Tension Without Character Death

Sometimes you want a tense, exciting game, but you don’t want to risk killing off too many player characters (PCs). Personally we prefer having that risk in our games, but we understand that for some groups it just doesn’t work. Many game masters (GMs) equate risk of character death with tension, however, and aren’t sure how to make their game tense and exciting if they want to keep the risk of character death low. This month, then, we’ll share a few ideas about how you can keep a game a little tense without having to make every combat a likely bloodbath.

Tensions and Stressors

Injury matters

Whether or not injury matters to your characters often depends upon the game you play (as well as the way in which you play it). When magical or divine healing can be easily found, injury doesn’t tend to matter to the players or their characters. The player characters (PCs) get shot up or carved up–what does it matter? It’s just hit points or health levels, which come back as soon as the PCs quaff a potion or toss off a spell.

Healing is usually abundantly available in these games because the game system makes the assumption that there’ll be a lot of dangerous combat going on. In order to allow a combat-heavy game, there has to be a lot of healing. If you aren’t planning to have a lot of deadly combat, then you don’t need as much gratuitous healing.

Why should you care? Because simple injuries can be a great source of tension if healing isn’t a quick and painless thing in your game. Make healing a little rarer, more difficult, less effective, or more expensive. Suddenly a character’s broken leg can have a real effect on whether or not the party succeeds at the plot, and getting hurt becomes a much more serious matter.

Remember to describe injuries and illnesses in at least basic terms. Lend them a sense of reality, rather than relegating them to simple numbers. Use your details, and let them have an effect on the plot – if a character has a broken leg, he’s slowed down. If his hand is hurt, he can’t use his weapon effectively. If characters are injured they have to be much more careful about avoiding potential combat, and just sneaking their way through such a situation (or trying to talk someone out of attacking them) can be incredibly tense.

Making injuries matter allows you to make use of combat to increase tension without making combat deadly. When injuries matter, even an “easy” combat can be tense.

Caveat: Don’t go too far in the direction of making injuries difficult to heal. Otherwise your PCs will simply avoid your plots for fear of getting killed, and they’ll spend all their time lying around waiting for their injuries to get better. That isn’t fun.

The death and injury of others

Another way to up the tension without killing off PCs is to injure or kill off non-player characters (NPCs). I’ll include my usual big WARNING here: don’t gratuitously threaten and kill off the PCs’ contacts and allies! This discourages players from allowing their characters to become attached to NPCs, and that makes your job as GM much harder.

If you can’t kill off too many of their friends and allies, however, how do you make use of this suggestion?

  1. Kill off NPCs the party isn’t quite as attached to – but make it memorable, dramatic, and, if possible, frightening. Again, use your details. This works best when you have players who like to develop and roleplay interesting, three-dimensional characters who will actually care when they see someone die. You know your group best and can gauge whether or not this strategy is likely to have any effect.
  2. Make sure that NPCs are resources as well as liabilities – the PCs are more likely to go out of their way to help their contacts if they get something useful from them. That something could be items, money, information, favors, or, if you have roleplayers who really like to get into their characters, even simple emotional attachments. This allows you to threaten important NPCs a little more often, and it gives the party reason to protect even minor NPCs.
  3. Remember that you can injure, endanger and threaten NPCs without killing them. Again, just don’t do it too often or some groups are likely to give up on having NPC friends.

A good rule of thumb is that an NPC should always be more of a resource than he is a hindrance or liability – where the definitions of “resource,” “hindrance,” “liability” and even “more” depend on the nature of your PCs, players and game.

Creepy atmosphere

Make the game suspenseful! There are plenty of horror movies that drive up the tension without the monster or bad guy ever showing his face or killing a single person. Watch a few “psychological thriller” movies and read a few suspense books; take note of what tricks they use to keep you tense. Every time you feel your shoulders creeping up around your ears, ask yourself why and make note of your answer.

Unseen horrors and enemies that never quite show themselves can certainly make things tense. So can inexplicable intrusions – the PCs come home to their apartment to find that a few things have been moved around. Who’s been in there? What did they want? Did they take anything?

Play with the PCs’ sanity – are they seeing things? Are they going mad? Is something changing them?

Weird supernatural oddities can up the tension level, particularly if you’re gaming in a universe that isn’t terribly strange. Use some of the old tricks – a splash of unexplained blood on a wall, odd sounds in the night, landscapes that shift and move.

A couple of things to remember:

  1. Don’t overdo these things or you’re likely to get laughs instead of
    tension. Start slowly and build up gradually.
  2. Ease the tension back now and then. Allow brief funny moments. Allow the party to relax. Let up on the tension now and then with a silly, amusing, fun, or otherwise enjoyable plot. No one can keep up that kind of tension forever. It’ll either annoy people or desensitize them. There’s only so much tension a player or character can take before they say, “right, that’s it, I’m just not scared any more.”

A few physical tricks

There are a couple of physical things you can do with the area you game in to help promote a tense atmosphere. Not everyone likes to play with these things, but some people find them useful.

  • Try lowering the lighting a bit. Consider using candles. There’s nothing like a brightly-lit room to make everyone feel safe and comfortable.
  • Have your players sit close together, rather than spread out around a large area. Being spread out tends to help people relax.
  • Use props such as odd pendants, tattered maps, and so on. Look through yard sales and junk shops for odd-looking curiosities that you can work into your game.
  • Play soft music in the background. Movie scores often work well for this.
  • Make sure there are no distractions around – such as the TV, newspapers, a radio, or talkative non-players.
  • For particularly tense moments, lean forward in your seat and try to communicate a sense of tension and urgency with your voice, your descriptions, and your details.

Down-to-the-wire plots

Play with the occasional tense, time-critical plot. Come up with a plot goal that’s important to one or more PCs (or someone who’s important to them). Make it time-critical in some way: they have to get to the end goal before their opposition does. They have to get to the end goal to prevent something terrible from happening. They have to get to the end goal before they lose their one-and-only chance at some amazing thing.

Then play up the tension and the need to hurry. Setting the PCs up against opposition is one easy way to do this. Few things spur the PCs’ sense of urgency like seeing their opposition neck-and-neck with them, or just ahead of them. One of the best sorts of plots to set up this way is a puzzle-plot, where the party has to unravel some sort of puzzle or mystery in order to get the prize. This way you can have them getting glimpses of their opponents’ attempts to solve the same puzzle or mystery. (It also allows for lots of strategy – they can try to use their enemies to help them solve the puzzle, and they can play with various means of misdirection to distract their opposition.) If possible make it a multi-part solution, so they can occasionally see the opposition getting a bit of the solution before they do.

Another way to play up the tension is to set up something that the PCs can see slipping away from them as time goes by. One of the simplest versions of this is the bomb with a visible timer on it, but there are other versions as well. What about the mysterious temple that only appears once every thousand years? The party must solve the puzzle (perform the ritual, work their way through the maze, defuse the traps) to gain entrance and get their hands on the great mystical item at the center. However, as time passes, they can see the temple slowly sinking back into the sands as they work. Or they know that it’ll sink again at sunrise, and they can see by the streaks of light on the horizon how quickly that time approaches.

Problems with deadlined plots: There is one problem unique to down to the wire plots that we’ve occasionally wrestled with. These kinds of deadline plots can turn usually ignorable details into very significant issues. The thing that most comes to mind is travel time. Ordinarily we can just ignore how many blocks away something is in a town. But if the characters are racing someone, travel time and distance become very important. Traditionally the way to handle this is to have everyone arrive very near to the same time. This promotes a sense of tension in the final scenes as everyone converges at once and tries to foul each other up in accomplishing their goal.

But it’s something to beware of. Controlling when people arrive in a down-to-the-wire plot can have the unintended consequence that the GM is deciding whether or not the characters succeed at the plot based on when they get from point A to point B, which always seems to rob the plot of something.

The two ways we can think to handle it are… first, try to make your down to the wire stuff confined in terms of location. That way, the race will never translate to looking at the GM for how long it takes to get to the destination. Second is to turn the chase, drive, or whatever kind of travel into an exciting game in its own right. If you can make an interesting time out of the players trying to get where they’re going, involving everything from daredevil driving to foot race acrobatics, it may still be possible to turn that into an integral part of the game. Unfortunately it’s hard to do, as those kinds of scenes tend to be very visual and better suited to TV and movies than RPG playing.

Timelines and contested plots: Although it’s always good to keep things flexible, we recommend that GMs sketch out at least a vague timeline of how long it will take their opposition to make how much progress. Sure, that scale may go out the window when the PCs unintentionally help (or intentionally hinder) their opposition, but it provides a good starting place for knowing when the NPCs are likely to win. And it always makes for a better plot if the PCs aren’t guaranteed to accomplish their objective.

Risking plot points and resources instead of lives

Death isn’t the only thing that PCs risk if a plot doesn’t go well. If you don’t take into account the repercussions of the party’s actions, then it can seem as though there are no consequences other than death itself. Whenever the party enters into a plot, ask yourself: what does the party stand to lose if things go badly? How will people react to them if they “fail”? How will merchants, shopkeepers, government officials treat them? How will their friends and allies view them? What important items might they lose or lose access to if things go badly? How could their resources be damaged or taken away from them?

If the party stands to lose something other than just their lives, then plots can become quite tense without any combat at all. Once the PCs get the idea that nothing is ever entirely safe – not their items, reputation, money, allies, or resources – then every plot is seen in a new light. Everything seems suddenly more dangerous.


As you can see, there are plenty of ways to create a tense, heart-pounding game that don’t involve risking the lives of the PCs. Sometimes you want to keep the party around for a while – you want the chance to play with their character backgrounds and personal plots, or you worry that the players will feel it isn’t worth it to create a three-dimensional character if their characters always get killed too quickly. You had in mind a dark, frightening game-world, however, and you aren’t sure how to make these things mesh. Take advantage of the suggestions provided here. Threaten things other than the PCs’ lives. Play with atmosphere and time-critical plots. Make injuries matter!

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  1. […] elements of psychology to address various issues. On the roleplaying side, there are articles like tension without character death and “Expectations, Conditioning, and Your Game” parts 1 and 2, examples and rules of […]

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