THIS IS PART OF A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR BUILDING OUT A LESS-THAN-COMMON ADVENTURE WHERE YOU CAN PUT YOUR OWN DUNGEON OR NPCS–THINGS THAT TEST THE PLAYERS AND PC’S ABILITY TO THINK DIFFERENTLY.
So, in my current game (“A Confession of Pain”), we’ve decided to take a break from the relatively low-fantasy world of Kalamar and embrace the new Unearthed Arcana starting rules for Eberron. We’ll return to “The Death of Kings” (presently at 15th level and nearing the end of its major story line) soon, but my players and I all wanted to take a taste of a higher magic world without the classicism of Forgotten Realms.
To that end… I’ve decided to take their first “adventure” and make a new adventure pitch from it.
This one will be a bit more complicated and you’ll need to make sure you have the right players to do it justice–but from experience I can say this is a powerfully enjoyable and challenging adventure idea that your players will learn a lot from.
So, What Is It?
In “A Confession of Pain” (ACoP), the PC’s had to break into a fortified super-prison–the Dreadhold–to find and extract a prisoner from the Alcatraz of the world–an exiled prince who was put there for his evil crimes and to keep his followers from putting him on the throne. Long-story short, for low-level PC’s sneaking into the prison is almost impossible (imagine how your players, who know D&D, might design a prison if they had 500 years to perfect it and access to spells as high as 5th level–the amount of sense they put into the place should be reflected in the amount of security your NPCs do). Breaking in is a virtual death-sentence.
The only way in is to be taken prisoner for the sorts of high crimes that the place was built to cover up and lock away. Now, this leaves your party with two choices:
- Your Good to Neutral party (ideally) would need to debase themselves enough for the greater good, do something terrible–make enemies, at least, with powerful people. Political assassination… destroying a temple of a well-regarded faith… espionage… something that registers as a very big deal; or
- They plan on getting caught trying to “break in”.
I’d recommend organizing them to do the 1st one, because that’s a great plot for later… the aftermath of the thing they did. But, even option 2 is time. So long as they get locked up.
But, How Would They Get Out?
The smart party (and mine was very smart about it) ended up realizing they were going to have to be locked up and tried to put in place an escape plan ahead of time. There are a few convenient choices if your party feels like doing that:
- Have the knowledgeable NPC of their choice (in my case it was a proper spy and underworld figure, but it could be a legal authority or sage, it could be a historian, it could be the master of the guild of architects and builders that helped make the place, etc.) explain that the internal workings of the prison are a secret, but that by rights the prisoners are allowed a visitor within a few months of their incarceration. For a bribe or more, the NPC could arrange a distraction and an opportunity around that time.
- Really focus on the gods or patrons of the party–if they’re clerics or druids or warlocks, etc. This place is designed to block them out–it should be available knowledge to those NPC’s that their “higher power” isn’t going to abandon them in there.
- For those with the right backgrounds: Criminal, Noble, Charlatan (to name a few), really punch up that their backgrounds are full of networks of people that do favors for each other (for a price). Many of those people know people on the inside and if the PC’s would promise to break someone out with them… well, one hand washes another.
Regardless, give them options and make all of them cost something. The Knowledgeable NPC is going to want something–some artifact or secrets from that place; the “higher being” might require a gaeas or sacred quest afterward that they will have to complete on penalty of something serious; the network’s guy/gal really should stay locked up and unleashing them back on the world will be bad for the party many different ways.
I have a post-script for each of these deals at the bottom, pending which your PC’s gravitated toward.
The Prison – Exterior
Whether you make your players travel across the world to see it (which I did in ACoP) or it’s readily in the place they are, it’s an imposing sight.
Bring up photos of the Chateau D’if (a la “The Count of Monte Cristo” and I’d read the torturous parts of that book for inspiration). An island. Water for miles around. Hopeless. But, this in a magical setting (in our case, Eberron, which allows for useful magical technology).
One doesn’t get within miles of the place, physically, without tripping extended and expanded Alarms. Corvette boats of dwarves (dwarvish jailors) powered by bound elementals or magical wind (for perfect maneuverability) and loaded to bear with ballistas and a magewarder (dwarvish wizard specialized in spells for this place) ready to sink any ship that doesn’t comply with orders.
Flying in is met with similar notification and archers on the wall (with a minute notice there can be 20, with ten minute notice there can be 100) ready to shoot down anything that doesn’t comply with orders.
Every door to the place, every window (of the few there are) as well, all points of access are sheened with an antimagic field to strip active and passive spells from entering or leaving individuals. The place has a central teleportation circle, guarded night and day by twenty guards of fine reputation, and its how they bring in food and supplies as needed.
Every. Single. Corridor. Has a gate on it requiring a different key. One doesn’t go more than 30 feet anywhere into or out of or on the way to a room without needing a key and guards operate in a seemingly chaotic pattern of shifts, always in twos or threes and never the same two or three, no one of which has all the keys to get from in to out by themselves.
It’s overbuilt. It should feel this way.
Each cell is horrifically bare. irregular stone, no bed or table or anything else. It is more restrictive than anyone on the outside would have ever been able to describe. When they’re being walked in and stripped and disarmed (all the guards are CR 1 dwarvish guards with clubs and shields and good armor and work with excellent martial tactics–they subdue prisoners, primarily) they should see all the security in place. They should see the complicated keys and gates. They should see the lack of windows. They should experience in narrative detail how the entire place is silent–not a one prisoner can be heard from anywhere. They should really appreciate that they are going to be in the most vulnerable position they’ve ever been in.
They’re tossed in a cell, door shut and locked from without. The whole cell is warded against scrying and planar travel and is antimagic all inside. The door is a 1 ft. wide slat of oak covering an inch of iron. There is no “escaping”. Leave them there for a few weeks of uncomfortability. No good sleep or rest on this hard irregular floor, no regular food, no regular water. Too many guards walk the shift and rounds to push forth and just escape. Bring them down to 3 exhaustion.
And then, their last chance to comply. One chance. That’s all.
It’s worth noting… one of the reasons why this adventure works is because even though you’re loading them with hopelessness–it wasn’t thrust upon them. This is important. If you just locked them up, this would feel only purely abusive. But because they chose to do it, accepted the adventure of actively seeking to be in here, the sharpness of the experience is lessened. They will be frustrated at the clear limitations they have, but understand that “something is coming” and “maybe in a couple of months” and they just have to hold out.
The major twist comes with their first interview–several weeks in. Three exhaustion (roll 1d6 during this scene, on 1-2 they’re at -1 exhaustion for a total of 2, and on 4-6 they are at +1 for a total of 4). Keep in mind, the PC’s are all kept separately. Draw four 10 x 10 boxes on the grid (if you use one) and put a PC in each with no corridor. They don’t know whether they’re right next to each other or on opposite sides of the island. If you like, give them a tiny little (too small) window and on cell overlooks the ocean and another doesn’t overlook anything but another wall. Etc.
Also, manacles–keep them chained a bit.
The warden comes in, not a dwarf himself, and without pity or concern or malice informs them–like Dorleac from “Cristo”–that today is their birthday. And on their birthday, to help them mark the time, they’ll be beaten. They get to make whatever declaration they like for the year. And that’s that.
Ask them if they have anything to say…
Now, one of two things might happen:
- They admit to everything and speak truthfully and reveal their plan and plot–in which case, the warden (while the PC is chained) whips them bloody. The whip does 1d4 + Str. The Warden just keeps beating them bloody until they fall. Each strike causes a Wisdom Save DC 10 to not scream out. Keep in mind the disadvantages of exhaustion. Once they’re brought below 0, they go through death saves… it is at this point your player will probably go a bit wide-eyed as they realize the possibility of dying in this scene. And I want to emphasize–even if you have the warden have one of the magewarders bust a Revivify on them afterward (while they’re unconscious, so they wouldn’t remember and they just wake up bleeding and broken in their cell afterward, clearly after they died), never take this away from the scene. This prison is willing to beat them to death and make them scream. The scars will be horrific (crisscross of lacerations on their backs and shoulders). This is what happens if they confess the truth. If they don’t do that, however…
- All of that still happens.
The only difference between 1 and 2 is that with 1, the warden knows (magic ring) they are telling the truth. They’ll get beaten, but in a few weeks they’ll be taken aside and interrogated properly. The PC’s will have their opportunity to escape after they’re moved to more general holding cells around other prisoners.
With 2, the warden knows only that they’re lying. Not why. In truth, most everyone lies and he is not particular concerned about it. But, them lying just means they go way down the priority list for attention. In this case, their interrogation will just have to wait… five years.
Yes. That’s right.
Take five years of their lives from them.
Building The Foundation
The routine is the same each year. A year spent in isolation in their cell. The only interactions they have are with their food being delivered from a slot. They have to eat it off the floor as there is no bowl. Water is an inconsistent trickle from the rains at their window (the island is frequently stormy, kept so for this purpose). They will start any day at 3 exhaustion with a random 1d6 roll for whether its 2 or 4. Every year they roll a Wisdom Save DC 10 + which year (first year it is DC 11, fifth year it is DC 15). That represents what their mind undergoes during the time. Consult the Short Term Madness Table in the DMG for any failures.
They may spend the year suffering bouts of sobbing uncontrollably, while kneeling mostly naked and dirty, beard grown out and hungry for months. They may start hearing voices that they know aren’t there. They may simply forget how to speak at all for weeks on end.
Then, their Birthday. The warden returns–in dry and good humor, this isn’t personal after all–they may declare what they want for the year and then the beatings proceed. At this point, nothing they say matters anymore. Threats, the truth, lies, doesn’t matter. As far as the Warden is concerned, this will be their routine until they’re dead.
Wisdom Save DC 10 to not scream. Whipped to death.
If anyone attacks back, guards bring in the clubs instead of the whip and beat him bloody and maybe to death (death saves, if they die then the magewarder will bring them back). Each time they fight back, a minor body part will be taken from them. A pinky. A ring finger. A toe. An ear. Etc. They’ll be broken with busted arms or ribs that’ll heal badly in the cell over the weeks.
Most PC’s will see this as an opportunity (their first annual Birthday) to negotiate. They were whipped a year ago when they got here, they spent a year (far longer than they’d thought they would) jailed and maybe nearly going mad. They’re emaciated and in pain constantly (really play up the descriptions of how their character looks after a year away from the sun). Now they’ll try and barter or ask questions or engage in conversation.
Whipped (maybe beaten), possibly nearly killed (or killed and returned), locked away again. Unfeelingly.
Another year goes by. Wisdom Save for possible madness. Another birthday.
By this time, they’ll have had annual madnesses (they don’t last more than a few months when they get them during the year) once or twice. They’ll be horrifically underfed and pitifully dirty and soiled. Their fifth annual birthday comes with the regular whippings and whatnot until they’re unconscious or dead.
But they wake up in a long room–a real dungeon–chained to the wall next to the other members of their party. None of whom they’ve seen in half a decade.
Some will have lost pieces of themselves. Fingers. Ears. An eye, heaven forbid. They’ll all look like hell. Hair long. Some going gray. Some with telling ticks or nervous mental disorders. All chained to the wall wearing scraps of clothing at best.
The dwarf (not the warden) in front of them is one of the chief magewarders, outside the door are several guards. He’s not the dispassionate and darkly humorous Warden (who always seems endearing and brutal, but pleasant and even funny in his torture). He’s a surly, serious, soldier-like individual.
He asks openly who they are and why they’re here. If they committed crimes to get placed here, he knows (from the years of reports on their Birthdays) that there’s some scheme in that–it’s not entirely true and he wants to know why. If they tried to break in, he’ll want to know everything about why.
Given that this is a major scenery change, the PC’s will find some new resolve–even with the looming threat of more severe torture. They’ve been deprived of NPC responses and socialization. Their last five years of interactions have been with an NPC who doesn’t appear to have cared about anything they’ve said one way or another.
This one seems to have actual interest. Thus, they are all very likely to try talking this NPC up a lot while they have a chance.
The truth is, it won’t matter. Roll 1d6 for each PC and confirm they’re at exhaustion 2, 3, or 4… and regardless of what they say (though be careful to take note of what they say), the magewarder will leave them to think about whether they’d like to cooperate and give full and honest confessions together and live in the general population away from “all of this unpleasantness” of the solitary cells… or if they want to go back into the holes and spend another five years thinking it over from there.
A guard is given orders to feed them and give them water because “they’ll need their strength when the Question Master comes”. Put a real fear into them.
The guard is a plant.
Whether the guard words for the Knowledgeable NPC who helped them get in (who has spent years and a small fortune to get a man on the inside to wait and bide their time) or a servant of one of the PC’s “higher being” who was told what to do in a dream or maybe just a guard that was blackmailed by the network (a rare thing to find a guard in this place to do so).
They spoon gruel into the mouths of the PCs and one of the PCs feels a hard cylinder on their tongue in the gruel. When the guard leaves, there they are with some vial of some kind between their teeth.
An Arcane Check DC 10 (or History Check DC 15) reveals that it is an alchemical explosive.
If they spit it onto the ground it breaks and does a huge amount of Thunder damage to the holding cell (the stone takes 60 damage, the PC’s take 8. The walls crack and pieces fall away. They’re on the second story of a short tower on the island near the shore. The sky is dark–it is night-time–and the wind smells like saltwater. For casters, the hum in the back of their heads from the antimagic wards is gone. If they jump down and escape to hide in the rocks near the shore, it’s an Acrobatics check to climb or jump down… just enough fear there if they fall because even 1d6 damage could be terrible.
Keep in mind those who have their hit point max cut in half from exhaustion and movement and whatnot.
Wisdom Saves all around, DC 15. They’ve been locked away so long that the sight of open sky and freedom may stun them for one round in awe and emotion.
The prison is in flames and there is a riot as prisoners have broken out and guards are subduing them. There is enough chaos to hide away for a moment or two.
One guard shows up from the broken room and chases them. PC’s should start pulling up improvised weapons like rocks or sticks, casters need to be worried about material components for anything they try and do. Taking out a guard leaves his equipment–but keep in mind times to don and doff heavy armor. He has a shield and a club.
Once he goes down and as they race either away from the prison or off to find that prince they were here to do the job on, 1d4 guards show up and 1d4 prisoners. The PC’s are not along in any fight, although all the prisoners are in worse shape than they are. Mob tactics are needed to bring down guards. Shoving, pushing, grappling, knocking things prone and kicking them to death. Rocks to faces. Etc.
If headed to hide on the island away from the prison, it is 10 rounds of running limply.
If running around trying to find the prince, any of the guards know the name and refuse to tell but an Insight check of DC10 reveals that they glance over to the lone tower at the top of the hill as they refuse to talk about it. There is a 20% chance in any round that a random prisoner indicates the tower should anyone ask (yell out, inquire).
Every 2 rounds of combat, 1d4 guards show up and 1d4 prisoners show up. The math reveals that Guards are going to win this.
In round 5, a magewarder arrives and stays only long enough to drop a fireball on several random prisoners (incinerating them entirely)–not the PC’s. This is to give the PC’s reason to realize that sticking around for this guard fight in the prison is a bad idea.
The key here, in general, is to have lots of combats that have nothing to do with the PC’s happening all over. Give them a sense that this is all too big to “win”. There’s dozens of good and bad and who knows murdering each other all around.
Either free the prince (and kill the guards there) or run and hide… which it should be clear is a risky proposition either way as the island is not that big.
The End Game
Should they run to the tower, they should feel relatively safe. Most of the chaos is in the main prison buildings. The tower is quiet. The doors are barred shut–but any keys taken from fallen guards should be enough to have a 33% of opening the doors (for every key taken). The tower is two main levels.
The first level, there are two guards inside and that fight–the PC’s and two guards with no distractions–will be very difficult. The first guard to go to half damage runs back and up the stairs to the second level (takes a turn or two). The other holds the rest off.
The second level of the tower, there’s the beaten up guard and the warden. The PC’s will probably get overly excited about killing their jailor and torturer.
However the fight goes, the warden–before dying at half hit points–tosses his hands up and begs mercy. Promises he can help them escape. Asks that everyone be reasonable and it wasn’t personal. If the PC’s ask where the Prince is being kept, the Warden says he’ll show them, if they promise to not kill him.
Either reaching into his pocket or letting the PC’s do it, he has a folded leather wallet and a sheaf of papers inside.
They identify him as the Underwarden of the prison; they identify him as the Prince they were looking for. They might kill him; my party took the opportunity to beat him unconscious, though.
The escape scene from the island shouldn’t be too burdensome. A boat/corvette… guard outfits (even ill-fitting ones)… the Warden’s body (hopefully alive) and papers… a simple con to get out of there in the chaos.
The last thing the prison gives the PC’s should be an indefinite Madness. A new flaw on top of their normal one. A new way to get Inspiration. They spent half a decade in that place–and lost their minds and got mutilated, still bearing the scars (and always will). They’ll have some quirks and depressions that will haunt them forever.
The next plots can be about a bunch of stuff:
- Why is this horrible person, this threat to the kingdom’s line of succession and war criminal who is supposed to be locked away in the dark… why is he running the prison?
- What repercussions will there be from the jailbreak either in the form of officials looking for the PC’s or the countryside filled with horrible super-criminals? Both?
- If the PC’s deliver the Prince, what’s going to happen? Is the whole thing a ruse by the Prince’s followers on the outside to raise him to power? Is it a ruse by the royal family to kill him, now that he’s no longer safely locked away? How are the PC’s seen in this?
And a big one:
What is life like now, for the PC’s? Personally? They’ve been in a dark place. The world should be rich and vibrant in ways they never appreciated. Describe how good food tastes. How heady the ale is. How pretty the girls are. How warm the sun is. How cool the breeze. How the chatter of men laughing at a joke in the inn is uplifting.
In my game, the PC’s did this as a service to their city-state–an act of Mossad-like national duty–they’re coming home (far too late, but welcome) to a hero’s return.
Give them a HUGE hand on it. The respect and adoration of others high up. They’ll have done something nobody else does… spend five years in hell and live to tell about it.
I’ve been planning to have my campaign’s final chapter this sort of Prison Break set in Eberron, just not as grim as you’ve plotted, since my players will have already 14th-level characters.
But man, the descriptions on the environment will be SUPER HELPFUL. Thanks!