Dungeons & Dragons Online

Your most powerful tools as a DM: Mystery, Tension, Surprise, and Payoff

How do you get players to pick up on your plot hook? Why does combat seem to be boring and drag on? Why do your players seem to be disengaged? If you've every asked yourself this question, it probably means you need to add more of one of these 4 things: Mystery, Tension, Surprise, Payoff

Plot Hooks are Mysteries

That's my controversial opinion. Every plot hook asks a question, even if the question is just: How is this adventure going to end? A plot hook should make your players stop and wonder what that weird thing is. Why is there a sword stuck in the stone? Why is this intact chair sitting in a messed up room? Really play up the mystery, you want the player's to be asking questions. Have you ever had that situation ignores your plot hook and goes off on a tangent? Chances are you didn't add enough mystery to your plot hook, or added too much mystery to the tangent.

Mysteries are also a great was to add more exploration to your game. Exploration at its core is just someone wants to discover something. Add little mysteries to your locations and characters. Why does the butcher open his shop for 10 minutes every night at midnight? Why is there meat in the front but none in the back cooler? What are all these markings on the floor?

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Build and Release Tension

I really like the word Tension because it can have many different meanings. Tense could describe escaping a trap, negotiations, fighting an enemy, conflict between allies, etc.

To keep the game from becoming boring, it's really important to keep building and releasing tension. Think of like every adventure need a bomb under the table. Something bad will happen if the players don't act and act now. This is a great video by Zipperon Disney that explains it better that I could:

You can build tension by taking the principal of Mystery and making it dramatic. Keep asking Dramatic Questions, which add a sense of urgency, risk, and danger to your game. Take those questions, and keeping playing them up until the tension is released. Questions like:
Can the players escape the army of kobold before the door shuts? Can the players convince the king before the lying vizier has them throne out as sword point? Can the players escape the forest before madness sets in forever? How will the king react when they tell him they failed to save his daughter. It can even be thematic questions like what really is the price of liberty?


Great adventures need something that the players aren't expecting. A giant dwarf, a cowardly orc warchief, the Church building a zombie horde, the underground passageway suddenly floods, the little girl was the mastermind the whole time. Surprises are essentially ways to introduce new Mysteries and Tension.

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Players Love Payoff

I'm avoiding using the term reward cause Payoff includes non-physical things. They can be secrets, new plot hooks, backstory information, new locations to explore, normal treasure, things that increase efficacy, and toys.

Toys are what I like to call Payoffs that change how a player plays the came. They're things that a player can "play around" with and are encouraged to do so. Magic items; headquarters; sidekicks and hirelings or just NPCs the players they like; titles with perks and responsibilities; items to craft; even new areas of the world to explore and play around in.
Think of your world as a toy box filled with toys you made that you want to share with your friends.


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