You Must Create Tension

The most important tool of the game master is tension. Tension is created  primarily by uncertain outcomes. If you are good at creating tension, your players will feel it in their guts. You’ll know you’ve turned up the tension when they look worried and lean in to see the result of the die roll. The primary method of creating tension is creating a circumstance where the outcome is uncertain, the players are aware of the potential outcomes and the outcome must have high enough stakes that the players are interested. The outcome can be something the players will gain or something that is dangerous. Danger tends to be more motivating but gain is powerful as well. The players have to ask a question. They might not even voice the question but you want to stimulate them to be thinking about the possibilities in front of them.

You can’t tell the players. You must show them something in your description that prompts a question. If you say, “There’s a fire trap in the passage,” or “There’s a hidden door the monster slipped through.” There is no tension.

On the other hand, if you say, “The monster runs into the room and shuts the door before you can follow. You break down the door and the room is empty.” That stimulates questions and thus tension. Is the monster invisible? Is it hiding somehow? Was it an illusion? Did it teleport/dimension door? Is there a secret door? A little bit of tension builds.

As an adventure or encounter proceeds, uncertainty combined with escalating stakes creates greater tension. The adventurers have found the secret door but it hides a passageway that has obvious murder holes and is perfect for an ambush. Is it worth chasing the monster? What else is down there?

Game mechanisms and dice create tension. This is my favorite use of dice. That little bit of chaos puts the players on the edge because this is the impartial and uncaring universe inserting itself into the events. This is one point where the game master can tell rather than show. If the dice roll your way, then you kill the monster/disarm the bomb/the door opens and if the dice say otherwise… At that point, the tension has built and here we are at the moment of maximum stress. The player is holding their breath and now the focus and the tension is tied to the dice. When the roll comes up, the tension is released and the cycle begins again.

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