Role Playing Tips - By Johnn Four
6 MORE EXCITING WAYS TO CREATE TENSION
1. Dramatic Music Creates Subtle Tension
Put on some dramatic music in the background to help build
tension. Watch the volume though: shouting over loud music
certainly builds tension, but I think the trade-off on
communication is not worth it.
Heavy Russian classical music suits any genre. And Holst
"The Planets" is a personal favorite because it has light
and heavy moments. Constant heavy music just becomes white
noise in the background, but varied music attracts attention
and builds tension better.
Does anyone else use music in this way? What artists/titles
do you play?
(Thanks for the tip Ursula.)
2. Create Lots of Character Confusion
Confusion creates tension. So create as much confusion you
can with one important rule:
Make the PCs as confused as you can without cheating. Give
the players 100% of the information their characters would
have, but no more.
This means you need to create confusing situations instead
of abusing your position as GM and holder of all the
information. If you withhold information from the players
that the characters would have had, your players will just
get angry and frustrated with you--the wrong kind of
Examples of great confusing situations:
* Darkness, fog & mist, bright light, blindness
* Illusions, shapeshifters
* Battles where the good guys and the bad guys are not
easily identified (i.e. a city riot)
* NPCs who don't say what they mean, or whose emotions can't
be read easily
* Strange happenings whose source is not obvious
- a crowd of screaming, fleeing people; a ship wildly
tilting in calm water
3. Sacrifice NPCs as Warnings & Examples
Nothing creates tension better than a close call. So, get
some NPCs involved with the story and start killing them off
or making examples of them to scare the players.
One thing to remember is that the sacrificial NPC must be
valuable somehow to the characters and/or players. It
creates no tension when someone the PCs don't care about
gets harmed or slain.
Think of the "red shirt" security guards in the classic Star
Trek series. They were the ultimate canon fodder and did
little to create tension because you knew they were just
there to be sacrificed.
Examples of NPCs that have value as sacrifices:
* a distant relative to a PC (i.e. cousin, niece)
* the holder of some occasionally useful knowledge
- the local sage, the professor, the old woman
* someone important to your game world: having the Head
Guardsman accidentally drink the poison intended for a PC
creates more tension than if it had been an anonymous
servant who died
* someone the players like
- the friendly shepherd boy who keeps asking to join\
- the helpful barkeep
- the nosy, but cheerful neighbour
* a romantic interest of a PC
* a person who has appeared in previous stories
The message you want to give to your players is "hey, this
could really happen to your character, so watch out, cause
I'll do it." And the more unexpected the NPC's demise is
(i.e. "wow, I can't believe the GM actually killed old
Bill") the greater the shock and the greater the future
4. Fast Combat, Fast Play
Play faster than your players can think and you will create
all sorts of great tension.
However, a small warning: be fair and consistent in your
treatment of play, otherwise your players will rightly think
you're being unfair.
Examples of speeding up play:
* Make it a house rule that when it's a players turn to
announce her/his action they have five seconds. If they
take longer, they miss their turn, or they have to go last,
whatever you decide.
Then, as you go from player to player, hold up your hand and
count down with your fingers. (The fingers add extra
pressure on the players to make decision quickly.)
Make sure you announce your five second rule before the time
comes to use it though. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fair to
suddenly start using it at an important time.
* Start action resolution with a different, random player
each time. Some games have an "Action Announcement" phase
before action resolution. Instead of starting with the same
player during each Action Announcement phase, choose a
random one. This forces all the players to be ready all the
* Give automatic successes to small challenges so you get to
important and major challenges faster.
I've been on both ends of this and my friend Marcus puts
this technique to great use when he is the GM:
One time I was playing and I announced my character was
trying to do something. I can't remember exactly what, but
he said "Ok, you made it, what now?" I was totally stumped
because I expected a lot of dice rolling and some time to
think while my action was being resolved. Instead, my action
was successful right away and I had to immediately think
about what I was going to do next. Talk about stress!
5. Build Tension Through Clues Leading Up to the Encounter
Instead of moving right into an encounter and starting the
dice rolling, lead up to it slowly and give creepy clues to
build the tension.
The best time I have ever experienced this was when my
friend Django was the GM. We had discovered a cave complex
that was inhabited by a monster. Instead of having the
monster jump right out at us and getting the encounter
started, Django scared us silly with clues as we wandered
from cave to cave, leading us inevitably closer to the
* deep and nasty claw marks all over a cave's walls
* an intermitent howling that seemed to be more than just
* a skeleton of an old victim; and from its position,
indicating a sudden and painful death
* large piles of offal, signs of a huge beast
I remember that when we finally got to the monster we just
turned and ran. Of course, we told our village a different
story when we got out of the caves but that's another
6. Lay Tension-Building Groundwork Before Exciting
Plant seeds about the terror, difficulty, ferocity, danger,
etc. long before the time finally comes for the encounter.
This tip closely relates to Tip #5, but takes a longer view
Use such things as rumours, legends, stories, clues and
physical evidence to communicate to the PCs that bad things
will happen if they ever deal with ___________.
And it doesn't matter whether or not you have concrete plans
for this future encounter. You will find a way to use it
when the time comes. And when you do the players should be
This method, making up rumours and stories about things you
don't have planned yet, is also a great way to keep your
campaign flexible and helps when you GM on-the-fly. Keep
your rumours vague enough though so that you don't paint
yourself in a corner.
One final note, remember to break up the tension once in
awhile too. Everyone will need release from time to time or
you may have players taking stress-leave from your campaign.
Have more fun at every game!