• Justin Handlin

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?

Big Reveal:

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.

Emotional Coaster:

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.

Extraordinary Expeditions: 10 Modular Adventures for your 5th Edition Roleplaying Game

Extraordinary Expeditions is a collection of modular adventures designed on a flexible framework to be easily tossed into any fantasy setting. Scour the Desolate Wastelands for the lost library of Zenith Athenaeum. Save, escort, and protect villagers as they seek a safe haven, while two towering titans do battle. Venture into a village completely overrun by monstrous creatures from the Far Realm. Complete with adventures, maps, and monster stat blocks.

One of the best parts about any roleplaying game isn’t just the fantastic battles. It’s the memorable locations that they take place in, and the interesting NPCs that our heroes encounter. Our goal was to build a project that included all these great points. With Crit Academy’s expertise in 5th Edition and Arjade Productions’ masterful knowledge of 3.5 rules, we believe Extraordinary Expeditions will hit on all these points and so much more.

Click here to learn more!

Moral Ambiguity:

Players are confronted by a strong ethical or moral dilemma that requires immediate action.

Ending the session before the decision can be made can torment the players on what is right and wrong until the next session. This will also give them time to get creative with their solutions and arguments for their decisions.

Make sure that the decision they must make is a big one. Allowing the potential murder of a small village is a big deal, and should weigh on them. Allowing a big bad evil village to escape to rescue an orphanage full of children, or having to choose between letting one of two good people die. Remember that the results of these decisions could and should, have far-reaching effects on the campaign, and its characters. Make sure to stress this with your players, it will make their decision that much more agonizing.

Deus Ex Machina:

Oftentimes, heroes end up in hopeless and bleak situations, ending a session in a dark abysmal situation can be draining to the players. Adding an upswing can have a great effect on the game and players.

Many battles can get the players in hopeless situations, enemies storming the gate, killing allies left in right and your party is falling faster than a blond toupe in the windy city, and the chance of success looks nigh impossible. Then, out of nowhere a glimmer of hope, reinforcements, a powerful beloved ally appears, or some other slim to none chance triggers, giving a glimmer of hope. Whatever the case, be sure to end the scene and session at this point before anything can be resolved.

Don’t be afraid to mix and match those different styles to give you a big whopper of a cliffhanger!

Great Cliffhangers include some of the following:

  • Reference character backstory/backgrounds

  • Change the timing of a well thought out plan

  • Provide new and sudden inspiration

  • Place one or more loved ones in mortal danger

  • Reveal a terrible betrayal

  • Pervert the ending to an otherwise innocent quest (but in a fun way)

  • Renew an old love, hatred, stress, fear, or desire

  • Introduce a new villain or ally, or change an ally to a villain or villain to any ally

  • Change atmosphere or tone

  • Encourage discussion about what’s about to happen away from the table

  • Let something that everyone has wanted to happen for a long time happen, then make them wait for the next session to see the aftermath

Watch our full show for more details here

Unearthed Tips and Tricks Monthly Magazine! We bring you new and creative content for you to bring with you on your next adventure

Character Concept:

Lucas W.

A Hero Reborn:

This character has already experienced death. He was a simple acolyte of a small temple. The temple was under attack by monsters. This hero decided the only way to save everyone, was to sacrifice themselves, by using themselves as a distraction. Leading the monsters away allowing the children and other villagers to escape. The gods observed this self-sacrifice, and using true resurrection, gave the young acolyte a second life. The character becomes a devout follower of the deity, thus becoming a cleric, paladin, or maybe a celestial warlock.


Origin: Giant Scorpion

New Feature:

Implantation: If the scorpion’s sting attack reduces a grappled creature to 0 hit points, or it bites a target that’s already at 0 hit points, it implants an egg in the creature’s skull through their eye socket.

The deposited egg grows for 2 tenday before hatching. If the implanted target is still alive, it loses 1 Constitution every day and has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks. After the first tenday, the victim is incapacitated and blinded.

When the egg hatches, a young scorpion(half all dmg and hp) erupts from the victim's head, causing 3d10 slashing damage. A lesser restoration spell can kill the egg during its incubation. (Additionally, you can allow for a rare or special herb to do the same.)


The Correct Answer

Inspired by one of my favorite shows Hunter x Hunter.

Players are looking for direction to an object, or location. Only one person knows of its location. An old elderly lady. When the PCs arrive, she asks them a question before revealing the location. The party can decide as a whole, or individually. For tension, use a timer 10-15 seconds or count allowed.

If you answer incorrectly, she will not disclose the location.

Your answer will be simple, either number 1 or number 2.

Any other answer will be considered incorrect.


Bandits have captured your mother and your lover. You may only rescue one.

Your mother

Your lover

Who will you save?

The elderly lady then inquires to the logic behind their choice.

Regardless, of the answer, the players are given a map with magical ink that as a group they can all see, or individually they each can only see their own.

The Answer:

The answer is silence. Both choices are incorrect.

Regardless if the PCs pick 1 or 2, their map leads in the wrong direction into traps. But are never told they got it correct. Just…handed a map.

Additional options: Add another contestant who answers first. And is allowed to pass. But is never told if they are correct.

Magic Item:

Goldman’s Sack

This pouch is made of a soft silk, laced and stitched with gold. A silver ribbon weaves around the outer edge, when pulled, tightly closes the pouch. On the inside of the bag is a circle with a sequence of runic sigils.

Any gold that is placed into this pouch is turned to silver permanently after 1 minute.

Once per tenday 1d4 silver pieces disappear from the sack and reappear in the creator's vault with the sacks matching sigil sequence.

Uses: great for smaller currency shops, gaining lots of silver to coat weapons, could be used to inflate the value of gold.

Dungeon Master Tip:

From @wizardonthewynd on Twitter

DM tip for (hopefully) minimizing murder-hoboing. Give names to as many NPC’s as you can. Meet a town guard? Have another one, just leaving his shift for the night, call out; “night Bob, say hi to Mary and the kids for me.” Let’s see them kill ‘Bob the father’ now!

This can cause guilt as well as remind the players that the NPCs are part of a living world.

Player Tip: Don’t be a Dick

..actually, you can be a dick. To the NPC’s with Fantasy Insult Generator:

Get creative with your fighting words!

Love this app: Link below


Comes with three broad topics:

Bombastic Bombardment
  • Errant Slippery Gimp

  • Soft-toothed poxy ragamuffin

  • Wide eyed bat fowling loon

Fight words
  • Insipid goat molester

  • Swag bellied goose

  • Slope-shouldered ninnymuggins

Petty Jab
  • Pig-fiddler

  • Dewberry

  • Dullard

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Keep your blades sharp and spells prepared heroes!

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