Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #382
Part I: Jail Design
This Week's Tips Summarized
Part I: Jail Design
- Craft A Prison Purpose
- Prison Design Ideas
- 39 Prison Concepts
Readers' Tips Summarized
- More PC Death Alternatives
- There Are Answers To Death
- Character Death: Don't Penalize Harshly
- Wagering For Diceless Combats
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Return to Contents
A Brief Word From Johnn
Map Of Arduin Is Great
The fine folks at Emperors Choice recently sent me a map of
Arduin. It goes with their World of Khaas product, which I
reviewed in an earlier issue.
The map is great. It has thicker paper than other map
products I've purchased recently, and it has a parchment
look and feel. The country of Arduin has a lot going on it,
and the map reflects that with excellent detail. I've put
the map up on my wall for now, though I think I'll send it
to the Gamer Printshop for lamination to make it spill
proof, as I'll be using the map in a future campaign.
Backup Your RPG Data
A player in my campaign, - let's call him "My horse is
smarter than my paladin" - and a frequent e-zine contributor
who e-mailed me last week both had recent computer issues
and data loss. So, this is a reminder to backup your stuff.
I bought an external USB drive the other day and it works
great. I've copied my files over for redundancy. I also do a
daily backup and put that on a USB key, which I take with
Don't forget to do a test restore of your data as well. It's
a pain, but there's no point in having a backup system you
Volume 3: 5 Room Dungeons Ready For Download
The third volume of 5 Room Dungeons contest entries is now
ready for download. Featured in this volume:
- The Haunting
by Matthew and Paul Darcy
- The Quest for the Rod of Spellius
by Davide Quatrini
- The Plague Devil
by Nik Palmer
- Villainous Cellar Pub
by Aki Halme
- Ye Classic Wizard's House
by Gillian Wiseman
Download (Zipped PDF 1MB)
Return to Contents
Song of Blades and Heroes
Fast-play, skirmish fantasy miniature system, 2+ players.
Revolutionary d6 based rules that you learn in just one
game; no counting inches or centimeters. No bookkeeping. A
game lasts 30-45 minutes. Only 5-10 models needed; play with
any single-based miniature, in any scale; playable on
hexgrids or tabletops. Stats for 180+ creatures included,
and you can create your own. Mechanics work well in solo
play; Campaign rules let your warband grow more powerful
after every battle. Six basic scenarios included.
Read the reviews on songofblades.blogspot.com
Both the printed book ($14.95) or the PDF ($4) are
distributed by www.key20.com
Visit Ganesha Games for more information
and supplements. Join the Yahoo group for errata, updates
and sneak previews.
Return to Contents
Part I: Jail Design
By Johnn Four
Recently, I received this reader tip request:
My PCs are about to land themselves in jail. I was wondering
if anyone out there has run a good prison break, or similar.
Could you put this out to all the readers in the newsletter?
Jail breaks are great game plots, whether the PCs are locked
up for a single encounter or for a whole adventure. They are
a world within a world, and give GMs a lot of creative
freedom to design and run entertaining sessions. In the next
couple of issues I'll share several jail setting gaming tips
to help you get those most out of such opportunities.
Then, I'd like to post an issue with tips you might have to
help Robert out. Just hit the reply button if any ideas or
tips come to mind. Thanks!
The frequent crime of prison adventures is they are dull:
PCs are jailed, PCs puzzle out an escape, PCs escape. The
first couple of times this happens, it's new, exciting, fun.
Then it becomes routine. Perhaps the GM struggles for
inspiration, or maybe the huge potential of prison
adventures are never considered.
Another possibility is you are caught by surprise and have
to whip up a prison setting on the spot while the players
glare at you. Chances are, PCs will get into trouble with
the law - sometimes frequently. :) You will likely default
to the few jail ideas you've read about, watched on TV or in
a movie, or GM'd before.
Following is the first batch of tips, themed around the jail
environment itself. Before you think about the PCs' escape,
you should consider the setting. Craft an interesting prison
location to inspire all other adventure elements and treat
your players to a fresh game experience.
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1. Craft A Prison Purpose
There's more to a jail than bars and cells. It has a
function within your world, based on each society's values
and resources. Consider, for example, the viewpoints of
From the prison administration's point of view, the purpose
of the place is to keep prisoners confined within their
facility to serve out the conditions of their sentence.
Society has a complex range of potential views, including:
- Safety and protection
- Revenge and retribution
- Rehabilitation or salvation
- Cheap labour
- Out of sight, out of mind
- Serve a local economy with jobs and contracts
Prison staff also have a range of possible desires:
- Regular paycheck
- Career path and advancement
- Safety - personal
- Safety - co-workers
- Power, control
- Corrupt - revenge, retribution
- Corrupt - serves a criminal agency
- Corrupt - breaks rules for personal gain
- Protect society
- See justice served
- Prisoner care and rehabilitation
- Prevent escape
- Catch escapees quickly, perhaps without incident, or
perhaps through any means necessary
Those doing time can have several possible views or goals:
- Regret, guilt
- Unfair - I'm innocent
- Survive without entanglements
- Serve a criminal agency
- Build power, wealth, contacts
- Learn new skills
- Serve the sentence and never return
NPCs will be touched on in future tips, but you should also
consider the viewpoints of important personages in your game
world. For example, villains might have certain views on
prisons and how felons could fit within their diabolical
From a game function point of view, what purpose does the
- Temporary holding for an encounter or two
Keep the design simple and small. If you craft a large
facility, you only need to flesh out the areas the PCs will
experience. Avoid sandbox play where you let the PCs roam
and interact without guidance. Provide strong hooks, have a
rough plot and end goal in mind, and GM with enough
influence so players are happy and having fun, and you are
able to stick close to what you've prepared.
Keep the pace brisk - avoid a long timeline. If a lot of in-
game time passes, players might want to utilize that time,
and you'll need to think up what opportunities the
facilities can offer, add to your cast of NPCs, and craft
more encounters to keep gameplay interesting.
If a lot of gameplay time passes, the pacing could drag and
you might be pressed to add new elements such as NPCs,
locations, and conflicts to keep the game entertaining.
- Long-term holding for an adventure
Craft a larger design that can hold numerous planned and
unplanned possibilities. Focus on NPCs for plot development.
Think about more than just escape as a reward. Include other
items, information, and goals that characters and players
would strive for to keep them from breaking out at the first
Just like any other dungeon, a map of the facilities is
important for consistency and to help inspire, prepare, and
Look for ways to represent the multiple viewpoints that
surround any prison. Those are sources of natural conflicts,
plus they'll give you NPC ideas and add a new layer of
interest to the adventure.
- Anything is possible
You've started along this path because of PC actions or in-
game happenstance, and you're happy to follow along and see
where things go. This is a great way to GM if you enjoy
making things up as you go without much preparation. It
gives PCs maximum freedom, often takes the game in
unexpected and interesting directions, and gives you fun,
Create a strong prison concept to give you a solid base to
be creative with. Link what you create back to the concept
or theme as much as possible to build a consistent framework
and player experience.
Perhaps start with a map, and consider drawing the outside
of the facilities first, to give you a basic parameter to
work with. Sometimes a blank piece of paper creates writer's
block, and having a few lines and boundaries is enough to
give you the confidence to keep storytelling.
Take cues from the players. Think in terms of NPCs and
conflicts, and let those drive PC ideas and options. Avoid
letting the players get too caught up in the construction,
security, and furnishings of the place as they try to puzzle
out an escape. Without much preparation, it's easy to get
caught up in the details during prison scenarios.
For example, if the players want to get into minute details
of patrol patterns and cell construction, introduce an NPC
who has an escape plan already hatched and asks the PCs to
join in - perhaps after a test of ability first.
- World building
You are purely world building and enjoy creating detailed
settings. The Prison Design Ideas tips will give you many
details to think about. Be sure to take a 10,000 foot view
to get an idea of the prison's place on the map, place
within society, and larger scale conflict opportunities that
would drive regional conflicts and events.
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2. Prison Design Ideas
How is your prison designed? Below is a list of some
possible design factors. Unless you have the time and desire
to design a complete facility, use the list just for
inspiration and idea generation.
Avoid answering every - even most - questions. You want to
build a strong hook on which to base an interesting jail
location, theme, or concept. Players won't see most of the
details the list can generate. Your best approach might be
to pick a line at random and create a cool prison concept
from that and then move on.
As you read the list, keep paper or digital notepad handy
and write down any ideas that come to you. Store these ideas
when you're done in a place you can easily get to during a
game (such as a GM binder) so you have pre-generated notes
to bail you out whenever needed.
- Where is the prison located?
- Location on map
- What legal jurisdiction(s)
- Empire, Kingdom, Country
- State, Province, City
- Department, Ministry, NPC
- Physical area of the prison site
- Water access, drainage
- Food access
- How flat is the ground?
- How hard is the ground?
- What is the surrounding area like?
- Populated, unpopulated
- Hostile, neutral, friendly to life
- Geography, terrain
- Nearby communities
- Are there any special regional features?
- Strange weather
- Magical phenomena
- How many prisoners was it designed for?
- How many prisoners currently reside there?
- How many inmates per average cell did the design
specification allow for?
- What is the average cell size?
- What types of prisoners was the facility initially
designed for? i.e. Common men vs. demons vs. epic halfling
- What types of prisoners must be dealt with today? Same as
the original design specifications? Some that required
upgrades? Were those upgrades performed?
- What facilities were designed?
- Kitchen, food preparation
- Food and water distribution
- Visitor and guest area
- Staff work, relaxation, and living areas
- Waste collection and disposal
- General inmate populace lockup
- Special types of inmate lockup
- Special punishment areas
- Special security areas or zones
- Inmate exercise and entertainment area(s)
- Weapons and armour lockup and maintenance
- Special equipment lockup and maintenance
- What authority funded the project?
- What were their objectives?
- Were there any special or secret objectives?
- Who built it?
- What was the builder's budget?
- Was the project under- or over-funded?
- Were there any special design features?
- Were there any design flaws?
- Did the builder make any mistakes? Did they report
mistakes or cover them up?
- What building materials were used?
- Were there any special building materials?
- Did the builder use construction plans? Were copies made?
Where are those plans today?
- Were plans and blueprints for special areas given special
security? Where are those plans today?
- Are the builder and crew(s) still alive? Where are they
- Is the prison a private prison or a state-run facility?
- What funds the prison today?
- Is the prison expensive to maintain?
- Food, water, clothes
- Inmate services and supplies
- Are the funds adequate, not enough, too much?
- Budget - what can the administration afford and how does
it spend its budget? i.e. Locks vs. food
- Are staff hired to do the maintenance, or is the
responsibility contracted out?
- Are guest visits allowed?
- Do maintenance and operations require frequent traffic
with the outside world?
- Does staff live on-site or do they commute for each shift?
- What land, air, and water access is there?
- Where do vehicles or mounts go?
- What keeps the prisoners in?
- What keeps the world out? (i.e. So allies can't break
- Does the facility need to account for special situations
or conditions? (i.e. Super powers, magic, hostile society
with torches and pitchforks, high technology, alien
- Are there multiple layers of defenses or just one highly
- How do staff protect themselves from inmates?
- How do staff deal with riots and uprisings?
Return to Contents
3. 39 Prison Concepts
- On a remote island where strange and dangerous creatures
- On a small, rocky island a few hundred yards out in the
bay or river.
- A former insane asylum that is a large, square, stone
building without windows.
- In a pocket dimension with perpetual darkness and gale
- Prison is in Hell or the abyss.
- Prisoners are forced to enter a deadly dungeon, and then
the entrance is blocked behind them.
- In a monastery where the monks use divine magic to
prevent escape while they try to rehabilitate the prisoners.
- In the middle of a hot desert where a legendary sandstorm
is said to catch all travelers and grind them to dust.
- In a glacier cave complex run by frost giants.
- On a ship that uses the prisoners for labour and
- Prison is located on an abandoned oil rig in the middle
of a sea.
- Prison of the former tower of a mighty wizard. Nasty
surprises are still being discovered by inmates and staff.
- Administration has taken over and repaired an old,
ruined keep and turned it into a labour camp.
- Prison is a structure built inside a portable hole.
- Waterfront cave system. Prisoners are placed in the
caves during low tide. At high tide the entrance is covered
by water and who knows how many chambers inside are flooded,
or what creatures come hunting for easy prey?
- Tree house. The forest is cleaned away from a large tree
and the prison is created in it. The 'tree house' is
sufficiently high up to discourage jumping - especially
since the area surrounding the tree is guarded by spikes.
- Prison is located on an island in a magma flow. Intense
heat and poisonous gas keeps the prisoners weak, requiring
fewer, if any, guards. Of course, there's that fire
elemental just outside the door....
- Medical prison. No need for armed guards after the
prisoners are processed. The use of paralysis drugs keeps
them where they should be. The prisoners can be kept
mentally alert or drugged depending on the will of the
- The prison is a mine. However, prisoners dig too deep
and release a creature from below. As the beast breaks out
and tries to surface, the prisoners have to get out of its
way and follow it up as it breaks through the anti-escape
measures. If the PCs have a conscience, they also have to
try to kill it at the last moment while it is at its weakest
and before it is unleashed upon the world above.
- Prisoners of several Chinese dynasties were forced to
build the Great Wall.
- A cultural prison. Prisoners of war are honour bound to
service for a year and a day. The prisoners create the
society's entire service sector. See the Aiel in Robert
Jordan's Wheel of Time Series.
- Banishment outside the civilized or tamed inner walls of
a society. You'll be let back in at the end of the sentence,
if you survive.
- Underwater. Prisoners are transformed to water
breathers. They can't escape if they can't breath air. They
catch food for the citizens above. Punishment takes the form
of forced fishing in areas frequented by sharks or other
- Underwater. Instead of being changed into water
breathers, prisoners are placed in an oxygenated structure,
such as a magically created bubble of air or an aged
- On the front ranks of a war, poorly armed. Any prisoner
who neither deserts nor dies is set free after the battle.
Friendly fire can be just as dangerous. "After all, they're
- Prisoners become the gladiator tournament corps.
- At a drug producing farm/factory. Sure you might escape,
but if you do you'll find you've been on a steady diet of
the substance and your addiction draws you back to where you
can get your fix. Add this as a secret aspect of any other
idea here for added PC drama, as they fight to hold back the
one PC who didn't make his save and is compelled to return
to the prison they just barely escaped from.
- A gold mine. So close to riches and yet so far.
- In the stratosphere. Prisoners are provided a time-
limited means of flight. You can try to escape but you can't
make it to anywhere else before the power of flight runs
- On a space station locked in solar orbit, with no means
of propulsion. Supplies are grown, not brought in. There are
no guards, no wardens, just the cold grip of physics and
space. If enough of the prisoners die off, decreasing life
support needs, and enough of the remaining prisoners
cooperate with knowledge and labour, there is a possibility
of re-rigging the power system to create escape velocity and
return home. At least one cantankerous/uncooperative/
combative prisoner is the only one with a certain piece of
engineering knowledge. Oh yeah, call that a deteriorating
orbit and you can easily create a time limit for added
- The prison requires the prisoners to work daily to gain
their own survival (maybe to generate the power required for
their life support). The labour requirement is carefully
calibrated to be just a little bit less than is possible
given the number of prisoners. Not meeting the requirement
gets one random prisoner killed. If a prisoner dies from
exhaustion, murder, lack of life support, then the remaining
prisoners may request a new inmate. A prisoner is then
upgraded from a lower level of security. That means any sign
of weakness might turn the other prisoners against you so
they can get someone else who can pull their weight. On the
other hand, working too hard and meeting the requirements
too quickly just ups the work quota.
- Prison for the mind. A panel reviews the
downloaded/magically stolen memories of each prisoner,
selects a certain number of deviant life decisions (the
earlier the better) that the prisoner made, and recreates
the experience via neural/magical input. Short term memory
longer than the experiences is deactivated, but long term
memory remains active. The prisoner relives an experience
over and over again, and though he can't remember it, he
learns intuitively about the experience. The goal is
alignment change or character change. The prisoner may not
move to another experience or complete imprisonment until
she has made good choices (according to the evaluators).
Could be used to let the PCs replay a horribly botched
combat/RPG experience as a learning experience.
- Prison is 10 miles down river from the city, and is
surrounded by deadly swamp, marsh, and jungle. Prisoners are
used to unload ships and reload goods for final shipment to
the city and beyond. Possible reasons for it could be to
keep infidels away from city, or to keep unclean foreigners
from contacting religiously clean city dwellers.
- On a mesa in the middle of a canyon. The bridge to the
mesa can only be extended by the people who live in the
plains next to the canyon. The canyon floor, of course, is
inhabited by monsters or snakes, or it is a river canyon and
the river is filled with flesh-eating fish.
- Sentenced to be a prison guard. For minor offenses
people are sentenced to serve in a rowdy prison. They are
equipped well enough, but get to see firsthand the
punishment for a worse crime.
- Insipid prison. Through a misguided government
"re-education" program, hardened prisoners are exposed to
non-stop images, music, and entertainment...geared towards
preschoolers. The pancakes all have smiley faces made from
eggs and bacon, the jumpsuits are all pink and frilly, and
good little prisoners get underwear with their favourite
cartoon characters. The movies are all G rated, and the
channels show 24 hours of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, Barney,
and Teletubbies. Guards are dressed like Sesame Street
characters, which makes it a very odd scene if they ever
need to beat a prisoner into submission. A least one
prisoner who is tall, strong, and dull really likes it and
yells at everyone to "Shut up, we're going to the
@*&%@#@*Y%& land of make-believe."
- Forced subject of medical/magical experimentation. The
sentence is time limited, but the effects might be long
lasting. Some may be beneficial, but others are very much
- Retributive justice. The victims of the criminal's crime
are free to come by at their leisure to press a button
inflicting pain upon the criminal. The criminal is only set
free when the victim is satisfied that the criminal has
- In a society built on stratified classes, punishment for
crimes is social demotion, time limited or not. Old friends
and family won't see you anymore because you are
untouchable. Same terrain, same city, totally different
Thanks to Scot Newbury, Eric FitzMedrud, Peter G. for their
prison concept ideas.
* * *
Stay tuned for the next part in the Jail Break series of tips.
Return to Contents
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Readers' Tips Of The Week:
Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org - thanks!
1. More PC Death Alternatives
From: Matt Stanton
re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #381
Kate Manchester's "PC Death And Your Campaign" touched on a
list I came up with recently when our D&D group nearly
suffered the deaths of two players' characters after an
encounter went bad. I thought I'd bounce the ideas your way
So, a PC has died. Now what? Most RPGs settings provide
options for a GM to keep a character in the game, avoiding a
player having to start over with a new character. Before
finding that cleric, here are some other ideas game masters
could consider for their games.
- Resurrection or reincarnation by NPCs other than the slain
PC's allies. Usually other heroes or their powerful patron
raises the dead character. What if some unknown cult,
wizard, or magical being with a secret agenda decides the PC
is too important to let fall too soon? What secret plans
need the PC as a pawn played in an unseen game?
- Ghost, revenant, or other undead - with a catch. This
long-standing fantasy tradition works easily as either a
reborn servant of justice or hell, serving the demands of an
angelic or demonic patron who expects the boon of renewed
existence to come with certain conditions to act out on
- Cyborg constructs. "We can rebuild him, better, strong,
faster" ...And programmed to obey geas-like conditions in
return for an extension on life. (Remember Robocop's
limitations against his corporate creators?)
- Psychic transference to a new body. A simulacrum of the
slain hero has been held in stasis for just this sort of
crisis. The GM may or may not allow the character to keep
stats, levels, or abilities. If not magic, technology might
allow for cybernetic brain-tapping into a mindless, cloned
body or android duplicate.
- Alternate timeline crossover. A duplicate of the slain
character with slightly or vastly different memories is
drawn into the PCs' universe, perhaps in response to the
cosmic trauma of another "eternal champion" biting the dust.
Author Michael Moorcock pioneered this genre with Elric and
- Broken fate. The character was not supposed to die now and
miraculously survives no matter how severe the injuries.
However, from that point forward, the character is a magnet
for horribly bad luck, paradox demons, or some other curse
reflecting the warped reality.
- Elemental transference. The character's spirit or soul
animates a duplicate made of a pure element - earth, fire,
water, plant - changing in nature, but otherwise functioning
much as before. The element might involve new
vulnerabilities, such as no longer being cured by mortal
healing magic and taking damage from the appropriate
- Fraternal regeneration. The character dies, but his body
begins to repair itself, forming a body with the same
memories but a new personality and abilities. (Examples
include The Doctor from "Doctor Who" or Dax from ST:DS9.)
- Android or clone is the one slain instead. Upon death, the
PC's body is discovered to be something artificial but
programmed to believe it was the real thing, complete with
false memories. Without the player knowing, the "actual"
character was kidnapped during a previous adventure and
switched with a duplicate designed to act as the "perfect
spy" on the other PCs.
If the entire party of PCs are wiped out — ye olde TPK — the
game master may opt to have them all seem to recover, only
to have them exist unknowingly as ghosts. The PCs might find
the living no longer recognize them or react in odd ways.
(While spoiling a few plot points here, "The Sixth Sense"
and "The Others" are typical examples of this popular story
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2. There Are Answers To Death
From: M. Joseph Young
Your recent issue on PC Death brought to mind two things.
The first is, in many campaigns, there are answers to death.
Although this is more common in fantasy games, Leonard Nimoy
has pointed out that they came to him to ask about appearing
in Star Trek III after his character had died in Star Trek
II, and they found a way to bring him back. Resurrection
spells and wishes are often used in fantasy campaigns to
bring life back to the dead, but sci-fi worlds often have
life rays or matter restoration systems that can
reconstitute the deceased.
The second is probably tooting my own horn, but Sorcerer
author Ron Edwards once said that our game, Multiverser, had
some of the best answers to the problem of character death,
because if a player character is killed in our game it
advances the plot, as he finds himself starting a new
adventure in another universe.
Many referees have thanked me for this innovation (for which
I must credit my partner, E. R. Jones), as it has freed them
to stop worrying about whether the player is going to get
his character killed. One said he is finally able to remove
the kid gloves and deal damage and death in response to
player foolishness, knowing that the game continues, the
character survives, and while the loss is real, it is not
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3. Character Death: Don't Penalize Harshly
From: Michael Lee
I had another alternative outcome for character death that's
been working well. The character, if raised, loses a level,
but for only one session. Then the character jumps back to
the party level. If the player wants to bring in a new
character, the lost level affects that character instead.
This is a way to make character death painful for the
player, but causing only temporary pain. If a character
incurs permanent penalties, the player might want to start
over with a new character or quit the campaign. Death
remains meaningful, and prevents players from taking wild
risks with their characters.
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4. Wagering For Diceless Combats
From: Bryan Ray
(Based on a request made at the GMMastery Yahoo group: "Does
anyone have tips on diceless or free-form combats?")
Some LARPs use a sort of point-buy system. If a character
has the swordsmanship trait at level 6, they can wager any
number of those levels in a given encounter. Whoever wagers
the most traits wins out, but the more conflicts you get
into, the fewer traits you'll have available. Check out the
Mind's Eye books for Live Action in the World of Darkness
for an example of this kind of play.
It's not entirely freeform, though, since it requires
characters to have explicitly defined statistics. You could
modify it somewhat to simply give each character a certain
number of generic points that they have to wager in any
given conflict. This would not necessarily have to be
physical contests, either - social conflicts could be
resolved through wagers as well.
It would be necessary to define the stakes. Each player
declares their preferred outcome and submits a wager. It
might require a disinterested third party to adjudicate the
result. Maybe each party could send a private message or
e-mail to a moderator, who then reports which party won the
contest and by how much. The winner gets to narrate the
results, taking both players' objectives into account.
You'd have to devise a method for replenishing the points. I
am thinking that some form of social cooperation should earn
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Anauroch: The Empire of Shade
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