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-










Public Domain Photo of Soldiers Removing Landmines. 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.

  • Exaggerate your movements as you explain the enemies actions to get the players to mimic and do this themselves.
  • Modify the terrain of the combat if you are using a map. Draw a quick pit on the map where an explosion occurred,
  • Speed up the NPCs turns by pre-rolling anything you can.
  • Narrate the action you have control over by using fast  hand movements to draw the player’s attention.
  • Explain the damage the NPCs are taking in dramatic and extreme ways.
  • Make the BBEG’s attacks feel epic. Make the really BBEG’s attacks feel almost insurmountable, whether they are or not.

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?

10 replies
  1. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    A great way to build tension is to cut away to another player at the table. Obviously, this only works if the party is split up into two groups or more. In your example, that’s fairly easy. Only one person can be cutting the wire. “You reach forward to cut the wire, and…….. John. What is Cassandra doing?” Forcing a player to wait (for a good reason!) at a critical moment can have a huge effect, usually positive.

  2. Zig
    Zig says:

    @Rafe – That’s an excellent point. When my players’ characters are in different locations I always cut back and forth at cliff hanger moments. It keeps the players on the edge of their seats and anxious which builds up the drama.

  3. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    It’s on the other side of the spectrum, but Fritz Leiber changes his sentence structure from flowing to choppy every time combat happened. A number of other authors do this as well, but I first noticed it in a Lankhmar story.

    I try to dive into combat quickly and abruptly. In d20, I’d have initiative pre-rolled and the cards sorted. The map would be a very quick draw, if not already pre-made. I push for decisions in a hurry, to recreate the stress that the characters are feeling. Combat should be intense, and maybe a little confusing, and could even lead to mistakes (on both sides).

    Back to the topic at hand. Narration is great for building tension. Another fun technique is the commercial break: “The grinding sound of stone on stone draws your attention back to the altar. The lid to the sarcophagus begins to slide of its own accord. You can see some movement in the darkness inside. I’m going to take a leak and grab a Coke. Anyone want anything?”


  4. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Rafe – Do you ever encounter players getting annoyed? I’ve tended to avoid a cut-away to another player, unless the players action is as important as the one currently acting.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Haven’t read Fritz Leiber in a while, but he definitely had that style.

    I love the idea of keeping the group constantly moving. I usually try to keep a time limit on actions and deciding. Unfortunately, my group balooned in size (due to having followers and companions) and there are a lot of characters on the table. The one way I’ve found to combat this is to, hold on a sec. Gonna go get a break.


  5. Nojo
    Nojo says:

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I love the commercial break trick. Consider it stolen.

    This is a great topic. Red wire or blue wire, indeed. 🙂

    Pacing is hard when you are writing and can do as many rewrites as you need.

    When upping the pace in combat, I often suffer the one GM vs. the many players disadvantage. They get a whole round of the table to decide on their next move. The GM is constantly acting and reacting. My NPCs tend to do the default thing all the time, while the players are nice and tricksy.

    Which is where pre-rolls and *brief* notes on tactics help out.

    Tellas, I’ve never pre-rolled initiative. How did the players react to that? I like the idea of having the cards (I use index cards) ready to go. The start of every combat is this pause while I organize the deck. I do worry that my players like to roll dice.

  6. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    @Nojo – Using cards, this is simple. Prepare the NPC cards well ahead of time, with initiative already figured, and the cards already separated by encounter (if possible) and sorted by init count.

    At the end of combat, have everyone roll initiative. Write down everyone’s initiative, and sort the cards into your existing ones. When the next encounter combat comes around, just grab the cards and dive right in.

    Complications: The party may not go where you think they will, so you might not want to merge them until things start heading that way. Someone may have a group initiative modifier (like the 4E Warlord), that doesn’t affect everyone, but it shouldn’t impact the order too much.

  7. Kolbold Minion
    Kolbold Minion says:

    @John Arcadian
    Time limitations are great to make a game more dramatic and realistic. When my players say an unfortunate younge necromancer being painstakingly crawled on by a blistering magmin, they were wondering if they should put the necromacer out of his misery. However, every second they delayed the magmin crawled closer to the poor necromancers face! Its a great trick, but I would not use for an extreamly important decision.

  8. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    @John ArcadianDo you ever encounter players getting annoyed? I’ve tended to avoid a cut-away to another player, unless the players action is as important as the one currently acting.

    See, my stance is this: Everyone’s actions are important, regardless of whether or not every player’s character is embroiled in something intense.

    But I know what you mean. If one character is trying to haggle for goods and supplies while another is in a fighting pit facing off against the reigning champion, the table realizes that the pit fighter is in a spotlight situation. So I still cut away, but not right in the midst of an action or anything. I cut away to resolve something for someone who has been waiting patiently (and who’s been having fun watching how the fight is progressing), resolve an action for him, then move back to the fight. Burning Wheel makes that particular (and anecdotal) situation easy, as I cut away after the end of an exchange, or after an intense volley.

    When I do cut-aways, sure… the player being cut away from groans, but they’re always good-natured protests. I don’t do it all the time, either. Making a habit of it can definitely get annoying, but using it when it heightens the anticipation or fun at the table is a good thing. If people start to feel they’re never being allowed to resolve something at one go, they would become truly annoyed, so I don’t do that. If I think a cut-away will take away from someone’s situation, I don’t do it. I resolve the scenario, then move on.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Challenge and Complexity Does Not Equal Drama And Action Here is a great post from John Arcadian over at Gnome Stew about making the game a little more lively, a little more heart stopping and lots more interesting for the players. If you find your games and challenges to be a little blah, then head over to Gnome Stew to learn a recipe for livening things up! […]

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