Countdown to the Apocalypse: Six Ways to Raise the Stakes

From Phil Nicholls

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0683

A Brief Word From Johnn

Happy New Year!

I can’t believe it’s already 2016. Just last year it seemed like it was 2015.

How would you rate your gaming in 2015? On a score of 1-10.

For me, I’d give it a 7. I should have GM’d more often. And I made the big mistake I said I wouldn’t make again after concluding my Riddleport campaign – not preparing properly before next campaign start. Yet, that’s what I did with Murder Hobos. That kept me on my heels quite often. I also should have added more spice to my encounters. Many were just combat fillers.

Highlights, however, included gaming lots throughout the year thanks to a player stepping up and filling in as GM while I was crushed with work. Also, season one of Murder Hobos ended on an epic note. And fifth edition D&D is serving us well. I also learned A TON about adventure design thanks to the Adventure Design Workshop. And as a group we’re still having more fun at every game – and my players want to game more, which is a good sign.

Take a moment right now and do a quick GMing self-review of 2015. Give yourself a rating out of 10. Write down three lowlights and three highlights. Put this on your GM screen to keep it fresh in your mind as you strive to improve as a GM in 2016. Feel free to email me your evaluation, I’d love to hear it.

Meantime, I’m working retroactively on my campaign plan for Murder Hobos Season 2. We’ve already started the season, but over the holiday break I’ve been getting my ideas, plots, and Lego pieces sorted out. I still have some work to do, but it’s fun and creative. I vow not to be under-prepared in 2016!

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Site Glitch Prevents Download

Thanks to Brennan O’Brien for letting me know you can’t download the 5 Room Dungeons PDF from if you are already a subscriber.

My webmaster should hopefully get that fixed soon. And I apologize if you’ve been trying to get at that file. Here’s a quick link list of files you can just download directly:

Have a great week. Try to fit some gaming in!


Countdown to the Apocalypse: Six Ways to Raise the Stakes

In RPT#666 I wrote an article explaining how to improvise rising action during the game. This approach adds tension at a tactical level, looking at the story one encounter at a time.

However it is also possible to add increasing tension as a fundamental structure to the story. This essay explores ways to embed rising stakes into your stories.

Raising the Stakes

The intention of these techniques is not just to present the Heroes with a series of progressively harder challenges. Our aim is bigger. We seek to create a sense of urgency or tension within the Players themselves. By weaving these rising stakes into the story, the GM drives the Players forward.

The clock is ticking, the situation is worsening, and the PCs are driven to desperate acts now before it is too late. Here the antagonist is in motion, driving forward the story, escalating the threat facing the PCs.

The Players know the trajectory of events is downwards. They take greater risks to end the threat, certain in the knowledge that to hesitate now is to risk everything they hold dear.

Story Techniques

Here are six techniques to ramp up your story and drive the Players to take desperate measures to end the danger. These methods are:

  • Inflating Monsters
  • Countdown
  • Trail of Breadcrumbs
  • Deeper into the Labyrinth
  • Rising Tide of Blood
  • Last Hero Standing

Inflating Monsters

The first technique is straight out of the play book of world’s first RPG: a series of increasingly challenging opponents. This classic method is embodied in the layered dungeon design from the dawn of the hobby. There is no need to explain this technique in depth.

In Your Game: My original article outlined how to improvise incrementally tougher foes during play. This technique has a broader scope, and refers to a layered approach. The multilevel dungeon is the strongest use of this method, but any sequential presentation of threats or obstacles fits this model.

Alternate Strategies: Tribal territories, waves of regiments, concentric circles of security measures.


Another obvious technique, included here for completion. The digital countdown is a staple of action films, and epitomised by the television series 24. This is the least subtle method of injecting tension into the game, as the countdown is explicit and can easily be monitored by the players. Yet, there is no mistaking the message it conveys, and the added impetus this method gives to a game.

In Your Game: The essence of this technique is to set a deadline, and then count down towards it. Simply setting a deadline for the next step in the villain’s plan is not enough. You need the players aware of the ticking clock. Make sure the arrogant villain, or a garrulous lieutenant, lets slip the existence of the deadline.

The exact timing takes careful handling. Give the players enough time to be able to thwart the plan, but not so much as to remove the pressure. In the absence of digital clocks, have the deadline be a specific date, such as sunrise on the summer solstice.

For a shorter time frame, use a water clock or burning candle. These primitive timing devices allow the GM more wriggle-room, whereby you can emphasize the passage of time, without committing yourself to “exactly three minutes left.

Alternate Strategies: The next full moon, a conjunction of the stars, when the clockwork beast bellows for the fifth time.

Trail of Breadcrumbs

Raising tension in your game can be subtle. One technique is the trail of breadcrumbs. This relates to uncovering information, and is best suited for investigation games.

The essence of this method is an incremental series of clues as the PCs follow the trail of the villain. First there is a lone fingerprint. Then a muddy footprint. Then a discarded knife with fresh blood. And so on. The size and impact of the clue grows each time.

The ideal scenario involves an increase in the importance of the clue, and a sense of literally catching up with the pursued. Initially the trail is cool, starting with a small, old clue. The next clue reveals more about the villain, but also is closer in time. Excitement mounts, as the confrontation with the villain approaches.

In Your Game: Many murder mysteries fit this format. The PCs follow the clues, but travel faster than the villain. Thus, as they learn more about their foe, the Players know the time to face the villain approaches.

Plan out a series of clues to capture the necessary incremental nature. Treat the trail of breadcrumbs as a chase, even if the Players are travelling slowly. Once the PCs are close to the villain, ensure an exciting climax by having the villain commence their latest, and most shocking crime.

Alternate Strategies: Pursuing a rampaging werewolf, a charismatic trickster creating a lone cult, or a renegade police officer turned vigilante.

Deeper into the Labyrinth

This method of raising the stakes is a variant on the last one. Again, this technique is about the slow release of information as found in a mystery game. The difference is this trail is not taking the Players any closer to a lone antagonist.

Instead, this method applies to conspiracy games, where there is a dark secret to uncover. Now the succession of clues reveals a series of twists on the mystery. The more the Players learn, the greater the problem facing them. Games such as Call of Cthulhu or The X-Files fit this mould, where the truth is shocking, or simply too dangerous to know.

In Your Game: Chop up the core secret of your setting into a series of clues, revealing more each in each slice. Players should need additional clues to solve their current problem, yet fear what each one will reveal.

Shroud your central truth with multiple layers, each broader in scope than the last. Bribery and corruption are endemic, as ever-higher levels of society are implicated in the conspiracy in one way or another.

Think of the clues as a cone, with each slice showing more about the core secret. So the initial killer is revealed to be part of a cult, which worship a foul god, financed by a seemingly benign corporation, who drug their clients, and so on.

Players are left isolated and suspicious as more of the setting is unmasked as part of the wider conspiracy.

Alternate Strategies: Government-funded terrorists, Machiavellian dragons scheming behind the throne, and a plague of parasitic hive-mind aliens.

Rising Tide of Blood

This technique for raising the stakes mixes the approaches in the Trail of Breadcrumbs and Deeper into the Labyrinth. However, instead of the successive clues growing closer to the villain, it is the scale of the crimes that increase.

The simplest way of achieving this is through a rising body count. The crimes of the villain grow ever more monstrous, the death toll increases the longer the players allow the villain to roam free. As the tide of blood rises, the scale of the villain’s grand plan becomes evident, and the PCs must act swiftly to prevent the looming apocalypse.

In Your Game: Along with a suitable villain and monstrous plan, this technique also requires a suitable location. This plan is aimed at overthrowing civilisation in some way, from a small city to an entire galaxy. This provides an ample supply of victims for the villain, and an equally large resource for the PCs to protect.

Start small, just with rumours of strange sightings and lone deeds. The Players need time to settle into the campaign world to establish an emotional connection with it. The villain should not be threatening faceless peasants, but rather the beloved home of the heroes.

After a few, scattered scenarios it is time to set the villain’s plan into motion. Now the deaths begin to mount, and it soon becomes clear a rising tide of blood is facing the setting. Have the PCs arrive too late to a series of increasingly gory scenes. They could face a few remnants of the villain’s forces, scouts or outlying sentinels.

Pitch these middle encounters to show the growing threat facing the setting, but hold back on the final confrontation. This should only occur once the players have solved the mystery, understood the threat facing them, and are armed with the tools or information to thwart the grand finale. The final battle should be an epic confrontation with the very existence of the setting at stake.

Alternate Strategies: An audacious art thief, a necromancer planning to enslave a city, or a renegade mercenary company succumbing to PTSD.

Last Hero Standing

Another variant is a combination of Trail of Breadcrumbs and Rising Tide of Blood. Here the killer focuses on the friends and allies of the PCs. As before, present the players with a trail of clues in increasing magnitude. The difference here, however, is all victims are known to the PCs. At each step, the body count increases, along with the effect of the deaths.

The stakes are raised as the murders spiral in towards the characters. Online friends, work colleagues, family members, spouses, the trail of deaths creep closer to the characters. Each murder raises the emotional stakes, revealing the motive of the killer as revenge for some former act by the characters.

In Your Game: Spiral in towards the PCs during the course of the story. Initially it seems to be a random killing with a loose connection to the PCs. Coincidence is then strained when the next victim is even closer to the characters. Finally, the killer starts to taunt the PCs, and the true horror of the plot is made clear. This method requires a degree of emotional investment in the victims by the Players. Thus, it is best suited as a second major plot in a campaign.

Start a game using the Deeper into the Labyrinth plot. Build up a network of allies, friends, and family who have been affected by the conspiracy in some way, or can help with clues during the investigation. Yet, by investigating too deeply into the conspiracy, the PCs have made some dangerous enemies. Once the PCs achieve a notable victory, have a splinter of the defeated faction fight back.

Or, simply decide the PCs “know too much”. This can trigger if the campaign stalls due to over-complexity, or the Players become overwhelmed by the sheer size of their task. Either way, some part of the initial conspiracy is fighting back by threatening everyone the PCs hold dear.

Alternate Strategies: Vengeful demon, mad goddess or the remains of a Guild of Assassins.

Limitations of Rising Stakes

When adopting these strategies for raising stakes, here are a few points to bear in mind. Several of these strategies work better after an initial period of investment in the setting. Furthermore, bear in mind these issues:

  • No Winding Back the Clock
  • One Eye on the Future

No Winding Back the Clock

Many of these plots have a serious effect on the setting. Even with the Countdown plot, there is the risk of something catastrophic happening to your setting. For the players to feel a rising sense of panic, they need to believe the threat is real. Any sign of the GM preparing a story dodge to evade the apocalypse should the PCs fail will destroy the tension immediately.

Therefore, be prepared to risk your setting. If the PCs fail, then start the next campaign in the ruins of the previous civilisation. Make some bold story choices, and enjoy where the game takes you.

One Eye on the Future

The other risk with these plots is a question of painting the narrative into a corner. If you plan to run a long-term campaign, then having the initial plot be about saving the Cosmos rather leaves you with nowhere to go next.

Inflating the Monsters is the safest of these plots, but there still has to be an upward trajectory to the overall campaign. If the PCs just defeated an army of dragon-riding trolls, then they are unlikely to feel challenged by a tribe of goblins.

Likewise, the grand, cosmos-threatening plots are better suited as finales to a campaign. Once the heroes have saved the Cosmos, it may be difficult to motivate the players with a lesser stake. These powerful plots make for exciting games, but if you want to continue the campaign afterwards, then ensure you leave the narrative with somewhere to go.


There are several ways to structure a plot to present the players with a sense of rising stakes. Properly crafted, this type of plot produces growing excitement and tension. At the highest level, a rising stakes plot can make a thrilling conclusion to a campaign.

Happy Gaming,

5 Uses for Intelligent Weapons

Republished and tweaked with permission from the great guys at

One of the most infamous entries in the D&D magical item catalog is the intelligent weapon. Often a sword or dagger, these items have been imbued with personality, understanding, the ability to think and reason. They are, in all but body, an NPC and their frequency should be rare as their impact on the game can be monumental.

From a legends and lore standpoint, intelligent weapons are often created when a soul is placed within them. The source of the soul can range from elves to orcs to angels to elementals. Also, the weapon should be of the highest quality and hold impressive magical powers. In short, they are among the most epic items available in the game.

With that being said, you might ask the question: What is the purpose of an intelligent weapon? While most players would be overjoyed to own such an amazing item, there are several ways a DM can get more mileage from them. Here are five of the best ways you can put one to good use.

The Intelligent Weapon as a Signpost

Sometimes players get stuck, or lost, or have a decision-making crisis within the storyline. Maybe they have lost track of the options available to them, or maybe there are too many options to choose from. Occasionally, a story tangent veers them so far off course they need help getting back. This is when the DM should throw out a lifeline and I call these “signposts”.

Signposts often take the form of an NPC or the discovery of something new that reminds the players as to their true purpose. As far as intelligent weapons are concerned, using them as a signpost is effective but can lack substance unless they are weaved into the story in some larger way. As I said before, these items should never be offered to players lightly, so using one to push the players in a certain direction will require planning.

I suggest planting one within a treasure horde, or rescuing one from an evil creature. After the players have it, they are eventually reminded by the weapon they have work to perform somewhere else in the world, as the weapon feels a disturbance in the weave or senses impending doom. This can also be turned on its head later on because it could be revealed the weapon is actually evil and has lead the heroes into a trap.

The Intelligent Weapon as a Mentor

At some point you might have the notion to give your players a mentor or a teacher to take them to the next level or stage of development. Sending in an NPC is always an option, but all NPCs come with a certain amount of logistical problems.

  • Where does the NPC come from?
  • Where will he or she go after they have bestowed what knowledge they have to give?
  • What does the NPC do when the players go adventuring, and if he or she tags along, how much help do they provide?

The answers will affect your game dynamic and must be handled with care.

However, one solution to these problems would be to make the intelligent weapon the mentor. After all, the weapon could be just as knowledgeable and helpful as an NPC. It doesn’t need to sleep, eat, or take up extra body space. It can come along for the adventure without being in the way or taking up combat rounds. And what happens to it in the end is completely in the hands of the players.

The Intelligent Weapon as a Trickster

Every so often a DM wants to throw a little wrench into the players’ plans. Not with the intention to hurt or punish them, but often to set them back a bit and cause a little chaos. This could be to throw the players off the trail when they are getting a little too close to realizing the DM’s true intentions, or it could be a playful distraction after a series of serious sessions.

Whatever the reason, a tangent might be an excellent opportunity to throw the group a curve ball. Just as some intelligent weapons might be described as good or evil, it is also possible to have intelligent weapons that are sane, insane, or a little of both.

On this point, I’m thinking about an intelligent weapon that might want to force or convince the PC to do things and say unusual things. Maybe it starts out as harmless pranks, and then builds into more dangerous situations, along the lines of the Joker from the DC Universe or Loki from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And blending these tricks and pranks so they further the larger storyline is always encouraged.

The Intelligent Weapon as an Antagonist

I have found this use for an intelligent weapon is often the most effective. Generally, the story goes something like this: player finds a weapon of incredible quality and magic, player begins to use the weapon on a regular basis, slowly the character begins to change for the worse, the PC’s alignment shifts, their attitude shifts, and suddenly the PC is doing things and saying things completely against their original nature.

Then, at some predetermined point in the storyline, the weapon often takes over the PC and he or she becomes a secondary, or in rare cases the primary, villain. This will mean your player needs to give up on that character and create a new one, but the sacrifice makes for great drama and wonderful roleplaying. Part of the campaign then becomes an attempt to redeem the wayward PC and attempt to bring him or her back to party.

[Comment from Johnn: I love this idea. Be sure to orchestrate all this with your player beforehand. Some players will love this kind of twist, others might not, and you want to make sure they are ok with your plans.]

The Intelligent Weapon as a Character Changer

This is similar to the option above but with a few key differences. In the past, I have gone so far as to offer a player a completely different character via the magic of an intelligent weapon.

Maybe the player isn’t happy with the class they have chosen, or maybe they want to be more of a melee class than they originally planned. Or it could even be they just want a new personality that does not fit with the old character. Not to say I always give in to the wants and discontents of my players, but I have on occasion allowed a character change based on this kind of magic.

Not unlike an evil weapon taking over the PC and changing their nature, this option allows the PC to be taken over by a powerful hero that has been trapped in the weapon, sometimes for centuries, and can change their class, background, skills, and personality. The change is almost always permanent, even if the weapon is somehow lost or destroyed at a later date. I have also, on just one previous occasion, allowed the PC to develop multiple personalities due to this coupling. I cannot say it was a huge success at the time, but I’m sure there are lots of excellent roleplayers out there that could pull it off.

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A Couple More Uses From Johnn

I wanted to offer some additional ideas, as this is a cool topic.

Item As Quest

In my Riddleport game, the paladin found a holy avenger bastard sword possessed by a demon. To restore the sword to its full powers, the paladin had to kill several foes more powerful than himself over time in single combats. This purged the demon, who then emerged and fought the party.

This was a neat mechanic, because the player got to pick his fights. I did not proscribe which foes had to be killed, just that they be tougher than the PC. The player had total control and choice.

The mechanic also meant the battles were always dramatic, and they always scaled to the character’s experience level. So if the player took a long time to complete the quest, the quest would not be trivial at the end.

Also, the sword while cursed imbued a taint on the paladin that conferred minor penalties. While the sword was a +3 and had limited holy avenger powers – so quite valuable even cursed – it made the player weigh the cost of its use and question finishing the quest from time to time. This made for a great story.

Item As Plot Device

Did I tell you about the demon-slaying goblin paladin – former squire to a PC – who rides a zombie beholder, and who’s been chosen by player negligence to be saviour of the world? He did a fly-over last session and waved to the PCs.

Anyway, the secret to the goblin’s sudden power is in the magic sword the PCs overlooked when clearing out a dungeon and then trapping the goblin inside the place and walking away. The goblin wears the sword on his hip and uses it to kill demons by the horde.

The Murder Hobos want this sword. You see, they released three powerful demons from their dwarven prison not too long ago. The demons demolished the town of Phandalin and killed all its inhabitants.

Who knows what those crazy demons are up to now? But the PCs sure could use that magic sword…..