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Key to a Good Cliffhanger

Ending a session on a cliffhanger is a great way to leave your players wanting more, and get them excited about coming back for the next session. It’s possible to screw this up, though, if you choose the wrong break point for your cliffhanger.

The key to a good cliffhanger is ending your session on a pause in the action, not right in the thick of it.

That may seem counterintuitive at first, but it’s actually pretty easy to implement. Let’s tackle this tip with a classic example: a big battle.

A climactic battle might break down into five segments:

  1. Opening skirmishes
  2. Major wave of enemy attacks
  3. Wave of attacks is repulsed
  4. More skirmishing
  5. Final showdown with the Big Bad [1]

Assuming that the PCs are heavily involved in segments 3 and 5 (the two most important parts of the battle), you should put your cliffhanger right before segment 5. (If you put it in 1, 2 or 4, that wouldn’t be a cliffhanger.)

That way, you’ve delivered a mini-climax to cap the session — repulsing the big push from the enemy forces — but ended things in a dramatic pause: the PCs aren’t going to be heavily involved in the skirmishes, and their big spotlight moment is still to come.

If you cut things off during segment 5, the final showdown, you’d be wasting all the momentum you worked so hard to build up — and when you start up again next session, you’ll be mid-battle and won’t be able to build it up again quickly enough.

It’s also important to resist the temptation to employ this kind of cliffhanger: “Dr. Doom swings his metal-clad fist, going for a coup de grace (roll dice), and…you’ll have to wait until next session to find out whether he kills you or not.” Mid-roll is the worst possible way to handle a gaming cliffhanger.

Look for that pause, that little valley in between the peaks of a cliffhanger-worthy scene, and you should be good to go. (I wouldn’t look to the movie Cliffhanger for pointers, though — it’s awful, but I just couldn’t resist using the image.)

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#1 Comment By clem On July 31, 2007 @ 11:25 am

When my players are separated or doing very different things, I sometimes switch focus from one to the other at cliffhanger moments. That seems to help keep interest up for the unfocussed players and can give them a bit of time to come up with clever ideas if needed.

#2 Comment By Wik On July 31, 2007 @ 12:52 pm

I’m a little curious: *why* is midroll a bad place for a cliffhanger? I’m interested in seeing your reasoning here

(it’s not something I do myself, but I’d like to see where you’re coming from)

#3 Comment By Bento On July 31, 2007 @ 1:26 pm

Last time I stopped at a cliffhanger it was by request from the players. So I stopped it after the “surprise” combat round and right before “roll for initiative.”

This gave me the opportunity to work on opponent tactics so it wouldn’t be a cake walk for the players when we met again.

#4 Comment By Asmor On July 31, 2007 @ 6:36 pm

I found the key to a really, really bad cliffhanger last weekend…

Get the party to the caverns, make a big to-do about the huge elemental spirits appearing… and then realize you forgot the prophecy they were supposed to give and you were going to end on. Left it on my desk at home. 🙁

Yeah, that kind of sucked.

#5 Comment By VV_GM On August 1, 2007 @ 6:06 am

For me a good cliffhanger is that moment when the PCs have just accomplished something, are now safe and secure, and then learn new info that is surprising.

For example, I’m running a Zombies game right now. The climax of the last session was the party escaping from an abandoned army base that had been surrounded by zombies. The party was putting distance between themselves and the zombies in a vehicle that they had managed to get working again. While they were comfortable they heard the radio pick up a signal and they got new info (the zombies were contained, and they could make it back to civilization). I ended it there.

I like this approach better than the “next session – big battle” cliffhanger because it leads to more questions and a plethora of ideas from the players.

#6 Comment By Jennifer Snow On August 1, 2007 @ 8:06 am

I’m in full agreement with W_GM. The best time to have a cliffhanger is always when the characters have just found something new. It’s the best time for a pause for the GM and the players.

The players get: an excellent reason to show up for the next session (is this info vital? how does this fit in with everything else?), a chance to mull over the new information and come up with novel strategies for dealing with it (the monster appears invincible! What do we do?), and no *action* is interrupted.

The GM gets: to witness player reactions to the event, a rough idea of what he should plan for the players to do next session, and the comfortable knowledge that he won’t have to recap everything for players that have forgotten what happened in the intermediate time.

It works for everyone. If it were necessary for me to interrupt a Climactic Battle as in the example, I would make sure to throw in some new info to end the session on just to preserve these benefits. Okay, we’re ready to face the big bad guy, it just turns out that he’s retreated to his main fortress so we’re going to have to go there to face him. (Granted, it sounds lackluster when you tell it that way.)

It makes more sense to have the intermission at that time than to quit the session when the Big Bad is in the *next room*. That just seems perverse to your players and they will likely want to keep playing even if it is 4am just so they can finish this.

#7 Comment By Martin On August 1, 2007 @ 8:37 am

Stopping after an important discovery is an excellent point — I hadn’t considered that at all. I dig that kind of cliffhanger as a player and as a GM, because it allows time to plan and ponder.

(Wik) I’m a little curious: *why* is midroll a bad place for a cliffhanger? I’m interested in seeing your reasoning here

For pretty much the same reason I don’t advocate stopping mid-anything, only more so. When I’ve tried this, my players couldn’t get back into the frame of mind they were in at the end of the session (the cliffhanger) fast enough to keep things exciting — which isn’t a criticism: it just takes time to build up momentum.

Stopping before revealing the result of a critical die roll pretty much guarantees that while you’ll have your players’ interest when you start up again, you won’t have the excitement level coming back from a cliffhanger should generate.