Adventures in D&D are naturally memorable escapades. A good session leaves the players with the sense that they’ve been on an actual (if imagined) journey filled with dangers and exhilaration. As a DM, one doesn’t have to add much more than a chest full of glittering loot and a few obstacles between the heroes and the aforementioned chest, and a typical group of players will add all the necessary fun, laughs, and enthusiasm.
However, if you (like me) are the kind of Dungeon Master who enjoys sessions in which the players are fully engaged with what’s taking place, and ideally knock over glasses and lose dice on the floor in pure excitement, then it’s worth thinking about how it’s possible to ramp up the level of intensity in your game. Not only can sessions with high-octane adventures that have the players on the edge of their seats be more fun while they’re happening – they also make for more long-lasting and vivid memories!
Here below is a list of ideas for how you can make your next adventure more intense and make the players really lean into what’s happening in the story. Note that this is all about making quests specifically intense, rather than just more interesting in general. Of course, one can argue that a more tense and unpredictable (because that’s what this article is about) adventure naturally is more intriguing. However, just to clarify the difference: there are many ways to make D&D adventures more rewarding than your average series of generic encounters, for example by making them increasingly complex, atmospheric, unusual and original, detailed, tailored to the players’ characters, and so on. All those approaches are perfectly valid and often great, but they deserve their own articles. In this article, we’ll be talking about dialling up the tension, and only that. Are you ready? Let’s plunge into the list!
1. The villain did what?
The most important part when planning a high-intensity adventure is to make sure that the stakes are so high that they motivate the party to take action. So what if the pesky goblins stole a purse from the mayor’s purse? Who cares if a totally unfamiliar person has gone missing in the Swamp of Hideous Harpies and Harrowing Hellspawn? The answer is that your players and their characters probably will try to right what’s gone wrong, but more out of a sense of obligation and the unspoken agreement that unless the adventurers start adventuring – well, there won’t be an adventure.
Fortunately, this is easily amended by adding in the potential consequences of the problem! For example, consider the following scenario for the purse that a band of goblins has stolen from the mayor: rather than just containing a small amount of coin, it turns out that the purse held a map along with the coin – a very old map that the mayor, who actually is a retired treasure-hunter, has been carrying around for decades because it was so important that it didn’t get lost (but of course it eventually did!). Now the map is in the hands of a group of goblins, which in turn work for a nasty, black-hearted and powerful band of rival NPC adventurers, who definitely will want to get their hands on the treasure first. All of a sudden, time is of the essence, and there is a group of evil competitors who might waylay the heroes – but the monetary reward can actually stay the same!
And so far, we’re just talking about valuables. What if the person who has gone missing in the swamp is revealed to be someone vitally important (ideally to the player characters). Their fate might even determine the future of a family, or an entire village?
2. The clock is ticking!
Urgency is a great motivator along with high stakes. The time pressure must be balanced against the need for the characters to rest and prepare, of course, but there is still a lot that one can use as a (somewhat evil) DM. Perhaps the characters know that a treasure is diminishing a little each time that a new day dawns? Maybe someone who has been kidnapped also has been poisoned, and needs an antitoxin within a few days? It could even be so that due to a mighty curse, days are getting shorter, and an era of everlasting night will engulf the realm in a week’s time from the start of the adventure.
Perhaps the swamp mentioned above is undergoing some kind of arcane transformation that is making it increasingly hazardous for every day that passes? That single tweak might turn the adventurers from going “all right, one more mead, maybe a quick nap, and then we’re off to the swamp to save the silly farmer” into “we need to ride there now! On the double! Why are you all just standing there? Pack up and ride, damn you!”
The possibilities are many and entertaining – at least to a Dungeon Master!
3. Did that just happen?
Depending on the structure and length of the adventure, and the playing style of the group, it can be a good idea to increase the tension by throwing in a twist and raising the stakes further. Maybe the characters find and rescue a missing ranger from the clutches of hobgoblins that have holed up in an abandoned castle, only to find themselves ambushed and taken prisoner by the rest of the enemies! The characters must now flee their cells and make their way out of a stronghold – all while protecting the person they originally rescued.
Alternatively, remember how mastermind criminals in movies tend to get in touch with their followers to taunt them, especially if they fail to do something in time or reveal to the world that they’re hunting the perpetrator? Fantasy villains can do the same! For example, if the characters botch their investigation checks and raise all hell while they’re searching a mansion, they might receive a message (pinned to a door with a wicked dagger) that because of their mistakes, there will be terrible consequences – a captive troll unleashed in the town square, or something similar.
Not only will this boost the sense that this villain really must be caught; it will also engage and possibly enrage the players (hopefully in a good way – it’s always critical to make sure that these kind of paybacks don’t feel like the DM is cheating!).
4. We’re being toyed with!
Instead of deploying an “end boss” who is just more powerful and resilient than all the beasts that the characters have encountered before it, use an intelligent and sentient NPC or monster that waits for them at the end of their road. Huge unthinking monsters are all good and well as hard challenges, but they can sometimes feel like beefed-up versions of the one hundred and thirty-nine opponents that the heroes overcame before they reached the end of the labyrinth.
A shrewd Big Bad Evil Guy is a very different and more anxiety-inducing foe: they set dreadful traps, arrange sneaky ambushes, launch smart distractions and decoys, and – most importantly – they fight tactically. If the characters are made aware of that they ultimately will face someone (or something) sharp-minded who might throw surprises their way, they’ll definitely be more on their toes throughout the adventure!
5. This is personal!
This is a simple yet highly effective piece of advice: make the adventure about something that’s close to the characters’ hearts. Examples of this could include their hometown, family, friends or, of course, themselves and their own safety. The story will immediately be more captivating! A pair of common (but, again, efficient) variations are to frame the characters for a crime they didn’t commit so that they must clear their name before they’re caught, or to steal something that the characters have worked to obtain over a long period of time.
For example, if they’ve been making a series of quests to locate all the components needed to cast a spell which in turn will locate a fantastic magic item, and the characters arrive at the long-sought location only to find that a thief has beaten them to their prize, they are likely to go through all nine hells to get their object of desire.
All this being said, think twice before thwarting the characters’ plans too abruptly or stealing something precious from their backpacks, as this is more likely to feel like an obnoxious intrusion rather than a move that raises the tension in an enjoyable way.
6. It’s awfully dark in here!
One immensely quick way to raise tension in D&D is to complicate or altogether remove a common perk, such as darkvision, the use of heavy armour or weapons with reach, resistances against different types of damage, and so on. As with the point above, this should be utilised sparingly and with consideration. While limiting or preventing darkvision is a major complication in an underground adventure, it’s unlikely to stop the characters from succeeding in the end (unless the entire quest hinges on darkvision, but that would be rather silly in this case!). However, a greater impediment, such as prohibiting the use of magic altogether, is likely to make clerics annoyed and mages infuriated – although this can work really well if the limitations are themselves confined to a certain area (for example, a specific stretch of a dungeon) or last only a short while (one certain hour of the day, and so on).
7. Getting out will be a nightmare!
Hampering the possibility of a quick escape is a simple but exceedingly effective way to make the boldest of adventuring parties tread a little more light through the dungeon. For example, our group recently played an adventure during which the heroes were required to enter a network of old, not-so abandoned mining tunnels in search of a missing person. Just inside the entrance, they found that the ceiling had collapsed and left only a narrow tunnel available for accessing the main tunnels.
For all the characters knew, this was the only entrance, so they crawled through the tunnel and discovered that this was fairly easy (there were no checks involved) but took about one minute. However, once they were inside the mine, the usually confident characters (or rather, their players) were very focused and alert for a straightforward reason: while entering the mine was unproblematic in itself, it had taken them time, and they knew that they would have to spend as long getting back out again – which can be a colossal problem if you’re being hunted by, say, a homebrewed shadowy monster.
8. We didn’t see that coming!
Combat in D&D is innately dramatic and tense – or at least it should be! – but it never hurts to make it even more roller-coaster-like, and there are many methods available for achieving this. One time-tested way is to make the fight more unpredictable is to let the characters’ enemies pull stunts and use moves that aren’t in the rulebooks. These don’t have to be especially powerful or lethal: the sheer novelty of them will be enough to make your players sit up straight and start to pay attention.
One way to do this in a controlled fashion is to grant your characters’’ opponents one or two new actions, bonus actions, or reactions. It can be a surprising type of attack or evasive manoeuvre, the use of a new special ability, or something else entirely.
Alternatively, you can script a battle so that something happens after a specific number of rounds. For example, when the characters have fought the hill giant for three rounds, the giant could be joined by another, bigger giant that comes bounding over the hills to flank the heroes. Or there can be a sudden landslide, or a tree falls over one of the characters, or the giant gives up a roar that might stun them. Let your imagination run wild!
9. Curse your inevitable betrayal!
A final tip: If there are one or more NPCs who are in touch with the group regularly, or who even are accompanying them, have one turn on them when they least expect it. The jolt when this happens is usually huge, and if it’s an NPC that the characters have come to trust, the impact is even stronger. What’s more, if there are several NPCs with whom the adventuring party is interacting, anyone can be a traitor!
A word of caution: it’s wise to be restrictive with this kind of surprise, because betrayals are double-edged swords. They’re fun when they work well, but the players can end up feeling unjustly treated – so make sure you know your players well before springing this type of nastiness upon them. Also, few things slow the pace down so much as an extremely careful and suspicious group of players who insist on interrogating everyone they meet (or have met) and refuse to open doors unless they first have been examined in every possible way.
I hope these tips will be useful for gently tormenting your players! Just keep in mind to always ensure that they have fun, and that any surprises or changes to the rules feel entertaining and not unfair!