Guidance – GMing 101: Alex’s ACTUAL Ways to Build Suspense. No Fooling!

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about tips for building suspense. For real this time.

Aw man, I’m sorry everyone. Ryan and I had the idea to do an April Fool’s joke on New Year’s Day, and it was just TOO funny not to follow up on!

But now we’re in April, (INTRIGUING April), and talking about building suspense is actually pretty on-topic for an Intrigue Based game, so we’re going to cover that topic today. You’ve waited long enough, so let’s dive right in!

What is Suspense?

Before we talk about building suspense in a Roleplaying Game, it might help to tlak about what suspense is. You know that feeling when you’re watching a really good movie where everything is at stack for the main character. The action starts moving really slow, you start to grip the edge of your seat while you just sit there, waiting to see what happens next? The movie starts taking forever and ever, and time just crawls to a halt. Then finally, the thing happens! It happens! And it was SO WORTH IT.

That feeling of anxiety, of uncertainty about what is going to happen next in a story, my friends, is suspense. Suspense is one of the most powerful tool’s in any storyteller’s toolbox when employed properly. It pulls your players in and makes them extremely interested in what’s going on. They’re hanging on your every word, just where you want them. They want, no, they NEED to see what happens next. Every GM wants their players to feel these emotions, but the question is why? Why do we care so much about suspense?

Why Bother?

When you get right down to it, if your players are experiencing suspense, then they’re invested in what’s going on. They care about your story, your characters, your world, and your fate. It means that the story is that much more enjoyable for the people at your table. You’ve got them hooked, so to speak. But suspense is more than eager anticipation, in a sense its legitimate dread. You want to know, and not knowing makes you uncomfortable. Suspense is like anticipation’s awkward brother, but in the long run he’s SO MUCH BETTER.

So how do we build it?

Building Suspense

Suspense building relies on anxiety, and anxiety means the people participating in the game are concerned about what’s going to happen. They’re invested. The simplest way to get people invested is to have your players focused on a question relating to the events of your story that they want a “yes” answer to. For example:

“My party is low on hit points and resources. Are we going to make it through this encounter alive?”

Your player WANTS the answer to this question to be, “Yes.” They want to survive, they want to keep playing. But when your monster rolls a critical hit and you go to confirm the roll, all of a sudden that question doesn’t become quite so clear anymore. That critical hit and the consequences of its confirmation become an obstacle to the player’s desired outcome: survival. This is why one of the biggest mistakes that a GM can make is to roll a confirmation roll without telling her players that she’s threatened a critical hit. The time that you take between rolling the crit and confirming it is time that you’re making your player crap his pants in agonizing suspense, because he WANTS your answer to be “No,” but its so, so satisfying when your answer is, “Yes.”

So let’s take suspense out of combat and move it to storytelling, where its arguably more potent. How do we build suspense here? Well, the first step is to have a question relating to a situation in your story that your PCs, again, want a “yes” answer to. For example, “Can we reach the city and rescue our friend’s daughter?” The PCs want the answer to this question to be, “Yes,” which is why suspense is built when obstacles happen along the way. “No, because there’s a troll along the way,” then, “We beat the troll, but a flock of spy-ravens saw the commotion and is pursuing us,” followed by, “We stopped most of the ravens, but enough got away that our cover is blown.”

These developments in the story are what cause suspense, and the larger the stakes, the more anxiety is built, the more embroiled in suspense your players become. But what can we do in order to help build suspense? I’m glad you asked, because there’s a number of things you can do.

  1. Make the Players Care. Whether this is, “Can we save the prince from the even king?” or “Can we stop the dragon before it torches the town,” or “Can we get the bar owner to sleep with the bard?” Your players need to care about the answer to your question. Why should we root for or care about the PCs and their supporting cast? Why does the villain need to be stopped? What happens if the PCs can’t woo the sultry man tending to the bar? If the stakes aren’t meaningful, then we don’t care about them.
  2. Timing is Everything. If you drag out your question, your PCs won’t care about it by the end. If every second of their adventure they’re worried about the princess’s safety, they’re going to get exhausted and not care. The best way to handle this is to make the problem clear, but don’t make its answer uncertain until about a 1/3 of the way into the story or plot. For instance, we know that Ulysses wants to go home in The Oddessey, but we don’t really start questioning his ability to do so until he washes up on Cyclops Island, after Posedion starts to mess with him. Keep your heavy blows holstered, and save them for when your PCs think things will be easy.
  3. Small Wins, Small Loses. Your players aren’t going to care about you’re the problem if they’re always winning every time; if they’re always successful, they’ll assume they can’t fail. Likewise, your players won’t care if they’re always failing. You need to balance the story with small wins and small loses that move towards the ultimate goal. Back to Ulysses, we’re asked, “Can he beat the Cyclops? Yes, he did it! Can he escape Circe? Somehow, he did it!” But every win is small in the grand scheme of things; beating Circe doesn’t put Ulysses significantly closer to his goal, but we’re invested because we know he can win, but we also know he can lose (such as when he lost YEARS to the lotus flower).
  4. Foreshadowing. You need to give your players hints about what the answer is to their question all throughout the story, and that doesn’t mean clues that they’re going to beat the bad guy. For example, if the answer to your question is, “No, we can’t save the princess because the princess is actually the dragon in disguise,” clues about how the dragon is female, or how she knows precisely which knights to gobble up, or which route the PCs are most likely to use all help the final, “Ah ha!” when the players finally put everything together. Foreshadowing uses hints about the future to build suspense about the presence.
  5. False Successes. Your players are going to make plans and assumptions as they move along the story. The best way to build suspense, the ABSOLUTE best way is to give them their moment. Listen to their theories. Make them think they’re right. They got this in the bag. Then, pull the rug out from under them. Quick, fast, and lethally. In my dragon example, the PCs find the princess. They help her escape. They start bringing her back to town. Where she’s set up an ambush to attack them. She assumes her true form, and the PCs quiver. THEY QUIVER.
  6. True Failure. The PCs need to fail when they think they’ve won. The dragon is too great. They’re not as prepared as they thought. Everything they knew is wrong. And now, you let them run. The antagonists don’t, of course. But you let them run for survival, tail between their legs. Maybe you kill a PC or two. And when you’ve thoroughly humiliated them, you leave them alive. And then you do the thing they were trying to stop. Maybe the dragon goes to celebrate her victory over the PCs by burning their capital down to the ground while they’re beaten and bruised. Maybe she goes to eat their families and destroy what’s most precious to them. One by one. You make the PCs think they’ve failed, and it builds suspense. HAVE they failed? How can they still win this?
  7. Don’t Tell Them. The key to suspense is to never answer your questions too soon. You mess with their emotions, you puzzle them, you make them beg for the answer but you simply don’t give it. You bring them closer and closer to the truth until you push them away into the unknown. You make them dance the dance, and when you do, even when they THINK they know your answer, they’re still in suspense. Because often the journey is better than the destination.

And that, my dear readers, is all I have to say about suspense this week. FOR REALS! What do you think? Have you ever used suspense effectively in a game, or have you ever had it used on you? Leave your questions answers below, and I’ll see you back here on Friday for a new Iconic Design where I make up for the fact that I took your article away last week.

That’s right, folks: two builds, one article! See you there.

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

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