Tension as an Incentive to Play
We play Dungeons and Dragons for a number of reasons, but all of us can agree to a need for tension. Whether tactical combat powergamers, self-expressive artists, creative collaborators, or drama nerds, there is no type of player or Dungeon Master that doesn’t seek tension in our play. This is because tension exists where things matter, and we all want our games to mean something.
Tension is the feeling of excitement that you get in the pit of your stomach when two conditions are filled: The outcome is unknown, and the outcome is important. The outcome is unknown simply means that there is a pretty reasonable chance that a couple of mutually exclusive outcomes could occur. The outcome is important means that it matters to the player which outcome occurs. If there players know what's going to happen, or (even worse) if they don't care, there is no tension.
Combat Encounters, or You're Already Doing It Right
Players often feel the most tension during Combat Encounters. Combat holds an inherent tension thanks to the 5e system and the good habits which we have formed. Combats that hold tension have an uncertain outcome (life or death) and that outcome is important (because everyone loves their characters).
Here’s a great example from DDAL05-02 The Black Road by Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler:
[Box Text]As you start up the narrow path up the hill, a bugbear bursts from the trees. “We’ll be takin’ your caravan for Bad Fruul, and burn your blood for Hruggek!” He roars and lets out a mighty kick, and with a loud SNAP, a huge log starts to roll down the narrow path.
We can already see, from that opening narration that we’ve fulfilled our two requirements: The outcome is in doubt (Big bugbears with the drop on us, a disadvantageous fighting position, and a trap) and the outcome matters (this is to the death).
Contest Encounters, or Bards are People Too
Contest encounters are those scenes where players are talking or acting, and not swinging their swords. I paraphrase Fate to describe them as "any time characters have mutually exclusive goals, but are not intending to deliver physical harm upon each other." As-written in Wizards content, the social contests mostly suck. Either the Contest isn’t in doubt because it’s usually plot relevant, or it doesn’t matter because it has no relevant cost or benefit.
Here’s an example from DDAL05-03 Uninvited Guests by Robert Alaniz (which is otherwise an excellently interesting adventure!):
[Paraphrased from two pages of text]The Party stumbles upon Prince Thornacious, a small fey sprite who is (notably) royalty. The Party wants meat for a banquet that to be held in town, and have come to his forest to hunt. If the Party succeeds at negotiations he directs them to a hunting ground where they can fight a combat encounter to get the meat they need, giving them a little help (consumable item). If the party fails at negotiations he offers them a chance to leave immediately, also directing them to the hunting ground as per success. If The Party refuses to leave, or engages in combat, he fights them. Then they can take whatever game they want from this forest.
Wow. What are the stakes of this Contest? Fight sprites, fight hobgoblins, or fight hobgoblins with a point or two of exhaustion. That’s...super unengaging. The negotiation’s result is in doubt (ie you can fail) but that failure means nothing. It’s a roll to see if Prince Thornacious makes you immune to the mist of his forest, which is possibly one of the most low stakes rolls in an adventure ever. Not to mention players aren't aware that making them immune is what he intends to do. The adventure does have the spurned party come back for the finale (either fey or hobgoblins) but the players aren’t aware of that. Those stakes are never foreshadowed, so they’re never relevant to choices made in this Contest.
Challenge Encounters, or I Took Two Levels in Rogue For This
Challenge Encounters usually don’t have an active opposition (another party or NPC), and often the challenge to be overcome is architectural (a constructed puzzle) or environmental (the natural world). It’s not really important how you structure them mechanically, except that they tend to involve the use of a variety of the characters' skills, and some of them even involve the use of players' skills (solving a puzzle or similar).
Tension in these is lost when (too often, way too often) DMs implement these as a roadblock (what the MMO community refer to as a gear check) that must be passed before the players are allowed to engage with the rest of the story. The outcome is not in doubt. We pass it or we sit here forever until the DM texts a player the answer or just feels sorry for us. By the same token, most puzzles aren't important because they don't reward the party with anything more than progression of plot, and don't cost anything more than real-player-time.
Here is an example from DDEX3-1 Harried in Hillsfar by Shawn Merwin, an adventure that isn’t worth your time, except as an excellent case study of what-not-to-do.
[Box text]This room continues the motif of elf and demon comingling. Nine gaping demonic maws adorn the walls of the room, each with a number on them: one through nine. The maws are holes in the walls large enough to climb through, but the gaps are filled with a magical darkness that obscures what is on the other side. The floor and the rest of the walls form a mosaic that obviously represent the Abyss, the home of the demons. The infinite layers of that horrific place are represented with breathtaking and terrible beauty.
[DM text] No skills or spells can discern a difference between the maws, and nothing happens if the characters reach a limb or throw an object into them. Only when an adventurer steps through completely does anything happen. Characters stepping through the maw labeled 8 (the symbol of infinity representing the endless Abyss) on the map find the hallway into the final room. An adventurer stepping through any other maw are spit back out and take 3 points of necrotic damage. That maw then magically closes, removing it as an option.
Not only is it really poorly foreshadowed, it’s also Not in Doubt, and Not Important. Do you have more than 24hp in your entire party? You’ll pass this. Just try every door. Also, there’s no rush. Take a long rest here. This is without touching on the fact that the adventure doesn’t progress past this point until you solve it. There isn’t an alternative outcome and there’s no change in the story. The party can spend a year and a half trying to solve this puzzle and the box text for the next encounter declares their arrival is “perfect”. The stakes don’t exist.
Tools to Take Away
The Outcome Must Be In Doubt: Point of Decision, Costs to Choices, No Railroading
No encounter should be make-or-break. If the PCs MUST achieve a certain outcome to continue the plot, then there is no point of decision. Combat encounters can end in death/capture. Social contests can end with a hard no, or yes with a large cost. Challenges can be failed. There are stakes! Don't fudge your numbers. Don't pull your punches.
Demand their Key Resources. You've been doing this in combat, where failure to hit means the baddie gets another turn, where they can take character's HP, and each success relieves that cost. Try the same thing in your skill challenges, failure costs something. Each failure to barter with the spy increases the price of information. Each failure to disarm the magical glyph or interpret the ciphered tome drains from the wizard a spell slot.
Begin with questions. Don't design "the PCs get the information from the King". Instead "Does the King give the PCs the information?" or "What will it cost the PCs to get the information from the King?" The outcome must be in doubt means it must be in doubt to the DM as well.
Sid Meier says players start to feel certain about an outcome at about 3:1 or 4:1 odds, that’s a good rule of thumb. Players should feasibly be able to fail more than 1 time in every 4 (which will require you to ensure good failure states).
Your Encounter Question must be able to be answered in both Yes, and No. At worst, Yes And, Yes But, but No is so much more interesting.
The Outcome Must Be Important: Success Matters, Failure Matters, Players Know It
Make your outcomes matter. If success means continuation of plot, and failure means sitting there, there's boring. Instead success means the plot continues AND, and failure means plot continues BUT.
The more success gives, and the more failure takes, the more tension you will generate and the higher your players will sit on the interest curve. With that in mind, moderate it. Know when to give them a dip, where the stakes are gentler, but know how to kick that encounter into gear if you see them falling asleep.
Give failure a resource cost - Time, Gold, HP, Slots. Just ensure you’re targeting resources on- or off-axis as necessary to increase or decrease the tension.
Declare the stakes to your players. Tell them that if they succeed they'll decode the tome and get a 3rd level scroll. Tell them if they fail the Tome will explode and do 4d6 damage to everyone. Sure, the characters don’t know this, but we’re not trying to emotionally affect characters, we’re trying to emotionally affect players. People can't emotionally react to stakes of which they are unaware.
Getting your tension right will be one of the most rewarding things you can do as a DM. All players, regardless of their psychographics, want some sort of tension. Your ability to keep tension on-curve and interesting will ensure you keep your players engaged and excited, and it will ensure that your games mean something.