Ripping Up Adventure Drama With A Saw Blade
Make your adventures wondrous with terrific drama.
We want tension in our plots and gameplay that escalates as players get close to the climactic ending.
To increase drama we raise the Stakes (what’s in it for the characters) and toughen the Conflicts (foes, hazards, obstacles, challenges).
However, we shouldn’t make every encounter even more tense than the previous.
This causes fatigue as your session wends onward, and everyone loses their energy and enthusiasm.
All that mental and emotional labour drains you if relentless.
To prevent this, we want rising tension that looks like a bit like a saw blade:
The peaks are where we jack up the tension.
The valleys are where we take our foot off the pedal for a bit and let the table relax.
In Saturday’s Q&A Zoom chat for Adventure Building Master Game Plan GMs, I received a great question from Wizard of Adventure Ellen:
How do you de-escalate tension between peaks? Is it like switching to lower stakes RP/combat/exploration for a little?
Great question! Just exactly how can we create those energy recapture moments before diving back into the next nail-biting encounter?
Here are five ways.
Run Easy Encounters
My definition of an easy encounter is it requires no resource depletion and can be played in 5-15 minutes.
As per Ellen’s comment, it also means Stakes and Conflict are reduced for a time.
So the players can let their guards down and relax for a bit.
As Ellen suggests, run a fun roleplay encounter and introduce an NPC or three.
You could also run an easy combat with one-shot or two-shot minions. A quick victory lifts spirits fast.
Or you could insert an encounter where characters investigate and discover interesting things.
Be sure to put a tension meter on your easy encounter, however.
You don’t want the party to rest up and return to full strength (unless you desire that).
For example, have enemy forces start to approach, or compromise the location in some way after a bit.
Take a Short Game Break
Get your players to stand up and move around.
I like to do a quick round of deep breathing if a break occurs.
For that, I use the box method:
- Breathe in for a 5 count
- Hold your breath for a 5 count
- Breathe out for a 5 count
- Hold (don’t breathe in again) for a 5 count.
I do this 5 times and always feel great after.
More oxygen to the brain improves my thinking.
And after a time of shallow breathing from all the action, the deep breathing helps me focus better.
Baked into our 5 Room Dungeon story structure is the final room, which serves as a natural energy release.
Room V is all about treasure, reward, hooks, and transitions to keep play going as part of the Infinite Game.
Take a moment to celebrate victory and lick wounds here. Do not handwave or rush this encounter. Let it sink in and help players bask in their win.
We encounter Room V right after the major conflict, Room IV.
Note for adventure and campaign play, we don’t want to spend too long in this Room. We want tension to increase and be higher than baseline in the next Room I so overall drama rises as we approach adventure conclusion.
Akin to the revelation and reward story function of Room V, any kind of pause after a tough encounter helps de-escalate things.
Handing out XP after a difficult battle, doing a bit of roleplay as character loot, and letting this post-conflict period breathe a bit works well.
Adding clues and things to discover in the area also helps time pass with a break from life-and-death decisions and tense die rolls.
Change the Energy
A great tip from Robert McKee’s book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (aff.) is to change the energy state from scene start to scene end.
You can see this happen all the time in movies and shows.
If the characters start a scene in a good mood, you know it’s going downhill soon….
We can use the same trick:
- Friendly NPCs cause a troubling dilemma
- Make a tough fight look easy at first
- An empty room with nasty hidden traps
- A tough fight ends in party victory
- The victory chest is sabotaged or unleashes a large rolling stone ball
What I like about this approach is it adds surprises and makes encounter dynamic.
It’s Your Turn
Next session, try to keep the pressure on.
Have encounters overall create escalating tension as the party draws closer to Mount Doom.
But avoid ceaseless drama else you fatigue everyone. When Room IV or your epic climactic encounter triggers, your group will be too exhausted to fight, figuratively and literally.
Instead, add moments of low tension. Let the table recharge.
- Running easy encounters
- Calling a short break
- Celebrating in Room V
- Stretching out achievement moments
Changing the energy between encounter start and end