chained to a post in the middle of a 20ft by 20ft locked cell, any primal companion they summon will be trapped in the cell with them. The most it could do is potentially attempt to remove the ranger's bonds - if they summon a primal companion in the form of an ape, it would be able to attempt to break or untie their bonds similarly to how most humanoid characters might, since it has similar hands.

You have said this villain is aware of the imp's capabilities, but is he similarly aware of the primal companion's abilities? For example, an arcane spellcaster might be much more likely to understand what another arcane caster can do than what a spellcaster using nature magic can do. It might be quite plausible for him to overlook the possibility of an ape primal companion assisting in untying the ranger.

However, if you want to prevent that tactic, one option might be to suspend the ranger above ground. If he's dangling well above ground, any non-flying primal companion would fall immediately upon being summoned, and end up either dying of fall damage, or at the very least have a difficult time getting to the ranger. This limits the ranger to only summoning a beast of the air, which doesn't have a good option for manual dexterity.

As for preventing the PCs themselves from escaping, obviously unconsciousness would work. However, that option is likely to not be particularly fun, as you noted.

Since your party doesn't include a sorcerer, assuming none of your players have picked the metamagic adept feat with subtle spell, simply keeping them bound and gagged will stop any spellcasting. Somatic components require a free hand, and verbal components require them to be able to speak. If they are unable to speak and have no free hands, they can't cast any spells with somatic or verbal components - which is all of them.

Another option that would limit spellcasting and prevent resummoning the primal companion is to restrict long resting. This is bad for your PCs' health, of course - Xanathar's Guide to Everything suggests steadily increasing DCs of Constitution saves to prevent exhaustion from going without resting - but even if they fail every save, they can survive at least 5 days without a long rest. If the villain has access to greater restoration, he can extend this time at the cost of diamond dust, or if he has any spells or other effects that give bonuses to saving throws or to Constitution scores, he could potentially make them more likely to succeed the save. (Personally, I like the irony of using magic normally intended to be beneficial to prolong the suffering of a prisoner being tortured.)

One question that comes to mind is - how does the boss villain intend to make use of them as slaves? Does he have any way to stop them from escaping that doesn't prevent them from doing the work he wants? If so, he may have shared this option with the villain that captured them.

If they're intended only for very menial labor, the feeblemind spell is one of the most effective long-term methods for shutting down a spellcaster. On a failed Intelligence saving throw, their Intelligence and Charisma are reduced to 1 for at least 30 days - at which point they can attempt to shake it off by repeating the Intelligence saving throw, but since they've now got an Intelligence modifier of -5, it's very unlikely that they'll succeed. It would of course be difficult to get someone with an Int of 1 and no ability to understand language to do most tasks, but it may be possible to train them for simple tasks. Or simply farm them for food, spell components, or something like that.

If they're needed for something more complex, then you're probably going to need some sort of either leverage or mind control. For long-term mind control, your best option is probably mass suggestion - unlike suggestion, it's not concentration and can affect up to twelve creatures, so it can easily affect all the players. And if upcast to 9th level, it lasts "a year and a day". Even 7th level gives you a respectable 10 days of control. Of course, they'll get a save, but you can just recast it every day until they finally fail, and start trying to renew it before the duration fades. This spell will compel them to follow a course of activity limited to a sentence or two, so it has the bonus of allowing clever players to figure out ways to subvert the control. Note that you could also layer multiple mass suggestions with different commands for more control.

If the big boss won't have shared his control methods with the lesser villain, then you can fall back on simply having them bound and gagged, killing the imp, and taking measures to limit the primal companion's usefulness, and save the more devastating options for if they fail to escape before they're brought to the boss.

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