Cliffhangers are a wonderful way to end a gaming session because they end play at a moment of high drama that leaves the players anxious to get back to the gaming table, and that tend to be fairly memorable because of the drama. You can think of them as milestones within the adventure.
The primary source of inspiration drawn on is the 1944 Serial “Captain America” which has just been telecast on Public Broadcasting here in Australia. [Quite good, though they overused one of the techniques described below.] But that just got me thinking on the subject.
I had intended to take a break from the Pulp Genre for a while, having just wrapped up the House Rules series, but something that had been called off for yesterday was unexpectedly called back on again at the last minute, chewing up time I thought I would have for getting a head start on today’s article. I needed something quick, and this at least started that way (at least it can be applied to many different genres of game).
But, as I have said before, I don’t do “short” very well. In addition to word-count inflation, a black-out in the middle of writing has meant that this article can’t possibly be finished in one post. So I’ve broken it in two – Part 1 will list eight general tips for Cliffhanger finishes, and part 2 will list 11 techniques for creating and using cliffhangers, with additional specific tips and advice.
1. A cliffhanger definition
A cliffhanger is a scene that leaves the players wanting to know what happens next. The most obvious and common cliffhangers place a character in some sort of peril and don’t show if they survive it, but there are more subtle variations, and a number of different ways to resolve the cliffhanger. The more dramatic the moment of resolution is going to be, the more satisfying the cliffhanger as a punctuation mark within the adventure.
Timing is everything
Your cliffhanger will fall flat if the danger that forms the cliffhanger is less extreme than a danger that was overcome shortly before the cliffhanger takes place. You want the cliffhanger to be the most dramatic moment of the preceding 45 minutes to 1 hour’s play – longer than that and you can usually get away with it. Also, by definition, the Cliffhanger has to come at the end of the day’s play. So part of the trick is aligning these two events. Later, I’ll tell you about a couple`of ways to get the timing right.
The Lead Balloon
Dramatic Final Scenes are only one-half of any cliffhanger. The forgotten half is the resumption of play, when you have to resolve the cliffhanger. Get that wrong, and half your next session of play will go down like a lead balloon – and so will your next attempted cliffhanger. It takes time and repeated success before your players will fully trust that dramatic pause again. For each cliffhanger technique that I offer below, I will also take a hard look at the next-session kickoff – quite often, that’s the only difference between the techniques that I have to offer.
So the first tip that I have is this: Know what a cliffhanger is, in its many forms and permutations – in other words, know what you are doing, and then do it with deliberate intent and gusto.
2. Have a vague idea of where you will be up to
It helps immensely to have a rough idea of the pacing of your adventure, and how far the characters are likely to get by the end of play for the day.
Simply dropping a cliffhanger into proceedings is not good enough; for the cliffhanger to work at anything approaching its best, you need to build up to it. And that, in turn, works better when you have it planned to at least some extent; otherwise, you can find your adventure and your buildup in conflict instead of harmony.
The second tip, therefore, is: Plan to incorporate cliffhangers in your adventure, and position them around your projected end-of-play point.
3. Create more potential cliffhangers than you need
The relationship between adventure planning and a successful Cliffhanger Ending goes even deeper; if you have a reasonable idea of roughly where the adventure will get up to in the day’s play, you can make sure that you build in potential cliffhangers to exploit.
It’s never possible to forecast exactly how far the players will get in a single day’s play, there are simply too many variables. At best, you can get a close approximation. So the best approach is to incorporate one cliffhanger at the point you think the game will reach, plus two more at plus-or-minus 15 minutes, plus another 15-30 minutes before the earlier of those two. That gives you a 45-60 minute “window” to aim for. If the game session is more than six hours long, I would also think about dropping one in at about the four-hour mark, just in case.
My third tip for working with Cliffhangers is: Have more potential cliffhangers than you think you are going to need built into your adventure. A LOT more.
Actually, to be honest, most of the time, I don’t do this; decades of experience, a consistent GMing style, and a fairly stable game prep approach enable me to get fairly close to the mark most of the time. If you, too, enjoy all three of these benefits, then you can probably ignore this tip. Everyone else should take it to heart.
4. Have a way to downplay unused cliffhangers
By the same token, you don’t want the adventure to lurch from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, then go quiet at the start of the next day’s play, until the pattern repeats.
The easiest solution to this problem is to design each potential cliffhanger as an encounter, then plan for it to go in either of two ways – over-the-top (cliffhanger) or “normal”. But that’s additional prep that you really want to avoid, if you can; so a still better approach is to design them all as “normal” encounters, but with the potential to explode.
It’s worth observing that I am using the term “encounter” in a somewhat-broader sense than is normally the case. A character looking through a musty old tome is having an encounter with that tome. A character having an intimate soirée with an NPC is having an encounter of the roleplaying variety. A character querying a database is having an encounter with the computer, and another with the data being accessed. A character receiving a telegram is having an encounter with the information in the telegram. And so on.
The Fourth Tip is: Design your “encounters” within the “cliffhanger zone” with the potential for use as Cliffhangers.
5. Heighten the drama of the cliffhanger
There is a gap in play – it might be seconds, minutes, or more – between the commencement of an encounter and its transmutation into an actual cliffhanger. As soon as you know that this encounter is going to be the vehicle for the dramatic uncertainty that is a cliffhanger, heighten the drama of the encounter. This is your “big finish” for the day, so go all out to make it exciting, interesting, or whatever the dominant tone of the encounter is. Amplify it to lay the groundwork for the cliffhanger itself.
If a cliffhanger is a suspension of resolution, you need suspense to attach to the situation to be resolved. This of course distances the potential cliffhanger that is having that potential realized from all those encounters in which the potential was not exploited.
Hence, my fifth tip: Build up the lead-in to the Cliffhanger.
6. Set notes and Player Choices
Cliffhangers are more effective when the resumption of play matches very closely with the end of play of the preceding section. You want to be able to rewind the clock and repeat the last couple of seconds or more of play – in other words, if you end with a cliffhanger, you start the next session with the same cliffhanger.
This is very hard to do unless you were using prepared narrative and notes. Fortunately, Tips 2 and 3 advise you to prep such material in advance, focusing your efforts on the parts that matter.
The other thing that makes it very hard to do are the players. Player Choices must be carefully documented, and they aren’t allowed to change their minds between sessions even if they think of a better idea. The opening of the next session is not about relating what is happening, it’s about what has just happened.
The best time to do the prep for the start of the next game session is immediately following the last, if not sooner.
Sooner, you say? How is that possible?
By taking notes as the cliffhanger unfolds. A Microphone and a piece of audio recording software connected to a laptop. A dictaphone. A reel-to-reel recorder. A Mobile phone & app. Use something to record the last minute or two of the game session if you can, and take a photo or two of any battlemap showing character positions before and after each character moves, just for that last vital few seconds.
All this then becomes set in stone, immutable, past history. At the start of the next session, you relive it but don’t repeat it.
I also enforce something I call “Cliffhanger Rules” or “The Cliffhanger Zone” or even “Cliffhanger time”. Normally, you want to inform players of the results of their actions immediately they specify what those actions are. In the “Cliffhanger Zone” a player informs you of what their character is doing, but you deliberately withhold the results from your narrative unless they build the drama of the cliffhanger itself. Save those results for the opening sequence next time around!
Quite obviously, this also requires careful notes in some form.
So my sixth tip is: Document the cliffhanger as best you can immediately, so that you can replicate it at the start of the next game session.
7. Improvising a cliffhanger
Even with all this prep, it is sometimes necessary to improvise a cliffhanger. Not all the techniques that I have up my sleeve work well when used in this way; but there are three approaches that work especially well as improvised cliffhangers. For this reason, and the because there are no shortage of cliffhanger techniques that work just as well, if not better, given the correct advance prep, I reserve these approaches for the times when I need to improvise a cliffhanger.
The circumstances need to be appreciated; the only times when you should need to improvise a cliffhanger are when your pre-planning has gone seriously off the rails, or for some reason, simply didn’t get finished or done at all. The first indicates that either the players have gone off in some radically unexpected direction and you’ve been winging it for half the day, or they took a lot longer to get through an encounter of some sort than expected. I once had a game session where the PCs spent half the day talking to an NPC, discussing philosophy, history, and the NPC’s unique slant on the game-world theology, an encounter that was intended to take no more than ten of twenty minutes, game time. As a result, they were nowhere near any of the possible cliffhanger points in the adventure, leaving me with the choices of a low-key end to the session, or an improvised cliffhanger.
The second thing to bear in mind when improvising a cliffhanger is that there is a greater chance of your adventure going radically off the rails at this point than there is at any other time within the adventure. The reason should be obvious: You have the entire adventure planned out to at least some extent, and then you drop in something that is both extra, and dramatic. This is an obvious recipe for an unexpected shift in direction, and can often require the rest of the adventure to be completely scrapped and replaced.
If you use some of the plotting advice that has been offered at Campaign Mastery in the past, such issues can be minimized, but that’s about as good as you can get. The specific advice that I have in mind is, first and foremost, to know what the villains and NPCs are trying to achieve, and to build the adventure elements out of those ambitions and their efforts to satisfy them. That means that when you need to improvise a Cliffhanger, you can construct it from the same foundation elements of the plot on which the adventure is based. The NPC actions have an inherent plausibility as a result, and the overall shape of “the grand plan” better accommodates the addition of the cliffhanger.
The first improv technique: Withholding an outcome
The first of the techniques for improvising a cliffhanger is to withhold the outcome of a critical PC action or choice.
“Jerenkov hesitates for a moment, realizing how long the pumps and pipes have been left to rot without adequate maintenance, and how catastrophically it could all go horribly wrong, and then reaches out with a steady hand that doesn’t reflect his apprehension and pushes the button to start the abandoned geothermal reactor…”
The GM knows full well that the reactor is going to start up with no problems whatsoever because it’s critical to his plot that the PCs have power to run the systems that are still operational in the hidden base, but the players don’t. According to his planning, they simply push the button and the power systems come on-line, one after another, with no more than a host of warnings and reminders of scheduled maintenance that’s overdue.
By ramping up the drama and anticipation and then leaving it unresolved, withholding the outcome of the action, the GM has created an improvised cliffhanger. All he has to do is write down exactly what he said so that he can repeat the performance at the start of the next session and then continue with the outcome, also elevated in drama a little to maintain the established mood.
The second improv technique: Inserting a dramatic development
“Jannick steps silently along the leafy-strewn path, alert to the possibility of an ambush at any moment. As he reaches the next doorway, he feels the earth shift slightly beneath his foot and hears an ominous click…”
The PC has just stepped on a land mine that didn’t exist until the GM needed a cliffhanger. He could even have prepared the entire piece of narrative in advance with the intention of inserting it at the end of the day’s play, whenever that happened. This is an example of inserting a dramatic development.
Normally, you would (or should) forewarn the players that a minefield was nearby by having them spot a crater, or perhaps a mine whose leafy concealment had blown clear. Or perhaps its a fantasy game and instead of a mine, some other trap has just been activated. By foregoing that warning, you negate any opportunity that the players have of avoiding the problem – a minor bit of railroading of plot for the purposes of drama that is only acceptable if there is a clear solution available to the players affected. That solution then gets offered to the players at the start of the next session, so that triggering the trap has no practical impact on their character’s welfare except to offer warning of the possible existence of more traps.
The other point to note about this example is that the GM raised the drama of the scene with a piece of misdirection (the possibility of ambush) and then redirected the drama at the last moment to the real threat – the trap.
Of course, there will need to be some backstory provided in the next session to justify the existence of the trap at that exact place. Who put it there, why, and who was it intended for? If it was reasonable that the PCs would have been forewarned of the possibility of traps, this backstory also needs to make it clear that the information wasn’t given to them because there was no way that the people briefing the PCs could have known about it.
Finally, the GM needs to have a really clear understanding of any extra-normal sensory abilities of the PCs – it’s no good using this sort of cliffhanger if the PC had the ability to detect the mine before he set foot on it. In other words, the “dramatic development” needs to be crafted to fall within the limitations of those involved. (There is a way around this problem that will be shown by one of the more general techniques that I’ll describe later – I’ll make a point of bringing it to your attention when the time comes).
The third improv technique: Insert a drop-in encounter
“You glare at the opposition and ready your weapons, as do they. One of the blue-skinned barbarians yells something in their untranslatable alien tongue; you aren’t sure of the content, but the tone suggests that it is an insult of some kind. Tension hangs in the air as each of you stares into the eyes of an enemy, and the first mistake will precipitate a general slaughter. Who will blink first? And then there is a whoosh of air from overhead, and a bright light rains down on the battlefield, as a somewhat prissy voice announces, ‘Oh my goodness, no, this won’t do at all!”
This is an actual example from my archives; it occurred many, many years ago in my first AD&D campaign. All that my notes indicated was “the PCs encounter a hunting party from the nearby village.”
Everything else was improvised to heighten the drama of the moment, ready for the cliffhanger.
I knew that some tribes make mock charges to demonstrate their manhood – so I inserted that cultural trait into the society of the hunting party in question. The PCs knew nothing of the villager’s society, so they had no forewarning of what to expect; a potential disaster loomed, one that would have completely derailed the adventure, which required the Hunting Party and the PCs to cooperate, as a means of delivering essential briefing information to the players about the situation. I therefore also needed something to derail the potential bloodshed that could easily have resulted from the PCs misinterpreting the actions of the Hunting Party, thanks to the last-minute introduction of that social custom into the mix.
What I did have planned to use as a cliffhanger was an initial encounter between the PCs and the deranged Hologram (my AD&D campaign had a LOT of sci-fi elements in it) who was to be both ally and major villain for the adventure. I had no idea what the substance of that encounter was going to be – I did a lot of improv back then – only that something was going to happen. But improvising the dramatic buildup, then redirecting the tension in an unexpected direction with the appearance of the Hologram, while defusing the hostilities between the two factions, told me exactly how I needed the image to behave.
Of course, if I didn’t need a cliffhanger at that point in play, I would not have introduced that social custom at all; I would have introduced the hunters some other way, such as a bird dropping from the sky and crashing to the ground just in front of the PCs, the unfortunate foul spouting a couple of arrows through its gizzard. Encounter proceeds from there with a lot of gesturing and gibberish, the upshot of which would have been “OUR bird”, or perhaps, “OUR lunch”.
The Seventh tip
These techniques demonstrate my seventh tip: You can improvise a cliffhanger, and there are three ways of doing so – but such improv is even better if it’s prepared in advance!
8. The Mid-battle Muddle
Of course, the cliff-hanger comes to us courtesy of the Pulp-era serials, including such gems as the legendary “Perils Of Pauline” – which, ironically, didn’t actually employ cliffhanger endings.
More often than not, the dangerous situations that form the cliffhanger arise in the course of a battle. And that’s especially problematic for an RPG.
Combat sequences are the most complex situations to interrupt and resume. There are whole bunches of stats that receive temporary adjustments during a fight, such as current hit points, etc. Character’s positions and facings have to be preserved perfectly. There may be spells in mid-cast, spell effects waiting to expire, and all sorts of other complications. Even remembering the immediate goals and ambitions of each and every character and creature on the battlefield is either a pain in the backside or a consumer of vast amounts of time after the game. And that’s a waste of time that could be spent playing – you have to actually end the game early to have enough time to document everything.
Battle may be the natural breeding ground for cliffhangers, but it’s one that should be avoided in RPGs at all costs. Just before combat, or just after, or when something interrupts to bring the combat to a premature end – those are fine. But unless you are VERY sure of the arrangements you have made to preserve the current state of play, apply my final tip:
Cliffhangers and mid-battle scenes don’t mix in RPGs.
So that brings us to the end of my general hints for Cliffhangers. In part 2 of this article, I’ll detail eleven ready-to-implement cliffhanger techniques. And yes, I’ve been told there aren’t really that many. All I can say is that some people will be very surprised. If I can finish it in time, look for it later this week; if not, it will be published by this time next week, all going well.