When arresting D&D players it is done for two reasons. Either it is planned and everything is going according to that plan. Or, it is just a bi-product of the game spiraling out of control.
Arresting D&D players needs to be done with tact. You need everyone together and have to have a good reason to do so. Also, do not panic.
I add that last part since every DM who first has to arrest their players ends up panicking. I did, you probably did, or you might if you don’t read this article to save you the trouble. Even so, it is hard to handle correctly.
How to arrest D&D players
There are a few dos and don’ts for arresting D&D players. Let’s go over the do’s first.
The do’s involve:
- Always arrest the whole party.
- Have a valid reason.
- Make sure the party knows why they are being arrested.
- Have a plan for when they are arrested.
- Give your players a choice.
- Once in a campaign with a BBEG
The don’ts involve:
- Splitting the party.
- Arresting the players for things they have not done.
- To stop murder hoboing.
If you catch yourself doing some of the don’ts, we will cover what to do next but first we will cover what you should do. How you should handle arresting D&D players so that you hopefully don’t go to the screw up portion. If you have already arrested the players and are panicking though, then make sure to look into the sections below that pertain to your particular situation.
Ideally, you are arresting players in order to further the plot or show them that what they are doing needs to be corrected. If not, there will be consequences and having consequences are important. We talk about why here, but there should be a purpose for your players getting arrested. Even so! There should always be a choice.
That choice should be to run, fight, or turn themselves in. This choice should always be present or the players will feel like they are being railroaded. Do not do that. Make sure that everyone is arrested or no one is arrested since giving the spotlight to half the group at best or everyone except that one person who got arrested isn’t great.
Those are the ideal ways on how to handle arresting D&D players, but we will go over each part in more detail so that you can make the perfect arrests and deal with any damage that might have happened to your game already.
Always arrest the whole party
There is the classic saying, ‘don’t split the party.’ This generally applies to players or those who have agency to split the party on their own accord, but it also applies to DMs. If you split the party it makes your life much harder. You now have to give equal time to two groups or make 1 player who is not arrested feel left out. If only 1 player wasn’t arrested, they are going to get all the spotlight and that will be boring for the rest of the group.
The main reason why you want to always arrest the whole party is time. Time that everyone gets, and time to make others not feel left out.
Even if you are able to manage this, then you will have resentment. You handled splitting the time perfectly, but the players who didn’t get themselves out of jail will feel disappointed. That is if they actually stay in jail.
If both parties get equal time, it is approximately 99.9999% (with a repeating 9 of course) chance that the imprisoned players will attempt a prison break. If you want to learn how to handle a prison break, check out this article but I would highly recommend against having a prison break.
Let’s say that best case scenario the players in the prison break out. Now what? They are hunted and the party is permanently split roleplay wise. Why would half the party work with criminals? You either have to have a great group of have to work hard to make this work.
All of these are great reasons to arrest the party as a group or not at all, but you still have to have a reason.
This encompass two points on the do’s list. You need to have a valid reason for arresting D&D players and have them know why it is happening. If they are just arrested and don’t know why, they will fight. It is similar to the statistic above with about the same % chance of causing a fight and having your players be wanted.
If you anticipated this and wanted to force your players into becoming outlaws despite what they might have wanted, congrats. They will hate you, the game, and it will fall apart over time because of this or your group is very forgiving. If your players don’t fight, they will be confused, go along with it, and feel like they are being railroaded.
Do you see the problem here?
If the players don’t know why they are being arrested, then there isn’t a good outcome. Very rarely will the players go along with the DM’s master plan to get them arrested for something (even a private audience). Even if they do, it won’t feel great and can destroy your game.
On top of this, you need to make sure that your reason is valid in the players’ eyes. If it is not, the players will argue with you out of game or even fight the guards in game. Worst, they go with you and the players are disgruntled the entire time.
You need to have a clear reason and make sure that they understand it.
How to give a good reason
If you are trying to arrest D&D players in order to gain an audience with someone, it is already pretty convoluted. Ask yourself first if this is reason is actually good enough to warrant arresting the players. Ask someone else if you can since it is hard to see if the reasons are convoluted by the person who made them, but if you have to make sure the players know about it beforehand. Send a messenger, something to make it unlikely that a fight will start.
The most common reason why players are arrested is that they have screwed up big time. It could be a casual bit of theft, arson, or they might go a bit further. They might require a harsh punishment for becoming murder hobos.
In these situations the players know why they are being arrested. It isn’t a discussion that needs to be had. Some might try to argue that what they did wasn’t that bad, but most of the time it is pretty obvious.
If a player starts arguing you might be in the wrong! Examine if you set this up or if it was a bi-product of the player’s actions. If it was set up at all ahead of time, you are probably in the wrong. Otherwise it is most likely the player just trying to get out of punishment for crimes committed. Repeat what they did from your point of view (the guards’ point of view)and they will most likely be quiet.
If this persists, then the player might be a problem player who is trying to avoid consequences. Always entertain the option that you might be wrong, but if the player is trying to argue that theft is okay then it is fairly easy to tell who is in the wrong.
Even in these situations, it is important to always give your players a choice.
Always present a choice
When arresting D&D players do not just make them accept arrest or death. Always give them a choice. I recommend always giving them these 3 choices.
Always allow your players to run away if possible. Do not instantly box them in with a ring of guards unless this is a pre-planned event. Even then, I do not recommend boxing players in and taking away their ability to run. When panicked, the players might try to flee or fight if they are not thinking clearly. If you leave the option to run, then they can deal with it later and the game will be interesting for a bit. If they fight, bad things happen.
The players should always be able to fight and get out of the initial set of guards. It doesn’t mean that they will escape forever, but fighting should be an option. If they do this, then there will be obvious ramifications, but they should be allowed this option. Do not arrest the players with an ‘oh but you have no choice’ spell. That instantly makes the players feel like they are being railroaded and wont accept this.
Speaking of accepting, the players can accept the arrest and try to do something about it afterward. This might be a prison break as we talked about above, but accepting these conditions should be a choice. Do not have the guards just attack the players and force a fight. Let them chose.
If you are arresting your players because they went to fight the BBEG and you don’t want a TPK as described here, then you can do that once.
Your group infiltrated the BBEG lair and failed. They fought the villain and lost. You now have the choice to kill the players or make them work for the villain. This is an opportunity you get once per campaign, or if you play with the same group once per group.
Do not repeat this! If you arrest the players and make them work for the BBEG again it will be trite and annoying at best! For the first time though, you can get away with it.
When you do arrest your players and don’t kill them, you have to have a very, VERY good reason. Players will think less of you and the villain if they just spare the players…. because….. reasons? Luckily it is easy to come up with a lot of reasons.
- The villain recognized the party’s strengths and wants to use them.
- The villain has control over the players somehow.
- There is some secret event, like a slave-trading auction.
- The party is better alive for experimentation.
- The party is better alive as bargaining tools.
These are all valid options and the first point is used a lot. Just don’t make the reason be ‘because it would be fun’ or some stupid thing like that. It may work if you have a silly campaign, but even then I don’t think it is a good idea.
You can use this an “oh crap!” button once and a great way to deal with damage control if everything goes bad. You can just take a turn and have the players work with the villain, but that is discussed in another article if you want to learn about doing that.
If you split the party or have unplanned arrests.
Since this is damage control you might have already arrested D&D players and don’t know what to do! You might have even made the mistake of arresting some of the party, but not all of the party. If so, there are a few things that you can do.
If your players are famous, then everyone knows (or at least the guards do) who their party members are. Just round them up and put everyone in jail together. If not, then speed up the process and don’t make it a big deal. Have the player pay their fine, skip through the time that the player/players are in jail and don’t make a big deal out of it.
In short, don’t make a big deal of it. Just zip through this like you would with a day of traveling and pay a minor fine. If this is an unplanned arrest, then don’t panic and just skip through it.
If you are trying to get the party for things they have not done for a plot reason, oh boy.
You have decided to arrest your players because it would be cool for the plot or some other reason. This is a terrible idea. If your players have to find out about the consequences of their past actions like this, they will either be mad or fight.
If you are trying to make it part of the plot with the government being evil or something, this is bad. Your players will not want to work with the government and might get so tired of dealing with this that they will just burn the city to the ground or leave and never come back. Neither result is what you wanted, so don’t give unwarranted arrests.
Arresting D&D players will also not stop murder hoboing.
Thwarting murder hobos
If you are trying to use arrests to stop murder hobos, then you are using the wrong tactic. We have linked an article on murder hobos and what to do about them, but arresting them is not a listed option. Why?
If you try arresting D&D players who are murder hobos they will just view the guards as stat blocks that need to die. They will murder the guards, not be arrested, and send the campaign into a black hole of death that is even worse than before.
You are only adding fuel to the fire if you are arresting murder hobos, so do not use arrests to stop them.
One last tip I have to help you avoid a confrontation with the law and possibly making your whole campaign spiral out of control is to arrest the players publicly.
If you are arresting D&D players publicly they will most likely not fight. There are too many witnesses and the chance of them escaping is slim at best.
This is just an extra tip incase you do not want your players to fight the town guards, murder them, and become outlaws.
Arresting D&D players is an art that can easily turn into a panicked mess. If you do it incorrectly the players are very likely to fight, murder the guards, and in turn murder the campaign.
Arresting D&D players can be done well if you arrest the whole party, give a clear reason, and give the players a choice. If you don’t do these things the players will most likely fight or just feel dejected from being railroaded.
There are some other tips in the article about arresting players in public, how to use arrests with the BBEG, and so on.
I hope that I have helped you handle arresting D&D players a little bit better and remember.
Do not Panic!
Until next time this has been Wizo and keep rolling!