Behind the Screen: How do you keep an idiot in suspense…

2008 March 26
by Dante

All throughout our co-DM experience, we’ve been trying to cultivate excitement and leave our player characters wanting more. As our characters have become longer in tooth, it is becoming harder and harder to make those special suspenseful moments pay off in a meaningful way.

Often it comes down to timing…

In our campaigns, we tend to like to build up to big reveals. Unfortunately, most of our attempts to build suspense and create that “oh crap” moment end up taking place at the end of a long session when everyone is thinking about the drive home, or are floating off to dreamland at the table.

In the situations where we see this coming, sometimes we forgo the Big Neat Thing until the following session. This often works, however in times when there is a few weeks between sessions this can get diluted by our players forgetting where we were last session, or the tabletalk that inevitably drifts in after a break like that.

Pacing is an extremely important skill to learn to combat these two boundary cases:

  1. Play regularly and know your audience.

    Knowing who has to work the following day, or who just got done with a 12 hour shift might help identifying when to launch the major plot point for the night. Playing regularly helps to cut down on the cycle of getting re acclimated to the game and keeps your plot-to-date fresh in the players minds.

  2. Keep long battles to a minimum (or early in the session.)

    Lately much of our plot advancement has been slowed down significantly by the extra time required for battles at a high level. If your setting and plot allows, try to get major battles out of the way early in the night to get everyone engaged and leave plenty of time for the storytelling before your player’s off switches start to get thrown.

  3. Design a plot puzzle.

    Sometimes the key to building appropriate suspense is simply not having a huge plot point to hatch. I have successfully used the “plot puzzle” design, where a series of small non-events get combined in a meaningful way to lead to plot advancement. These small elements can be sprinkled in with normal character development or in between battle encounters.

    This also helps character engagement and development, because often the pieces of the plot puzzle don’t make sense on their own. As the characters try to put the puzzle together, they may lead you into some scenes that you didn’t explicitly have planned. This can be a fun diversion for everyone and give you the opportunity as DM to work on your impromptu skills.

The final (and perhaps best) way to really build suspense is to not make every last piece of your plot obvious. Often, the thrill of the unknown is enough of a driver to really make the players engage.

Speaking of… there has been some suspenseful things going on around StupidRanger Central this week, you’ll just have to tune in next time for the reveal!!

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