Spikes Of Danger Tease Your Players While Filling Them With Fear
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0841
Even though we try to balance adventures, not so much for fairness but for fun, it is tough to get right.
There are so many factors involved. Current character health. Whether it’s session start and players are fresh, or session end and players are making mistakes from fatigue. Whether the characters have just rested or are almost depleted. Whether the party has not found critical treasure boons or has uncovered too many.
These unknowns and others only revealed during gameplay can turn what looked like a minor challenge on paper into an unfun TPK.
Spikes Of Danger
It’s ideal if players feel tension because their characters are not immortal and your adventure is not a cakewalk.
So how do we create this great gameplay experience on a consistent basis?
One fantastic solution, which I cover my Adventure Building Course, is called Spikes of Danger.
This technique was inspired by Ben Robbins’ West Marches Campaign, and it gives you the best of both worlds. Player freedom and GM freedom, plus delicious intense dramatic tension.
Here’s how it works.
Here Be Dragons
Reveal to your players one or more places of adventure and mystery that will push their characters to their limits.
Let the players decide when they want to tackle these places
When these adventures trigger, run them fairly, as you’ve designed them. You do not need to backpeddle, trigger the emergency air bags, or frantically change your design mid-game because you could not account for every contingency.
Your players made the choice of their own free will. Let the dice fall where they may.
Here’s How Spikes of Danger Work
Step 1. Create a Challenging Adventure
One that players will tell stories about for years to come. Fun stuff.
This tough adventure is your Spike of Danger. A point in your campaign that’s going to push players to their limits and test characters to their last spell and health slot.
5 Room Dungeons work perfectly here. The adventure can be a single 5RD or several. The 5RD framework in all its permutations and with all its options works great for Spikes of Danger.
Step 2. Add Rewards
Ensure the Spike of Danger has the lure of great reward. This is what will draw the players out to take such risks.
Step 3. Advertise
Create clear signals of the threat. Put your adventure behind a magically sealed portal requiring three keys. Create a Knowledge Table of rumours and stories of doom. Leak clues about the ancient evil that guards the treasure. Mark the location with a skull on the map.
Do everything you can so players understand they should not or cannot just accidentally enter this adventure.
Instead, the players must choose to trigger it, and prepare themselves as they see fit before entering the breach.
Step 4. Allow Retreat
Once your brave players muster the courage to tackle your adventure, be a sport and let them decide when to tap out.
This actually makes your adventure more epic.
When the PCs assault your Spike of Danger again and again, they’ll begin to hate this place. They’ll love it. But they’ll hate it too.
It’ll get inside their heads. They’ll want to beat it. To win. No longer just for some measly treasure. Victory requires saving face, the pride of overcoming the odds, the erasure of past defeats.
Once you’ve designated your Spike of Danger on your map and in your plans, you deploy several more into your campaign!
Dot your map with these places.
Because here’s the deal.
Players are going to treat these adventures with arms-length respect. Hard-won respect.
So they are not going to tackle these adventures on a whim. You’ll have time to prepare. End a session with players announcing their intention to finally find out what’s behind the Door of Doom, or the Smoking Mountain of Desolation, or the Cove of 1,000 Corpses.
So you can place several Spikes of Danger in your campaign without worry of having to do a lot of prep up front.
Once a Spike of Danger triggers, you can create an adventure based on current campaign power level, the party’s magic items and peak abilities, and so on.
You stay agile.
Meantime, the shadows of these places cross the players again and again as you weave their lore and lures into other adventures.