For those who came in late:

Cliffhangers are a wonderful way to end a gaming session.

Ending play at a moment of high drama leaves players anxious to get back to the gaming table, and makes a gaming session memorable. They serve as milestones within the adventure.

In Part 1, I listed eight general tips for Cliffhanger finishes in RPGs, and pointed out that the forgotten element of the cliffhanger is the restart of play in the following session.

This article will build on that general advice by listing fourteen cliffhanger techniques for creating and using cliffhangers, with some specific tips, advice, and notes on each.

Types Of Cliffhanger

Don’t think there are fourteen types of cliffhanger? You would not be alone. The Wikipedia article on cliffhangers only lists two:

  • a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma; or
  • a main character confronted with a shocking revelation.

(To qualify as a Cliffhanger, the danger or revelation has to occur at the end of the episode of serialized fiction, which either means this definition doesn’t apply to RPG game sessions or that these are considered serialized fiction – or haven’t been considered at all.)

That’s fine for a theoretical overview of the concept, but when it comes to practical usage, I think that variations in implementation technique are distinguishing features that characterize cliffhangers, distinguishing one type from another. Each requires you to do things a little differently, and you need to know those differences in procedure before you can actually use that cliffhanger approach.

The techniques that I have identified are:

  1. The Skip-a-scene Technique
  2. The Gasp Technique
  3. The Plot Twist Technique
  4. The Ominous Sign Technique
  5. The Gloat Technique
  6. The Mistaken Identity Technique
  7. The It’s Not Too Late Technique
  8. The Blind Fools and Heroes Technique
  9. The Impossible Shot Technique I
  10. The Impossible Shot Technique II
  11. The Gotcha Technique
  12. I’ll Explain Later!
  13. From Out Of The Blue
  14. The Awakening

So, let’s get started (PS: I’m going to be deliberately tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top in the few examples I felt it necessary to offer…).

1. The Skip-a-scene Technique

I commented in the first part of this two-part discussion that the proximate inspiration for the article was watching the 1944 serial, “Captain America“, which relies extensively on this technique. The general principle is this:

  • (a) Put one or more PCs in a dangerous situation;
  • (b) let them decide what they are going to do about it;
  • (c) decide what the consequences are (i.e. whether it will succeed or fail); and
  • (d) what will happen next.
At The Cliffhanger

In the cliffhanger ending, you describe (a), (b), and (d), but leave out (c).

“As the berserk robot herds you into the corner, the reactor edges towards critical overload.”
   “I throw my shoe past the robot to press the emergency crash button on the reactor. It powers the robot, right?”
   “You think so, but aren’t sure. Roll to hit with your shoe.”
   “11! That should be good enough!”
   “Ducking beneath the flailing robotic arms, you wrench off your shoe, Dodging to one side, you judge the weight and throw it towards the control panel. Deflecting off one of the robotic arms, it lands at the top of the control panel and balances precariously. Pipes burst from the steam pressure and klaxons sound as the reactor overloads and the robot aims a killing blow that will crush your skull like a melon hit by a sledgehammer. Seconds later, the reactor dome explodes… And that’s where we’ll end this week’s session. Next time, we’ll see if your desperate shoe-toss hits the mark – and if it does any good…”

When play resumes

To start the next session, you describe all four elements, with (c) in its proper place:

“Last time: The berserk robot reprogrammed by Doctor Noxx herded you into the corner, while the reactor edged towards critical overload. Pauly [The name of the PC] decided to throw his shoe past the robot to press the emergency crash button on the reactor, in the hope that it also powers the robot, and rolled an eleven. Ducking beneath the flailing robotic arms, he wrenched off his shoe. Dodging to one side, he judged the weight for a moment, then and throw it towards the control panel. Deflecting off one of the robotic arms, it lands on the top of the control panel and balances precariously before sliding off and landing on the reactor’s emergency shut-off button, crashing the reactor control rods back into the superheated Positron Reactor. Pipes burst from the steam pressure within and klaxons sounded as the reactor overloaded The robot aimed a killing blow that would crush Pauly’s skull like a melon hit by a sledgehammer – and freezes, it’s capacitors draining of power. The klaxons warning of dangerous overpressure in the reactor dome continue, it’s too late to stop an explosion. You race from the building in the nick of time as, seconds later, the reactor dome explodes, venting the positronically-charged steam into the sky.”

Analysis & Comments

Notice how the omitted scene completely conceals the success of the character’s action and how it permits him to escape in the nick of time, even hinting that it might have failed, and also fills in the action in between the shoe landing and “seconds later” by assuming that the character will do the only reasonable thing under the circumstances. (Also notice that the pseudo-science is flowing thick and fast). The cliffhanger ends on a spectacular note after a dramatic buildup. That spectacular note then becomes the kick-off for the next session of play proper.

Finally, note that the resumption narrative recast everything from present tense, as used in the cliffhanger sequence, to the past tense. In other words, it’s too late for the player to change his mind about his action (no matter what clever way out he may have thought of in the meantime); his decision was already made and the consequent desperate action had already happened.

A note on the absence of synopsis

A lot of GMs start the day’s play with a synopsis of what had happened previously, explaining what had happened and what the backstory was. This deflates all the tension of a cliffhanger, so the example GM didn’t do it, figuring that there would be plenty of time to do that later. He was able to drop a couple of references to past events into his opening sentence to give the immediate situation a broader context and left it at that – the bare essentials.

2. The Gasp Technique

The premise of the gasp technique is to end the cliffhanger on the reactions of the PCs without showing what they are reacting to (though you can hint at it). This has to be a strong reaction of some sort, even if it is only momentary, and should not commit the PCs to a course of action or a state of mind beyond that initial moment. You have to be careful to ensure that whatever the PCs are reacting to is surprising or shocking enough that the reaction is justified in the player’s minds when they finally find out what it is.

At The Cliffhanger

The Gasp technique is about the unexpected, and I’m specifically excluding surprise threats – these are dealt with under “From Out Of The Blue” below. That means that there is little opportunity for a big buildup, which makes this type of cliffhanger more difficult to use effectively. The best approach is to employ secondary senses for the buildup – a loud “thrummm” sound coming from somewhere up ahead (with whatever it is shielded from vision by obstacles), a huge shadow, of irregular shape, whatever.

It is obviously essential to allow for any extraordinary senses that the PCs might have access to if the surprise is to be maintained.

But, depending on what the PCs are reacting to, all of these problems can be bypassed.

So the basic anatomy of this cliffhanger is:

  • (a) vague hints or a threat;
  • (b) identification of the threat without revealing the surprise;
  • (c) the moment of revelation, without revealing the surprise;
  • (d) the reactions of the PCs, without revealing the surprise, and avoiding the other restrictions imposed earlier.

“The intruder alarm sounds as, in the control room, the camera covering the Baker-nine corridor whites out and then cuts to static.”
   “I alert the others that I’ve lost eyes and can’t ID the intruder.”
   “Fine, Garrock. Harmony, you and Fringe are racing down the adjoining Mike-two corridor and approaching the intersection, with you in the lead. A bright glow is coming from down corridor Baker-nine, from somewhere near the armory.”
   “The Armory? Then there’s no time for intelligence-gathering. I’m turning down Baker-nine as quickly as I can and yelling at whoever it is to Halt. Fringe, hang back and cover my back from the intersection.”
   “Got it.”
   “You round the corner and see a figure sheathed in arcs of lightning, glowing so brightly that you can barely make out a vague outline, and using a brightly-white hand to melt through the lock into the armory. You skid to a halt and your jaw drops as the figure turns toward you, the electrical discharge momentarily pausing long enough for you to see into its face. Your jaw drops in disbelief when you recognize the intruder…”
   “Who is it?”
   “A question for next time,” replies the GM, an evil smile on his face.

Notice that the example GM followed the prescribed pattern to a ‘T’, and also saved most of his buildup for that final burst of narrative.

A second example, this one Fantasy-oriented:

“Sporlock crouches on the beam in the rafters as the leader of the self-appointed Exulted emerges from the antechamber to meet the returning strike force.”
   “Maybe we’ll finally get to see who that bast**d really is. I’m staying absolutely still and silent, and breathing as shallowly as I can – I don’t want to gasp from holding my breath for too long.”
   “‘Aah, Strike Marshall. Did you succeed?’ asks the figure in scarlet robes and faceless mask. The Strike Marshall drops to one knee and bows, replying, ‘Up to a point, My Lord. The Watcher’s Guild intervened before we could finish the job, but we did retrieve the Thanatagral as you ordered.'”
   After pausing for a moment to give the player a chance to state any action, the GM continues: “‘The Watcher’s Guild, again? When the opportunity permits, we will have to chastise them properly for their impudence. Still, you achieved the primary objective. Bring the Thanatagral, and I shall inform our Master.'”
   “So the Exulted Leader is just a figurehead!”
   “So it would seem. He turns away from the Strike Marshall and heads toward the altar you noticed earlier, removing his face-mask. His face is finally revealed! So shocked are you by his identity that you involuntarily gasp, feel your fingers go numb with shock, and you begin to slip from your precarious perch… and that’s where we’ll end for the night!”

Again, there’s a buildup, and a minor revelation, and a few teasing hints, all of which build the drama, and promise that the PC, Sporlock, is in a position to discover something really juicy. A quick tease, and then the revelation and reaction – without revealing the actual surprise.

When play resumes

A key difference that may have been noted from the preceding examples is that in this technique, the GM has ended at the moment of revelation; it’s entirely logical for the reveal, which is going to occur simultaneous with the reaction, to follow the final moment of the information conveyed. Rather than leaving out a scene, the GM has simply performed what would be termed a ‘hard cut’ in the world of television. At most, there might be a “to be continued” caption over a freeze-frame.

Oh, and for the record: the surprise of example one was the rotting body of a former team-mate, which someone has reanimated, while the surprise of example two was that the arch-enemy that had run the PCs ragged was their landlord, who they saw at least once a week.

3. The Plot Twist Technique

Ending with a plot twist is always a great way to go – if it’s surprising enough, and big enough. Too often, plot twists fail on one or both measures, leaving an anticlimactic taste in the mouth.

There are two ways to use plot twists as cliffhangers – you either finish with the revelation, or you stop just short of the revelation while showing the character’s reactions to the cliffhanger, in a similar fashion to techniques number 1 and 2, respectively. However, I’m only listing the latter approach – because while actually ending with the revelation has all the impact you want at the time, when the next session starts, players have had days/weeks/months? to get used to the idea and it will have all the impact of wet spaghetti. In particular, they won’t react as though surprised.

The basic structure is therefore pretty much the same as that of Technique 2. The only real difference is that instead of using a reaction as a tease at the end, the plot twist is considered shocking enough to stand on its own. For my money, either of the examples used to illustrate the Gasp Technique would fit that bill, though the first one is probably better-suited to the plot twist technique. However, neither of them actually qualify as “plot twists”, which is why they were left in the technique 2 section.

Analysis & Comments

I’m not going to delve into how to ensure your plot twists are adequate; aside from being off-topic, and way too big a subject for a side-bar, it’s a subject that I’ve already written about, here and there:

…amongst others.

4. The Ominous Sign Technique

Ending with an ominous sign or portent can work quite well if not overused. Players have a definite saturation level for this sort of thing, and regain their capacity for a repeat of the technique very slowly. The other big danger with this approach is that the actual danger being signposted has to live up to the hype – and hype is very easy to generate. It’s a catch-22, though: if you dial down the hype, it often lacks sufficient intensity to justify its use as a cliffhanger. And one final danger: too big a gap between the warning sign and the event creates a disconnect between threat and event that completely drains it of dramatic tension.

The best solution is to:

  • (a) know in advance what the threat is going to be even though it won’t show up in-game until the next session;
  • (b) make sure that it’s big enough to justify being hyped to the max from the player’s point of view;
  • (c) ensure that the event triggering the ominous sign is front-and-center and appreciated as connecting to the ominous sign by the players within the first quarter of your next session.

While this is often used in television, that medium has one huge advantage over most RPGs: they can use music to induce, or reinforce, mood. So used to this are we that ominous signs without it are actually handicapped in effectiveness. In the past, I’ve tried replicating an ominous tune (duh-duh-duhhhhhh in the pattern low, very low, low again) with my voice, and while it succeeds in telling the players what the mood should be, it’s an abject failure at actually generating that mood. If anything, it reduces it to a caricature of what you want to achieve.

Lately, I’ve found that holding my hands up for quiet and remaining absolutely silent for a mental five-count is far more effective, especially if it precedes a spoken “to be continued…” In fact, this approach is so effective that a good half the time, one of my players will say those immortal words on my behalf; I simply nod in reply. I haven’t experimented with different time frames, though I suspect that much shorter won’t be effective, and much longer will simply become uncomfortable. Though, for whatever it’s worth, I did once completely freak out a group of players I was GMing by being silent for 5 minutes – no hand gestures, but look toward whoever’s speaking and use facial expressions to show that I wasn’t having some sort of seizure or something.

5. The Gloat Technique

One time-honored way of ending with a cliff-hanger is with the villain gloating about having succeeded, or it being too late to stop him. This one largely comes to us by way of Comic-books, and is often double-teamed with a plot twist. “The fools have been completely deceived into doing exactly what I wanted them to do. Now there is nothing to stop me…”

But there are a number of problems when it comes to replicating this approach in an RPG that make it far more difficult than it seems.

The first is that in comics, the reader occupies the position of a super-observer, able to go anywhere and see anything that is taking place. To use this approach in an RPG, you need one of the PCs to be in a position to observe or overhear the gloating, and that’s much harder to arrange.

The second is that in a comic, you can have the protagonists take the threat seriously, no matter how ridiculous the plot; engaging independent players is much harder. Your villain and his plot not only have to be credible, it has to engage not just the PCs, but also the players – and there are no shortcuts to achieving this.

On top of that, you have all the problems that usually come with a plot twist (discussed in technique 3, above) if you are using one – if you plot twist falls short, so will the monologue, and so will the villain doing the gloating. Followed shortly afterwards by your adventure.

This is a technique to be employed only when the stars align and you have all your ducks lined up in a shooting gallery.

At The Cliffhanger

Effectiveness is completely lost if the PCs or the players are permitted any sort of reaction. For that reason, whenever I use this technique, I make sure that, without pause:

  • (a) I give the villain his carefully pre-scripted gloat;
  • (b) Flash some sort of “to be continued” indicator – usually verbal, but occasionally a carefully-decorated sign works even better if I have a font and pattern that achieves both legibility and some stylistic reference that’s appropriate to the villain;
  • (c) Have some sort of game business that I can launch straight into, such as experience points, or a reminder of the next session. In fact, anything that takes the players away from responding to the final gloating statement by the villain.
When play resumes

The major reason for the careful pre-scripting is so that I can reprise it as faithfully as possible when play resumes. My immediate priority is then to do one of two things: Either surround him with overwhelming force (so that the PC is encouraged to back off with his priceless intelligence) or whisk him out of there ASAP or even faster. An elevator, a teleport, a mystic portal, a puff of smoke, a door closing between the PC and the gloating villain – I’ve used them all. I’ve even had one step out from a window ledge and onto the top of his invisible flying saucer (I wanted to have him leap and be caught by a tractor beam, but while he would have had the technology, it didn’t fit the arrogance and confidence of the character).

The reasons for undertaking one or both of these is so that the one or two PCs who were in a position to overhear can get all the other PCs onto the same page. I avoid taking players away from the table for either the cliffhanger or the resumption of play unless I have no other choice because their characters are elsewhere, already doing something, and their choices would be influenced by the knowledge. Sometimes you have to, but it’s still better to avoid it if you can.

6. The Mistaken Identity Technique

A variation on The Gloat Technique is the Mistaken Identity. In general, the PCs confront and/or defeat the villain only for him to be revealed as some third party in disguise.

Beyond this basic pattern, there are a number of variations. The disguised person may be another known enemy, or a supposed ally, or even a real ally/associate/ex-party-member who has been mind-controlled or reprogrammed/indoctrinated. You can end with the revelation, or have the real villain step forth from the shadows, having used their cat’s-paw to weaken the PCs. He will usually gloat, making this an application of The Gloat Technique, and reducing the Mistaken Identity to mere build-up; or the real villain may continue to lurk in the shadows, letting the PCs think they’ve won. Or perhaps the ally is actually the real villain, and has been all along.

A lot depends on how shocking the revelation of the identity really is, and how credible the duality is. If abilities match up, and past dialogue & attitudes can be reinterpreted in support of the “truth” of the revelation, and if the identity is someone who was especially trusted by both the players and the characters, the revelation can probably stand alone as a plot twist. If not, then you need something more.

Another factor whose importance can’t be underestimated is the degree of investment the players feel in the discovery of the identity of the villain, which depends on how much buildup there has been in the meantime. How long has he been a thorn in their side, and how much do they really care about taking him down? How much fear and respect do the PCs really have for the villain? The “weaker” the villain in terms of past campaign interaction, the more you should lean toward the added drama of having the real villain step from the shadows.

7. The It’s Not Too Late Technique

Most cliffhangers are downbeat in nature, with the PCs seemingly in danger or facing imminent disaster. This approach is relatively upbeat and positive in comparison, but it can only be used after very careful setup. Specifically, you have to have spent at least half the game session convincing the players and their characters that they are in a hopeless situation, shooting down their every notion. The cliffhanger consists of some third party stepping forward and announcing “all hope is not yet lost. We/You still have one last desperate chance, because…”

You then have the choice of ending with the revelation of why, if it can be compressed into a single general statement (“…I have discovered the enemy’s hidden weakness”), or implied through hyperbole (“…I stand with you” [NB: this works even better if the villain refers to themselves in the 3rd person]), or of leaving the “because” hanging. The more significant (and recognizable) the identity of the speaker, the more you can rely on the hyperbole or hanging reason, because the reason will have credibility even before it is announced.

There are dangers associated with this approach in an RPG. Chief amongst them: you have frustrated the players, and then offered a deus-ex-machina solution, something that I hate using as a plot device (see “A Monkey Wrench In The Deus-Ex-Machina: Limiting Divine Power” and, more recently, and to a lesser extent, “Deus Ex Machinas And The Plot Implications Of Divinity“). A lot depends on the identity of the speaker, and on the degree to which the glimmer of hope is faint and relies on the PCs stepping up to the plate. If the revelation lays railroad tracks to a victory, the adventure is in deep trouble, and so might be the campaign. If the speaker is exaggerating more than a little the significance of his revelation, and it’s going to take some inspired planning, hard work, and creativity on the part of the players and their characters in order to pull this hail-mary pass off, this approach is far more palatable – but the more important it is to make this clear to the players at the cliffhanger moment so that they don’t have time to stew on the possible negatives until the next game session.

If the speaker is a known enemy of the PCs, and one who has established his credibility as a force within the campaign, rather than a savior entering the campaign from stage left, this approach stands up far better in both comics and an RPG.

8. The Little Children, Fools and Heroes Technique

There is a line in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Contagion” that is possibly the best thing about what was a somewhat disappointing episode after an intriguing beginning: “Fate protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise.”

I’ve since seen the line, and variations, crop up in many other places. The line itself is a revision of a quote used (and recast) many other times, notably by Otto von Bismark in reference to the United States – see the section on Special Providence of the Wikiquotes page on von Bismark. Although the attribution indicated points to Abbe Correa in 1849, at least one source claims that it existed in French in the form “God always helps fools, lovers and drunkards” as far back as 1708, if not longer.

But it’s the version from Star Trek that inspired this cliffhanger technique. In essence, it is the delivery of this line, or something similar (and more appropriate in reference) by an NPC as the concluding statement when the PCs are about to attempt something they know to be monumentally foolhardy or risky. When I first devised this dialogue ending cliffhanger technique, I generalized the statement to read “Little Children, Fools, and Heroes” because quite often the PCs can achieve success despite impossible odds stacked against them. If Don Quixote had been a PC, there would be a lot less wind power in central Spain in the mid 17th century!

At The Cliffhanger

It’s important with this technique to have an NPC (you can’t trust a PC to do it for you) tot up the magnitude of the task, the odds that are stacked against the characters – though avoid assigning numbers to these chances if you can. If not, call them “roughly a million-to-one shot.” As everyone who has ever read Terry Pratchett knows, million to one chances succeed nine times out of ten – but getting the odds exactly right is a pain; a million-and-one-to-one and you’re in trouble.

This is one occasion when the cliffhanger ending is enhanced by letting the players react to this totting up. The last word should be some version of the quote offered, and for which this technique is named.

When play resumes

And the starting point of your reiteration should be that totting up of the odds. If the list is very lengthy, only repeat the last half-dozen items.

Analysis & Comments

This is a brilliant explanation for having humorous improbabilities litter the rest of the adventure. Each time the PCs start to gain traction, or suffering setbacks, these should start going against them, but as soon as they really need an improbable result to get them through, the odds should stack up in their favor.

Of course, going down this road requires careful choice of antagonist. Whoever you choose will forever be tainted with the humor tag; the odds that you will ever again be able to use them in a serious capacity are very slim. Perhaps even a million-to-one.

9. The Impossible Shot Technique I

There are two variations on the Impossible Shot Technique. They are sufficiently different that I have listed them separately. In the first version, one of the PCs has to make an impossible shot in order for the PCs to succeed/escape.

As the example offered at the time makes clear, the best approach to employ with this form of cliffhanger is the Missing Scene (technique 1, above), but with a greater emphasis on the odds against success, and “fading to black” as the character attempts the fateful shot. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should an NPC be required to make the impossible shot; if this is the situation, the “impossible shot” should be made before play concludes, and should seemingly fail. Having thus ramped up the danger to a PC, it’s time to end the session.

10. The Impossible Shot Technique II

The second variation has the villain needing to make an impossible shot in order to turn the tables on the PCs or escape. This is far more problematic because it leaves the GM open to allegations of bias toward the villain. As with the NPC taking the shot in the first variation, it is far better for the villain to take the shot before the cliffhanger – and emphasis should be placed on his succeeding through blind, improbable luck, or better yet, missing his original target but hitting something else that gives the villain a chance. You end with the villain missing the shot, and open the next session with the miss and subsequent expression of wild luck of what he actually hit. The idea is that he failed to make the impossible shot, but in the process hit an even less probable target that somehow gives him a chance.

It’s absolutely essential that the actual target hit should be more unlikely than the impossible shot; otherwise, common sense says that he would have gone for the easier target, and the ending becomes an anticlimactic celebration of stupidity.

11. The Gotcha Technique

The villain deceives the characters and the GM very carefully does nothing to hint to the players that the information their characters have found is not gospel truth until the moment comes to reveal the “Gotcha!” This approach is all about credibility: the apparent situation has to be completely credible, and the revelation also has to be completely credible, turning everything the players thought they knew on its head. It sounds incredibly hard, and sometimes it is, but there are ways of pulling it off.

In particular, having an enemy who acts like the PCs friend and ally, and who is publicly trusted by the PCs, forces any potential enemy the deceiver to ask questions about whether or not the PCs are dupes or accomplices. Make the friend and ally someone of authority, and you can fence the person who knows the truth into going outside the law, behaving as an enemy to test the PCs, and because his true enemy has spun and typecast the character. In addition, he may have anti-heroic tendencies, or a family to protect. Combinations of these justify the apparently-villainous behavior that puts the seeming-villain at odds with the PCs.

To apply this technique to the full, the PCs should, in the lead-up to the cliffhanger, have seemingly defeated the apparent villain. The true villain (or a henchman) then attempts to kill the seeming villain. Either he bungles the job (henchman) or the true villain reveals himself in order to succeed. If a henchman bungles the job, the seeming villain gets to drop the revelatory bombshell as the closing scene of the cliffhanger; if the real villain comes out of the shadows, unable to resist the opportunity to get rid of his real opposition, then you can use his unmasking as the cliffhanger. Or, better than either of these, use the shooting (and possible death) of the villain without warning as the cliffhanger and leave the players guessing until the next session – which should help the players react appropriately to the revelations that follow without giving them time to get used to the idea during the gap between sessions.

12. I’ll Explain Later!

This works best when you have experienced players who can read the signs of a cliffhanger buildup and make some educated guesses as to what’s going to happen at the end of the day’s play as a result. The GM pretends to be building toward one type of cliffhanger or plot resolution only to have something completely unexpected take place at the denouement without explanation – at the time.

The most important requirement to satisfy when employing this type of cliffhanger is to have an absolutely iron-clad explanation for the unexpected happening – not only what occurs, but why and even more importantly, why now, of all possible times. Get these things wrong and the whole cliffhanger becomes cheap sensationalism and reminiscent of the worst aspects of B-grade movies. It goes without saying, too, that the unexpected development has to be attention-getting in the extreme, and significant enough that it can potentially reshape relationships, policies, and attitudes within the campaign.

13. From Out Of The Blue

This technique is the simplest of the lot. The PCs are out and about, doing what they do, when from out of the blue, a menace threatens.

For all its ubiquity, this is also one of the easiest to foul up. The three most common mistakes are posing insufficient threat, posing too big a threat, and illogical surprise.

  • Insufficient Threat – if the party don’t feel threatened, the cliffhanger will produce no tension, and will be eminently forgettable.
  • Too Big A Threat – this is actually a problem of two parts. The first is that the players may feel picked on, i.e. that the GM is being unfair. The second is that the bigger the threat, the more illogical it is that the party would be surprised, that there were no warning signs that they would not have observed.
  • Illogical Surprise – “Towering over the low shrubs is an immense Black Dragon.” “Why didn’t we see it from miles away if it towers so much over the vegetation?” If it makes no sense that the party would be surprised, the whole encounter falls flat. There is no way out of this situation that ends well for the GM. And if the GM does provide the clues that should have avoided surprise, the encounter will lose most of its tension, and hence most of its value as a cliffhanger.

Avoiding these difficulties is tricky. PCs tend to be a fairly cocksure lot, so the line between the extremes can be extremely narrow, and more a matter of player psychology than game mechanics. And presenting logical hints and forewarning while still managing to surprise the players is even more difficult.

Not impossible, especially when the party are low-level and inexperienced; but the more powerful and experienced they become, the more difficult this dual balancing act becomes. Misdirection becomes the key to credibility, making the PCs think they are dealing with one threat when the reality is far worse. A Salamander Corpse, dead from some massive sting or bite, both explains the occasional scorch mark on the trees in the forest, and has the PCs looking for giant bees, wasps, or spiders. An Efreet raiding party riding giant lava-scorpions (including a riderless one) would come as a surprise, and two riders and three beasts might not be so far over the top that the encounter leaves the PCs completely outmatched.

14. The Awakening

The final cliffhanger is the discovery of a revelation by one or more of the PCs outside of a direct confrontation with another character (see the example if this isn’t clear). In a novel, comic, TV show, or even an act within a movie, you can actually make the revelation as the cliffhanger, and I used to employ that approach whenever this technique was used to deliver a cliffhanger. It’s only relatively recently that I have realized that it is far more effective if you conceal the actual revelation from the PCs during the cliffhanger – build up to the moment, then just as the players are anticipating the revelation, just as the long-awaited information comes up on the screen or the character turns the page to the critical fact – end play.

This achieves two things: first, it creates the state of suspense that you want in a cliffhanger (as opposed to a state of shock over the content of the revelation); and second, it means that the shock in question does not have time to dissipate in between game sessions as the information soaks into the players’ minds.

Again, it’s important that the revelation in question be something fairly earthshaking or your next session will start with a massive anticlimax.

Nothing Up My Sleeve…

This list comprises every cliffhanger technique that I know. Which means that if you have a technique that I haven’t listed, please share it! In the meantime, hopefully what I have presented will give you more options for cliffhangers than you ever thought possible. Have fun!

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