5 Exciting Ways To Create Tension

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0033

A Brief Word From Johnn

Tension is an important part of the roleplaying experience. It heightens emotions, is exciting to feel and helps the players really enjoy your story.

Building tension can be tricky. You do not want to over-do it. And you want to make sure the tension is created from the excitement of playing–not from players being angry and frustrated with each other or yourself.

Here are 5 tips on creating the fun kind of tension that will make your game sessions memorable. I actually have many more tension tips, but I thought these were the best ones. Ones that you could take to the game table right after reading them.

If you would like to hear the other tension tips I have, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll move onto another topic next issue. [email protected]

Johnn Four
[email protected]

Create Some Competition For The Prize

You can create fantastic tension by introducing a party nemesis. A nemesis should be close to the PCs in power and capabilities. And the best nemesis is an entire band of NPCs who are close duplications of the PCs (i.e. an evil twin of each character–or a good twin if the characters are evil). Have the band frequently be one step ahead of the PCs, getting the PCs in trouble through set-ups and false rumours, and outperform the PCs in every possible way.

Nemesis examples:

  • A bounty hunter after the PCs to bring them to justice or into the villain’s hands
  • Did the PCs “accidentally” commit a bad crime in the last town? Form a posse and chase ’em down!
  • Another band of adventurers after the same legendary treasure
  • A rival band of NPCs hired by the PCs employer either as assurance the quest will be completed by one of the groups, or to “take care of the PCs” so there are no loose ends once the quest is completed
  • The PCs are asked to teach some NPCs, but the NPCs turn out to be more capable than the PCs and embarrass them often by doing things better

Break the Players Out of Their Comfort Zones

Players establish their own comfort zones at the game table. You can create tension by changing their routine or habits.

Comfort zone examples:

  • Have the players change seating during play and immediately resume the play
  • Put them in new seating arrangements (i.e. have them sit in their chairs in single file marching order; if they are flying a ship seat them as if they were in the actual cockpit or “on the bridge”)
  • Use blindfolds – but avoid touching or other things which may make the players uncomfortable
  • Have them play standing up for a while

GMs: Get Up & Move Around

Do you normally sit and GM from the head of the table? I find that the play can become more exciting and tense if I stand up and move around.If you can, walk around the whole table. And stop and GM while standing behind a player once in awhile. That creates tension and paranoia!You may also find that you use more body language and body movements when you are standing–your arms and hands especially.

Say Something is Going to Happen Then Put It Off

The title says it all. Let the players know that the villain is quickly approaching them, or that they feel the tremors of a giant monster and the tremors are getting worse, or that the bridge they’re on is breaking apart…and then make it a false alarm or give the characters a brief respite.Drawing things out creates a lot of tension.A great way to perform this technique is to have an NPC do the telling:

  • a story
  • a warning
  • in song or poetry
  • through a note or diary entry
  • through an overheard conversation

Use Omens

An omen is an event or sign that gives a hint about what the future holds. Omens are tricky because if they are too subtle the players won’t understand them and the effect is lost.Another problem is cause and effect. If the players do not associate your omen with potential future happenings, or if they are too skeptical to believe, then the omen will not create tension.The solution is to introduce an omen, make sure the players recognize it as an omen, and have the omen come true in that same game session. Do this three times and you will make a believer out of the most skeptical player.Omens that create the most tension are bad omens: nasty things could happen to the characters in the near future. And if your omen also contains a hint about the nature of the upcoming event even more tension can be created.

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Have any tension-building tips to share? Send them along to: [email protected]

Have more fun at every game!

Johnn Four

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Session Tips

From Peter Whitley

When it’s time to pack it up for the night midway through your adventure, how you leave your party will affect how they approach the table next time you sit down.

Don’t leave the party with a plethora of choices. Big decisions are best made in the heat of a session when dialog and attentions are at their peak. When your players come to the table they will generally be unprepared to decide which way to go right away, so if you can get them to make their move the session before you will be better prepared.

For example, a major combat had just occurred and it was obviously time to bring things to a close for the evening. However, I knew that up around the corner there was a major decision in the adventure and I didn’t want it to be the first significant event of the next session. Encouraging the players to move on for just a bit further and decide which way to go, I was able to better prepare for the session following that, and I may build the suspense for the hostile encounters now more effectively.

When the adventure takes an unexpected turn and you’re feeling unprepared, stall. You can slow the party down with suspense-building details. Consider what purpose the environment they are in has and elaborate on that. Preview threats to come with obscure hints like feces, broken beaded necklaces, or what have you.

For example, one player was due to show up a few hours late to delve into a necromancer’s lab. I knew that the character had knowledge that would be of critical importance to the party very soon. I threw in some “flavor” with barrels of dead bodies preserved in foul-smelling liquid, a child’s shoe, and pools of dried blood. When that failed to slow them they encountered wires of totems and bits of body parts hung at odd angles above their heads, a barricade of junk covered in prayers, and lamps constructed of disembodied heads. All of these things had no specific purpose or intended usefulness to the party, but it effectively slowed them down with “oohs and aaaahs” until the player who knew that a bit of silver wire and a bell meant an alarm spell had been cast showed up. It worked beautifully and everyone was sufficiently creeped out.

Thanks Pete. Your stalling tip is also a great method for creating tension.