As gamers we tend to think of high mechanical difficulties as bearing more drama and action. The less likely it is for us to make a roll or succeed at an action, the more exciting and tense the gaming will be. Sometimes this is true. Pulling off an incredible feat by rolling the natural 20, watching 10s explode to push you over the edge of the required number of successes, or having to spend a point to raise a die type in order to hit the target number can definitely raise the drama and action, but the mechanical challenge is not the only thing that matters
It’s about making them shiver with antici-
When you want an action to have significance and drama, the players need to be fully involved in their character’s actions and they need to feel like they are on the edge before making that dice roll. Think about watching a movie or TV show where someone dismantles a bomb.
The scene will start off with a few seconds of slow action to build up the tension. Nothing major will happen as the hero approaches the bomb. The focus around the hero may blur a bit, leaving him or her and the bomb as the only thing in focus.
The hero will open up a panel on the bomb and look inside. They’ll see the complexity and take a second to look over it.
Cut to a shot of the hero from behind. You see them doing something, but you don’t know what.
Cut to a shot of the hero’s hands starting to manipulate something in the bomb.
Cut to a shot of the timer or an innocent bystander.
Cut to a shot of the hero’s face. Their eyes dart about.
Cut to a slow shot of the hero manipulating the bomb, moving their hands closer to it.
Cut to a bead of sweat just above the hero’s eyes.
Long slow pan, tension music playing, the hero begins to cut a wire and . . . .
In a game, the action described above is not just a roll. It is roleplaying, it is the Game Master building up tension before and during the roll. In the end, the dismantling of the bomb will come down to just a roll, just as the actual dismantling of a bomb will come down to skill and luck. The drama and action comes from the ancillary events going on. The way the shots are framed, the way the hero reacts, and the way that the audience perceives it.
Building Drama And Action
Don’t let them just roll, use your GMing authority and narration to draw an action out. Take a few seconds and tell everyone to stop whatever they are doing. Focus on the player doing the action. Describe a little bit about the bomb, ask him or her the process they are going to employ, let them tell you, then say "Red Wire or Blue Wire” just as they roll.
The tension for a situation like this is easy, but some scenarios like combat tend to suffer from slowing down things. Building the drama and tension in situations like these is more about getting the players involved and rewarding that involvement. Use whatever tools are at your disposal to do this.
No matter what, making the players feel invested in the action going on and getting them to focus on it, no matter how difficult or challenging it actually is, will make it feel more dramatic. How do you pace your sessions for dramatic effect? What tactics do you employ when making situations feel dramatic?