Suspense in RPGs

The other day, while I was surfing YouTube, I came across a video in which the presenter was explaining why he thinks that Quentin Tarantino is every bit as good as he thinks Tarantino is. It turned out to be because of ⑴ indirect dialogue that reveals its meaning in retrospect and ⑵ suspense. In the course of the explanation the present cited an explanation of suspense in movies that Alfred Hitchcock once made.

If you show a pair of characters engaging in well-crafted dialogue at a café table, and after five minutes a bomb explodes there is no suspense. But if you show a bomb under a café table, with its timer counting down, and then have two characters sit at that table and engage in well-crafted dialogue, oblivious to their danger, the suspense it terrific. Now, I maintain that there is another approach to suspense that also works: show a character in apprehension, taking great care to avoid some danger, and not show the audience what the danger is. But it’s much easier to fall flat with the latter.

It occurs to me to wonder how Hitchcockian suspense may be used in RPGs, where there is seldom a clear disjunction between characters and audience, and in which dramatic irony is difficult.

I think it can be done, because I can recall an instance in which I did it. But I was GMing on instinct that time, and I can’t tell you how I did it. Is there a formula for suspense in RPG adventures?

It is always dangerous to draw parallels between roleplaying games and other storytelling forms, such as movies and literature.

In games that use dice (which is the vast, vast majority of them), the act of rolling and resolving the outcome is a form of suspense, especially as the stakes of the outcome increase. In much the same way that Hitchcock’s audience doesn’t know if the bomb will go off, the roleplayer doesn’t know what will happen with the dice roll. The key here is to keep the players invested in the results.


I don’t agree. It is dangerous to depend on things being the same in RPGs as in other forms and media, to rely on the parallels without testing them. But I have long and often found that drawing such parallels is a very fruitful source of ideas to try and techniques to adapt.

“Can I use this technique from drama, literature, or improv in RPG?” is not a dangerous question to ask if you are prepared to accept that the answer might be “no” or “not beneficially”.

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As much as I dislike consuming the particular format, modern serialized television dramas have nearly perfected the dramatic suspense (in that particular format, at least).

The lesson I learn from looking at those types of shows is that the suspense is about what happens as a result of one story arc concluding. Cascading dramatic storylines in serial.

I meant dangerous in the same way kitchen knives are dangerous. You have to use them correctly and with care; otherwise, it can end with blood and tears.

Fair enough. I’ve been using kitchen knives for forty years. Even made my living by using them for a while.

Anyway, it seems to me that drawing parallels from other forms of storytelling to RPGs is more like garlic than kitchen knives, inasmuch as the only danger is that you will produce one unpalatable dish, soon eaten or binned, and a learning experience — rather than permanently maim a hand.

Yep, that’s the pedestrian approach to creating suspense: the cliffhanger. You create uncertainty about what is going to happen. The approach described by Hitchcock is the dual of that: create certainty.

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While the Hitchcock approach creates certainty that the bomb is there, there are gobs of uncertainty as to how the scene will play out. If there was certainty in the outcome (such as knowing that the character will discover the bomb and make a getaway before it explodes), then it would be boring. Suspense demands that the audience (or roleplayer) be uncertain about the outcome.

Yes, that seems right. Can you put the finger on the difference? Or is there no difference?

Perhaps the suspense is not of a different kind, but in Hitchcock’s example it is augmented by dramatic irony (which is hard to use in RPGs). The audience don’t know what is going to result from the bomb exploding — hence the suspense — but the characters don’t even know that the bomb is there. Does that seem right?

Thinking about the time that I remember achieving Hitchcock-like suspense in an RPG, the PCs knew as well as the players did that the vial contained a supernaturally deadly poison, but the NPCs who had the vial and were talking about it did not. So the situation gave the “audience” both ironical knowledge and a suspenseful uncertainty.

I missed one particular session when friends played a horror themed session of the WEG D6 Star Wars which made it a little like Alien. During a particularly tense moment one of the players excused himself to go to the bathroom - then snuck out of a window, climbed along a ledge and knocked on the window of the bedroom the others were in and screamed. As they were five floors up in a tower block, most of the group sh*t themselves, I was told!

I’m not strict about this, but I tend to keep a tight third-person viewpoint: what the players know is no more (or not much more) than what their characters know. In the case of the bomb under the table, that would mean they become aware of it when one of them notices it; a sense of urgency would more typically be from the PC being elsewhere, knowing about it, and rushing to try to get there and deal with it before it goes off.

I have occasionally done an “insert shot” of something the PCs don’t know but the hypothetical reader/watcher of the story would, but I use it with care.

Suspense and humour can be closely correlated. There’s a film in which the hero is explaining to the local Squire how he’s got information about the dastardly smugglers and he’ll need the Squire’s help to arrange a trap for them… but the viewer knows that the Squire is actually the chief of the smugglers, and our hero is digging himself deeper with every sentence. A suspenseful scene… but now picture the hero being played by John Cleese.

A Thing I Always Say (see podcast) is that RPGs have their own native narrative forms and generally these work better in RPGs than ones adapted from linear fiction. Yes, you can do foreshadowing in an RPG, but it’s different from a book in which you can go back and make sure that only the significant foreshadowing is left in the narrative.

Which is where I argue with Robin D. Laws and the Hamlet’s Hit Points approach: I hold that if a group spends some time coming up with a detailed plan, and that plan comes off largely without a flaw, that can be narratively satisfying in a way that does not require the GM to throw in new and unexpected obstacles the way you would have to in a linear story.

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My immediate thought on this was the use of clocks in Blades in the Dark.

In case that doesn’t mean anything, a clock is simply a circle split into a number of segments that get progressively filled in. They are used to represent tasks, dangers and other things that get closer to happening, with player actions resulting in sections getting shaded in. Once the circle is all shaded, the ‘thing’ it was marking happens.

This for me is an example of the visible ticking clock. How close are the guards in discovering the intruders? There’s 1/6 shaded on the clock, so there’s room to breathe yet. But Nebb the Clumsy has just made a bad roll to jimmy open that window, breaking the glass in a very audible way, so another couple of segments get filled in. 3/6 now, and there’s still a long way to go until the thieves can reach that lockbox.

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I think that clocks can work well, but so can the bomb reveal… as long as you have players that can cope with not breaking the fourth wall, they have to buy into the conceit that they don’t know about the bomb, and game or roleplay their characters through the situation.

Laws, and you, must have very different players than mine. When I was running Fixers, my campaign of consulting criminals, my players came up with a really good plan for their first job (knocking over a business that was storing diamonds as a basis for a specialized speculative market) and executed it perfectly. And then told me afterward that the “execution” part was so dull that they wanted to quite the campaign; only one of them was willing to go on with that format. Instead we sat down and came up with a different dramatic format, a “Schrödinger’s caper” approach where their research and planning were handwaved as dice rolls, and their margin of success gave them the ability to say “Ah, but we planned for that!” some number of times during the session. They liked that much better. What they wanted, it seemed, was to experience their plan of battle suffering the proverbial effects of enemy contact, so they could show what pros they were by salvaging it. The approach you describe was one they found intolerable.

The revised mode of that is the sort of thing Laws would favour, I think: something more like a caper film, where there’s a planning montage which exists to say “here are some elemente we’ll use later, and these people have done a bunch of planning”, but without working out the actual plan. Then later on there’s some pool of “fortunately, I thought of this” points that can be used to tweak the narrative. (Rev PK and I came up with separate systems for this in one of the Pyramid 3 issues.)

And, like a story beat chart that rigidly controls the mood of the narrative, that’s fine if you want to imitate linear-fiction antecedents; but it has been my experience that this feels flatter in practice than a game that’s using its own natively interactive forms. A linear fiction trope often has to be bent quite out of shape to work in a storytelling mode where players can’t be forced not to ask awkward questions.

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Well, I see that I misread your original statement, seeing “agree” where you had said “argue.” But how would you apply your approach to the “consulting criminals” premise I was working with? I think that I tried the approach you seem to recommend, and I found that the players totally did not find the results narratively satisfying.

Yes, clearly those players would be counterexamples to my model. I think a compromise that didn’t involve metanarrative “planning points” would be to define the plan at a fairly abstract level (“we pretend to be police coming in after a bomb goes off”), assume the overall quality of it is determined by skill rolls made during the planning phase, and then come up with complications – and perhaps play out only those individual scenes in which the complications manifested. (“You’re on your way to the vault when you a security guard ahead - but nobody’s meant to be on this side of the building.”)

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My players did end up defining the plan at a fairly abstract level; it was seeing all the details work out that frustrated them.

As a player I’ve found it tremendously satisfying when things go according to plan – but possibly that is largely because so much of the time they don’t. When you’re used to everything going pear-shaped on a regular basis, and consequently you tend to enter into situations half-expecting it to all go wrong, it’s really quite nice if it doesn’t : )

If everything always worked out the way you planned… I can imagine that not being very exciting for anyone.



It’s a matter of balance. It’s much like combat. You need a mix of easy and tough encounters (and degrees in between) or they all become boring. Sometimes the plans work smoothly and sometimes they don’t. There should also be variation in when/where/how/why plans fall apart.

Some players love to plan and feel betrayed by the GM if they don’t work. Others like to plan, but expect the plan to fall apart at some point and require improvisation. Some players are Leroy Jenkins. Hopefully, you don’t have all three at your table simultaneously.