Ask a Gamer – “Cliffhangers, or How to Keep the Players Coming Back for More!”

Here’s the scene…

While the dastardly villain has the beautiful love interest in their clutches, our daring hero struggles to escape from a flaming car with faulty brakes, careening toward a gaping canyon with a 1,000 foot drop, a flowing river of acid roars like a herd of wildebeests along the canyon floor below. Maniacal laughter from the evil one echoes throughout the landscape, but all our brave adventurer can hear is the pleas for help from their heart’s true love. The hero slams their foot on the breaks to no avail. The maw of the wide-mouth canyon rushes closer and…

 

See you all next week, and roll credits!

 

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “What happens next?! Does the hero survive? Does he or she find a way out? What about the villain? What is he going to do with the love interest? Why would the storyteller end the story without finishing the story?!”

This is a technique people in the storytelling world refer to as a “Cliffhanger”.

Dictionary.com defines a “Cliffhanger” as:

Cliffhanger [klif-hang-er]

noun

  1. a melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.
  2. a situation or contest of which the outcome is suspensefully uncertain up to the very last moment:

“The game was a cliff-hanger, but our team finally won.”

The reason cliffhangers are tools used often in television shows (especially soap operas), movie franchises, and comic books series is because they put beloved characters in dramatic situations and end the episode prior to the resolution, forcing the audience member “tune in next time” if they want to see the “conclusion” (when, in truth, the next installment will resolve the previous conflict only to not resolve another. Storytelling 101, kids.).

This writer, being a comic book nerd and a fan of action/adventure movies, adores the cliffhanger and falls victim to it time and again. Being a writer of comic books and screenplays has taught me a thing or two about engaging an audience and having them salivate for more. And this is where I can help you.

Below I have listed Five Easy Steps to assist you, the Game Master (or “GM” for short), incorporating cliffhangers into your roleplaying game sessions. If you use these simple steps they will help you not only become a better storyteller, but also have your players come back for more of that special brand of fun you love to dish out.

Raise the Stakes. Make the situation as bad as it can be. Put your PCs in the worst possible situation you can think of. A few examples include:

    1. The tractor beam pulls your ship into an enemy battle station.
    2. A giant monster swallows your party whole.
    3. The party arrives at their destination and are immediately surrounded by the local law enforcement, weapons at the ready, with warrants for the PCs arrest.
    4. The poison courses through your child’s body and the villain offers you the antidote for secrets that will cost the lives of millions.

If you can include something specific to one of the PCs backgrounds, goals, or personalities all the better, but make sure it is a situation they do not want to be in.

Countdowns. One of the best parts about Star Wars: Episode IV is the final countdown at the end. Will Luke blow up the Death Star before the Death Star blows up the Rebel Alliance? The clock is ticking! A GM can use that to great effect. If a standard round is 6 seconds in most RPGs, then give the PCs 1 minute to leave the ship before it explodes. That’s 10 rounds. It seems like a long time, but if there are obstacles and threats in the way that they are not aware of, or don’t care about, the imminent danger then makes it even more of a challenge for the PCs. Tensions will rise, sweat will pour, and drinks will be raised by those who made it for those that did not.

Just Do it. You know that little evil part in the back of your brain that says “What if…” that you never listen to? If you want a good cliffhanger, and for players to clamber back for more, start listening to it. Better yet, start executing on it. Most GMs running a campaign won’t kill a PC. While you don’t want to make it habit, do not be afraid to take a PC’s life. This act goes hand-in-hand with Step #1 – Raise the Stakes. The other PCs will be enraged by the death of their comrade and want to take revenge for their death. And it also shows the surviving Players when you say “10 rounds until the ship blows up” you’re not kidding. That bomb is going to detonate. Act accordingly. (As a side note: unless killing the PC was a passive aggressive way to remove the PC’s Player from the game, give them an opportunity to come back as a new PC, if they, and the group are okay with it. You don’t want to be a total jerk.)

End Early. And it all leads up to this. Roleplaying games for years have ingrained in GMs/DMs the need to complete the session at a “good stopping place”.  Most modules are written that way. I reject that notion completely, and I hope you do as well. Stories are continuing adventures that flow from one set of encounters to the next. Nothing ever really “ends” for the heroes. So, why should the campaign.

Therefore, if you have the PCs in a terrible situation (Step #1) and there is a countdown (Step #2) and you have just “pulled the trigger”, feel free to end the session RIGHT THEN. Do not hesitate. Close your notes, put down the dice and say “See you all next time.” The looks on their faces will not only be priceless, but they will be ready for the next session and begging for it. People like resolution in their stories, so it takes a brave storyteller to not give their audience one, but rather force them wait and see. Trust me, they’ll love it.

Additionally, nothing provides a player an “out” to a campaign better than “We just defeated a minor bad guy and are back at the village collecting our reward. The session is over and I think now is at a good spot for me to bow out of the campaign now.” Nobody wants Players to drop out of a campaign, it happens, but it’s not your responsibility to make that easy.

Take Great Notes. Yes, you can excite your Players with the desire to know what happens next, but if you the GM forget all the details of the situation you left them in by the time the next session occurs then its loses its punch. Make sure you know exactly what happened and what happens next. And make it good. Your Players deserve that especially after the hell you just gave them by making them wait.

My Players and I have had a lot of fun over the years using the rules above to create memorable, exciting, and nail biting sessions and campaigns over the years. We still talk about some of those moments and laugh (now) about how wonderful and exciting they were. My hope is by incorporating the cliffhanger into your sessions your group finds the same level of enjoyment, if not more!

Thank you for reading, and please leave any feedback below you wish to share.

Be back next time for Brev’s Bits when you’ll get to suck on…well, I guess you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you.

I’ll roll with y’all again real soon…

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Brev Tanner
Software designer, gamer, screenwriter, comic book writer, novelist, and game designer who loves a good story and to have a good time. I might come across as flippant and sarcastic, but that's because I am. I don't take too much seriously.
Brev Tanner

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