Coping without equipment

Have you considered how your characters would cope without their equipment? What would they do? Suddenly both exploration and combat become rather different.

Now think about it as a GM – you’ve set up a scenario where the players’ characters have had their equipment taken away. How do you make it feel like an interesting change rather than just a kick in the teeth?


Where does this question come from? Well, as I mentioned in my recent update, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time developing a scenario which is exactly that – the party have been captured and had their equipment taken off them.

This started a couple of years ago when I took part in a 48-hour RPG challenge to develop, over a weekend, an RPG which fitted some randomly chosen prompts. The other participants came up with games which involved role-play, but I wanted to develop a D&D scenario (rather over-ambitiously, it turned out).

The prompts were:

Theme: Cabaret
Ingredients: Deceit, Myth, Watchtower, Spare parts

Photo by Sagar Dani on Unsplash

The scenario I came up with is aimed at a group of 5th level characters. It involves the characters attending a cabaret with bizarre animated puppets with extra limbs…then blanking out and waking up in a cell with all their equipment taken off them. They discover they have been captured for spare parts for the puppets, and have to work out how to escape before they are “harvested”.

I came up with the basic outline and an initial map in the 48 hours, and then it sat on my hard drive for a couple of years, untouched and unused. I was approached to run a one-off session for a group visiting Edinburgh in September and this module seemed to fit the group’s tastes, so I decided to dust it off and polish it up for them. I also tried it with some members of my regular group.

The one-off group just managed to escape in the four hours we had (with a little bit of tweaking towards the end to ensure they finished with a win), but my regular group have just got themselves recaptured at the end of the second 2-hour session.

The players have found it an enjoyable scenario – one of them specifically said it makes an interesting challenge coping without the normal kit and trying to work out alternatives. But they said they would like more opportunity to improvise with stuff they find, and this has really got me thinking. What could be naturally lying around that would be useful?

What’s the impact?

Before I can answer what would be useful, I need to look at what they’ve lost. What’s missing, and what challenges does this bring?

The most obvious things missing are their weapons and armour (although if they’ve been attending an evening cabaret, would they have been in armour in the first place?). This means unless they can find some improvised (or real) weapons, any fighting will have to be with their bare fists, and they’ll be easier to hit than they’re used to.

They also have lost any Thieves Tools/lockpicks, ropes, poles, lanterns, oil, pitons and other adventuring stuff – though again, how many of those would they really with them on a night out?

From this point of view, they could do with items which could be improvised weapons – maybe poles or torches. Also cutlery, pots and pans, crockery or glassware which could be broken to have a bit of an edge. Maybe a bit of metal could be ground against the wall to take a bit of an edge. Obviously they wouldn’t be proficient with these weapons (except for maybe the pole/torch as improvised quarterstaff/club), and they shouldn’t do a large amount of damage, but maybe slightly more than just unarmed combat – perhaps 1d3+STR instead of 1+STR. I’d also be inclined to give something like a pole a chance of breaking if used as a weapon.

For equipment, maybe a nail or other bit of metal could be lying about which might serve as an improvised lock pick – obviously with a penalty and maybe a chance of breaking on each attempt. Maybe a piece of string which could be used to try to snag something outside the cell, or tied to a cup or something. Blankets are classically used as improvised ropes for escapes, and maybe straw or even the wood from benches could be scavenged for something, or set fire to in order to create some sort of alarm. I’m imagining a stone cell, but if we’re outdoors and the floor is hard-packed dirt, maybe they could start a Great Escape and dig to freedom.

As they gradually break out from the cell to the corridor, and then beyond, I’d imagine more scope for items usable as equipment, and then eventually they should find where their own equipment has been stored.

Spell components

The other key thing they will have lost, which obviously only affects certain classes of character, is their spell component pouch and any specific spell-specific components. So any spells with material components are compromised. Also, wizards will have lost their spell books so they won’t be able to change the spells they have memorised.

My initial assumption was that spellcasters would be severely compromised without their component pouches. At our table we generally don’t worry about it as long as the spellcaster has a component pouch, and when I started with the BECMI boxed sets, there was no concept of Verbal/Somatic/Material components to spells. So I have to confess I’ve never really looked at which spells need material components, nor what components they need.

So I was delighted to come across this Reddit post, pointing at this spreadsheet. It goes through all the spells with material components, listing the components, the spells, the spell level, the book reference, the school, and which classes get the spell. It also lists whether the material components get consumed by the spell, and an indication of the cost of the component.

Since this scenario is aimed at 5th-level characters I looked at cantrips plus spells of level 1-3, and I was pleasantly surprised how common and innocuous many of the spell components are, and also how many spells (particularly cantrips) don’t have any material component at all.

Of those spells which do need components, looking through the spreadsheet, here are some components which jumped out at me which could easily be found in the cells or in a dungeon nearby.

  • Bitumen – maybe on a barrel (Spider Climb #2)
  • A drop of blood (Bane #2)
  • Butter or Pork Rind – possibly served as food (Grease #1)
  • Cured leather (Mage Armour #1)
  • Dirt (Longstrider #1)
  • Dust (Sleet Storm #3, Dust Devil #2 from Elemental Evil)
  • Feather (Feather Fall #1, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter #1, Enhance Ability #2, Summon Beasts #2 – Tasha)
  • Feather from bird’s wing (Fly #3)
  • Owl Feather (Identify #1)
  • White feather (Fear #3)
  • Fish Tail (Summon Beast #2 – Tasha)
  • Flame (Heat Metal #2)
  • A flea (Infestation #0 from Xanathar)
  • Fleece – presumably as in sheepskin; I doubt they had invented the popular synthetic material at that point… (Minor Illusion #0, Silent Image #1, Phantasmal Force #2, Major Image #3)
  • Morsel of Food (Animal Friendship #1, Animal Messenger #2)
  • Forked Twig (Locate Object #2)
  • Gauze (Gaseous Form #3)
  • Glass Sliver (cloud of Daggers #2)
  • Iron (Heat Metal #2, Hold Person #2)
  • Iron filings/powder (Enlarge/Reduce #2, Flaming Sphere #2)
  • Leather Loop (Levitate #2)
  • Legume seed – e.g. pea, bean (Gust of Wind #2)
  • Molasses (Slow)
  • Phosphorescent moss (Light #0)
  • Pitch (Darkness #2)
  • Piece of straw (Water breathing #3)
  • Salt (Comprehend Languages #1, Gentle Repose #2)
  • Sand (Destroy Water #1, Sleep #1, Catnap #3 – Xanathar, Wall of Sand #3 – Xanathar)
  • Spider (Spider Climb #2)
  • Spiderweb (Web #2)
  • String (Unseen servant #1)
  • Tallow (Flaming Sphere #2)
  • Water (Armour of Agathys #1, Ice Knife #1 – Elemental Evil, Create Food and Water #3, Sleet Storm #3, Tidal Wave #3 – Elemental Evil, Wall of Water #3)

Components easier to come by outdoors:

  • Cricket – or as we say in the UK, grasshopper (Sleep #1)
  • Firefly (Light)
  • Grasshopper hind leg (Jump #1)
  • Glowworm (Dancing Lights #0)
  • Mistletoe sprig (Shillelagh #0, Goodberry #1)
  • Oak bark (Barkskin #2)
  • Reed (Water breathing #3)
  • Soot (Comprehend Languages #1)
  • The stem of a thorny plant (Thorn Whip #0) – maybe a vase or planter of roses?
  • Thorns (Spike growth #2)
  • Twig from a tree struck by lightning (Witch Bolt #1)

Components which are also plausible but might take a bit more thought:

  • Agate (Darkvision #2)
  • Phosphorus (Dancing Lights #0)
  • Makeup (Friends #0)
  • Lodestones (Mending #0)
  • Copper wire (Message #0, Sending #3)
  • A miniature cloak (Resistance #0)
  • Tiny bell (Alarm #2)
  • Brimstone/sulphur (Flaming Sphere #2)
  • Coal (Darkness #2)
  • Copper piece/pieces (Detect Thoughts #2, Gentle repose #2)
  • Cork (Water Walk #3)
  • Powdered Corn (Rope Trick)
  • Distilled Spirits (False Life #1)
  • Dried Carrot (Darkvision #1)
  • Feldspar (Moonbeam #3)
  • Fur of bat (Darkness)
  • Guano (Fireball #3)
  • Hen’s Heart (Fear #3)
  • Honeycomb (Magic Mouth #2, Suggestion #2)
  • Incense (Glyph of Warding #3, Hypnotic Pattern #3, Speak with Dead #3)
  • Small silver mirror (Sanctuary #1)

Really stretching it:

  • Eyelash in Gum Arabic (Invisibility #2)
  • Tiny Fan + Exotic feather (Wind Wall #3)
  • Gold dust (Arcane Lock #2)
  • Golden Wire (Levitate #2)
  • Silver wire (Alarm)
  • 50gp diamond (Chromatic Orb #1)

Some of these are trivial – of course there will be dirt (Longstrider) and dust (Sleet Storm, Dust Devil), and if they can find something they can prick themselves with the drop of blood (Bane) is also no problem. Spiders (Spider Climb) and webs (Web) are quite likely to be around, as are fleas (Infestation). There could be straw strewn on the floor or in their pallets, and iron (Heat Metal, Hold Person) nails or bands on furniture or on a water butt (which could be sealed with pitch (Darkness) or bitumen (Spider Climb). They may still have their shoes or boots of cured leather (Mage Armour).

Quite a few of these could be introduced with a meal. Not just a morsel of food (Animal Friendship/Messenger) but maybe a Bean (Gust of Wind) stew with dried carrot (Darkvision), served with bread and butter (Grease)? Maybe with some salt (Comprehend Languages, Gentle Repose) and water (lots of spells) in glasses which could be broken to get a glass sliver (Cloud of Daggers).

Once they break out of their cell, there is definitely more scope. There could be tallow (Flaming Sphere) candles and soot (Comprehend Languages) on torches or in a fireplace. There’s likely to be cured leather (Mage Armour) lying about – maybe a belt, some boots, leather hinges or strapping – and iron or steel (Heat Metal, Hold Person) in knives, hinges, furniture, and plenty more. There might be fleeces (Minor Illusion, Silent/Major Image, Phantasmal Force) or some makeup (Friends) in a bed chamber, and maybe a tiny bell (Alarm), incense (Glyph of Warding, Hypnotic Pattern, Speak with Dead) or a small silver mirror (Sanctuary) in a personal shrine. Copper pieces/coins (Detect Thoughts, Gentle Repose) could be in a purse or pocket. Someone could have a vase of roses, giving both thorns (Spike Growth) and stem of thorny plant (Thorn Whip).

In a kitchen area there might be molasses (Slow), peas and beans (Gust of Wind), dried carrot (Darkvision), powdered corn (Rope Trick), salt (Comprehend Languages, Gentle Repose) and butter or pork rind (Grease). There is very likely to be an assortment of feathers (various) lying about from plucked fowl, maybe a hen’s heart (Fear), and gauze (Gaseous Form) covering containers or windows. Leather loops (Levitate) might hold cooking utensils, there will be a fire (Heat Metal), maybe of coal (Darkness) with soot (Comprehend Languages), and iron (Heat Metal, Hold Person) utensils. There might also be some honeycomb (Magic Mouth, Suggestion) and whisky, brandy or other distilled spirits (False life).

Maybe there could be a cave area or place which acts as a roost to bats (fur for Darkness) and/or birds (feathers for many spells), possibly even an owl (Identify). They would leave guano (Fireball) and might attract phosphorescent moss (Light) or glowworms (Dancing Lights). The birds might also bring in a forked twig (Locate Object), some thorns (Spike Growth), oak bark (Barkskin) or the stem of a thorny plant (Thorn Whip) among nestmaking materials, and might drop the remains of food including a grasshopper leg (Jump).

Next steps

Which of these make sense depends on what is around the cell and how much you want them to explore, but it is clear that a bit of imagination allows a lot of scope for spell components. It has definitely proved harder providing options and items to improvise with for non-spell casters.

In the sessions so far, it has definitely been the druids who have come to the fore – wild shape gives all sorts of options for getting out of the cell and exploring (a snake has proved particularly useful), and also turning into a bear has made them the most fearsome opponents to the guards. However, a pair of Thugs proved to be little match to the group even while unarmed, so I have had to scale up the guards to make them any sort of challenge.

Misty Step was a useful spell to allow a wizard to get out into the corridor, and the latest breakout (in the time it took me to complete this post we have now had another session) was achieved by getting the druid (as a snake) to transport a piece of metal from one cell to another where a rogue was waiting and could use it as an improvised lock pick. The snake then hid in a corner while a guard brought round food for them (bean stew with bread and butter) plus a higher-class meal for favoured prisoners with fruit and knives; the snake stole one of the knives, passed it to the rogue who broke out of the door which he had unlocked but not yet opened and killed the guard. So the group are now out into the corridor again…

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