10 Keys to Suspenseful Adventures — RPT#557

From: David Dostaler

Republished with permission from: 10 Keys to Suspenseful Adventures.

Pants Piddling and Mindless Horror 101
Warning: This Post Contains Dead People

Want to know how to scare the pants off your players and create suspenseful adventures? Well, you’ve come to the right place!…so long as you don’t mind a little humor along the way.

1. Create Fear and Danger

The first key to generating a suspenseful adventure is an element of danger. This will generate the required fear and suspense you’re looking for.

Make the element of danger hidden and worthy of fear.

Keep the adventure’s antagonists hidden or at least only spotted in the shadows. Allow the player’s own minds to dream up all sorts of horrors.

Have strange dead bodies lie around, people die in weird ways, and odd noises and findings throughout the adventure.

Ham it up and exaggerate the shadow of the crazed, murderous beast. It may turn out to be a small weasel, but as long as the element of fear is intact, you’re doing your job.

Most players will scare themselves silly if you give them the opportunity and lay the seeds of doubt.

2. Foreshadow

Just because the players can’t know exactly who the bad guy is or what exactly he’s doing doesn’t mean you can’t drop hints. Some of these hints might even be way off base

Allow players to make outrageous assumptions like they’re facing hundreds of invincible, invisible undead, or that the enemy of the adventure has access to horrible 9th level spells that kill without a saving throw.

Allow the piles of odd deaths, clues and strange occurrences to point to unavoidable conclusions that should terrify your players.

However, not all of these unavoidable conclusions are accurate. The key to suspense is not knowing what will happen next and that’s something an RPG excels at.

In a movie, the audience wonders if the heroine will spot the zombie hiding in the shower. In an RPG, the players should be wondering, “What the heck’s in that shower?!” even though it might be nothing or maybe the zombie is hiding in the toilet.

3. Create Mood And Phobias

Use classic forms of fear-building such as the following:

  • Claustrophobic places
  • Dead things
  • Mysteries
  • Darkness
  • Beasts
  • Strange noises
  • Inexplicable occurrences
  • Slime
  • High places
  • Raving lunatics

Ask your players what scares them and then about a year later remember it and work it into your suspense stories. The trick is to do this without seeming cheesy.

Remember what scared you most as a kid and get the feel of that into your adventure. Chances are if something scares you, it’ll generate suspense in the adventure itself.

Establish the mood. If players have no clue what you’re doing, they might come into the adventure with the attitude of, well, adventurers. Heroes tend to take most things without being fazed.

Instead, let the players know this will be a deadly mystery and suspense adventure. They might not be scared out of their minds, but they’ll at least know what you’re aiming for and won’t complain so much when a psychopath starts ripping their favorite character’s head off.

4. Embrace The Unknown

One of the best tools in your suspense arsenal is the fear of the unknown.

Never be straightforward in your answers to player’s questions. Don’t say, “There’s a dragon in the room.” Say something like, “You see a massive fanged beast with dripping talons coming toward you. You know you’re in inch from death.”

Don’t interpret clues or occurrences for the players. Or, if you do, make up the worst thing it could be (even if it’s not). When their swords fail to hurt the gargoyle don’t say, “It appears to be immune to non-magic weapons.” Say, “The being of stone laughs in the face of your blows. It appears to be utterly invincible, moves with the speed of the wind, and wants to rip your legs off.”

5. Red Shirts: Go Star Trek

Be sure to include a lot of red shirts who can mysteriously disappear or die. Sometimes someone going missing is more frightening than someone dying.

If you cast shades of gray on the characters helping the group, the players are bound to be scared out of their minds by everything, everyone and any small noises in the night. If you’re doing your job properly, that’s probably a wise thing.

Consider a guy sharpening his knife in the middle of the night. He chuckles malevolently, disappears for a time, and then returns without the knife. One of the players sees this, but when asked about the knife the guys says, “What knife?” Maybe he just lost it in the woods, but with all kinds of crazy weirdness going on this should drive the players nuts.

6. Don’t Try To Scare The Players

This may sound counter to what I was arguing earlier, but really it’s not. Never set out to scare the players. It’ll never work, they’ll only laugh.

Never say, “Oh, this is such a scary adventure with so much suspense you’ll all be biting your nails and piddling your pants.” It just doesn’t work that way.

Everyone would love to scare the daylights out of their players on occasion, but it doesn’t work that way.

If you run a good suspense adventure, and keep up the work, they’ll appreciate it and they’ll still enjoy the game. You might not scare the daylights out of people, but if you do your job right there will be just enough doubt in their minds to allow the creeping tendrils of fear and suspense to invade.

7. Don’t Answer All Questions

Even at the end of the adventure, don’t reveal everything.

Have another dead body turn up after the villain was already captured.

What’s going on? That’s the whole key to suspense adventures. Some should end like the old X-files TV series: with a shred of doubt.

8. Employ Killer Descriptions

One of the best ways to establish suspense is to actively create it.

The players take all their cues about the game world from your descriptions. If you describe something as the fiercest, ugliest, most horrible and most terrible area ever, and the fact that if they enter they’ll probably die, you can bet your dollar the players will just turn around and walk away.

Once upon a time I described something to be so fierce and terrible the players just ran over the mountains and never went there.

Be sure to include good motivation for PCs to go somewhere obviously dangerous. Otherwise, they’ll more than likely just run away.

For your fearsome description to have any weight, the area must actually be actually dangerous.

Avoid overusing your fearsome descriptions, as well, or there will be problems. I try to include only one suspense adventure for about every 5-10 normal ones.

If you go for suspense all the time, the players will get used to it and it’ll lose that edge you’re looking for.

9. Build up Suspense

In literary terms, there is an arc to all stories. The villain is fought at the end, the identity of the killer is finally revealed, the little girl survives the alien attack with the cat.

In a game, you can’t say for certain the players won’t kill the villain the first time he shows up.

Therefore, it would be prudent to have him not show up for a while. To build suspense, start out with small occurrences and strange clues. As the players explore the clues they should find out more and more about the horror of everything.

Finally, toward the end of the scenario, the villain(s) should show up and start taking people down (hello Red Shirts and foolish PCs). Have the toughest, wisest, most invincible NPCs die first. If the players have any sense, this should scare them.

Let the villain do unreasonable things like kill 15 people in 12 seconds even though they’re all hundreds of feet away from each other. Make sure one of the NPCs has the great idea to split up and search around.

Separating party members with traps, darkness, or whatever is a good strategy. In a group, the party is at its strongest and most confident. If you injure the group, split it up, and have their keys to survival thwarted (torches blown out, weapons dropped, equipment destroyed) you make them sweat.

Consider if the party mage was to fall down a pit, lose his magic from a trap, lose his torch and ruin his equipment in swamp water, and then he gets lost and hears growls on all sides….

Avoid overdoing the threats, especially ones just thrust upon the PCs, or your players will just think you’re out to get them. Neither should you take it easy on them, or they’ll just laugh. There’s a balance to it, as in everything.

Give players plenty of opportunities to foul up their situation and cause themselves risk and danger of the unknown sort. If you do that, they’re bound to give you just the opportunities you need to make them sweat.

10. The Evil GM Chuckle

Sometimes just chuckling malevolently and rolling a lot of dice will do the trick. So long as you don’t abuse this, the Evil GM Chuckle could be one of your finest strategies for generating suspense.

For example, “Oh, so you guys are yelling? Here, let me roll 20d6 for random monsters. Oops, this doesn’t look good…Ha ha ha!”

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A Brief Word From Johnn

Product Shoutout: 101 Not So Random Encounters: Urban

Steve Russell from Rite Publishing sent me this excellent PDF for the Pathfinder RPG.

I needed a city for my Riddleport campaign and was planning on using this, because the product not only provides great encounters, it also offers a complete faction, political conflict and a bunch of NPCs.

Quoted from the book:

“The Fold is a criminal cartel whose core membership consists of monsters that either fear or loathe the humanoids who hunt them. Each progenitor of The Fold controls its own organization. This product looks at one such faction: The Fold of Mother’s Pride.”

Awesome premise!

Alas, things went sideways in my campaign, and use of 101 Not So Random Encounters: Urban has been put off.

However, this product is a keeper and I plan on activating it should the PCs ever land in the city I had planned.

Thanks for the copy, Steve. This is a great product: 101 Not So Random Encounters: Urban (PFRPG).

I Need Help Editing The Roadside Contest Entries

I timed how long it took me to edit last week’s 100 Roadside Encounters. I multiplied that time by how many encounters are left, and I came up with a total of 16 hours to go.

So, I’m wondering if you have interest in editing a batch of 100 entries. It’ll take about 30 mins to an hour, depending on how speedy you are.

Any help would be appreciated, as I would love to get more entries in everyone’s hand soon.

If you are interested and have time this week, drop me an email. Thanks!

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Reader Tip Request

How do you create World Wonders for your world?

UPDATE: Hey GMs. I compiled your great Reader Tip suggestions for Sarah, who was the GM with the dyslexic player, and sent her your responses unedited so she could apply your advice immediately.

(I always withhold your email though, as per my Privacy Policy – let me know if you ever want your email addy shared with a particular response.)

She says thanks to you all for your help! Another happy GM. You guys are awesome.

I’m currently going through and editing the responses and will be sharing them with you soon in case you know a GM in a similar situation.

Now, onto a new Reader Tip Request, which is from GM Blaise:

Hi Johnn,

I am in the process of building a world for a new campaign and was wondering if you could help me design great world wonders. I want to make players feel there are mysteries and ancient things in this world.

[Johnn] Readers, hit reply with your tips and links about creating world wonders. This is a neat topic – I look forward to your tips and idea!

Thanks!

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Game Master Tips & Tricks

Do you have a game mastering tip to share? E-mail
[email protected] – thanks!

Use Earth Calendar

From: Robert Feather

Declare that your world uses the same 365-day year as us, change the names of the months, and then you can buy diaries from the £pound store.

This is not just laziness. I see so many people trying to mess with the calendar for their homebrew game world.

[Comment from Johnn: Great tip, Robert. Using Earth’s calendar system also often lets you hack digital calendars. That gives you a calendar with your custom names but retains the digital calendar functions like pagination or date calculation.

For example, if you use a TiddlyWiki, you can go in and change the day and month names in the data file. Voila, instant game world calendar.

I did this for a Pathfinder game, because Paizo’s world of Golarion is close enough to Earth’ calendar that you can use Earth’s calendar.

And for my Riddleport game, I use Google Calendar and set up recurring events to display the day and month names: Google Calendar As Awesome Campaign Calendar.

I still see Earth month names, but in each calendar square I also see Golarion’s naming, and I can add GM info and session notes pretty easy.]

Fewer Rules, More Immersion

From: Stefan Cachia

First of all thanks for the informative e-letter. I read all the roadside encounters from last issue and there are a bunch of great ideas.

To add to the piece by Joost Boomkamp, I play in a campaign where there are no strict rules to follow.

We found out that by following a huge number of rules, players tend to lose themselves in the rules and miss out the enjoyment of the game.

When we were playing Glorantha setting some 5 years ago, we used the Runequest rules for a year, then switched to new Runequest rules which some of us really didn’t like because it decreased the DPS of their weapon (e.g., Bow skill was 2d8+1 became 1d8+1).

In the last year and a half we switched to the HeroQuest rules, which are very flexible, and we started to enjoy gaming more.

We immerse more into the story and no longer pay attention to how many HP we have or what is our damage output. We base our actions on descriptions rather than damage.

I am saying this because many RPGs are more immersed in following a 200-page rule book rather than the real reason for their existence – to hang out and have fun playing them. After all, RPGs are there to promote our fantasies.

So yes, I wish to promote the ideas behind what Joost Boomkamp said: fewer rules and more creative ways to enjoy the games. 🙂

[Comment from Johnn: Stefan reminds us that our campaigns are our own and we can change whatever we want so we have more fun at every game.

We grognards know this in our bones because Gygax ingrained it in us with constant caveats that the GM (and group) can and SHOULD change whatever they want to suit. That includes rules, settings and adventures.

But new GMs might not have this understanding, so I included Stefan’s great words in this issue.

RPG is your game. Play with your friends in such a way that you change what you don’t like and tweak what you do like to make it even more fun. You’re given a set of tools, not the finished creation!]

Index Cards Initiative System

From: Gordon Vincent

I make up an index card for each character, with character name and the saves and skills I might make a secret roll for (sense motive, notice, that sort of thing).

When not in combat, I can use them to make relevant rolls the player wouldn’t know about.

When in combat, I ask for initiative rolls, and then shuffle them into initiative order with character names facing up. Any antagonists or allies get shuffled in as well in order of their own initiative.

Then I read off the name of the first character to act and ask, “What are you doing? (5, 4, 3, 2, 1…).”

When that action is resolved, I move the card to the bottom, and read the next name, and go on like that.

Anyone who Readies an action gets their card handed to them and we agree on the Readied Action and its Trigger.

Those players can hand me the card when the Trigger occurs, and their action interrupts the Trigger.

Anyone who Delays likewise gets their card, and can hand it to me after any other PC or NPC’s action.

More Great Swamp Encounter Info and Ideas

From: Andrew D. Quee

The biggest problem I see with swamp adventures is striking a balance with player boredom from the depressing, unending oppressive atmosphere of the swamp and making encounters realistic and interesting.

It seems a fine balance here between realistically portraying swamp travel (see below) against game play and getting things done.

Our group has had lots of problems making swamp adventures interesting enough to do, maybe due to flashbacks to reality.

As a frequent bushwalker in temperate swamps, I can attest that adventuring in this environment is annoying, tiresome, dirty and exhausting. There’s little to see or do and plenty to get annoyed over.

It really is the worst environment possible – you get so tired, and there’s literally nothing to sit on and take a rest. Everything is mucky and slippery and generally annoying.

You can’t even rely on branches or rocks to balance against as there are either none or they are rotten and fragile or slimy and dangerous.

It’s slow going as no footstep can be trusted, and even if you push through hard, it sucks at your legs, burning energy faster than any other terrain. Your movement is about 1/10 normal speed.

So you’re filthy, tired, and frustrated…then the attacks start. Leeches, mosquitoes, marsh flies. And this is just in real life.

Walking for hours (let alone days) in these conditions can be quite depressing and psychologically damaging.

I recall in one spectacular instance, I collapsed on a tussock (some 10+ hours into day 5) and refused to go on, wrecked. My companion had to boost morale on me, but if I had been alone I probably would have just laid there until dark, then been unable to camp in the middle of a swamp and had to just lie there until dawn the next day.

In these situations, anything out of the unusual (aside from mud, mud, leeches, slime, mud, leeches, rotting everything and mud) becomes highly interesting.

Here are some ‘encounters’ from my walking experience:

  • Lose balance. Check or get even filthier.
  • Mudhole. Plough through or lose time skirting it.
  • Small river crossing. Bonus: possible quicksand.
  • Large river crossing. Swim or find a ford or tree bridge.
  • Rocky ground/dry mound. Respite!
  • Insect encounter. Could be pretty (uplifting moment) or painful (wasp under shirt, step in ant hive).
  • Decorative fungi/flowers/shrubbery.
  • Trip. Submerged log/branch/rock or underwater pothole.
  • Gear loss. Shoes a speciality, or anything tied to pack.
  • Gear damage. Electronic items and paper hate swamps.
  • Wildlife encounter. Mostly frogs and birds, could be a snake or fleeing mammal.
  • Tracks/scat. Worth a look to see what’s about.
  • Weather. Will be either too sunny and you roast and have no water (none potable), sullen and grey, or rainy (increased speed through mud, but even messier, chance of hypothermia).
  • Disease. Leech and insect bites will fester and possibly become cankerous. ‘Crumpet foot’ is a certainty after a few days of immersion in filthy water. Constant damp and wet conditions will depress immune system, so more likely to get colds, sinus problems, etc. If clean water is not available, you can get intestinal disease. Again, poor water quality can lead to poor hygiene and related issues.

Thanks for the ideas, I hope that I will be able to spice up future adventures, and make swamps more interesting and accessible to players.