Home » Building up the Tension Before the Campaign Climax – Silence Before the Storm

Building up the Tension Before the Campaign Climax – Silence Before the Storm

The campaign was drawing to its conclusion, the tension was building up. Some aspects of which I handled intuitively. Now I'm learning from what I d
The campaign was drawing to its conclusion. The tension was building up — some aspects of which I handled intuitively. Now I’m learning from what I did better than many times after that. See the critical points at the narrative’s conclusion. | Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

Lately, I told you how the party of the Brown Lands decided to split up and handle various tasks at once. Bruni and Eradom were waiting by the fords on Anduin to guide Rohirrim soldiers. At the same time, the Rook and Ingolf were about to scout ahead and gather more information about the bandits’ camp in the Raven Gully. To everyone, it was clear that the campaign’s conclusion was drawing close. The proximity of the finale raised the tension tangibly, but I see it could be disrupted if not played right. Have you ever felt that all was going great for your game, but suddenly, the mood was gone? Everyone at the table was invested in the game, immersed in their characters until abruptly, they felt disconnected? A scene everybody was edging to play out passed by without almost any impression or impact? I indeed felt that a handful of times. And I think reflecting on this particular case may help me (and hopefully, you too) handle such situations better in the future. So let’s see what happened just before the final chapter of the Ghosts of the Noman-lands. Especially since I’d love to find out why and how I, unconsciously, handled building up the tension right up to the final session.

So, the party split up. Since they were clear about who was going to do what next, I was able to prepare accordingly. Knowing what the PCs are about to do at the start of the next session – is, by the way, a great way of keeping up the momentum of your game. Read more on that in the Angry GM’s recent blog post. As mentioned earlier, Bruni and Eradom waited at the ford to guide soldiers from Rohan. I was scratching my head, asking myself why I even let that become a topic for a whole session. Sitting by the river, waiting seems like the most unexciting, unstrained thing to do. And I wanted to give the dwarf and the ranger a chance to shine while also adding to the exigency of the campaign’s final sessions.

Reverse Planning of the Adventure

I haven’t thought this way about my campaign before but look at how it went up to this point. It was based on a premise of an isolated society of outcasts and refugees. There, the dark forces of the enemy were to stir trouble, endangering these frontier settlers. The chance wanderers – the player-heroes – would be the only ones to tip the scales. Defending a fragile circle of light from encroaching darkness, especially treason and corruption, was my starting point. The rest was built on that. The character arcs (friendship, corruption, repentance), Gondorian ruins (history), and nature descriptions (Brown Lands, Emyn Muil, Anduin) were to add a Tolkien-like feeling to the game. But the direction was set from the beginning, and I honestly didn’t give much thought to the narrative structure. I developed it naturally, knowing which elements I needed to complete the story. That time when I had to keep up the tension before the campaign’s finale was the first time I consciously asked myself what I wanted in the adventure and why.

Peace and Quiet

So, sit by the Anduin waters drifting peacefully by until the Rohirrim show up. Then, lead them through the hills and bushes to the Limesplice hamlet and point towards the bandits. Easy and relaxing task. And directly opposite of building up the tension I wanted. What could I add to that? What could have finally made the PCs edge to see the horsemen in the distance? First, time – they weren’t sure when the reinforcements would arrive. Éomund, the Marshal of the Eastfold, told them it could take two to three days to gather his forces and ride to the ford. So that’s the first uncertainty. Not a great one, but it was a starter. Bruni and Eradom needed to keep constant watch not to miss the Rohirrim arrival.

The second challenge had to be more demanding. The characters were already 3rd level, so they had some useful tricks up their sleeve. Especially the dwarven Scholar who learned the birds’ speech gained an advantage. With his befriended raven, he could exchange and gather information over significant distances. But meanwhile, I also played it up with the rook following Rook, the character. It turned out that the bird was not only unwilling to respond to the dwarf but also seemed to be spying on the company. I took that notion and concluded that Eradom and Bruni shouldn’t only spot the riders and guide them a few miles but also they had to do so in secrecy. I added that second element by making the characters find hoof- and footprints on the path along the river. The area turned out to be regularly being visited – or maybe even patrolled – by someone. And that changed the gameplay entirely.

Building up Tension – Remaining in Secrecy

Bruni and Eradom faced the danger of bandits discovering them. Suddenly, the dwarf’s befriended corvid had another purpose than carrying messages throughout the land. The companions left by the Anduin had to keep watch not only over the opposite riverbank but also over their immediate surroundings. On the second day, I threw a group of bandit scouts that were going up the path. They were about to investigate Gondorian ruins down the river. It was the secrets of Amon Lhaw, The Hill of Hearing, that their sorcerous leader was after. I wanted the companions to have a chance to discover that little bit of lore hidden there if they’d follow the bandits. It wasn’t very likely, but I had all the props ready for that, and exploring Amon Lhaw would give them an extra edge in the finale. Instead, they sprung a trap and slew the bandits. Bruni remembered well his first encounter with that lot and how they used some dark magic to keep fighting while wounded. So he advised scattering the enemies, not allowing them to draw on one another’s blood for the sorcerous rites.

But not only the heroes by the river were trying to remain in hiding. The two more stealthy heroes, Ingolf and Rook, wanted to scout around the bandit camp and maybe even into it. That was the enemy’s different challenge and required careful preparation.

Prepping Stealth Mission

The objective of scouting into the enemy territory was a bit tricky for me to prepare for. The players knew, in general, what was that they wanted to accomplish. I.e., learn about the enemy’s forces, the layout of their camp, etc. They tried to get as much edge during the coming showdown as possible. But they didn’t know the exact surroundings of the base and had no clear plan on how to handle their mission. I had to show them their options gradually and give them freedom of choice.

First, I decided on how the outlaws built the camp. It stuck into a rift in a hill – the Raven’s Gully. In the middle of the gully, a stream flowed. Around it, the encampment building and tents were laid about. Wooden palisade stood on the hills’ ridges and across the entrance to the gully. The hilltops were the watchpoints but had no built defenses. In a cave under the hill, Sigurd the Sorcerer had his chambers. In the remote part of the camp, the bandits guarded the captives. Also, a small force of Easterlings was there, sent by the Sigurt’s overseer. They weren’t on good terms with the rest of the bandits, who tolerated them out of fear rather than respect. That comprised what the heroes could discover during their reconnaissance: a possible route to circumvent the palisade on the hilltop, Sigurt’s chambers with information about his powers and goals, and the presence of the captives as well as the Easterlings.

How Much Is Too Much?

Now, I could have drawn the precise map of the camp, assigned times for watches and patrols, estimated the number of tents/buildings for the armed force that I wanted in the camp, etc. But I didn’t want to get too bogged down by the numbers. Instead, I decided approximately what the good proportions were. It was a bandit camp, not a military base. Though their leader had some strict goals, he was no experienced warlord, nor had he an army to command. The enslaved people, together with their work sites, were on one side of the stream, while the armed bandits occupied the other. The Easterlings were close to the gate, where the ground for their horses was the flattest. Entrance to the Sigurt’s abode was between and little above the two armed forces. The simple division of the site into these few zones was enough. To enter any zone, PCs needed to pass by the patrolling guards. Retrieving any specific information from the zone required another action. And depending on the heroes’ approach, the tests would be more or less demanding.

The Plot Twist – Building Up the Tension Last Minute

So, on the scene set above came Rook and Ingolf. Shrouded by night, they crept up the hill’s slopes. Since they were proceeding slowly and warily, I didn’t call any Stealth or Perception check from them so far. They learned the layout of the palisade and decided not to risk passing through the hilltops. Instead, Ingolf scaled the palisade in the middle and found out that the members of his caravan were encamped below. He retreated since the enslaved people’s overseers were watchful, so he didn’t make contact with any of his fellow Bardings. Back with the Rook, they encircled the camp and forced the palisade again, this time right over the entrance to the Sigurt’s cave. But the guards there weren’t patrolling. They were standing still. The decision if and how to handle them truly was building up the tension.

Finally, the heroes agreed to remain hidden as long as it was needed to see the guards changing watch. And they finally did, which gave them a piece of overheard conversation about the Easterlings. Also, they heard that the Sorcerer was spending quite a long time now in his secluded cave, and the people were getting afraid of what could come of it. And after the change of the guards, Ingolf and Rook decided to spring their ambush. Rook shot an arrow, and Ingolf jumped down from the ridge, both of them succeeding in demanding attack tests. Thus, the entrance to the cave was open. They knew they had limited time and hurried up down the dark corridor.

Shadow of the Past

The Sigurt’s cave was more than the lair of the campaign’s boss, though. Bot heroes that set out for the scouting mission had quite some backstory to unravel there. First, Ingolf stood frozen when they entered a chamber with water trickling from above. It reminded him of the hazy vision he had after the caravan was assaulted. The cold, moist rock was the last thing he remembered before waking up in the hamlet of Limesplice. He now knew that Sigurt somehow enchanted and used him as a messenger. Now, he threaded more carefully. After shaking off the paralyzing reminiscence, they threaded more carefully. Next, they entered Sigurd’s living chamber, ignoring a low, mumbling voice from the other corridor. They found an ornamental box made of dark wood. It was a riddle for them to solve later that could give them an alternative option to deal with the sorcerer, but I’ll touch on that in the next post.

Meanwhile, they ignored the stave made of similar material and returned to the main corridor. After some hesitation, they decided to creep up the second passage. There, in the middle of a large cavern, a shaking, bald man kneeled. Speaking lowly in a strange, sinister tongue, he seemed oblivious to his surroundings. Thanks to a description I had prepared, I hit all the critical points in bringing up the tension and atmosphere of this scene. The man was the campaign’s nemesis. He was unaware and looked fragile as if the conversation he seemed to be having cost him a lot of strength. When the two companions moved up to him, a rook-bird cawed above in the cave’s opening. Rook, the Woodman backed up and held back the dagger he had just readied to deliver the deadly strike. Ingolf looked at him in a mix of confusion and anger. Let’s add that this holding back was a conscious choice by the Rook’s player. He traded a “wing the game” situation for bringing his character to life. The Rook was simply too terrified to strike. And that moment was enough for the sorcerer to wake from the trance. Ingolf was already running from the cave, always on the watch for his own skin first. Sigurd then turned his pale face to the Rook with a sinister smile. Poor young Woodman stood before him, paralyzed by fear.

So How Did I Build That Tension?

This was a more narrative post. We thus ended our second 2-on-1 session. The plot twist due to the Rook’s awesome roleplay took the tension even higher than I planned. And so, the campaign was drawing to its conclusion. Next time, we’ll see how all the heroes’ actions fall into place. But let’s sum up how I was building up tension throughout that penultimate chapter:

  1. Feeling of being watched by the enemy – adding to Bruni’s and Eradom’s mission an aspect of secrecy, I forced them to be alert and consider their actions more carefully.
  2. Time and urgency – through the unpredictable time of Rohirrim’s arrival, I further emphasized the need to be watchful and react to the changing situation.
  3. Clear objectives – the heroes need specific goals they try to achieve, at least if you’re aiming at building up the tension. Without well-defined intent, it’s hard to see what’s at stake in the given scene.
  4. Decision points – you simply can’t overrate this aspect. The more I read this post while editing, the more I’m sure it’s the most important thing for building tension. Having the characters – and players – making decisions, you make them feel responsible for the outcome. I’d add something to the plain number of choices the characters make.
    • Choice has to be conscious. Without an idea of how the decision may play out, it’s instead a guess than a choice.
    • Decisions have to be tied to the characters’ goals; when the players feel that their characters’ values are at stake, that makes them engaged.
    • And more so, if they’ve got some emotional investment in the NPCs. Like protecting innocent villagers, they grew to treat as their fellows. Or, as their enemies, they want to take revenge for thwarting their plans. After all, nothing is building up emotional tension as other – even projected – human beings.

What else would you add to that list? I surely haven’t mentioned all that’s important for building up tension.

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