[Image courtesy of Pixabay.com]
Raising tension in an RPG is a unique and often difficult task. Pacing can make or break tension and the cycle of tension and release (Here’s a video explaining the cycle of tension and release if you are unfamiliar with it). Keeping players and yourself riding that wave can be difficult, but it is also rewarding when you pull it off. Here are some tips I’ve discovered and used over the years to help raise tension when you want to.
HP Is the Least of Your Worries
When something removes HP from a character, it adds some level of tension, but it is predictable. You get hit, you lose hp. That’s a staple of most RPGs. Players expect that. We all know what happens when someone hits zero HP or whatever the equivalent is in the system.
Attacks, events, and moments that affect other parts of the character add a different level of tension. When a character loses some strength, they are not any closer to death they were a moment ago, but something significant changes that gives them a disadvantage they are not used to. When acid burns a hole through armor, making it useless, that character is now in a position that is sometimes worse than dying: they are vulnerable. In many cases, the worst thing that can happen to a dying character is a swift death, and it’s out of the player’s control. But a vulnerable character is susceptible to much more. It makes every situation, even ones that would be easy under normal circumstances, have additional risks involved.
A vulnerable character is one that has had something they grew accustomed to taken away. Whether it is equipment, gear, a stat score, knowledge, or something else, there is a sense of being incomplete without it. As players, we are used to losing hit points or taking damage- some more than others. Games like Pathfinder and D&D give some players a massive amount of hit points, while others get a very small pool. What could kill one person would be inconvenient to another. Temporarily reducing their strength score in Pathfinder or removing something they take for granted builds much more tension.In Savage Worlds and other systems that use only a few damage steps, one damage step is a huge deal, and you can only hurt your players with it so many times before they die. Adding variety adds unpredictability.
Think about a situation where the players are on an abandoned spacecraft and everyone except one character has a suit that can keep them alive out in space. That one character had an encounter with an alien that is still hiding aboard the ship and it damaged that suit beyond repair. There might be no air leaks in the ship, and the characters may not know if they even have to leave the spacecraft. But if they do, one character won’t have the ability to escape. That player is trapped. Even though they are just as free as the other players at the moment, the time may come where that character’s lack of a space suit will make the difference between escaping and facing the monster on the ship alone.
The system you are using will determine the exact details of what you can take away, but the basic principles are the same.
Usually, you want these to be temporary or have some sort of replacement, since these effects are severe.
- Reduce a stat by intervals of two or four. This lowers the modifier by 1 or 2, and allows you to inflict it multiple times. If you do too much at once, there’s no fear that it can happen again and not completely debilitate them.
- Nullify some part of their AC (Armor bonus, Dex bonus, etc) or reduce Dex by intervals of two. If the character uses ranged weapons or has weapon finesse, this is doubly effective.
- Reduce a skill check (unsteady hands (lock pick, slight of hand), forgetful (knowledge), uncertain about surroundings (perception, survival), etc.)
- Lower their attack bonus against a foe every time they face it (caused by humiliation, fear, or the creature’s ability to predict and counter their moves)
Rolling Dice that Reveal Nothing
You do NOT want to overuse this trick. Whether your players catch on or not, too much rolling, especially false rolling, can slow the game down too much. However, when used sparingly, it can really ratchet up the tension.
While playing, ask one or several players to make a passive check, something like survival, perception, or a knowledge check. It has to be a check that does not have an immediate consequence, like a balance or strength check would. When they roll, examine their roll, and then tell them they don’t notice anything.
This could actually be true. You could have something hiding or have a symbol carved into the wall, but you don’t have to. Letting players know- or think they know- they are missing something can get them to start questioning everything. It can get them to start worrying and focusing on details that can spook them more or draw them into the setting.
… with a Savage Worlds Twist
When a player makes a check such as survival or investigate to find something that is not obvious to them, roll your own die behind your GM screen. Look at the player’s die and then spend a bennie and reroll your die. Then look at your player and say they don’t find anything.
It doesn’t matter what you rolled, or even if there is anything there. Spending a bennie makes the player think you have something worth hiding, even if you don’t. This is a way to use player knowledge against the player. In my experience, spending a bennie is well worth it when you can get your players to start panicking.
Humor (in or out of Character) Is Important. Too Much Tension Kills the Tension
It is important that one player isn’t dominating the conversation with Monty Python references or that everyone isn’t constantly talking about the best parts of a Rick and Morty episode. Let’s assume no one is acting like that, and you just have normal, fun-loving table banter going on that everyone is comfortable with.
Part of the cycle of tension and release is the release. If you constantly describe spooky scenery, make the players roll for hidden frights, and send out monsters from a Lovecraft story, there is no release. All that tension starts to feel forced and uncomfortable. Frustration can replace wonder, curiosity, and fear when tension is all you have to offer.
Do not weigh down a description, scenario, or quest with too much gross, macabre, or unnerving content. The right balance of tension and release isn’t a perfect formula. You’ll need to feel it out with everyone at the table. See how they respond to longer intros vs breaking up descriptions. Watch their reactions to know when to move on or keep talking. Tabletop RPGs have a unique advantage to horror video games, books, and other media: the GM can read the audience and adapt the story on the fly.
This balance changes from group to group and sometimes even game to game. Use the interaction to your advantage.
Make It a Point to Have Places for Things to Hide
If the GM only placed trees and bushes on the map when there was something hiding in them, it would kill the tension. If the only time the GM drew out the campsite when players slept was when an ambush was coming, it would kill the tension. You do not have to draw out or set up every single scene with minis to avoid this. Just keep in mind that no matter where you are, always have a few things not directly related to what the players need to see or use in the surrounding area. Things like long grass, caves, water, buildings, manholes, etc. Do not always populate these places and objects with things, but let them become a part of the landscape. Not only will areas that contain more than simply plot-relative landscape and items feel more real and lived in, they will get the players to not always suspect them.
During a D&D campaign, the players were doing a lot of traveling. Thus, they found themselves in the wilderness near a stream or river very often. This allowed them to keep their waterskins full, bathe, and add a bit of extra scenery to the map.
After a few months of never having anything attack from the water, I set up a two-staged attack. Two t-rexes would creep up on them while they slept: one on land and the other sprang up from the river.
The t-rex approaching on land tried to sneak up on them while they slept. It rolled a natural 1 on its stealth check. It failed so spectacularly that the land-based t-rex managed to wake up everyone except one member of the party. Everyone rushed into battle positions, readying themselves against the approaching t-rex. They even used the river as a tactical advantage, placing it at their backs so the t-rex could not get behind them. Their positioning made it even better when the second t-rex- who rolled a spectacular stealth check- sprang up from the river and swallowed one of the party members whole.
Side note: the character that the t-rex swallowed whole did manage to cut his way out of the dinosaur’s stomach, float down river without being seen, and throw knives for most of the rest of the fight.
In addition to these, mixing up combat is also a good way to raise tensions.