• Justin Handlin

Cliffhangers in Dungeons and Dragons

Crit Academy discusses how the many different aspects of cliffhangers in your Dungeons and Dragons game. We also touch on how, when, and why you should use them to enhance your stories and campaigns.

What is a cliffhanger?

Is a plot device in fiction which features a 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.

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 n a heightened sense of excitement and uncertainty of combat.

Leaving the game ending before combat, can lead the players to spend time between 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 by 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 death saves. Ending with them bleeding out in a moment of suspense.

Moral Ambiguity:

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

(Reference Episode 15 Encounter: Time will Tell. Heroes must choose to let a child die with a known dark future.)

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