6 More Exciting Ways To Create Tension

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0034

A Brief Word From Johnn

Thank you for the many requests for more tension building tips. I hope that you find these next 6 tips useful in your campaign.

I’d also like to thank you for all of your topic requests. While I could write about game master tips until my fingers go numb, I’d much rather write tips about topics that directly interest you.

The great topic suggestions I received were:

  • Law enforcement tips
  • How to create dangerous situations for PCs without killing them
  • How to sustain an atmosphere of horror
  • Tips on how to individualize NPCs
  • Information on relieving tension, such as how to get humour right.
  • Tips for chatroom and play by e-mail roleplaying
  • Good ideas for beefing up PC-driven agendas & goals
  • How to make a routine orc encounter a memorable affair
  • Diceless roleplaying tips

Have more requests? [email protected]

I also added a new section this week that will appear from time to time, if you find it valuable. It’s called the Game Master Resource Review and in it I’ll let you know about great resources and books that I think will help your GM skills and campaigns. Let me know if you like/dislike this new feature.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Dramatic Music Creates Subtle Tension

Put on some dramatic music in the background to help build tension. Watch the volume though: shouting over loud music certainly builds tension, but I think the trade-off on communication is not worth it.Heavy Russian classical music suits any genre. And Holst “The Planets” is a personal favorite because it has light and heavy moments. Constant heavy music just becomes white noise in the background, but varied music attracts attention and builds tension better.

Does anyone else use music in this way? What artists/titles do you play?

(Thanks for the tip Ursula.)

Create Lots of Character Confusion

Confusion creates tension. So create as much confusion you can with one important rule:

Make the PCs as confused as you can without cheating. Give the players 100% of the information their characters would have, but no more.

This means you need to create confusing situations instead of abusing your position as GM and holder of all the information. If you withhold information from the players that the characters would have had, your players will just get angry and frustrated with you–the wrong kind of tension.

Examples of great confusing situations:

  • Darkness, fog & mist, bright light, blindness
  • Illusions, shapeshifters
  • Battles where the good guys and the bad guys are not easily identified (i.e. a city riot)
  • NPCs who don’t say what they mean, or whose emotions can’t be read easily
  • Strange happenings whose source is not obvious – a crowd of screaming, fleeing people; a ship wildly tilting in calm water

Sacrifice NPCs as Warnings & Examples

Nothing creates tension better than a close call. So, get some NPCs involved with the story and start killing them off or making examples of them to scare the players.One thing to remember is that the sacrificial NPC must be valuable somehow to the characters and/or players. It creates no tension when someone the PCs don’t care about gets harmed or slain.

Think of the “red shirt” security guards in the classic Star Trek series. They were the ultimate canon fodder and did little to create tension because you knew they were just there to be sacrificed.

Examples of NPCs that have value as sacrifices:

  • a distant relative to a PC (i.e. cousin, niece)
  • the holder of some occasionally useful knowledge
    – the local sage, the professor, the old woman
  • someone important to your game world: having the Head Guardsman accidentally drink the poison intended for a PC creates more tension than if it had been an anonymous servant who died
  • someone the players like
    • the friendly shepherd boy who keeps asking to join\ the party
    • the helpful barkeep
    • the nosy, but cheerful neighbour
  • a romantic interest of a PC
  • a person who has appeared in previous stories

The message you want to give to your players is “hey, this could really happen to your character, so watch out, cause I’ll do it.” And the more unexpected the NPC’s demise is (i.e. “wow, I can’t believe the GM actually killed old Bill”) the greater the shock and the greater the future tension.

Fast Combat, Fast Play

Play faster than your players can think and you will create all sorts of great tension. However, a small warning: be fair and consistent in your treatment of play, otherwise your players will rightly think you’re being unfair.Examples of speeding up play:

  • Make it a house rule that when it’s a players turn to announce her/his action they have five seconds. If they take longer, they miss their turn, or they have to go last, whatever you decide.Then, as you go from player to player, hold up your hand and count down with your fingers. (The fingers add extra pressure on the players to make decision quickly.)Make sure you announce your five second rule before the time comes to use it though. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to suddenly start using it at an important time.
  • Start action resolution with a different, random player each time. Some games have an “Action Announcement” phase before action resolution. Instead of starting with the same player during each Action Announcement phase, choose a random one. This forces all the players to be ready all the time…constant tension.
  • Give automatic successes to small challenges so you get to important and major challenges faster.I’ve been on both ends of this and my friend Marcus puts this technique to great use when he is the GM:One time I was playing and I announced my character was trying to do something. I can’t remember exactly what, but he said “Ok, you made it, what now?” I was totally stumped because I expected a lot of dice rolling and some time to think while my action was being resolved. Instead, my action was successful right away and I had to immediately think about what I was going to do next. Talk about stress!

Build Tension Through Clues Leading Up to the Encounter

Instead of moving right into an encounter and starting the dice rolling, lead up to it slowly and give creepy clues to build the tension.The best time I have ever experienced this was when my friend Django was the GM. We had discovered a cave complex that was inhabited by a monster. Instead of having the monster jump right out at us and getting the encounter started, Django scared us silly with clues as we wandered from cave to cave, leading us inevitably closer to the monster’s lair:

  • deep and nasty claw marks all over a cave’s walls
  • an intermitent howling that seemed to be more than just the wind…
  • a skeleton of an old victim; and from its position, indicating a sudden and painful death
  • large piles of offal, signs of a huge beast

I remember that when we finally got to the monster we just turned and ran. Of course, we told our village a different story when we got out of the caves but that’s another matter. 😉

Lay Tension-Building Groundwork Before Exciting Encounters

Plant seeds about the terror, difficulty, ferocity, danger, etc. long before the time finally comes for the encounter. This tip closely relates to Tip #5, but takes a longer view approach.Use such things as rumours, legends, stories, clues and physical evidence to communicate to the PCs that bad things will happen if they ever deal with _________. And it doesn’t matter whether or not you have concrete plans for this future encounter. You will find a way to use it when the time comes.

And when you do the players should be very tense.This method, making up rumours and stories about things you don’t have planned yet, is also a great way to keep your campaign flexible and helps when you GM on-the-fly. Keep your rumours vague enough though so that you don’t paint yourself in a corner.One final note, remember to break up the tension once in awhile too. Everyone will need release from time to time or you may have players taking stress-leave from your campaign.

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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

Game Master Resource Review

I visit this site every week as it has a lot of great information for GMs:

  • GM computer programs
  • Ready to use adventures (mostly fantasy genre)
  • Monsters, items & equipment, news spells
  • Wilderness, city and dungeon maps & floor plans
  • Great zip file lists and ideas under the Game Master section
  • Forum & chat

And, once you’ve sifted through all the information on RPGHost.com, click on the link to WebRPG. I’ll be doing a review on the great GM forums there in the future.

To get to the juicy GM stuff first, start here: http://www.rpghost.com/archive/

And, for webmasters of RPG sites, they offer a great banner exchange and other easy ways to cross-promote.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Tension Tip

From Ursula

When I play an NPC I sometimes use whispering voices or shouting voices. Especially whispering makes everyone drop everything and listen. Because they know that if they miss it, I don’t repeat. One time, only one of the characters heard it and it was vital information….. What I also sometimes do is using hissing or grunting voices. It’s very much fun to do!!