Cliffhangers — Good, Bad, or Indifferent?

If you ask fifty roleplayers whether cliffhangers are a good or bad way to end a roleplaying session, you’ll probably get a pretty split answer. Some people will tell you they’re terrible; others will tell you they’re perfect. Why the split? What are the pros and cons? And what are some alternatives to cliffhangers that will have the same desirable effects?

What’s a Cliffhanger?

First we need to define our terms. Some people define a cliffhanger as any ending that leaves some element of the story hanging — whether that’s a choice the player characters (PCs) have to make, the outcome of an event, and so on. The dictionary basically defines a cliffhanger as an episode of a serial that ends in suspense.

To me, suspense means that you’re waiting to find out what happens next, which in a roleplaying game means you’re waiting on the game master (GM) to tell you what happens next. Because of this, I’m going to define “cliffhanger” a little narrowly — it’s a way of ending a roleplaying session in which you break off in the middle of something the PCs have a stake in (usually in the middle of a scene), leaving the players in suspense wondering what will happen next.

For example, the bad guy, whose identity has been secret up until now, walks into the room — and you end the roleplaying session right there, before you reveal his identity. Or the PCs do the magic ritual and hold their breath waiting to find out if they’ve averted the disaster — and you end the session there, leaving the players wondering whether they’ve succeeded or not. Or the climactic combat begins–but the players have to wait until the next session to find out how it turns out.

What’s Good?

Why do some people swear by this method? Because it gets their players excited about the next roleplaying session. TV shows use it to get people to tune in to the next episode, and GMs use it to get their players to show up for the next session. They use it to put their players in a state of heightened emotion regarding the game.

Some GMs also find that dropping people into their next session in the middle of a scene brings them very quickly into character.

What’s Bad?

Some people get really annoyed by cliffhangers. Some people find those three words “to be continued” make them less interested in tuning in next time rather than more. Some people are just easily frustrated or annoyed, or have a low stress (frustration) tolerance and threshold.

You can also run into logistical problems with cliffhangers. Usually cliffhangers require you to break off in the middle of a scene rather than at the end of one. If a player is sick or otherwise fails to show up at the next session, this can cause greater problems than if you break off between scenes or at a less critical juncture.

Some GMs find that dropping people into their next session in the middle of a scene makes it harder for players to get quickly into character rather than easier. The players might not remember the first part of the scene very well. They might have trouble getting into the high emotion or tension of the scene with no preamble. There’s no chance to ramp up and bring them up to speed — you’re just dumping them into the deep end and telling them to swim. This works for some people, but not for others.

How Do You Decide?

Ask your players how they feel about cliffhangers. If you have even one player who hates them, then strongly consider not using them; the problems probably outweigh the benefits (and there are alternatives to cliffhangers — we’ll get to them in a moment). If everyone is okay with them, then consider the potential logistical problems and decide whether cliffhangers are worth it to you. If someone isn’t sure then try it once and see what happens.

Also take into account how long it’s likely to be until your next session. If your next session is in 12 hours, then even the most die-hard cliffhanger-hater might be willing to wait to find out what happens next. If it’s a month away, then even someone who loves cliffhangers might have trouble waiting, or getting back into the swing of the scene fast enough. The less time between sessions, the easier it is to get away with using cliffhangers. Even those writers’ books that avidly advocate using cliffhangers usually acknowledge the fact that you can’t leave people hanging for too long.

What Can You Do Instead?

All right, so you have one or more players who hate cliffhangers, or you don’t want to deal with the logistical problems. But you do want a way to get your players excited about starting the next session. How can you do this without a cliffhanger?

Luckily there are plenty of ways to leave your players hanging a little without cutting them off in the middle of a scene or right before a major revelation. For instance, introduce something new just before the end of the night. Introduce a new plot hook, a new plot, or a new NPC. Just give a teaser, enough to whet your players’ appetites, and then end the session. Hopefully they’ll be excited to come back and explore the new element. If you need an analogy, this is a bit like getting to the end of a book and finding that there’s an excerpt of the first chapter of the author’s next book included.

Another method is to end at the beginning of a time of discussion, strategizing, or decision. That way you can allow your players to chat about the issue between games, which tends to keep them interested and excited. You could even create a mailing list on which they could hold these discussions, so that you can listen in. (Unless you want a game that’s part play-by-email game, you should probably institute a rule that the moment one PC wants to take action beyond talking, the discussion ends and everything has to wait for the next game session.) Even if you don’t allow discussion between sessions, this kind of ending will often still keep your players thinking about the game.

A third method is to actually finish that exciting scene–the revelation, the combat, the ritual. Allow the PCs to have their major, exciting conclusion, and then break off while they’re still feeling the warm glow of success or the trauma of failure. That high emotion will often carry over and leave them even more excited to come back and play again. Just leave the little aftermath bits until next time–most of your players will leave remembering just how exciting and fun your game is, and it’ll make them want to come back again and again.

A fourth method is to give the PCs and players a personal stake in the game. The more you work their backgrounds, interests, likes and dislikes into the game, the more wrapped up in it they’re likely to become. The more wrapped up they get, the more they’ll get excited by plot developments and the future of the game.

If you have players who enjoy cliffhangers, then you might as well play around with them from time to time. But if you have one or more players who really don’t like them, then try one of these other methods. I think you’ll find it’s entirely possible to leave your players excited and looking forward to the next game without the use of cliffhangers.

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