Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Death Traps & Cliffhangers

Today I'd like to discuss two well-used tropes that've been on my mind as late; the Death Trap and the Cliffhanger; and some basic advice how you can incorporate them into a variety of action RPGs.

Death Traps 

Ahh the Death Trap. The much tried and occasionally true method where a villain frequently attempts to use an elaborate (the more elaborate, the better!) means to rid themselves of the protagonist(s)-in-his-side, generally unsuccessfully. No doubt a classic of megalomaniacal masterminds, evil geniuses, and egocentric supervillains; this plot device can be used to inject tension and drama into your games like a metal scorpion injecting acid into a hapless prisoner.


I think one of the tricky things about death traps is to avoid treating them like run-of-mill Dungeons and Dragons-style traps; death traps aren't there as basic encounters to wear down the PC's stats and resources. Sure, there's nothing stopping you from using them that way, but I believe a truly villainous death trap should be more connected and driven by the plot. It can have an assortment of uses: a unique encounter such as puzzle-trap that the PC's must use their wits to solve and escape; an exposition tool for the archvillain to begin his diabolical monologue (do I hear social encounter with dangerous consequences?); or to raise the tension by having the victim of the insidious doom a sympathetic NPC that heroes must save from their fate. (See, the PC's need not be submitted directly to a death trap to raise drama!)

For more examples of Death Traps and their narrative use: [Tvtropes]

Cliffhangers

Back in the days of matinée film serials the staple plot device was that of the cliffhanger ending, where it was used to entice the viewers into returning to see the conclusion of an unresolved situation. It still exists in media today, but it think the serials of yesteryear handled it great. As each serial would be rather short in length and each finished with a cliffhanger ending, this means that the ongoing plot would be chock-full of cliffhangers: lending itself perfectly to an action-filled RPG of the pulp, spy, or superhero variety.


This classic trope is great for ending a session with some 'omph. That said cliffhangers don't necessarily have to be placed at the end of a session; they can be just as effective in the middle or even beginning of a session. Consider the 1960's Batman TV series (Yes I know, it's more campy than pulpy but it has the right idea for both over-the-top cliffhangers and death traps): The first half of each two-part episode would end with a cliffhanger (usually by death trap). Now, instead of considering each episode a session, placing both parts in one session puts the dramatic and tension in the middle.

Beginning a session with a cliffhanger (possibly supported by a recap sequence) starts the characters in medias res (in the middle of things). No slow build up, just right into the action. Boom. And if you think starting so strong means the remainder of the session is downhill, nothing's stopping you from putting a cliffhanger at the end of the session to keep 'em on the edge of their seats!

All this said, cramming cliffhangers into every point in the plot isn't the way to go either, you'll quickly wear them and your players out. Fast-paced cinematic games should be action filled, but that doesn't always mean that everything the PC's do should be frantic or precarious. Use cliffhangers to add a splash of excitement and suspense to your gaming sessions.

More information on Cliffhangers here: [Tvtropes]

Villains and Death Traps

I believe the most interesting villains in appropriate action-y games should have at least one appropriately themed death trap at their disposal; the more elaborate, the better. Not only does this give the GM a nefarious plot device that the villain can use against the PC's in the story and/or as a cliffhanger, but it also adds a bit more colour to the antagonist. After all, would Goldfinger be as a memorable villain if he hadn't attempted to slice James Bond in-half with that laser?


This idea came to me when I was writing up a couple of  NPC's for Spirit of the Century. The concept I came up with was a pair of circus sideshow performers who specialised in the implement arts; a trick shooter and a hatchet thrower -turned hired goons. Whilst I was working on their skills, stunts, and aspects I thought how cool a scene where one of the PCs or an important NPC was tied to a spinning Wheel of Death or revolving Devil's Door whilst the two ex-performers took turns taking increasingly dangerous shots. It sounded like an awesome idea and with that I developed my design concept for villains:

  • When creating a villain for a pulp, spy, or superhero game, considering adding a little footnote or an aside called Death Traps:. That way any ideas you write down for such devices can be easily recalled later at an appropriate point in the story, or developed further for future use.


Situations and Cliffhangers

I think an important thought to consider whenever you're running scenes or sessions with the characters doing/visiting interesting/exotic/mysterious/dangerous things/locales is what elements and aspects of such situations can you use to pull up a cliffhanger when you need it. As people's play-styles differ and the length of time PC's spent in a single location or situation can vary, nobody can be sure where in the story a session may end. Also, commonly a session ends during a relatively quiet/stable point in play (most people avoid ending a session in the middle of an encounter). This can make planning ending on a cliffhanger tough, but I believe with a little planning ahead a GM can easily and confidently pull this off:

  • Just as I suggested for villains and their death traps, consider attaching a written or mental note to locations and/or situations titled Cliffhangers:. Connecting cliffhangers to these points I think is an easy way to recall an appropriate one for an ending or bit of suspense, by making it fit well with the whereabouts of the PC's. Cliffhangers don't need to be tied specifically to locations either, try creating a few generic cliffhangers that could be applied regardless of the situation or location, such as an earthquake opening a deep crevasse, or it suddenly going dark and a mysterious voice is heard. Death traps can be also cliffhangers, and vice versa!



As I mentioned before, don't overuse cliffhangers. Though you may have several listed for any given location or situation, that doesn't mean you have to use every one; but I'm sure you can easily adapt them to another situation/location if the need arises.

I hope these suggestions help your evil scheming!

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