Now that we’ve covered a few kinds of criminals, why not the other side of the coin? For city guards, whether they be sinister or honorable, capturing people and depositing them in the jail is all part of a day’s work, whether it be putting a drunk in a cell long enough to sober up and not be a public nuisance or holding criminals for trial. Adventurers are a rowdy type, by and large, and it is probably better for them if their encounters with the law remain non-lethal, if they don’t want to be forced to skip town on short notice.
Reasons For City Guards to Take Prisoners
Wanted. The most obvious reason why the guards would try to capture the player characters is that they committed a crime or they are wanted for a crime they didn’t commit. This might be as serious as killing a noble (who was secretly a cultist) or as simple as wearing weapons and armor in a more genteel district where such displays of preparedness to fight are frowned upon. Many cities have ordinances against using magic on others, or even open use of magic at all outside of temples, mage colleges, or private businesses or residences. Bar brawls may or may not produce this response, depending on how rough the neighborhood is.
Corruption. In cities where the legal system or even exercise of authority in general is corrupt, it is not hard for a group of do-gooders to find themselves in the crosshairs of malicious city guards without doing anything wrong. This may be by the guard sergeant’s initiative or because someone paid a judge to issue a warrant for the party’s arrest.
Mistaken Identity. Adventurers are usually rather idiosyncratic sorts, but it is still possible for guards to mistake them for someone else who is wanted for some reason or another. This is especially true if there are doppelgangers about or someone is actively trying to frame the party. It could even be a coincidence, that a business was robbed at about the same time the party was noticed nearby, for example.
End the Fight First, Sort it Out Later. One of the jobs of the city watch is to maintain order within their jurisdiction. It is not always easy to tell who the aggrieved party is in a raging street fight, so unless helpful (and credible, and probably influential) witnesses are immediately present to testify, the guards will often prefer to club everyone who doesn’t surrender into submission and figure out the details back at the jail.
Oppression. If your group is willing to explore themes like racism or other forms of systemic oppression, the guards (or law) may simply be deeply biased against certain sorts of people, and if they are feeling aggressive or suspicious they might find the most trivial of reasons to justify roughing up and detaining their victims. In cities dependent upon some sort of slavery, this might be the most common means of resupplying the slave pits if military campaigns are failing to bring back captives or traders have a shortage of living merchandise.
How City Guards Take Prisoners
Force and Numbers. The most obvious is that once the alarm has been raised, if a situation isn’t quickly brought under control, more and more of the city guard are likely to flood the area in an attempt to restore order, if not necessarily peace. Cities generally have enough guards that unless there is mass civil unrest or an actual battle happening somewhere, the only effective limit on how many bodies can respond to a situation is response time.
Lawful Authority. City guards are also entrusted with a measure of the authority of whomever rules over the city. For lawful characters, it may be a serious moral dilemma when the guards order them to surrender themselves.
Elite Troops. The bulk of a city guard force will usually be typical toughs and the occasional ex-soldier, but in larger settlements they usually also have some sort of elite forces, be they lawmages, royal guards, secret police enforcers, a detachment of paladins, or other types that chill the blood of criminals at the mere thought of encountering them.
Exotic Resources. City guards may also have special resources like griffons, golems, or district barriers that can raise a wall of ice in the gate on command. You can be as creative as you like with these, especially in a high fantasy setting with either inventive inhabitants or ancient magic from past civilizations.
Paying Fines. For lesser crimes, and especially if no officers were assaulted, the party may not need to do anything more than pay a fine for disrupting the peace, and they will be free to go. This may still keep them out of action for a few hours or a day or two, depending on when they are booked and what the magistrate’s schedule looks like. This may turn into a chain gang or prison labor situation to pay off the fine if they lack the resources or cannot contact someone to pay it for them.
Corruption. Just as corruption might get the party captured, it may free them. Corrupt guards and magistrates can be bribed or blackmailed just as easily by PCs as by NPCs. Bribes are not necessarily monetary, they might also take the form of favors. Especially corrupt guards may actively present what sort of bribe they are willing to take. In an exceptionally corrupt city, the guards might even intentionally fabricate charges against capable sorts with the intent of forcing them to do something for them that they can’t or won’t do themselves.
Trial. Adventurers who trust the legal system could always submit themselves upon its mercy. In a violent region where trial by combat is common, fighting sorts might even find that preferable to a thoughtful trial of analyzing facts and testimony.
Serve Sentence. For long-suffering types, or those charged with only moderate infractions, it may be easiest to just serve the allotted punishment, be it flogging, a pillory, a stint in a cell, or doing hard labor for a few weeks or months.
Breakout. Ordinary jails and prisons in fantasy worlds are rarely impregnable, especially for resourceful types like adventurers. They might even find half-finished tunnels from previous inmates, a gang of criminals eager to help anyone with a scheme to get them all free, or a secret underground of unexpected allies who can help.
Favors. Some expert in law might owe the bard for introducing her to her now-husband and is willing to help spring the group on a technicality, or the party might be sponsored by someone with deep pockets. There may be a thieves’ guild they have done work for, a temple the party saved from a lurking evil, or crew of merry freedom fighters in the woods outside of town who will charge to the party’s rescue. Adventuring work can gain a person a lot of favors from those they have assisted. This can be a time to cash them in.
What’s in it for the Party
Vindication. If the party escapes by clearing their name, it can create or enhance a positive public impression for them that can open many doors and even get better treatment from the authorities in the future. Cities that are suspicious of sellswords as being troublesome may set aside some of their reservations about
Reputation. Even if the party finds other means of freeing themselves, it can create a reputation of being more capable than the law, and willing to defy it. This can open many doors in the underworld or with rebel freedom fighters, as well as quiet respect among less hidebound bounty hunters.
Reveal Corruption. The process of being detained and held by corrupt officials can easily provide the party with information needed to unmask that corruption or fight it themselves. They might overhear the malefactor paying off the guards or receive the iconic villain monologue explaining too many details of a plan still in progress. They might even be able to outmaneuver the corrupt individuals into accidentally revealing a legal overreach or conspiracy to the public.
Information. Maybe the location of the Gem of Several Parts is known only to someone inside the jail. Maybe there are catacombs beneath the city’s dungeon which the party discovers that can provide stealthy travel all across the city. Perhaps the thieves guild they wish to join only accepts those who can recite a secret message written in the prison’s exercise yard.
New Allies. Whether the adventurers spring some allies as they escape or make contact with a secret organization of elves sneaking persecuted members of their species away from the iron hand of the human empire, a jailbreak can make for quick alliances. Having a criminal record can smooth a path with certain underworld organizations. Proudly serving your sentence with your head held high rather than renounce your deity can make you a hero even to those who don’t exactly share your religion but admire your principles.