GM Technique, Drop The Cliffhanger

Even if you’re starting in an action-packed situation, you still have to make the scene action-packed.

GM Technique, Drop The Cliffhanger




Last week, your cliffhanger was like…

So, last week your players left off in a burning, melting, exploding laboratory.  You know, they spilled some potions, the witch caught them in there, transformed herself into snakes, blocked the door…. and yeah, yeah – it was pretty exciting then, but it’s kinda stale a week later.  

And that’s too bad, because you want the first scene of your session to be exciting, dramatic, and draw the players in.

The issue is: when you’d just thrown the circumstance of “burning building” onto the table, it was still “hot” and therefore fun to react to.  But now that it’s a week old, it’s just kind of part of the environment – the same environment the players were in last week.  And kicking against the same old environment is generally less exciting than reacting to new things.
But this week it's all...


This goes back to the rule that you shouldn’t start a session with the ball in the players’ court – even if you ended with it over there last week.  An RPG is about energy: you throw in a circumstance, the players react.  So even if a cliffhanger seemed cool at the time, you may have to pick that ball back up and get things going yourself. 

In other words, even if the players is starting off in an action-packed situation, the GM still has to make the scene be action-packed.

Here’s a handy technique.

Drop it, But Drop It Well

Dropping the cliffhanger means that instead of letting players get themselves out of the pickle, you just narrate what happens next.  You’re interrupting your players in a way – glossing over a stale bit of game time in order to guide the party to the next exciting thing. 

  • Revisit the excitement.  Remember, you’re not dropping the cliffhanger because it wasn’t exciting enough – you’re dropping it because leaving the first scene in the players’ hands isn’t exciting enough.  So make yourself responsible for the excitement here.
  • The room is filling up with smoke and flying debris, you’re cut off from your exit, but through the heat waves you spot a back door.  At first it will barely budge.  Then you manage to squeeze through it and get it shut behind you just as a massive explosion rocks the lab - you’re not getting back out that way.”
  • Don’t resolve the danger.  In a sense, you’re resolving the cliffhanger for them.  But you’re keeping the part where the party is in danger.  Because the GM should never lift the party out of danger.  So, notice my narration doesn’t undo the party’s problems, it just repackages them; the party is out of the fire, but now they’re into an unknown catacomb that’s at least as dangerous as the witch’s lab.  And nobody saw where she went, so…
  • Give them something to react to.  Remember, players tend to be most creative and engaged when they have something “hot” to react to.  Be sure your Drop either gives them something new to explore, some new danger to face, or somehow raises the stakes of the plotline.
This is why shoving the party out the back door of wherever they were isn't necessarily railroading.  Dropping the cliffhanger is a great way to kick start the story: the party is now further into the place they were infiltrating, has fresh obstacles in front of them, and (hopefully) has renewed drive to do whatever they were trying to do.

Instead of just being a boring danger to move on from, the cliffhanger has complicated their lives and given them a challenge to rise to – even if it only holds them up for one scene.