Creating suspense in roleplaying games is not easy. Making sure that your narrative contains a build-up and climaxes in the end takes years of practice. Here are a few tips.
Atmosphere and suspense are something that most game masters strife to attain every time they raise the screen in front of them. After all, it helps with player immersion and makes it easier for the players to get in the right mood for the game. Having your players eyeing every roll, fearing for their characters and even getting so excited they start cheering like football players every time they succeed is such a thrill. Where their knees are weak, palms are sweaty and they feel their heart racing towards the end of the session.
As a game master I’ve achieved this kind of suspension only a handful of times (all sessions and campaigns I really cherish) and there are a few things I’ve learned along the way that help. Some of these you could call basic elements of storytelling but other methods are something experience and numerous failures and a few successes have taught me. Of course, there’s no need for this kind of suspense in every session, but as campaign reach their climax you strife for this kind of immersion and suspense. However, it’s not always that easy to attain, as I’ve learned from my many failures.
There are a few things that you need to have in order to create suspense. All of these have to do with how you tell the story. If you are using a published module you need to figure out how you can make it more suspenseful and, as always, knowing your players is paramount.
Show, don’t tell
The key element to all storytelling is to show, not tell. Try to refrain from saying things like: “There’s a dragon in the room” or “The room is 30’x30’”. By showing you will get more player immersion. If your players enter a dark room where the air smells of sulphur and light flickers of the scales of a winged creature, with eyes that glow like embers, they are more likely to see in their mind’s eye what their characters see. They will ask questions and investigate your description, in order to get a better understanding of the situation, because the unknown is terrifying. The moment you announce that the creature is a dragon, your player either have their fears or suspicions confirmed, thus it’s no longer as terrifying as in the beginning.
This also applies to OOC talk. The moment you start talking about how suspenseful, scary or terrible a module is, you have your players expect that and you need to deliver. The reason modules like Tomb of Horrors have such a nasty reputation is not because Gary Gygax spoke so flamboyantly about it, but because players talked about its lethality. Because the module delivered.
Basically it boils down to this – don’t try to scare your players. Scare their characters and make the players feel the characters’ dread.
When you hint at all the nasty things you have planned for the characters, by using clues, leads and whatnot, you give the characters a chance to make assumptions. Having them jump at shadows and filling in the blanks you leave with their own imagination is a great way to create suspense. And, mind you, as a rule of thumb your players will almost always fill in the blanks with their worst-case scenario and often come up with assumptions and explanation that are either so far out or so much fun, ones that often surpass what you had in designed by a mile. A single drop of blood can, through foreshadowing, be much more terrifying than a pool of blood, hence often less is more.
Fear and phobias
Of course, a key element to creating suspense is to have the characters fearing for their lives. However, you don’t necessarily need to let the danger be a known one. The characters don’t need to know that Strahd is a vampire or even the villain at all, but finding a few mangled, blood drained bodies might make them start fearing that they might also get attacked by a vampire.
Fear is a powerful driving force and you can use it as a narrative tool. You can play with many known phobias, such as claustrophobia, arachnophobia or nyctophobia. In the AD&D module Nightmare Keep, a part of the keep is covered in undispellable darkness, where elder black puddings drop on unwary characters. Having the characters engulfed in darkness, fighting slimy monsters they can’t see and even eats away their equipment, can be quite terrifying.
I think perhaps one of the things that most game masters would recommend when trying to create an atmosphere of suspense, is to make sure that the environment is set right. Dim the lights, use scary soundtracks, use just about anything that gives the players the impression that the session is supposed to feel suspenseful.
One thing I’d like to mention though, much as these tactics work, they can also be counter-productive. When the players enter a darkened room, where you have the soundtrack from Bram Stoker’s Dracula playing in the background, they immediately know what to expect. So, use this, just as any other method when trying to create suspense, sparsely, especially when you are frequently playing with the same players.
Other tools and tricks to create suspense
Here are a few tips and tools I’ve used to create suspense, but as with all the other tips and tricks most of these need to be used at the opportune moment and sparsely. The moment you start overusing these methods they stop doing what they are supposed to.
Make time a factor
Many years ago I wrote a module and game mastered it in a convention. In short, using nWod the players took on the roles of participants in a game show, where they were placed in a large labyrinth and needed to find their way out, first out would win a huge stash of cash. However, they only had a couple of hours to get out, or they’d lose the game.
So, I placed an old alarm clock on the table and set it to go off in two hours. As the game proceeded the characters discovered not only puzzles and traps, but also that the game was in fact lethal, since they found the mutilated corpses of other participants in the labyrinth. When there were only three minutes left the characters finally found the last room and had to solve the final puzzle. Soon as the last character got through the door, the alarm went off. The players, who sat at the edge of their seats, jumped up and celebrated like they had just won the World Series.
The reason this worked so well was that I had no combat encounters, which would of course ruin the countdown since combat, usually played in rounds, takes much more time in real-time than in-game. Also, the characters could make rolls to get clues on how to solve puzzles, so solving the puzzle wasn’t solely reliant on the players’ intelligence. Finally, the game, which was initially described as PvP, relied heavily on the characters working together and they quickly saw that they’d never make it out alive if they tried to go solo.
A few years ago a fellow game master showed up in a convention with a module that relied heavily on a soundtrack. He had a CD player and a small loudspeaker. The soundtrack he used included a few simple background and ambient noises, among them a dog barking. If the players ever asked about the dog, it triggered an event in the module. After about an hour the dog stopped barking. Once the players noticed, another event was triggered. This had a phenomenal effect on the players, creating superb atmosphere of suspense.
I tried a similar tactic a little later in a Cthulhu Dark Ages game, where the players took on the roles of Icelandic immigrants in Greenland, shortly after Greenland had been discovered by Eric the Red. After a falling out with a local Inuit tribe the characters decided to pay the tribe a visit, trying to settle the dispute. Once the characters arrived where the tribe was supposed to live I described that the characters could hear a distant drumming, and started to lightly drum on the gaming table. Bam-bambam. As the characters investigated the area I kept drumming, always the same rhythm, bam-bambam. When the characters were at a celebratory feast with the Inuits, after successfully negotiating a truce between the immigrants and the tribe, I changed the rhythm and made it more intense, bambam-bambambam. It had huge impact on the characters and the players. They got really nervous and instinctively knew something bad was about to happen.
Perhaps one of the best ways to create suspense is to surprise both players and characters. When something they’ve learnt along the way, an intelligence they earned or something they heard proved to be false or not true. When the BBEG outsmarts the characters and surprises them.
I ran the awesome Dark Sun campaign The City by the Silt Sea a few years back, using D&D 4E. The characters investigated the ruins of Guistenal and had discovered the Dray and New Guistenal hidden deep below the ruins. What’s more, they had also learned that Dregoth had discovered an atrifact, a portal to another world, in his palace. The group decided to enter the palace and close the gate, after hearing that the sorcerer-king Dregoth hadn’t been seen for some time now. As they entered the chamber where the gate was, so did Dregoth a few moments later.
The players went into panic, screaming orders across the table and trying to achieve their goal. One character (half-giant warrior at 10th level) threw himself at the undead near-dragon sorcerer king (CR 30) and managed to halt its advance, while the other characters tried to figure out how to destroy the portal. After they managed to do that, and keeping the half-giant alive while he heroically battled Dregoth, the group fled the palace and New Guistenal, celebrating as they managed to escape the sorcerer-king’s wrath.
The moment, when Dregoth entered the portal room, was one I will never forget. I could literally see the blood drain from my players’ faces. After the fight was won, there was a distinct smell of sweat in the air. I think however that is probably one of my most fun and suspenseful session as a game master ever.
Know your players
Of course, not all these methods work all the time. You need to know your players. Show, not tell is pretty useless if half of your players suffer from aphantasia. Foreshadowing is more or less useless if your players don’t like games of investigative nature and prefer hack ‘n slash.
Know your players and use that to your advantage. As long as you keep the Golden Rule at heart, you will succeed. And what’s more, you’ll get ever better at it as you try out new methods and tactics.