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How to Build Tension in Tales of Xadia

One of the most effective lessons a Narrator can learn is how to build tension in their games. The lessons explored in this article examine why tension is important and how to use it.
Shadowy hands reach for a snake in a cage

October is my absolute favorite time of the year for pumpkin-flavored and spooky reasons, so I wanted to dig into how to make a game of Tales of Xadia incorporate spine-chilling spookiness for all you thrill-seekers out there!

Before we begin, I just wanted to add that I am someone who has been diagnosed with PTSD and while I find many aspects of creepiness to be delightful, I am quite sensitive to it not being for everyone. I’ll try to keep these tips broad and conceptual so everyone can enjoy them, but what you and I might like might not be for everyone. Make sure you check in with your group of players and see what kind of scares they find fun, and not so fun. You’ll all enjoy the game more if you’re enjoying it together.

How To Be Spooky

Dragon of the deep seas confronts a diver

First let’s talk about things anyone can enjoy, including players! Humans and elves all have uneasy folklore in their cultures. Think about how your character might have heard a story of an ancient mystery, handed down by their ancestors. Those stories can be shared around a campfire or told on a quiet journey through a mysterious forest full of Moon magic. 

Think stories of strange sounds, disappearances, intrigue, and ghosts with something to prove. There need not be an ending to the story, either. Half the fun for your players can be coming up with their own theories as to what actually happened in the end!

Setting certain scenes at night, and using environmental effects like rolling in fog are great background elements that Narrators can use. What’s important to remember is the execution! Set those scenes up in advance with certain plot elements that cue up those effects, like sleeping guards, changes in weather on the horizon, a Narrator character shivering with unease. Tossing those details in before anything is outright creepy will set up the tone.

It’s also not enough to just throw a monster at players. There needs to be tension and stakes. A Narrator character could be missing, and the build-up to the big reveal involves a tense search to pick up their trail. Or, players could find books with drawings from hundreds of years ago, sketching a strange, extinct creature, only to encounter the tracks of the creature later!

When inventing your spooky creatures, remember that any of the primal magics can be unsettling. Fire magic creatures can be hidden in smoke, or deep in a volcanic cave. Sky magic creatures can glide silently on the wind like a whisper or a snow owl. You get the idea! Spookiness is not just for Moon magic, you know?

Creating Creepy Characters

Be it a player character or a Narrator character, when creating a sinister character, my first suggestion is to be subtle. Nothing’s very eerie about someone who roars their ill intent when they enter the room. If anything, add an element of warmth to a spookily-intentioned character! 

Viren holding an orb of created from dark magic

Next, any character needs a goal or two, and I recommend a believable and relatable one for starters. I think most of us have heard enough storytelling tropes to know that most villains don’t know they’re villains; instead, they are heroes who make bad choices, relatable folks blinded by frustration. 

So before you convince yourself your troubled character is perfect, consider making them a little more grounded! This is especially important in a nuanced world like that of The Dragon Prince! Elements like greed and entitlement don’t happen overnight. It usually starts with convincing yourself that something incredibly toxic (like aligning yourself with an extra-dimensional caterpillar) is worth the moral compromises that come with it.

Now you’re doing your best to be believable and subtle—but where does the dark side come in? As I just alluded to, it’s about choices. Think about a choice your character either has made or is about to make that is well-intentioned but misguided. Desperate folks do desperate things! Take a look at the pre-generated characters we have available when looking for examples.

I’ll not get too far into the catalysts in the tales we have available on our website—as there are too many plot spoilers—but think of people who are well-intentioned but have a terrible intuition for when to resist temptation. Sometimes that temptation is for a solution that will actually help other people they care about! It’s not always just a selfish, cliche villain motivation. And of course, if you don’t mind spoilers, check out the catalysts in the tales here on the website.


Also, take a look at the playable character Eljaal. They were sent on an assassination mission, but their ability to commit that dark act was taken away from them. Will they seek redemption in the way of another dark act, or will they find more personal salvation? It’s up to the player whether they’re the hopeful sort of character or the creepy sort! The tension can be utilized, or healed. It’s all about that choice.

Inspiration for Your Table

Looking for more Cortex fun? Sign up for the Tales of Xadia newsletter and watch our playthrough of The Gloaming Glade to learn how to play the game! Follow Fandom Tabletop on Twitch to get an alert when new games are in session and get caught up on a few episodes of the story at your leisure on YouTube!
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