January 3, 2011

3 Lessons For Great Stakes

You’ve got an established game, but it’s starting to get dull. The only thing the characters ever fight for is their life, and it’s hard to take that willfully. So how do you spice up your game and threaten the players with something they can actually lose?

Setting stakes is a skill most GMs need to learn, and learn to use well. The concept is simple: give the characters, and players, something to care about. In general, major tropes include fighting for your life against a given enemy, or fighting some world threatening entity. These are good tropes in the right genres, but aren’t always going to keep their ability to fire your players up.

So what are the key ingredients of a good stake in an encounter, adventure, or campaign?

1. Defined

A stake has to be clearly defined to be effective. Make it clear what it is the characters will lose if they fail, and the fate of the thing as well. Destroying a loved item or person has more immediacy than straight theft, but theft opens up many avenues of continued adventure.

The definition also makes it clear that choosing not to take an adventure means losing the stake in a specific way. This allows them to plan in a way that they can’t if you just tell them they’ve lost something.

2. Personal

Personal stakes are always more useful for drawing your players in. If they care about whatever it is they might lose, they’ll fight harder, and smarter, to save it. Try to steal their trademark weapon, their character’s lover/best friend, even threatening their hometown (If you sufficiently developed it.) can all have useful effects.

Making it personal will also cause the player who has the most stake in the situation to push his fellows into doing things they might decide against otherwise. Don’t underestimate social pressure as a tool for guiding your players.

3. Worthwhile

A stake needs to have some value. Allies who hearth wounded heroes, contacts, friends, money, lands, even power are all acceptable in terms of worth. All of these things have a perceived value, and your players will fight for any one of them.

This worth also helps keep the players from experiencing a ‘shock’ in regards to whatever thing they may lose. If you kill an NPC, your players will start to treat the NPCs like cardboard cutouts. By killing NPCs that produce value, they’ll be forced to continue to go to new allies for help. This keeps them from becoming insular in the game world.

So go out there and change the stakes. Let your players know their fortune they keep tied up in local businesses is going to be lost if the Orc warbands go to war, the wizard’s master is dying of an unknown disease, and the king has kidnapped the woman the fighter has been eyeing lately, and the rumor is the king is looking to marry. Oh, and to top it all off, the sky is falling.

What about you, GMs, what have you used as stakes lately?


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