GM Tip: How to create suspense in resolving actions

Short Version of the Tip

When a player takes an action that requires a roll:

  1. Ask the player to describe exactly how they are doing it
  2. Complete their description right up to the moment that decides success or failure
  3. Ask the player to roll
  4. Narrate the resolution (or have the player do it)

It may sound simple, but it’s not actually how most GMs resolve actions.

Typical Ravine Example

Gary (GM): You see a 10-foot ravine ahead of you.

Pat (Player): Can I try to jump cross?

Gary: Sure. Roll an Athletics check.

Pat: Cool. (rolls dice) 16.

Gary: You take a running start and fling your body across while windmilling your arms through the air. Your body slams into the side of the ravine, but you slap your hands down and find traction to hang on and hoist yourself up.

Suspenseful Ravine Example

Gary (GM): You see a 10-foot ravine ahead of you.

Pat (Player): Can I try to jump cross?

Gary: Sure. Describe your approach.

Pat: Cool. I take a running start and fling my body across while windmilling my arms through the air. I–

Gary: …come up short, and your body slams into the side of the ravine. You try to find traction with your hands. Roll an Athletics check.

Pat: (rolls dice). 16.

Gary: (pauses and looks back and forth across the players) You try to find traction and slap your hands down and manage to hoist yourself up.

Typical Negotiation Example

Pat: “…so you have to let us out of this cell.”

Gary: Roll a Persuasion check.

Pat: (rolls dice) 8.

Gary: He narrows his eyes on you and seems to think over your argument. “No, that’s not happening on my watch.”

Suspenseful Negotiation Example

Pat: “…so you have to let us out of this cell.”

Gary: He narrows his eyes on you and seems to think over your argument. Roll a persuasion check.

Pat: (rolls dice) 8.

Gary: (pauses) “No, that’s not happening on my watch.”

Long Version of the Tip

In the past, I have had difficulty handing narration back and forth between myself and the players. On the one hand, I want to empower my players to actually describe their actions and consequences. However, I as the GM am responsible for deciding if an action succeeds.

As important as that decision is, the GM’s role in resolving actions is actually very brief. If you can isolate that moment of success or failure to a single instant, you can describe the lead-up and result separately and use that real life game time to create suspense in-between.

This sounds very simple, but GMs don’t naturally do this. Often, we miss this moment of suspense by starting with the roll rather the lead-up. GMs typically do

  1. declare the action (“What do I see in the room?”)
  2. determine success or failure (“Roll a Perception check”)
  3. describe the action/lead-up (“You look through all of the drawers”)
  4. describe the result (“And find nothing”)

For the GM, it’s easier. While the player is rolling, the GM can think through the possible outcomes and determine how hard the task is. However, the game doesn’t flow well.

Instead, the GM could do

  1. declare the action (“What do I see in the room?”)
  2. describe the action/lead-up (“You look through all of the drawers”)
  3. determine success or failure (“Roll a Perception check”)
  4. describe the result (“And find nothing”)

When the action is described before being resolved, it creates suspense. Rather than the players sitting through the entire description at the end, they get hooked with the lead-up to the decision point. The game mechanics of finding the relevant stats, rolling the dice, and doing the math doesn’t slow the game down: it becomes the tension before the payoff.

And note that amongst the steps above, resolving the action is really the only one that the GM has to do. The GM can let the players do all of the rest of it.

A great example of a similar way of creating and resolving suspense is Matt Mercer’s “How do you want to do this?”

It’s a brilliant way to resolve an action because in one sentence, he communicates the result (i.e. monster killed) and instructs the player to narrate the resolution. It’s crisp and doesn’t belabor the narration afterwards.

Of course, not every action requires suspense, but see if you can weave this pattern in when the stakes are high.

For further reading, check out “Adjudicate Actions Like a Motherf$&%ing Boss!” from The Angry GM.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.