Typically, a game of Dungeons and Dragons or another tabletop roleplaying game relies on the imagination of the dungeon master. Like inviting friends over for a home-cooked meal, stewed over hours of notes and ideas, the DM has to carefully put together an experience from scratch.
But sometimes it’s too late for a home cooked meal—or you don’t know your guests’ tastes well enough. Sometimes you want a meal—or a game night—prepared by someone who was paid to make it for you. That’s where a pre-written adventure comes in.
Jailbreak, one of the four adventures in the book “One Shots” for the 1999 tabletop roleplaying game Unknown Armies pits players against one another to escape a deadly hostage situation. Unlike many pre-written RPG adventures I’ve read, it relies on the people playing it, rather than external, pre-written events, to move the plot forward. I’ve run this scenario four different times over the years and it never fails to surprise me.
Here’s the setup: four convicts have escaped from a medium-security prison, taking a prison guard, a lawyer, and a new-age mom as hostages. They’ve hijacked a van and gotten as far as a remote farmhouse before running out of gas. So they roll up on the farmhouse and take the old farmer with a passion for making creepy clockwork toys and his too-young wife as additional captives until they can refuel their getaway vehicle.
In any other scenario, the players might play the hostages taken captive by a group of fugitives. They might play the escaped prisoners, trying to keep their captives in line long enough to refuel their van and get to safety. They might even play the farmer and wife, shanghaied into a dangerous situation.
In Jailbreak, up to nine players play all of these roles. Most adventures—even ones written for short-term play like this one—don’t go beyond five or six players, because beyond that it’s hard to give any one player narrative focus while also telling a coherent story. But it works in Jailbreak, because there are no characters in the story that aren’t played by one of those people. It magnifies the tension, since someone is probably doing something interesting at any given time.
It also reduces the strain on the Game Master, the person in a roleplaying game taking on the role of every element of the story besides the player characters. In a normal game, I’d be playing the monsters and challenges that the bold team of adventurers would be up against as part of my role as storyteller. Here, some of that pressure is relieved—in fact, I don’t have to play any characters at all, unless the cops show up.
Things Go Bad, Things Get Weird
The players set things into motion on their own, since the starting situation sets up an unstable equilibrium. There’s only one gun and one taser. And now that the farmer and wife are involved, there are four escapees and five hostages. Only the prison guard is restrained, with a pair of (pickable) handcuffs. The convicts are cold, tired, and fractious. This may have been a bad idea. The escape only happened in the spur of the moment as the result of a cult trying to break someone else out of the same prison.
Oh, and there’s a storm outside, and it’s getting dark. So they’ll need to stay the night no matter what.
The van is out of fuel, so the convicts need to get some. They need clothes that aren’t bright orange prison jumpsuits. They need to get something to tie the hostages up. But the more they split up, the easier it is for the hostages to get the jump on them. Something is going to happen, but what?
Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that what appears at first to be a simple game of two adversarial factions is more than meets the eye. The farmhouse owner Uder secretly performs magic that brings clockwork mechanisms to life in exchange for his memories, and he doesn’t want the police poking around his house any more than the escapees do. Locked upstairs in a steamer chest is Bors, a man he turned into a clockwork servant. In the midst of all this, tension simmers between the convicts in a literal case of the prisoner’s dilemma—could one of them get off easy on the added charges if they turn on the others?
There are a few ways that events can play out when things start to settle down.
If the prisoners seem to be getting in control of the situation—they’ve got rope, they’re starting to tie up the hostages—a pair of state troopers might show up. They’re warning people about some armed and dangerous escaped convicts., and exactly when this happens can determine the outcome of the scenario. One time the prisoners made one of the hostages answer the door with a gun to their head.
The farmer’s wife, Ella, realizes that she’s been turned into a cyborg. This usually happens as the hostages make their escape attempt. Her skin is made of porcelain and cracks under sufficient force, revealing gears and pistons underneath. She remembers that after a fall, after she started to age, her husband made her into a clockwork thing. Her reaction is typically pure rage.
In another medium, this might feel trite or dehumanizing—“Ex Machina” and “Her” have built a tired trope out of the ol’ “my robot wife actually hates me” concept. But in practice, the fact that the player taking the role of Ella has equal footing to the others makes this revelation meaningful.
Because of the open nature of the scenario, these events have a lot of impact. It feels like they only happened because of the actions the players took, even if there’s a little sleight of hand to maneuver events into position.
The Art of the Pre-Written Adventure
Listeners of The Adventure Zone—the actual play podcast by the creators of the hit TV show My Brother, My Brother, and Me—might remember that the McElroy brothers began their first campaign with a pre-written adventure, Dungeons and Dragons’s “Lost Mines of Phandelver”, before Dungeon Master Griffin discarded it midway through to tell his own epic story. The adventure as written is a glorified dungeon crawl, and the outcome is deterministic—the players defeat the monsters and win their treasure.
In Unknown Armies advocating for the world of your goals is dangerous, because combat is so deadly and permanent. The core UA book starts explaining how combat works with a brilliant page called “Six Ways to Stop a Fight” that sums up the game’s humanistic impulse.
In Jailbreak, the negative-sum nature of combat is even more pronounced – because your only enemies and only allies are the other people sitting at the same table. Jailbreak doesn’t just have the feeling that it could go either way, an illusion that many adventures rely on. It actually could. On a narrative level, whether the convicts succeed or not is genuinely an open question.
I’ve always run the adventure so that the players can know what the other side is planning, even if their characters don’t, and I’ve relied on my players to not exploit that fact. But I might one day run it the other way—where hidden information is actually hidden by passing notes, texts, or whispering, so that the hostages can plan in unfearing peace. You could even run the game with two game masters, so that when a group moves into another room in the house, they actually move into the other room, allowing the hostages to plot openly.
Usually, I’ve run this scenario under a fairly tight time constraint, at club meetups with a limited number of hours to run the game. That’s good in some ways, since dealing with the goals of seven to nine players is exhausting if the game goes much longer than that. It also means that players who die or are incapacitated partway through the scenario are more likely to remain invested and stick around for the conclusion.
And speaking of conclusions, Jailbreak disclaims all responsibility for how it ends. Here’s the ending as written:
“No one can safely leave the house till morning. If the convicts can deal with Bors, the troopers, the hostages and each other, then they can siphon some gas and move on. If the hostages survive (or overcome the convicts) then they have the satisfaction of victory. Otherwise, it’s up to the players to decide if their characters “succeeded” or not”
Once, a friend playing Ella took the van herself and left everyone else behind at the farmhouse, driving off on her own to figure out who she was as a human being.
She looked up and let the rain fall into the cracks in her skin. Nobody wrote that but her.