Thrillers Inc Home Edition

And here comes the time to yet another instalment in our series. Today, we're discussing the feeling of suspense. Suspense deals with the unpredictable, with the "what comes next" as well as when will it come. Suspense is made of three main things: The character and how much we care for it; how likely a particular event is; and lastly, how uncertain we are about the outcome.
Suspense is related to tension, anxiety, concern and doubt, and to a certain extent, curiosity. There is one major difference between curiosity and suspense: curiosity deals with not knowing what our protagonists want, while on the other hand, suspense deals with the fulfilment of our protagonists' goals.
So, how can we bring suspense to the gaming table?
The first technique is by controlling and changing the likeliness of success or failure. If the characters will always succeed, or always fail, there will be no pint in telling the story. If the characters always emerge from battles victorious, why playing battles? Isn't it better to just say: "You fight hard, but win this battle and all the orcs are dead"? If we change the probability of outcomes, the suspense will naturally rise, and every dice roll comes with great tension.
Another way is to control the pacing of the game. Make things in the "now" and things will get tenser, space the time before a major event, and you'll see the sweat on your players' noses. Make your descriptions a little bit longer when trying to cut the right string of the bomb, and it will be a lot more suspenseful than, like going over it quickly.
Another way to control the pacing, and thus bump the suspense level, is with meanwhile scenes. Whether it's meanwhile to other PCs in time of a split party, or to the villain actions, stopping at a minor cliffhanger and going to another place makes the particular player's whose character is left hanging in the air to look forward to see how his action will turn out. Other way to create the meanwhile is by the "parallel scene" technique, like the one used in The Silence of the Lambs. If you can make it into a game, you'll surely benefit from it.
Another way is to put PCs out of their comfort zones (or better yet, putting the players themselves out of it) will make every act tensful and will bring doubt back to the player's minds. Think about something, ability, a trait, or anything else that the character is adept at using, and then put the character where s/he can't use this ability (or the ability harms more than it helps). The player will have to come up with a new way to do stuff, doubting every action and concerned about whether s/he'll do it "right".
Putting a character out if its comfort zone can also be used in another way: with contrasting characters. Think back, for example, on the evil twin act or when David Huxley encounters Susan Vance. Although it's being used mainly in comedy, this trick surely enhances the tense atmosphere of the situation.
In most games and stories, there's this moment of big revelation, when the big and important thing is being told. It is usually one of the most suspenseful moments in the story, as we learn the ugly truth and we have no way to escape from it. This revelation is one of the most important moments in the story and should receive the right amount of energy. Think about the suspenseful atmosphere after Darth Vader tells Luke that he's his father, this is what we strive for.
2 last techniques for today: The first is by controlling the stakes. Higher stakes means higher level of suspense, and raising them can help you raise the level of tension in your game. If you start with a single family's life at stake, and then go all the way to risking the whole country, they'll feel it. But raising the stakes is not enough, as you should always make sure that the players remember the stakes. It doesn't matter if the whole universe is at stake if no one notices it.
The second is by using dilemmas. A dilemma is the formal name for the Bang, a choice between 2 unwanted consequences. It can be a small dilemma or a big one, but there are 2 important things to remember:

  1. It shouldn't be black and white but black and (mostly) black. The love of one's life or the standing in society; the morality of oneself or the family. If there is a clear right answer and a clear wrong answer, there's no dilemma at all, but another not that important and unique conflict.
  2. The higher the stakes, and the more personal they are, the better the dilemma will be. Which one of Sophie's children will live is a lot more personal and important than which city will I let fall first. Personal stakes are almost always higher than the non personal ones, and they carry a bigger emotional impact.
How about you? How do you use or create suspense in your game?

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