Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What Is At Stake?

What are the stakes of your story? What are the stakes of any given encounter? Do your players know? Do their characters? Do you?

Having a clear eye on the stakes is important. To quote Mastiff Press and their new game Lancer:

It’s important to start a mission with both a goal and
some stakes established. Not only does this give the
characters clear motivations for why they’re
embarking on a mission, but it also sets up the
possible consequences of failure and allows the GM
to push harder if that should come to pass – after all,
you knew what the stakes were!

And right there you have the crux behind a lot of problems that crop up in people's games. Because there are not clearly defined stakes - stakes that the PCs care about - the PCs may have no shared motivation. And what motivations they do have don't necessarily have to be addressed here. Motivation can come from stakes after all, but you rarely get stakes from motivation. At least, not directly.

And used properly, stakes give value and meaning to a motivation and make it more real. Take Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. He is motivated by one thing: money. This is a pretty common motivation. Everyone wants money. But it becomes more meaningful when we find out what is at stake if Han does not get the money. 

Han is in debt to a crime lord. He has bounty hunters after him. Those bounty hunters are willing to kill him. He doesn't just need the money because he is greedy. He has a debt to pay with his neck on the line. Without that at stake, Han has no reason to help Luke and Obi Wan when he realizes just how in over his head he is. He has no reason to go and help the Princess in the detention center. He has no reason to start taking the steps that leads him to becoming a great hero. Except he needs money, and he needs it soon. His life is staked on his ability to do that.

Sometimes the stakes are easy. If you don't stop the BBEG they're going to take over/destroy the world! Those are stakes it is easy to get behind, because generally people don't want the world destroyed (they live and keep their stuff there) or want someone else taking it over.

More personal stakes can be better though. A character that was a slave can have the chance to save someone else from becoming a slave. They know what is at stake: another person going through the torturous process they went through. Or it could be a wealthy man with a remarkable set of skills desperately fighting to prevent another young child having to watch their parents gunned down in front of them in an alley of their home city.

Personal stakes gives you personal drama. World stakes gives you larger motivation and impact. Weaving those together is where you can get grand stories of heroes and villains. But it can also get you smaller stories that are just as entertaining if you ask yourself the stakes for encounters.

So, again, what is at stake?

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