Tension vs Violence in Tabletops


The traps aren’t enough of a challenge. Your descriptions of endless mines and yawning chasms aren’t holding attention. The wenches somehow aren’t bosomy enough.  And the players couldn’t give two dusty shits about solving this week’s mystery. Phones have appeared and suddenly everyone has texts to send, tweets to twit, and dick-pics to snap under the table. This week’s campaign is officially a bust, and it was good ole’ fashion boredom that broke it.

So, you do what every dungeon master does. You rip the band-aid off quickly rather than draw it out, and wrap the game up, skipping to the fight scene you saved for the end. And…it works.

Everyone’s engaged. And for those glorious few rounds you remember what it’s like to have players who didn’t stumbled into the game by happenstance, choosing your DM’ing over binge-watching Chuck reruns for the 4th time. It’s a good feeling. You’re happy. The players are happy. So you try to capture it again…by skipping straight to the combat during the next session.

And the next session.

And the session after that.

Soon you’ve fallen prey to the pattern of murder-loot-tally, murder-loot-tally, sending hoards of monsters at your players to keep them constantly engaged, until the game table becomes a pile of vanquished foes with your players standing on top, bloody and weighed down by gold, having forgotten what riddles or quests even look like.

YulawAt this point it’s acceptable to scream you’re nobody’s bitch.

By now players have re-tooled their characters so their skillsets no longer resemble adventurers, but the next casting call of The Expendables. The bard is a killing machine somehow, and the party tank could halt Hitler’s lightning brigade single-handed. If this was your goal for your campaign, then I salute you. Well done.

But in case you’re feeling nostalgic for quests, puzzles, and adventure, here are a few ways to increase dramatic tension without sending unstoppable waves of goblins at your players to keep them off their freaking iPhone.

The Slow-Building Tension– Elude to a Solution (For a Problem You Caused)

Wooden_hourglass_3Gold is a fine motivation. Sex works too, if they players are into stat-based wenching and awkward descriptions of tavern whoopie. But let’s face it, sometimes the only thing that gets the party moving is the promise of magical items and awesome loot.

Or hatred, if you want them to quest for free.

Unite the players under a common banner of nerd-rage. Introduce a game mechanic that only applies to the territory they’ve stumbled into; A tariff they must pay at every bridge due to a corrupt politician. A stability check for casting spells because of a necromancer’s experiments. Or a dark lord who requires all subjects to communicate in rhyming couplets lest they face the headsman. You’d be surprised how motivated players become; to kill the Big Bad who’s causing even the slightest annoyance or loss of gold. It should be subtle at first. A mild itch that builds until it’s a persistent pain in their ass, like sand in the loincloth.

Lute_player_wiki“His lordship’s table was set so fine,

We joined his hall, perchance to dine,

And merry met by kith and kin,

To dance, and…uh, f*** this I’m stabbing him.”

The Medium-Building Tension– Focus Their Rage At One Source


— Google Images

Pictured: A source of rage powerful enough to offset America’s oil dependency.

A close cousin to pointing the players in the direction of a common grievance is to outright insult them. It’s a wonder to behold the frothing fury that spawns when some courtly fop or over-educated wizard flaunts their status at the players. They don’t even have to be the villain of the campaign. Just add an NPC into the mix who appears out of the player’s reach. Then, give them a set of tasks that will put them within strangling distance of their source of ire.

There is something disturbingly fascinating in telling the players “This is the one NPC you probably can’t get close enough to kill…unless you jump through these arbitrary hoops.” and then making that one NPC the most hated asshat on the planet.

The Fast-Building Tension– Have the Players Invent a New Outcome

mousetrap_game_01If your plan to defeat the dragon involves more than 3 steps, 2 of your party members will f*** it up.

If the players are getting bored mid-quest it isn’t because D&D or Shadowrun or Savage Worlds has gotten old. They’re bored because they don’t know the next steps to take, and they’ve gotten tired of guessing at puzzles and clues.

Maybe it’s because they’re lazy. Maybe they never beat the Water Temple in Ocarina and thus don’t have your boundless reserves for finding door levers. Whatever is bogging down the game– that’s what’s got them craving combat instead of problem solving.

To avoid this, if the players can’t find the solution you wrote, let them invent one. If “Speak ‘Friend’ and Enter.” is too complicated for them, let the players dig the mountainside away around the doorframe. Inspire them to come up with a creative solution. Prompt them to try something new. And let them move on.

Pacing should never be bogged down because they failed a search check or got stuck in a windowless room. Better than letting them wander aimlessly through dungeons, tripping traps and looting chests, lead them on a chase in which the jerk they’ve been trying to kill is blitzing ahead of them.

Because by the end of the game…

Tension > Violence. If You’ve Done Your Job


— Google Images

“I warned you I was chaotic neutral.”

Just remember these few keys things when it comes to building drama. Tension is about making a handful of intense fights count, instead of an hour long killfest. Setting the stage with outside agitation, getting the players to focus their efforts on an antagonist, and finally allowing them to discover their own creative solution, will all add to the tension of those few substantial fights. After all, what’s more dramatically significant; The unstoppable killer murdering his 14th victim? Or a well-executed Mexican standoff?

And if tension and drama still fails to engage the players, stop gaming with easily distracted man-children.


2 thoughts on “Tension vs Violence in Tabletops

  1. Why didn’t I think of that?

    That’s the question I keep asking myself when I read your GM advice. And here again, why didn’t I think of that? Make the players hate an NPC? So much easier than trying to get them to like, or care about an NPC. Appeal to their loyalty? Their curiosity? Their sense of justice? Don’t bother! Just make sure they hate an NPC so much they’ll spend their coin and shed their blood for a slim chance at pissing in the NPC villain’s pool.


    • Thanks. My favorite and most recent example of this came up in a Pathfinder game. The players met a gnomish scholar who used big words and implied they couldn’t grasp his academic work. Regardless of the fact that the players, by stat/skill, in fact couldn’t grasp his work, staged a freaking robot uprising just so they could put a crossbow bolt in his head.

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