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You Wanna Fight?

Surrender or Die!

by Bryan Jonker
Aug 12,2002


Surrender or Die!


Not all fights end to the death. There are two alternatives: the player characters can surrender to the enemy, or the enemy can surrender to the player characters. I imagine the players would prefer one situation greatly over the other, but this column covers both.

The Losers

Surrendering is actually pretty difficult under certain situations. The loser, or the one who is going to surrender, needs to tell the opposing party "I surrender." Either physical gestures or language will work, although both have their possible drawbacks. Physical gestures, like dropping your gun/sword/bow, are clear, but the other party needs to be able to see the gesture. Language works only if you speak the same one - yelling "I surrender" in English will do nothing if the opponents only know Chinese. Special agents (like the player characters) may theoretically know the opponent's language, but this is not a guarantee.

The other thing the losers need is no other option. Player characters who can teleport don't usually surrender. This is why attackers rarely surrender - retreat is far better than the alternative. Similarly, players who know that they will just roll up a new character probably will just fight to the death. While this isn't necessarily out of character (going to heaven may prompt a reluctant fanatic or two), it will deprive the GM of a fun role-playing experience.

Finally, the losers need to know that surrendering will, in the long run, be better than dying. Some countries tell stories (true or false) about how their enemies torture, maim, and eventually kill their prisoners. In other genres, there's a code of honor, saying that anyone who drops their sword must be treated with respect and ransomed off (and this extends to modern times as well - the police won't usually kill crooks, but will have them tried in a court of law).

The Winners

Just because someone wants to surrender doesn't mean anything in the long run - the other group must want to accept the surrender. There are a few things required by the winners for the surrender to take place. First, the winners must have the infrastructure to accept prisoners. Since most invasions are tight on their supply lines, this means that the defenders doing wholesale surrendering won't take place. Another reason the attackers may not accept surrenders is the attackers must stay mobile. Prisoners will hamper mobility, especially if the attacking force is on horseback or in vehicles. The exception, of course, is the castle situation, where suddenly the attackers are the defenders.

As mentioned earlier, the winners must realize the losers want to surrender. Furthermore, the winners need to know (or think they know) that the losers won't betray them. This may be as simple as "Put your hands in the air" or as complex as a telepathic session.

Finally, there's the question of motive. The loser's motive is easy, but why would the winners want to accept surrendering? In the old days, losers can be sold off for money, and in a wartime situation, high-ranking people may have information. Prisoners can also be ransomed for other prisoners. Finally, there's the "honor" issue - taking prisoners for the sake of taking prisoners. This honor may be either imposed or natural - the world's version of the Geneva Code, or the world's version of the Paladin. Note that if this honor exists, people will more likely surrender before dying.

A Sidenote: War and Domestic Disputes

In wartime, people tend to not surrender. There's no social contract between the two factions, and often they don't share the same language. Attackers can't take prisoners because they would lose mobility, while defenders usually don't have the opportunity to take prisoners, because attackers can retreat if the battle's going against them. Both sides know this, so this reduces the chances of surrendering even more.

Domestic battles (police versus crooks), on the other hand, encourages surrendering. Crooks assume (perhaps falsely) that they have some sort of chance of parole if they get caught. Despite Cops reruns, many people will surrender and not risk getting shot if they are caught.

What's the point of this? As a GM, you need to put yourself in the opponent's mind. What are the advantages of surrendering? Will I be better off?

The Conditions

If players surrender, they go through certain steps, whether they are political prisoners or war or guests of the city (even the best of PCs wander). First, they are stripped of most/all of their possessions. In lenient settings, their possessions are tagged and given back after the prisoners are released. In other settings, the PC's equipment gets sold on the black market. Some of their possessions may be given back, but anything that can cause damage or be construed as a lock pick (belt, shoes, wire, any electronics) will be kept. Of course, the prisoners will be searched - how extensive the search is depends on the jail.

The prisoners will be processed in some way. Some prisons may simply ask their names, while others will check for ID, fingerprint, photograph, or even more esoteric forms of identification (retina, DNA). If any of the prisoners are famous (or infamous), here is where they may be recognized.

Then, the jail itself. Cheaper or more improvised jail cells will have prisoners together, while more secure prisons will only have one or two prisoners per cell. Food, water, and sanitary conditions will depend on the conditions outside. However, don't assume that just because it's wartime, the menu is bread and water. In the Civil War, the South often starved and their Northern prisoners starved with them, but otherwise the prisoners were well treated on both sides. Nobles captured in war in the Middle Ages were treated with respect.

However, aside from the occasional monitored visit, jail is boring. Because this can be rather boring role-playing, the GM can simply say "If you don't do anything, time passes," giving a summary of the conditions. Or, sadistic GMs will play day-by-day, forcing the players to get rather bored. Personally, I don't recommend the latter unless you are very immersive.

Three diversion in jail are interrogation, programming, and work detail. Interrogation can be handled by simple Will roles and described using broad strokes. Programming, or using techniques to change the player's idea of good and evil, is not recommended unless you talk with the player beforehand. It would be interesting to have the player momentarily play a character that thinks the evil lord is a god. Again, the techniques are best described off camera. Of course, the player doesn't act charmed or drugged - she simply acts as if the one fact is true. A good description of programming (albeit high-tech programming) is Greg Egan's Quarantine. Work detail, again, is boring and best described as part of the jail stay.

Oaths and Magic

Magic changes everything, and jails are no exception. At the same time, it doesn't really change anything. In high-magic worlds, magic is treated like another set of locks - every jail cell is locked, and every jail cell is magically sealed. In a low-magic world, magic is treated like, well, locks, and the rare magician is a Houdini who can escape cells. In other words, magic is simply another tool that can be used to either hold people or allow people to escape.

If magic is common, some things may happen. No one is "obviously harmless" if they can shoot fireballs from their fingers, so prisoners may become less common. If components are necessary, they will be confiscated and not given back (same with anything radiating magic, of course). Work detail will not be granted, and contact with the outside world will be restricted more. Solitary confinement may be enforced because two mages may pool their resources and become more powerful. In extreme cases, magicians may be woken up every hour to make sure they cannot sleep and concentrate.

Of course, jailers can also use magic. Charm spells, sleep spells and geases make jails obsolete. Walls of force can hold wizards, and possibly prevent them from teleporting. Like any normal security measure, it's a tradeoff between security and cost.


There are two main ways to get out of jail: escape or be let go. Escaping is much more exciting, and requires the players to take a more active role in the process. Just like that saying, "You can lead a horse to water...," you can suggest security holes, but you can't force the players to escape, so you better have a backup plan.

An exception to this is the prison riot. This is fun because the characters will be marked as fugitives, even if they didn't participate in the riot. Do they turn themselves in, or do they stay on the lam?

If the players want to escape, they need to take stock of their resources. This includes makeshift tools and weapons, inside help, and knowledge of the prison. Make sure to note if the characters are in the same room - if not, they can only communicate in quick bursts and not plan together. Also remember that the real struggle isn't necessarily escaping the prison, but living a wanted life. Depending on how high-tech the world is and how serious the crime was, all their funds may be garnished/traced and police may be issued pictures of the characters.

If the players are docile, the GM can let them out. Either a ransom was delivered, or prisoners were traded, or the war is over, or it was simply cheaper to let the prisoners go. Running a prison is expensive, after all. For better or worse, the prison mark is on their record - this may result in some money from the government or a struggle to get a new job.

Finally, the GM can simply have the players create new characters. The old characters rot in jail, are executed, programmed to follow their captors, or are experimented on. Any of these have possibilities for the new characters as they meet up with their old characters (or the ghosts of their old characters, at least).


Most fights are "to the death," which is really quite a shame. Domestic disputes usually have the police carting off the bad guys off stage, while the player characters move on to other conquests. Having the player characters on one end of the prison setting gives them a new look at the complications behind taking prisoners.

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What do you think?

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker