How To Leave Your Players Hanging – 4 Cliffhanger Tips
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0353
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- How To Leave Your Players Hanging – 4 Cliffhanger Tips
- Prepare Intercept Encounters
- Use Encounter Complications
- Develop A Sense Of Time Awareness
- Develop An Eye For Impromptu Cliffhangers
- The Last Encounter
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
A Brief Word From Johnn
The Road A Good Book
Just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s short and brutal, and likely good inspiration for Cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic GMs.
Today’s article is in answer to a reader’s request for cliffhanger tips:
Your articles on checklists for GMs couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. I just started GMing for a group at college, and I was looking for advice on such organizational tools.
On a similar note, I am pretty new at GMing, but I have done a lot of research. I noticed the other night in one of my sessions that timing is hard. More often than not my players never get to what I have intended by the end of the session. We always seem to run out of time rather than what I desire: to end the session dramatically with a cliffhanger or riveting conclusion.
If you have any tips on this I would be interested in those.
Hopefully the tips in this issue are of some help, Thomas.
Thanks for the request.
Get some gaming in this week!
How To Leave Your Players Hanging – 4 Cliffhanger Tips
Prepare Intercept Encounters
If you see the end of the session is near, but it’s too early to trigger your cliffhanger, stall for awhile with an intercept encounter.
To do this, have one or more encounters waiting in the wings that you can plop down on short notice in a variety of circumstances. Try to keep encounter requirements (i.e. location, timing, trigger, type) to a minimum.
The trick with an intercept encounter is to:
- Not be obvious you’re stalling
- Avoid wasting players’ time and characters’ resources
- Not frustrate your group with the perception of railroading
Random encounters and wandering monsters are intercept examples, but they often break the rules above. To solve this, run interceptions with the following in mind:
Move The Plot Forward
Add in a plot element so it feels to players like the game and story are progressing. Keep a list of plot hooks, clues, and plot development ideas handy, and then just match things up with the encounter when you drop it into the game.
For example, you might keep a scrap piece of paper with a clue on it handy. You can place this paper just about anywhere if need be. Next time you have to stall, drop in a random encounter and plant the piece of paper as a clue and as part of the encounter reward.
Link It To PC Actions
Best case is your intercept encounter links directly to PC actions. The PCs took action ABC and the consequence is intercept encounter XYZ.
If this isn’t possible, you’ll need to force an intercept encounter into play. Smooth transition over by using some GM sleight of hand to craft the appearance of cause and effect based on PC actions and player decisions. This is tricky, but it’s a skill you can learn and master over time through trial and error while GMing.
For example, the PCs are questing to find an expert who can decipher a map for them. You want to end the session on a cliffhanger with the PCs finding the expert in dire jeopardy as thugs try to beat information out of him. If the PCs intervene, they’ll be ambushed by the surprise entrance of a villain, whom the thugs work for.
There’s 30 minutes left in the session though, and the current bar brawl encounter is just finishing up – you need to stall. You decide to drop in an intercept encounter involving a beggar with a plot clue.
Thinking quickly, you tell the players a young boy (changing the description from beggar) rushes up to them as they leave the busted-up tavern. The boy is looking for his father, who can always be found drinking after work at the tavern. The boy says some bad men are hurting his family at home as they speak (an impromptu tie-in with the thugs from upcoming cliffhanger encounter).
It turns out the boy’s father, whom they just beat up in the tavern, is the brother of the map expert (another on-the-fly adjustment with a touch of irony :).
Keep It Short
In most cases, you need only stall for a little while. If you have lots of time, then usually you can just run other planned encounters or let the PCs drive the flow. The danger is an interception takes so long there’s no time left to begin your cliffhanger encounter. Therefore, keep the intercept encounter short.
Beware that combats can take a long time unless the foes are weak. Puzzles can take awhile too if the players get stumped. Roleplaying encounters are often quick, unless you provide an environment rich in roleplaying opportunities (i.e., multiple NPCs, NPCs with lots of information to suss out, NPCs with strange new cultures to explore).
Use Encounter Complications
Complicating existing encounters is a great GMing technique. While an encounter is running you introduce a new element the PCs must grapple with.
Sense of realism
Players will be excited to learn that not every encounter has its entire set of parameters set at the beginning each time. Encounters can be dynamic.
A complication is often unexpected and brings new energy and excitement to the table. This is especially effective where cliffhangers are concerned, as surprises add even more drama and faster pacing to the end portion of a session.
A complication usually lengthens an encounter, chewing up time so the cliffhanger ends at the right point.
Tweak encounter difficulty on-the-fly. Complications let you manipulate challenge levels with great precision.
Did you forget to do something at the beginning of the encounter? Skip over an element? Maybe you got encounters mixed up, or location numbers confused? Introducing a complication changes the encounter as you run it, allowing you to fix things. For example, if you forgot to put in the altar where the Big Clue is stored, you can put the clue on an NPC who enters mid-encounter.
- One or more NPCs enter the scene. Reinforcements might arrive, or an NPC might walk in by coincidence or accident. The NPC(s) can be a new threat (more enemies) or a new problem (an innocent stumbles in and is immediately taken hostage).
- Critters. More monsters drawn by sight, sound, or smell enter the fray.
- Traps are trapped. Cunning crafters have created layers of traps to catch the unwary or prevent easy disabling.
- Environmental hazard. A trap is triggered, a natural disaster coincidentally occurs, or best case, the PCs cause a new environmental hazard, such as flooding or cave-in.
Complications give you lots of options where cliffhangers are concerned. You can complicate a prior encounter to stall for time. You can complicate a cliffhanger encounter for the same reason. Cliffhangers are fragile, and you can use a complication to save the situation due to oversight or unexpected PC action.
Conversely, you might need the game to go more quickly so you can squeeze in the cliffhanger before session end. You can use a complication to actually make things easier for the PCs so encounters execute faster.
For example, a combat is dragging on so you have an ally appear. Not only would the ally help defeat the enemy faster, but it would be a refreshing change for an ally to arrive when they don’t have to prevent a TPK (total party kill).
I tend to plan for complications in the same way I plan intercept encounters. I make a list of ideas before the session, add to it when new ideas hit me, and I keep the list handy as I GM.
In addition, the location often provides lots of complication possibilities, such as new threats emerging from lairs at the sound of PCs combatting neighbor’s, fireballs damaging rope bridges, or alarm bells sounding when the PCs’ presence is detected.
Develop A Sense Of Time Awareness
Cliffhangers require careful timing. Develop a sense of time in your games and of your group to facilitate good cliffhanger endings.
End of Session
Keep an eye on the clock, especially as the game session nears the end. Increase the pace if it looks like a tight fit for your cliffhanger; stall if you need to buy more time.
Develop a sense of how long various encounter types and permutations last. Is your group fast or slow with combat? How long do single opponent combats generally take versus multiple foe frays? As the characters become more complex, are encounters taking longer? Does your group like to roleplay in-depth with NPCs, or do they just want to get what they need and move on?
As you get a good sense for encounter length, you can better plan and GM cliffhanger timing.
Ending Early or Late
How tolerant is your group for ending games a little early or playing a bit longer? A bit of flexibility on session end-time gives you more options to help set-up and trigger cliffhangers.
For example, it’s 20 minutes before usual game end, but now is the perfect time to trigger your cliffhanger encounter. If your group doesn’t mind ending early sometimes, then you can proceed.
Develop An Eye For Impromptu Cliffhangers
It’s great ending a game on a high note of drama, suspense, and mystery. You want to leave your players begging for more, demanding to play longer, and waiting for next session with great impatience.
Some cliffhangers are major, end-of-act situations. You plan and prepare for these as part of your plot arcs.
Most cliffhangers though, are about leaving players on the edge of their seats until next session. They often cannot be planned. Wherever and whenever a session ends, you’d like to react with a cliffhanger.
To this end, you need to develop a sense of what makes a good cliffhanger and how to engineer it as a session draws to a close.
First, what makes for a good cliffhanger? Here is a checklist. If you have additional ideas, let me know and I’ll add them in.
- Stakes. Higher stakes are better. The more important a certain outcome is to the players and their characters, the better the cliffhanger potential. As you GM, look to increase the stakes however you can just as the session ends.
- Risk level. It’s a good cliffhanger when the PCs are left with options or decisions that involve great risk. Let your players wring their hands and debate endlessly between sessions the pros, cons, and important consequences of their choices.
- Unresolved action. Leave the conclusion or results of actions taken pending. Stakes and risk level determine how much drama an unresolved action creates.
- Mystery. Leave the explanation and investigation of something unknown until next game session. Introduce the mystery and then wrap things up. The amount of curiosity you create, and the implications of the mystery, determine the suspense level of the cliffhanger.
The Last Encounter
With the impromptu checklist in mind, take whatever encounter is triggered at the end of the session and try to craft a cliffhanger from it. This not only means ending the session mid-encounter, but also possibly adding in extra encounter elements to beef up the drama.
In addition, you always have the option of ending at any part of an encounter. Encounters have a:
- Start (set-up, trigger, description, initiative if needed)
- Middle (taking actions, consequences)
- End (final outcome, reward, possible hook or link to the next encounter)
As GM, you get to pick your timing, so keep the phases of an encounter in mind when looking for the best place to stop the session.
For example, you might end with an evocative description that implies a looming threat to the PCs. You might end with a key PC action about to be resolved. You might conclude with the bad guy attempting to flee.
Here’s what to do during the last encounter:
- Put yourself in your players’ seats. Have empathy for player perspectives. Keep a sense of what the players are thinking, assuming, and basing decisions on. If you can view the game through the eyes of your players, you will be much more successful at knowing when to end sessions on a tense or mysterious note.
- Look for encounter situations where stakes or risk level is highest. Ending with one goblin left alive is not the same as ending with two dozen armed goblins about to fire their crossbows. Knowing how much damage is dealt is less dramatic than just knowing a friend or foe has been successfully hit.
- Keep an eye open for situations of critical choices and options. Often, these are present at the end of the encounter, but sometimes key choice situations arise mid- encounter.
- Be aware of points of mystery. It’s easy to forget the players don’t know what you do. They aren’t aware of what’s behind the door, the abilities of the monster, the secret identity of the NPC. They don’t know all that’s making the gurgling raspy sound just out of sight is a leaky pipe. Look for points of mystery.
- Sense when a PC action taken is potentially heroic and full of risk. Stop there and leave the outcome until next session.
- Get a feel for when danger to the PCs has reached its highest point.
Here is a great article on cliffhangers you might also want to check out: Hangings can be Fun
Tips request: if you have any advice or tips on how to plan, run, or engineer cliffhangers, please drop me a line: [email protected]
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
The PC Rumor Mill
From Steven “Quillion” Russell
Rumor mills are a good part of any location, you find out who is who, what is what, and maybe what the next adventure is, but the rumors you really care about are the ones about yourself.
The bard may be the weakest of the core classes but is the game’s greatest gossip. In a world where news travels only by word of mouth, a song can create or destroy a reputation faster than spell or sword.
Results can range from simple shoddy treatment if the rumor is a bad one, or excellent service for a good rumor. Dangerous rumors could result in a bit of trouble with the local authorities to a lot of trouble in places when an accusation is as good as being guilty.
Helpful hints for designing a rumor about the player characters:A rumor need not be anything resembling the truth: “Their warrior was originally a gnome who killed herself so her companions could reincarnate her as an orc.”
The more outrageous the rumors the more likely people are to listen: “That so-called adventurer is really a Tarrasque cursed to mortal form for destroying a sacred temple.”
- The best rumor is one that is almost entirely true. Just twist, omit or change one extremely important fact: You save the princess from the dragon, and win her hand in marriage, becomes: “He is forcing a woman to marry him against her will.”
- Rumors seldom have a discernible source unless the source of the rumor comes forward: “I heard it from my sister, who heard it from the man with no name, so it must be true!”
- Get personal. Make the rumor about their animal companion, familiar, family heirloom or favorite vessel of magic. That way, the character may actually be offended by what people think. “Her holy symbol was made by Judas Iscariot.”
Here are 29 working examples. Pick one, decide how much of it is true, then decide which NPC in your game started it. Then let your players try to slay a dragon of an idea.
- They claim one of their members is “off elsewhere, could not make it today,” but truly they murdered him in the dungeon. How else do you explain the constant flow of new members they are always gaining?
- That magical talisman is the holy icon of our heavenly masters. This group should have surrendered it to the church, but they are either ignorant heretics or vile infidels.
- The band’s favored weapon is the hereditary property of our lord; they refused to sell it, though our lord offered an overly generous sum. Mark my words, the lord will have his legacy back.
- These explorers killed the monster that was keeping the orcs in check; those grunters have now destroyed a village to the north and will likely march upon us.
- A merchant once cheated them by selling back the horses his thieves had stolen from them. The fellowship had the merchant transformed into a horse. You see the chestnut- gelding charger their leader rides?
- Braggarts the lot of them. They failed to kill the beast. They only wounded it, shouting, “We do not have to kill the creature, only defeat it.” The wounded animal devastated the last town they stayed in; it is now hunting the source of its wrath.
- Their bloody outfit is composed of secret retainers in the service of our lord’s enemy, sent to flood the economy with wealth to destabilize our minted coin.
- They are nothing but brigands, questing for nothing more than tavern brawls. In the preceding district, they killed a patron and burnt the Happy Halfling to the ground.
- This adventuring guild says they are seeking treasure and experience, but what they are truly seeking is to gain enough power to overthrow our lord who had them publicly flogged in the capital city.
- They say their comrade died in their last adventure, but they truly just recruit new members so they may slay them. They covet their companion’s property, murder him in an out of the way place, and leave the body to the monsters. With all their great wealth, they could raise him if they wanted to.
- They allege the company won the money they are spending in battle against the bandit king. They are the real brigands, if you ask me. A bandit lord would have had to pay his men, and have had little for true King’s men to find.
- Group of ruffians, nothing more than grave robbers they are. They loot the tombs of our ancestors and expect us to believe some tale about saving us from some lurking evil poised to attack.
- Adventuring Orders stir up the local tribes of monsters who have been doing nothing but staying beneath the earth in their own homes. Then they leave us with a bleeding sore that oozes out into our land that requires us to call on them to deal with.
- So-called seekers are really shapeshifters in the service of our foreign enemy, here to spy and secure abandoned fortresses for the planned invasion of our realm.
- This group of lordless retainers is nothing but traitors and deserters from the King’s secret elite guard force. What else could explain their training, equipment and wealth?
- Strange travelers they are, but truly, they are witches, warlocks, devils, demons and fiends sent to threaten our lives and our souls. They will bring nothing but turmoil and chaos to our small, peaceful village.
- These so-called do-gooders never offer to heal any member of our community, though they heal each other without thought. Forced to endure their insults and beg for coin, they spend gold like water. They could make our crops grow twofold, but they think only of themselves, never the lot of a commoner.
- You have seen their power; they can control the weather, making hail appear from nowhere. Who do you think caused the hail to fall upon Joren’s crops after he lost the fellowship’s steeds? Remember, it destroyed the northern fields while they went to fight the “beast” of the northern hills.
- Speaking of their grand powers, I’ve come to believe they could destroy our entire village. You think it is just coincidence the innkeeper’s daughter dies of pestilence shortly after spurning one of their advances?
- They are dangerous and wealthy travelers. Take their money and assist them in moving on to the next community before one of their enemies finds them here and destroys us like the previous village.
- They do not worship our god(s), they are infidels and unbelievers, their priest will seek to steal our souls to blasphemy. Keep them away from our holy places or we shall all suffer for it.
- This bannerless company is truly an agent of the King, sent here to make sure the community is loyal and serves the kingdom well.
- A bevy of marauders, they lay waste to hoards of orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins, claiming they are nothing but “fodder”. They will kill you as soon as look at you, and when they wake up in the morning they could lay waste to the entire community before the sun cleared the horizon.
- A group of vagabonds rich in relics, art, jewelry and platinum; they could buy the whole of our kingdom and still have magic bags to spare.
- Brigands such as these care nothing for our customs. They carouse and brawl on our holy days, eat whatever they wish on any day of the month, and they even deal with infidels and half-breeds.
- Heroes of the prophecy they are. The voice in the wilderness has spoken, she has seen the signs, and this company shall save us from the dragon. They are our saviors.
- When the witch kidnapped the lord’s daughter, these so- called heroes went to rescue her, but they only brought back her corpse. They only cared for killing the hag and taking her treasure.
- I know what they call themselves, but they are the Order of Shinning Heroes. They are simply trying to travel in disguise. No doubt, they are on a grand quest to save the world.
- I do not care what you say, I know the Black Company of Strife when I see it. They will kill us in our beds if we do not see to our own safety, Remember what they did to the priest. The blood still stains the temple steps to this day.
Clearing The Table
From Dave Stebbins
The best bit of practical gaming advice I’ve received is to make a mini-table for the battle mat.
Make a mini-table to raise the battle mat six to eight inches off the gaming table. It is still central but now all the area underneath is opened up for books, paper, dice and snacks. Since my groups use a rigid battle mat (an old chalk board), we just screwed thick dowels on as legs. It solved almost all the space problems we had playing a tactical type of game at the dinner table.
Classic Tip: Late Players
From Lucio Nothlich
I really enjoy your tips. I have one about players arriving late at the games. In our exalted campaign, the game master decided to reward extra XP to players that arrive on time and/or bring food or drinks.
It worked so well that became a general rule on all our games 🙂
Regards from Brazil.