How Can GMs Evoke the Tone of Danger in an RPG?

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A member over at rpg.stackexchange.com asked “How can GMs evoke the tone of danger in an RPG?”

Here was my answer:

  • To me, danger = risk. What are the stakes? Add dependents and dependencies to the PCs and then jeopardize those.
  • Allow PC deaths. The tension of potential character death in just one encounter can span even multiple campaigns if the players know their mistakes can cause them grief.
  • Dismember PCs. When a PC is unconscious, have a foe whack a hand off. Regenerate will cost a bit of treasure, unless the party has the spell available, so no permanent damage, but temporary loss of ability is scary for many players.
  • Use custom monsters. Or, just rename a monster. Anything to make the creature strange and threatening to players familiar with all the monster manual entries.
  • Use massive one-time damage. Optimize foes occasionally to do a lot of damage in a single strike at the beginning of an encounter. The PCs will not know for sure if the damage was a one-time thing or if they might face it each round.

What do you think?


I like the massive amount of damage that takes down the tank, as long as I don’t over use it.

Also if the group knows that their actions will bring down a more serious foe (a SWAT team, waking up the dragon, alerting the sigh lord, what ever)

Jason Kerney, @bagheer (twitter)

I have found 3 great techniques on adding the feeling of danger to my games. The first is pacing. If the game has a high tension pacing where the players are not give quite enough time to plan before some thing happens. I often wait until the moment before I think their plan will become finalized before dropping something on them that puts them into a reactionary mode.

The reason for waiting for them to almost have a plan is then they end up not being 100% reactionary and feel like they have some control but also feel the pressure of disaster.

The second technique I have used, is a hidden timer. When the timer dings an innocent will die, a building will blow up, some one will shoot at the characters or some other form of problem will arrive. I very the time by a die roll each time I set it. I use smaller dice as the players approach the climax. The random intervals that gradually shrink drive adrenalin through the roof.

The last technique is that of side effect. I have every thing the characters do have a negative side effect. These side effects causes a tension and danger that is surprising and cannot be pinpointed.



I ran a couple years back in which I gave the party a riddle, which stated in it that if it wasnt solved quickly, you may be in danger, etc. After reading it to them, I explained the situation, and told them they had 20 minutes to solve it, or else.

I had intended on giving them a slowly increasing number of enemies to fight for each additional minute they took, the longer they took to solve it, letting them continue to work as they fought, but they managed to solve it with about a minute and a half to spare.

While each minute be plenty of time in game to dispatch a set of enemies before more show up, since they are using out of game time to solve the puzzle, thats what effects the monsters showing up, which goes alot faster than the in game time, as they would obviously take longer than 6 seconds to take their turn.

Every person is going to react to a situation differently, and sometimes all you can do is give badly veiled threats.

Boston Mike

If you plan ahead a little, you can make risk to dependents much more personal to your players. Let the party find a loyal dog or warhorse in a prior adventure, or a stowaway on their starship who is an excellent cook. Players often consider themselves heroic and nigh invulnerable, but they know you’ll kill their dog or cook without hesitation.

An NPC that was previously rescued could reappear to thank them, and inadvertently be put in harm’s way.

In a shipwreck scene, I had the player’s performance determine which key supplies and which NPCs would survive.


The most unusual incidents I remember involved timing and description. They all occurred in our anime inspired BESM game.

For description I became very detailed about the opponent’s attack: how he drew his sword, how fast it was, how it sounded, the kind of “special effects” it would have. Then I dished out the damage which was pretty spectacular. It made an impression. The funny thing was, mechanically, a couple of the PCs had the same attack. Yet people remember that incident.

The other incident involved one PC bumping into the Big Bad in a mall. Lots of by-standers including the PCs special someone. The player knew it was a veiled threat so he played it cool. He knew this because the tone for the game was established early in the campaign.

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