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Forked from this question which focuses more on exploring signals of specific danger.

Here, my question is: how can a GM evoke the feeling of danger during a game? How can they create tension that isn't a horror based dread, but more a feeling of adventure and of risk?

This question is especially relevant when I run 4th edition games as all too often the party is distracted by mechanics rather than flavour or tone.

Specific sub-questions:

  • How can the sense of danger be evoked in a mechanics heavy game? What is the right balance between "You get hit, the sword slashing through your left shoulder" and "You're hit for 17 damage" Is it fair to withhold numbers in a game like D&D to heighten the sense of danger? Is there a better way to do it?

  • How can the sense of danger be managed in a mechanics light game? How can players reliably assess damage and therefore danger when the mechanics aren't there to support "dying in 3 rounds?"

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9 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

To evoke a sense of danger, three things are needed:

  1. a knowledge of danger existing
  2. an uncertainty that it is an escapable danger
  3. a certainty that a strongly undesired outcome is possible

So, you need to forshadow the existence of the danger, make it uncertain that they can overcome it successfully, and remind them by the situation that it's possible that they will not be happy with all available outcomes.

In practice, in D&D, things like asking what their current HP are, and then making a quick calculation, and going "Ooh... crunchy!" can up the sense of danger.

Getting the outcome range to include strongly undesired is tricky, tho'. The player needs to have a strong sense of buy-in on their character to actually be overly worried about the loss of the character. I've found that the longer the character generation, the more buy-in is present at start.

For example, a Rolemaster character at level 1 is about equally weak as a Cyclopedia D&D character, and the RM character takes about 30-90 minutes (depending on the player) to roll up, while the Cyclopedia character takes 5-15 minutes. The RM character hurts way more as a fatality in level 1 than the D&D character, and is just as much cannon-fodder.

So, with ways to make it matter more are more choices made in Character Generation (CGen), more significant choices during CGen, more involved CGen, more in-character play, and more personal impact on the character in play. All of these make loss of the character more profound, and thus more undesirable.

Once achieved, reveal the danger as per the other question, and make certain that players realize character loss isn't off the table... and genuine concern, even a true sense of danger, naturally occurs.

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Telegraphing danger is an interesting question. In order to feel danger, players must not be able to reliably assess potential outcomes. Danger is many ways comprised of uncertainty and opportunity. Players must both hope and fear at the same time. In this vein, this link presents some useful suggestions, under "making adventures adventurous".

However, the question isn't about increasing the feeling of danger, but telegraphing the presence of danger. One of the best ways of doing that that's happened to me is being presented with a scenario where, I as PC am beaten without being killed by some very notable group. (My fuzzy memories have it as beaten by a wizard, but it could have also been a rival adventuring party.) Then, an encounter or so later, we found bits of the rivals all over the place. Anything that could do that to the people who beat us must be really dangerous.

If more time is available, the habit of having psychoenvironmental effects (rolling thunder, lightning, wind) correspond with threat is a great trope to train your players into. The harder something is, the more adverse environmental effects described (to a point.) If done properly, and to a pre-determined relative threat scale, the players will expect a great deal of danger when the DM describes a full-out thunder and hailstorm.

Another, similar, way of training instinctive responses is to have soundtracks that correspond with the delta in encounter level. Soon enough, certain songs will be deemed a "very bad omen" when sufficient games have past.

Intelligence (in the military sense, not in the smarts sense) about the enemy defeats tension. If the PCs can nail stats down, tension, and therefore the feeling of danger, is averted.

Shamus Young has a great discussion of tension in survival horror games, where he notes that actually dying breaks immersion. As soon as players actually get into that fight with the big bad that you've been hyping, most times the expected (and quantifiable) damage that they're reviving will change the tension into worry. Worry about death isn't the same as fear of death, because it's suddenly manageable with tactics.

Kobold quarterly discusses the creation of this sort of tone through isolation and fear here.

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You may wish to edit this to more directly speak to this question rather than to the original question it was answering. That's fair game too. :) –  SevenSidedDie Oct 25 '10 at 21:17
    
-1 for answering your own question in a way that doesn't answer it but rather a different question, and then ignoring the helpful comment pointing this out :) –  Dave Hallett Nov 16 '10 at 23:24
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The more personal a description becomes, the more potentially dangerous it may appear to be from the perception of the player. For example, don't call attention necessarily to features of a dangerous person or creature that evoke game mechanics, but rather features which aren't associated with a level. And among those, focus on specific details and hide others.

Two examples -

  • In a campaign I run, the players felt menaced by a small woman who was hidden almost entirely under a heavy set of robes. All they could see was part of a very pale complexion and a pair of unnaturally blue eyes.

  • In an example straight from the movies, consider the depiction of the Mouth of Sauron in the extended version of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. You don't see any real features of his face at all, just a very nasty looking mouth.

Likewise - the appearance of a monster can be a lot less menacing than signs of their appearance. For example, unnatural footprints appearing nearby, or some physical clue that shows itself only in context of the players digging for it.

You could argue that the above do elicit terror or horror; however Id say those are feelings brought about by increasing the immediacy of descriptions.

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To me, danger = risk. What are the stakes? Add dependents and dependencies to the PCs and then jeopardize those.

Allow PC deaths. The tension of potential character death in just one encounter can span even multiple campaigns if the players know their mistakes can cause them grief.

Dismember PCs. When a PC is unconscious, have a foe whack a hand off. Regenerate will cost a bit of treasure, unless the party has the spell available, so no permanent damage, but temporary loss of ability is scary for many players.

Use custom monsters. Or, just rename a monster. Anything to make the creature strange and threatening to players familiar with all the monster manual entries.

Use massive one-time damage. Optimize foes occasionally to do a lot of damage in a single strike at the beginning of an encounter. The PCs will not know for sure if the damage was a one-time thing or if they might face it each round.

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I still am extra careful when playing under the GM that killed my first character 8 years (and two campaigns) ago... Rest in peace Dar. –  yhw42 Oct 19 '10 at 0:15
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I answered the other referenced thread but the answer is equally applicable here. Executive summary:

  • Kill NPCs.
  • Maim NPCs.
  • Maim PCs.
  • Destroy PC equipment.

...and...

  • DON'T kill PCs as a "signal".
    • Unless you can persuade a player to participate willingly.
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+1 for maiming and the last point. While killing a PC does serve as a pretty clear warning, there's so many more fun things you can do. Such as making a PC live with the consequences of failure for the rest of the character's life... –  Lunin Apr 22 '13 at 17:38
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Kill a PC early on to instill a sense of danger.

Do so fairly and through the rules, or your players will feel cheated. Should you attempt to kill a PC fairly and they survive, the players will feel accomplished.

If you kill your first PC late in the campaign, he will feel betrayed because you let him believe his character was safe.

If you never kill a PC, they may cease to feel a sense of danger in any encounter. This is the worst thing that can happen to your campaign. You might have an interesting story or role-playing element, but not excitement or danger.

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1) Make sure the players know you're willing to kill them. If they think they're invincible, they have no reason to feel fear.

2) Use unknown threats. Don't tell them the name of a monster immediately. You want them to think it could be anything, not the third entry on page 273 of the monster manual.

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I am surprised that no one else suggested music. Computer game music is particularly good for this as are some pieces of classic music. Sound effects can be used to great effect as well -- sounds of sword being drawn, clash of shields, etc...

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Music adds atmosphere, and the right atmosphere enhances any given sensation that is already present. So, while it helps, it is not a solution. –  Lohoris Aug 5 '11 at 12:57
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@Lo'oris: I disagree there. Music can create the atmosphere. Try playing a specific track while running combat, then after a few times, play the track outside of combat. I bet all your players will think "Hey, combat is about to start". –  Sardathrion Aug 5 '11 at 13:16
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I agree that music can itself be the solution. Try turning off the sound and then watching an action movie, or even the Star Wars opening crawl. George Lucas didn't hire John Williams for nothing. –  Jakob Jun 22 '12 at 6:53
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In the past I have had a very powerful NPC (xyz) the players know about and have seen in combat show up dead, with grim signs indicating a quick and deadly encounter.

I often drop verbal clues such as, "Having seen this xyz NPC fight before you are shocked to see them so easily dispatched by this new threat! Often you had wondered if even you could have posed threat to the NPC xyz..."

While I am putting ideas directly into the Characters mind, I only do this rarely and I find I only have to instill the since of death and danger when I am running a group of “number crunchy happy” players. The easiest players to convince of danger are former Vampire Masquerade players and similar ilk, but if that doesn't work you might find you can always just make combat rolls in plain sight and don’t pull any punches. However, character death can easily occur with this method, even in D&D 4e with its 3 death saves...

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Hi Warren- Welcome to RPG.SE! Some nice things in this answer... +1! Read the FAQ when you get a chance, and again, welcome to the site! –  wraith808 Apr 22 '13 at 14:23
    
+1 for public combat rolls. While being able to fudge is greatly useful, knowing that you can't can send a chill down certain player's spines. –  Lunin Apr 22 '13 at 17:36
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