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Friday, 31 December 2010

"To be continued"

“The door bursts open and there in front of you are a group of warriors, their shields emblazoned with the unholy symbol of the Goddess of the Pale Bone. From their corded muscles, glaring red-rimmed eyes and spittle-flecked lips, you recognize the signs of zu’ur addiction. They close in, jag-edged swords raised like butchers’ cleavers. Okay, let’s call a halt there. Can everybody make it next week?”

Cliffhangers. You’d think they should work. One problem is that you can’t be sure of the same players turning up. So suddenly the guy who was off doing something else either has to be shoehorned into the fight or left to sit on the sidelines. Even worse, what do you do about the player who was there to kick the door in but can’t make the following week? Does his character suddenly disappear? So much for suspension of disbelief. Or do you run him as an NPC? Not much fun if he gets killed. On the other hand, if you give him a free pass on the fight then the other players soon get the whiff of disbelief and the whole suspense angle deflates like punctured hubris.

But quite apart from the logistics of getting the group together, the real reason cliffhangers don’t work is that they dissipate all that carefully built-up tension. The players go home unsatisfied, raring to have the cathartic experience you snatched away. The following week they turn up, and as they’re unpacking the beer and corn chips you’re telling them it’s finally time to lay into those Pariah God cultists. Except now the anticipation has gone. It’s: “Do I have the Eye of Frigid Breath..?" "Pass the salsa dip…" "How many cultists are there..?" "Wait, where are we again..?" "Actually, before we came here, I meant to say I wanted to go to the Temple of Karakan…” Like herding cats.

What you want to do – forget cliffhangers – is aim to break at a plot point. That’s the moment, which in a movie marks the end of an act, when a revelation or reversal opens up a new possibility or course of action. Caligula has been assassinated and there’s chaos in Rome. Your capo has sold you out to the rival gang boss. Working as an undercover Mossad agent in al-Qaeda, the stakes are raised as you’re told you're going to have to plant a bomb.

That way, the players spend the week building themselves up to what will happen next. They arrive hyped and half the work is done for you.

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Addendum [27/01/19]: Michael Cule and Roger Bell-West have some interesting things to say about cliffhangers in this episode of the Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice podcast.


  1. Hi Dave
    I agree with you on this matter. I enjoy when the player speculate in the time between stories.


  2. Hi Dave,

    Long-time FL fan here, just discovered this blog while randomly googling FL as I do from time to time - what a lot has happened since my last search for any vaguely FL-related news! Thrilled to see the series making a comeback, I'll definitely be picking up the new books (I own books 1, 2 and 4 of the original run, and will finally be able to return 3, 5 and 6 to an old friend who never had the nerve to ask for them back)!

    What's more, I've been looking for a new RPG format to motivate me to get the group back together for some time, and nothing pleases me more than the thought of running a campaign in such a familiar world. Thoroughly looking forward to seeing the upcoming sourcebooks hit shelves.

    Anyway, on the topic of your post, this is strong advice that I discovered far too late in my DM career! Players always seem to find the time to play much more easily when the fate of their character is subject to wild speculation.

  3. Glad to have you back on board, James. We should have news about the Fabled Lands RPG soon. From what I've seen so far, it is going to be a brilliant game. The rules are very modern - clean and simple while leaving no gaping holes or creaky baroque oddness as in "old skool" games. And the magic system is sheer genius. All credit to designer Shane Garvey. I can't wait.

  4. The Fabled Lands RPF sounds awesome.

    Changing tack a little - I've started a review of Heart of Ice here

    Academia meets gamebooks!



  5. Thanks, Andy. And if anybody wants to try Heart of Ice after reading the review - it's right there on the sidebar, and it's absolutely free!

  6. Fourth and final part of my review summary of Heart of Ice by Dave Morris, is here:




    (Going by your comments in the next post, I guess I should blog next about Fabled Lands!)