In the latest POSR game I’ve been running we’ve played eleven sessions and the players have only explored two dungeons—and those dungeons only took five sessions between both to clear to their satisfaction. That means that for this game, we’ve spent six sessions not dungeon crawling.
Lots of stuff has happened. They rooted out the cause of a missing village. They met with the leader of a powerful clan in the last city. He introduced them to his “burn everything, ask questions never” special forces team dedicated to taking out cosmic-monster worshipping clans hidden about. They’ve made friends with a group of travelling merchants called the Nine Thumbs. They’ve went to a dark and spooky theatre and watched a performance about themselves. They’ve made a lot of messes, too. Right now, they’re attending the “wedding of the year” between two clan scions.
This is being run as a sandbox in a highly procedural method. The downtime actions that the characters take generate more leads then they can conceivably complete.
There are lots of points in the game that are unmistakably mundane. Every piece of prep I do, I strive to look for pockets of tension that may or may not come up. A simple meeting always has something to deal with, even if that threat doesn’t ever mean drawing weapons.
Let us consider the baseline of one of these situations:
- A location that the players would not consider dangerous
- NPCs that have some degree of desire to interact with the characters
- A reason not to handwave the situation to “get to the good stuff”
The third point is the one that wiggles the most. (Sometimes the reason is just a funny or interesting NPC.)
When I say tension, it can mean a lot of things, so let’s define it for our purposes:
Tension is a question asked with the answer delayed.
This isn’t about trying to guide a story during an RPG or leverage fiction advice for GMing. Instead, it’s about trying to imbue moments of the game with questions that are not immediately resolved. And hopefully, the players want those questions answered, because that denial of the answer is where the pressure is.
So, what can we do to take one of these situations and add some tension to it?
First, a handy list of what’s coming:
|1||Constraints||The usual approach to this situation won’t work.|
|2||Countdowns||This situation will end, escalate, or evolve soon.|
|3||Hidden Dangers||While the situation appears safe, there is something unexpected below the surface.|
|4||Mysteries||There are tantalizing unknowns within the situation.|
|5||Competition||Another person or group is actively opposing the characters in the situation.|
|6||Moral Stances||Participating in the situation says something about the characters.|
|7||Retribution||Participating in the situation will anger another group, person, or faction.|
|8||Troublesome NPCs||The situation contains NPCs that must be navigated carefully.|
|9||Gates & Gatekeepers||Getting to the situation requires a test and remaining in the situation may require further tests.|
|10||Hard Choices||The situation has zero sum choices—choosing one locks out all the others.|
Taking away otherwise normal options and courses of action can cause the players to shift mindsets and operate in a bespoke way, increasing tension. Take something that is a given and make it impossible.
The sphinx, declawed by previous abusive owners, is harmless and hasn’t killed anyone in years. But she’ll only respond to people that speak to her in questions, and she’ll only give straightforward answers to those that make their sentences rhyme at the same time.
(Can we communicate our needs in a way that satisfies the sphinx?)
Time limits are great to create tension. Create a clock with a definitive bad ending and show it to the players. At appropriate times, mark a tick on the clock. As the characters run out of time to complete their task, the tension grows.
There’s a contact to meet in a nearby nightclub, but the characters catch wind that the watch is going to raid it at some point tonight, scattering every spy and information broker to the wind. The players, seeing the clock in front of them, will feel the tension of trying to find their person before the bad guys show up.
(Can we find our contact before we lose access to this location? Can we get what we need before the watch shows up?)
Players will, through a reinforced history of games or tropes, consider certain areas to be safe. A tavern is safe apart from a bar fight or, at worst, a rival showdown. A market square doesn’t have the same danger as some dark pit in a dungeon. A king’s audience chamber has a political danger to it, but players can except a certain level of protection for their characters when they’re there.
Invert this. Places that are safe contain a hidden and (more importantly) unexpected danger. The tavern has a pit in the center of it that a writhing mass lives in, and sometimes the closest patrons are finger food. The market square has a roving band of robed “cultists” that wander through it slowly, trying to box in unaware buyers, leaving nothing behind but the bones. Meeting with the king requires standing on a narrow stone bridge in a wide cavern, buffeted by howling winds from the caves below.
(Can we figure out the danger quick enough to avoid it?)
When there is something afoot and the players feel the unease, they will want to unravel the secret. There is an undeniable desire to know the unknown.
There is a woman in the tavern that keeps a permanent private booth, and every regular takes time out of their night to bring her a glass of wine and close the curtains. How come they come out looking extra haggard or with a clean bill of health?
(Who is the woman? What does she do to the people she meets with? Why do they meet with her?)
When the characters are trying to achieve something, even something mundane, the introduction of a rival crew will immediately raise the hackles of players. The higher the stakes of the competition, the more tension introduced.
If the characters are seeking a sage for information about an artifact, it’s rote that they must plead their case to the sage’s attendant first. It’s interesting if the sage only has time and desire to see one last group today, and the characters have to plead a stronger case than their competitors. It’s nail-biting if the sage will only treat with one more group for the rest of the season.
(Can we outsmart our rivals? Can we deny what they want while getting what we want?)
Tension can arise from just participating in a situation. While this doesn’t work for every group, creating a situation where the players need to decide on their character’s moral standing can immediately raise tension in the game. Especially if the longer they remain in the situation, the more is pushed upon them.
If the characters need to meet with a cabal of friendly-enough vampires, are they willing to discuss things while the vampires wine & dine on a group of the locals? Are they willing to BYOB as an offering?
If the characters go to a priest to discuss the cult of an evil god within the city, are they willing to have the discussion while the priest prepares to resurrect their latest foes, recently slain by the party?
(Are we willing to participate in this, even as bystanders? What is the limit of our characters?)
The Threat of Retribution
If the characters (and players) know that taking a certain course of action will bring definitive retribution upon them, they may choose to avoid it. More likely, they will attempt to get away with it while skirting the retribution. This attempt to outwit foes can up the stakes of an otherwise safe and innocuous situation.
Consider if the characters have been invited to an exclusive high-end fancy party, where the contacts they make will provide them with better equipment, better leads, and better pay. Attending the party will turn the revolutionaries they’ve been hanging out with against them. Can they attend the party secretly? What happens if they’re at the party and notice one of the revolutionaries there as well—are they a spy or are they taking the same hand outs as the characters?
(Can we get away with this? Is this worth taking risks for?)
NPCs can be downright annoying to deal with, turning a quick transaction or conversation into a tense encounter of trying to disentangle themselves from the situation.
NPCs can also hold more power and status than the characters. The players will usually (typically immediately) try to shift this balance of power in their favor.
A potion-seller always has the best stuff, but when you buy from him you’re getting his life story, and can you just go with him real quick to the tavern, because someone owes him coin there and he just needs to pick it up, and what are you doing later anyways? Wanna hang out?
The quest giver is a powerful mercenary captain, and the jobs the characters pick up from her are typically easy and pay well—the tension comes from actually having to deal with her. She’ll fight at the first provocation and her underlings are quick to throw outsiders to her jaws for a reprieve of their own. Do you navigate her temper? Try and barrel through?
(How do we tell this NPC to get lost without offending them? How do we deal with the troublesome contact?)
GATES & GATEKEEPERS
The situation can be made more difficult by forcing the characters to get past a guardian before they can get what they want. This works just the same as it would in a dungeon, really, but you can slap it onto any sort of social situation.
The bouncer doesn’t like your vibe. They don’t want to let you in. And if they have to let you in, they’ll follow and check up on you regularly, until you’re gone.
(How do we get past? What are they guarding?)
When the stakes of a situation are clear to the players and they must make a decision between two or more things, tension builds from that decision. The more the players understand the ramifications of the choices, wether concretely or abstractly, the better the situation.
The leader of the citadel has died, and the group needs to choose a new one. Whoever doesn’t get chosen will not take kindly to the decision.1
(Who do we choose? What merits do we base our decision on?)
Tie it together with an event die
The overloaded encounter die is a beautiful piece of tech that serves as the “engine” for running games and keeping tension high. So, what better way to deploy the above methods than with something so tried and true?
Obviously, some of the methods work better than others. Hidden danger maps well enough, but constraints is going to be a bit more work. What I’ve been doing lately is creating location-specific event dice, and when the characters are in that safe or dangerous place, I’ll use the bespoke die. It’s important to keep the entries as close as possible—if 1 is a deadly encounter in a dungeon, you probably always want to the worst option tied to that spot for all the rest.
The beauty of the event die is that it is a signal to the players that they cannot lollygag around forever. Stuff will happen. They will run out of resources or time. They need to make choices about how they spend their time. Combining this with the above methods seems to produce the fun my group and I are looking for.
A great example of how to map an event die with a potentially less “lethal” situation is what my colleague W.F.S. has written about with taverns needing a procedure. To see it fully in play, you should absolutely pick up a copy of Barkeep on the Borderlands—but the jist is this: the bulk of the bars are bespoke encounters that come up on the risk die, but the bars themselves are relatively safe. There’s a danger of violence, of course, but the main tension in the entire adventure comes from a mystery (where’s the antidote?!) combined with a countdown, competing against a powerful rival, and dealing with interesting (and often hilarious) NPCs.
Of the game I’ve been running for awhile, I would say that the memorable moments between our group are a mix between dangerous situations and something else. Tense situations. Situations where everything is at stake and the characters anted up, and then either won big or lost it all. And that’s pretty cool.
The Most important part of the post
From the above methods, what did I miss? I’m asking selfishly, as this blog post is doubling as a toolbox for me to refer back when I’m sketching out the skeletons of my adventures. So, the more the merrier. Leave it in a comment below!
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