I recently had the pleasure of being hanged and I must say it’s a great feeling. I spent the next few days after the experience talking about the incident with my friends (and fellow players) and reliving the events leading up to the hanging. We discussed the information we had gathered and the clues that we had been given, or should I say perceived clues, that would enable us to understand and predict future events. For you see, I wasn’t literally hanged. Instead, my character was left hanging in a dangerous situation when we quit gaming for the night.
A situation left unresolved can be a great tool for creating tension and excitement in a gaming environment. It gives the players a chance to step back and think about the situation their characters are in, the enemies or hazards they are facing, and the events that brought them to the predicament. And, while players are thinking about the motivations and the circumstances, they’re predicting the outcome. This last act is what really propels the tension. Each situation the Referee creates can have hundreds of variant endings and the players can spend hours upon hours of non-gaming time discussing the possible outcomes and their proposed contingency plans.
For example, our Referee said: “All right, after exploring some winding caverns for several days, you return to your campsite where you left your mules and all your supplies [it was our decision to leave everything behind]. As you come up the tunnel, however, you hear something large moving through the darkness and an odd odor is wafting down from your campsite. Okay, we’ll pick up the game next week.” And with that, I was hung.
With that ending the Referee gave us a lot to think about for our next gaming session. What was moving in the darkness? Was the odor a clue to what was moving about? Are our mules and equipment still there? The mules were carrying most of our food. If the mules are gone, will we make it back to town or will we starve? And as we asked ourselves these questions on the way home, we attempted to come up with plausible (and non-lethal) conclusions to answer them. But the more we talked, the more it became clear that we were in for some trouble; I couldn’t wait to find out what it was.
Beyond creating tension, leaving a situation unresolved can create excitement. Players will look forward to learning how the story unfolds. Did they survive? Was the Dragon really asleep? Is the king honest? Will they get paid? Will someone steal their treasure? Each mystery will nag at them and they’ll want to learn how it is resolved. Players will show up early for gaming sessions and their focus will be contained as they await the outcome. Now, excitement is a good thing but it may create some minor problems.
First, your players may call you during the week and attempt to extract information from you. They may try to finagle a few hints through cunningly deceptive ploys. Some players will try to verbally walk through the situation with you and see what you’re thinking. Others will challenge your concepts so that you’ll defend your mystery with facts, which they can then use to their advantage. Once you leave your characters hanging, you must keep them hanging until the next gaming night; surrendering any details will only dissolve the mystery and lessen the excitement.
And, excitement can generate fervor. Players can get so caught up into learning the mystery’s outcome that they overlook some minor details and small intricacies that you created to awe your players. This may or may not happen often but it will from time to time, especially if the hanging is a particularly pivotal event. If the players overlook some minor details, don’t let it bother you. Take their fervor as a sign that you’re doing a great job. You can always use those clever little intricacies in a future adventure.
Now, you cannot leave your players hanging every gaming night because sometimes the circumstances won’t warrant it. The game can end when the characters are in a safe location or at the conclusion of an adventure or module. However, there will be quite a few opportunities for a quick-thinking Referee to engineer some cliffhanger endings during his campaign. You can plan for some of them but most often the best hangings occur on random events or under special circumstances for which the players and, perhaps, the Referee were not prepared. So, as a Referee, keep your eyes open for those events and use them to your advantage.
There are a few quasi-suggestions and considerations to keep in mind when hanging your players. First, never end a gaming night with a character definitely going to die. If he is going to die (and you know it) let the situation be resolved. At least the player will have time to generate a new character before the next gaming session. Now, if the character might die (he’s standing on a bridge spanning a bottomless hole and the rope supports are snapping) that’s fine. There is a chance that he will survive and you can bet that player will be thinking about his dilemma and how to overcome it up until the next time you play.
Hanging players takes practice. It’s a skill like any other aspect of Refereeing. So, if it doesn’t work out the first time you try, keep trying. After awhile you’ll get a feeling for the right moment to close your books, take down your screen, and say “Well, I think we’ll call it a night.” You’ll know how well the hanging succeeded by how hard your players try to keep you playing.
Lastly, remember that hangings don’t have to be life-threatening events. They can be simple, harmless situations. All a good hanging must do is generate a subtle mystery and the players’ imaginations will do the rest.
So the next time you are playing, keep an eye on the clock. Around the time you normally quit gaming for the night, try to create a small mystery and then end the session. See what response you get from your players. If you succeed in hanging them, you’ll know.
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