You choose to draw your sword at the approaching figure, not entirely sure as to its intensions let alone what it is. From all of the encounters you’ve faced within the last week, it’s no surprise you are on guard and on your toes. Yet your code forces you to hold your swing until you know for certain whether you face friend or foe. At last your visitor reaches the edge of your torchlight, casting deep shadows over the beaked nose, bushy eyebrows, and green skin. For a moment your mind screams at you to strike the troll that your eyes are sure they are seeing, but something makes you hesitate as your gut says something is not quite right. The creature speaks, raising its hand up in a form of peace, begging you for your help as it is a bewitched Valkyre, shifted in form after facing a swamp hag. Your gut proves to be right as she calls herself Varisha, your lost sister’s name.
Do you ever notice how the unknown tends to haunt us more? The sound in the basement jars our imagination awake and fills our minds with things that simply don’t exist, yet we sometimes have to struggle against that fabrication. Once we go downstairs to investigate and see that it was just a haphazard pile of junk finally toppled over or some small rodent, our mind immediately goes at ease. Granted, if there really had been a monster causing the noise, our fears would have been moot upon inspecting since we’d be horribly killed. However, it never is the case, and we almost always feel less excited upon the reveal than the suspense. The unknown is very scary.
I’m often faced with walking a fine line between giving a big reveal to my players after a long, suspenseful story of mystery and leaving much to the imagination. Sometimes the result doesn’t live up to the suspense, such as the basement analogy above. Other times even the result being catastrophic such as an ancient red dragon is a different kind of excitement than the suspense of “what lives down here?” So let’s take a look at the do’s and don’ts and reveals, the concept behind suspenseful RPGs, and how to make sure you deliver the punchline that lives up to the hype.
To begin with, what creates suspense? So many different kinds from personal reaction to endangerment, although it is not always important to experience an enjoyable game, it can help with tempo and plot richness. Keep in mind suspense will cause the illusion of slower time. Something terrible is near, but if something else is done within a short timeframe, it will be avoided, which gives us the dramatic feeling of slow motion. Much of that is thanks to film where movies often will increase frame rate exceptionally to offer a slower series of events. Although our brains are capable of processing information quicker than our awareness can register, our eyes draw in information that seems like an eternity of time passes. We often say our life flashes before our eyes, but our conception would be slower to visualize all of the information in such a short amount of time.
It’s important to note that suspense isn’t the process of “things not happening yet.” Tension won’t mount as quickly if you describe very little occurring as they progress. “You continue down the dark corridor, the musky air fills your nostrils. You creep further down the hallway as it turns left then right, the darkness barely repelled by your torchlight. A short set of stairs takes you down to a long corridor.” Although the description contains suspenseful words, players will take it all as a whole rather than individual parts and conceive in their mind they just went through an empty hallway. Sure, monsters could be around every corner, but they weren’t and interaction from the players was nil. Part of developing suspense is having the players participate in building their own suspense. Give them reason to want to investigate, inspect, or take interest in something that yields no immediate answers, and you create mystery. Lead them along with a carrot by having opportunities for dice roll checks that will add to the suspense regardless of the roll. Successful roll? They notice the clues that give hint of something about to happen. Failed or even critical failed roll? They still find the clue, but it’s obscured enough to not make heads of tails as to its specifics of when, where or what is about to happen.
The length of your suspense and mystery equals the “Ah Ha!” value of the reveal. The longer you draw on the mystery, the tougher it is going to be to pull off the shocking conclusion and still maintain the shock. This is especially true to campaigns. If the party spends months of game sessions tracking a creature that keeps slaughtering village after village, revealing it is nothing more than a particularly powerful manticore might not give the players that satisfying resolution. So how can you know when your suspense has outgrown any possibility of a good ending? One thing you can do as a GM is be observant to your players. Are they still on the edge of their seats? Are they showing signs of excitement? Are they still throwing out hypotheses on what the reveal could be? If so, you can still carry on a bit, but take particular note of their reactions to clues throughout. When they begin to skim over the clues or attempt to push a bit faster than usual on down the road, that’s a good indication the suspense has about run its course and needs to be wrapped up.
This is an RPG still, and the core concept is storytelling and development of our imaginations. Make sure when you finally show the players what they have been guessing for the past few hours that it is rich in dramatic flair. Don’t ever simply say, “You open the door and see a sleeping dragon on a mound of gold,” after the party has been traveling through a maze of tunnels, through booby traps, monsters, and puzzles. Each step in their trip gets closer to their goal, and everyone knows that. Deliver with a bold sense of adventure. Give them a taste of what’s about to happen and fill them with a sense of urgency, fear, dread, or delight.
Red herrings are sometimes looked down upon among GMs because they can backfire if you aren’t careful. If players bite too hard on one, you’re going to either waste time while they reach that dead end or cause something to occur that shouldn’t have which disturbs the main plot. However, they can indirectly add suspense falsely by planting a seed in the players’ mind that can fester. You could go so far as to throw too many red herrings at the players to cause chaotic suspense where they can’t focus on just one threat or mystery. We can only work on one thing at a time despite us thinking we are multitaskers.
Bewilderment, confusion, anxiety, hopelessness, and fear are all goals through any plot to give the story character and depth that can drive idea along. Used sparingly, in the right context, and in the correct portion, and you will find your players dying to see what’s next…or what else your devilish mind came up with.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.