GM Advice: How To Write a Cliffhanger (That Will Leave Them Begging For More)
A good deal of you may not know this about me, but in my younger, more vibrant (and certainly thinner) days, I was a stand-up comedian. I can say this with a straight face, as I have been paid for my efforts, and released an incredibly rare and limited album. That's right, your beloved bard is, for all intents and purposes, an actual bard (truth in advertising)!
Well, technically I lean more towards being a fool, but I assume that if you've been reading my stuff for any extended period of time, you've already come to that conclusion.
You may be wondering what exactly my nostalgic jaunt down memory lane has to do with today's topic. Allow me to enlighten you, as my Sophomore English teacher did many moons ago when I first started making people laugh for money. He told me there was a golden rule that every performer adheres to, regardless of their medium, be it stage or screen. A rule as pertinent to the Rolling Stones as it is for any tabletop RPG.
Always leave them wanting more.
Leaving your players wanting more is a great way to generate excitement and interest for your next session. After all, it is a formula that has worked for countless books, movies, and TV shows (Except for you The Walking Dead. That crap with Negan was not cool). Season Finales are almost all entirely built on this principle. It keeps people talking in between seasons, speculating what might happen at the beginning of next season's premier and builds a wave of excitement that carries people until they find out what happens next. The same principle can be applied to your game, and most likely already has at some point.
Writing a cliffhanger can be fun, but it works a little differently for RPGs than it does for book or screen. While those mediums have a per-established story that will go exactly as the writers have penned it, you know full well that a Game Master has no such luxury. Your players are chaos generators, and unless you have been running for the same group for a long time, it is difficult, if not impossible to predict what they might do from one moment to the next.
So how does one plan a cliffhanger for the unpredictable tempest that is player action?
Easy. You just need to know when to drop that curtain. Let me explain; the purpose of a cliffhanger is to leave the players with something unresolved. Not being able to resolve this immediately can drive some players mad, but it will be an excited sort of mad that can't wait to see how things turn out next session. Finding your cliffhanger can be as much about feeling out the players as writing something compelling to begin with. There are a few sure-fire cliffhangers that will grab hold of your players and hang on for dear life.
"Whole lotta nope in this picture."
The Action Cliffhanger: You want excitement? How about ending the game just as some action is just about to take place? This is the most common kind of cliffhanger and the easiest one to spot in a game. This leaves the players in that heightened sense of excitement and uncertainty that usually accompanies things like combat. Without this action resolved, your players will no doubt plan and plot all week on what they will do next. This is especially useful when characters are about to enter combat, be it intentional, like confronting a boss, or unintentional, like a sudden ambush along the roadside.
"And I mean ACTION!"
The Big Reveal: I like to think of this one as the "Empire Strikes Back" style of cliffhanger. This happens when a major plot point or twist is revealed to the players, like the Big Bad being one of the characters' father, discovering that one of the NPCs that they have trusted since session one is, in fact, a villain, or that the plot to assassinate the king was planned by his own son. These are sometimes complicated are best when meticulously planned ahead of time. The pay-off, however, is that look of jaw-dropping awe when you knock you players for a loop.
The Moral Struggle: This one works very well as an unintentional cliffhanger, best left ad-libbed. In this scenario, the player characters are confronted with a strong ethical or moral dilemma that requires an immediate response. For instance, a child is born, and the characters have it on very good authority that the baby is evil and will do unspeakably evil things if not slain before midnight, which is only one minute away, but it's still a baby, and therefore hasn't committed any evil acts... yet. End the session before a decision can be made, and let the players torment themselves until the next session over what they will do. The choices should be lofty ones, like letting a villain live, allying themselves with someone with conflicting ideals and alignments, or choosing between letting one of two good people die. The implications of these events could have far reaching effects in the campaign, and the players should know that before ending on the cliffhanger. It makes their agony exquisite.
"In theaters in the US this Friday!"
The Emotional Roller Coaster: This hurts your players where they live. The Emotional Roller Coaster doesn't just toy with your players' minds like The Big Reveal, it toys with their fragile emotions, specifically emotional attachments. This is good for the killing of an important NPC the players hold in high regard, or at the very least putting them in danger. Tensions run high when this type of cliffhanger is implemented, but not anywhere near as high as when the players realize their characters are not safe from this treatment either. If you really want to turn that dagger John Snow style, place a player in the role of the one dying. If a character falls in combat toward quitting time and is slowly bleeding out, end the game right before the player makes that final death save or stabilization check. They may actually kill you, but your players will be chomping at the bit to find out if their companion lives of dies.
"If I have one regret in life, it was that I knew nothing."
The Deus Ex Machina: Sometimes things look bleak, and so many cliffhangers end on a dark or down note. They need not all end this way. An upswing can have just as much effect as a downswing, perhaps more in some instances. If you watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, you probably remember the battle of Helm's Deep. If you don't then I am not sure what to do with you right now. Anywho, as most battles in the Lord of the Rings go, it gets to a point where it seems utterly hopeless for out heroes. The baddies are storming the gates, your friends and allies are falling faster than Dot-Coms during the beginning of the recession (dated joke), and your chances of survival have dropped significantly. Then, suddenly a cadre of good guys, a glimmering hope on the horizon appears. This is the Deus Ex Machina, and it is usually implemented when helping your players turn the tide, or at the very least give them a small sliver of hope. This could be a small army amassing to help the players out, or a beloved NPC arriving to aid in the righteous kicking of ass. Whatever the case, be sure to end the scene, and the game, before the arriving party can do anything.
"We're here to help... next week."
But don't feel you need to be beholden to one type of cliffhanger at a time. Like a good lasagna, you can layer that shit. Just this past Friday night, during my Dragonslayer game (which I now live tweet), I ended on a triple cliffhanger, incorporating The Action Cliffhanger, The Big Reveal, and The Moral Struggle. The players sat there for about three minutes with their mouths agape and then proceeded to beg me to continue.
Never give in. Make that cliffhanger mean something.
But it is more than just deciding what type of cliffhanger you want to use, it's about deciding when and where to use it. The cliffhanger should be pertinent to the story, so leave the random encounters for another time. It should occur sometime near the end of your session, within the last half hour. There is no need to cut a session short just because you want to make an impact. Lastly, cliffhangers are a great tool, best used in small doses. You could have a cliffhanger every week, but it can get a little tired, and your players will always be expecting it. Cliffhangers have the maximum impact when no one sees it coming.
There you are, the single most magical and irritating tool in a storyteller's arsenal. Use it well.
Roll well my friends,
Looking for more elements to help you make the best cliffhangers you can? Check out the Raging Swan Press section at the Open Gaming Store. There are a plethora of affordable resources available that you need not cook up. Just cut and paste into your campaign, so you can focus more on making your players want to hurt you. Just tell the find folks at the OGS that Ed The Bard sent you.
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