Do you know how to create great Cliffhangers in Dungeons & Dragons Games?
Tension. Suspense. The thrill of the unknown. These are all words used to describe cliffhangers. But what are they really? How are they useful to roleplaying games? And most importantly, how do you create them?
What is a cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is a plot device in fiction that features the main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction.
Why use it?
It leaves the players wanting more. This is a great way to generate excitement and interest for the next game session. We know this works because it's pretty much the formula for countless TV shows, books, and movies due to the Zeigarnik effect, which states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.
Keep in mind this can be a bit tricky to set up in an RPG vs other mediums, as the entire story isn’t 100% pre-established as the players have input.
What are the different types of Cliffhangers?
This sort of cliffhanger happens when a major plot point or twist is revealed. Probably one of the most recognizable of these is the event in Star Wars “Empire Strikes Back”, when Luke finds out Vader is his father.
Discovering that someone of importance has a different role that the heroes believed can have a huge shocking effect on them, leaving them in awe.
How about ending a session just as the PCs reach the BBEG that they have been chasing for months? Often the most common form of a cliffhanger and easiest to set up and see coming. Action cliffhangers leave the players in a heightened sense of excitement and uncertainty of combat. Leaving the game ending before combat, can lead the players to spend time between the next session planning and plotting on what they will do when combat starts. So be ready for any potential surprise combos! This can be especially useful if you are running out of content that you’ve prepared, or an unintended battle is in sight.
Why just toy with their minds? When you can toy with their fragile emotions? The easiest way to pull this off is through attachments. Most notably and most frequent, is killing off an NPC that players have built a strong attachment or love for. Especially if this NPC has been around and helpful to the PCs for a good amount of time.
This type of cliffhanger often takes place in a moment of high tension, but you can push it even further by placing your PC in that moment of uncertainty. If a player has fallen in combat and is bleeding out making death saves, maybe adjust the combat so that it ends before that player finishes that final death save. Ending on them bleeding out in a moment of suspense.