Ever watch a heist movie? Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Kelly’s Heroes (my favorite movie of all time). You know what I’m talking about. A bunch of guys get together, and they are going to steal something. Quite often they try to give the thieves some manner of reason to make it seem like they are Robin Hoods and not actually thieves, but well, they’re criminals. Did it stop you from rooting for them? Yeah, me neither.
There is something about stealing things that is thrilling. Something in the breaking of the law, something in the danger, something in the “beating” whoever is there to stop you from doing it. There is something there that gives you an adrenaline rush. In rare occasions, I have been able to insert that feeling into games. I want to do it more!
The vast majority of FRPG quests could have this feeling melded into them. Sometimes the party is recovering a lost artifact ala Indiana Jones. It can have that same “heist” feel to it. Think about Indy and the golden skull. Remember his assistant mirroring his moves at the dais? It’s like that. We need to get the players to be doing that; feeling the tension as their characters weigh the bag of sand.
So how do you do it? I think one of the best ways is through melodrama. It’s sappy and a bit silly (especially for guys trying to be cool), but to bring some of that style of tension into the game, you have to schmaltz it up as a GM. What I mean is this: OK, I’m going to roll this die. If I roll a 12 or over, your character is going to succeed in sliding down the hall on your stomach without the guard noticing you, but if the number is lower, then the guard hears or sees you and will instantly raise the alarm. Your whole plan hinges on this one die roll. Either way, this is it; it all comes down to this. Are you ready? I mean are you really ready?
I admitted it was silly, right? It is, but just as it is silly for famous actors to take a pie in the face for a movie, sometimes, you have to evoke your inner ringmaster.
These GMing tactics can be used in nearly any situation, but don’t go overboard. Yes, you can do the same with a swing of the sword. Yes, you can do the same with the casting of a spell. But it is typically in the thieving rolls where one roll decides the fate, as opposed to a sword/spell needing to roll damage, and even then it is rarely final, but just the start of an long combat.
This is one of the reasons (I think) people like to play thieves. Picking a pocket? It’s a yes or no - one die roll, big gamble. Yes - get money. No - start the chase music boys.
It does not have to just be about these types of rolls. The other way to get it is what I think of as the “gold effect”. In the movie Kelly’s Heroes, every time someone saw the gold bar for the first time, there was this glittering music, and they were stunned in awe of the beauty of the gold. This is what I’m going for when I reveal a treasure horde to the party. The most anti-climactic thing you can ever do when introducing a dragon sitting atop a mound of gold is to start talking about numbers.
Look, in truth, the reason I’ve never written a novel is because I cannot write dialog and I find writing most descriptive narratives to be way too much hard work. But if you have any spark of story teller in you, you should be able to weave a tale like this: You know you’ve reached the final chamber of this cave system because the dragon is there. In the blink of an eye, it all comes to you. The mighty dragon is coiled upon heaps of gold. The light of your torches gleams of multi-colored surfaces in the pile that must be gems, while the helms and armor of ancient warriors are mixed into the piles. OK, I said I don’t do that well - often I can do it verbally better than I can write it because I can see what is or isn’t working for my “audience”.
It works for a single target too: This must be the gem you’re after. It sits on a pedestal with two hanging lamps providing the light to emphasize its many facets. The gem is huge, bigger than you have ever seen before and of such a striking, true-blue color that the angels themselves must have crafted it.
Want to get back into the more roguish style? Try this one: Your target sits there in the restaurant, piggish and obese. Shoveling food into his oafish mouth, you can see his stubby little teeth as he chews like a cow with cud. This is the demon of a man that your client needs dead, and he is right in your sights. He may be surrounded by witnesses for now, but you’re going to get him, as soon as he (falls into the trap the character has laid out).
The morale of this story is that especially when it comes to the single action, suspenseful things that rogues do, a little drama or melodrama can go a long way. It is storytelling. It is acting. You don’t need to be James Earl Jones with a booming voice to play up the tension and anxiety. Be yourself, but be a little bit bigger version of yourself, and bring those players into exactly how important this one moment in their characters’ lives really is!