Day 7: #RPGaDay 2018 – “Stakes”

Week 2: ‘How’ Questions         Prompt: How a GM make the stakes important?

On the surface this looks like a GM-only question for #RPGaDay2018, but it is definitely not. In fact, it is aimed more at players than those players who take on the role of GM. Even in games so cooperative that they apportion the role of GM out among all the players instead of having it reside with one, as long as the game is not pure creation without challenge or reversals, the function – in one form or another – remains. That function, is in finding a way to contextualize and personalize the stakes of a scene so that they have importance and impact on the characters involved with them.

With a synchronicity that should suggest planning, this question neatly dovetails with yesterday’s and forms a foundation for tomorrow. I can hear the Church Lady right now…

This question is one that I have a special interest in, and I am very much looking forward to see how others explain what they are looking for in terms of presenting or raising stakes, and how the process of doing it is approached by other GMs. I am going to focus on a short conceptualization of the process which I use as a guide during long-form play. It is one concept, but it is split into two discreet parts: Listen then Act.


In my circles, we end up saying “Talk with the Players” so often it has become idiomatic. This is different than “Talk to the Players,” of course. When you talk with people there is at least some expectation that part of the experience will involve listening. Without that vital component, the clues for what people want and need from a situation are likely to be missed, or are at risk of being ignored.

As was mentioned yesterday, one strong element that can help a game world seem real is attachment. When there are people, places, things, and ideals which resonate with the players through the filter of their characters and take on a personal value as a result, the fictional world takes a step closer to the dramatic weight of the real one. When that occurs, it is possible for stakes to take on importance beyond being the hook for the events in a session. Dramatic necessity is fine for basic motivation, but isn’t it more fun when dramatic tension takes its place?

However, what is of importance to the characters? Among those things which are of real importance to the players, which are seen as fundamental to who the characters are, how they relate to each other and the world, and ultimately matter most? These values cannot be assigned, they develop or are earned in play. As a result, there is a need to listen in order to determine a clearer picture of how the group sees the world and how the GM sees the world – it is rarely the same view.

Even in campaigns that last years, where the characters are as familiar as one’s own family, mysteries and misunderstandings can still manifest. As a result, even more than initiating a ‘talk’ with the players about their thoughts, simply listening to them is a more powerful tool in the arsenal of the GM.

In support, I offer this observation. If you ‘listen’ to internet chatter, you can often come across threads where a GM is bemoaning all the ‘work’ that they wasted introducing “Cool Plot A” and how the players just kept going in other directions. Likewise, you can come across threads where one or more players are bemoaning how rarely their character elements come into play. That is a lot of bemoaning. It sounds like two different things to some, I suppose, but it isn’t – both groups are bemoaning the exact same thing. This is the sort of problem which kills play in that the richness of character and setting that a lot of games promise cannot come about if there is no actual connection between what each player (including the GM) brings to the table. Further, if it doesn’t matter what you play because no one is really listening, then soon it can seem like it doesn’t matter IF you play. Fortunately, this unfortunate outcome can be prevented with the simple act of active listening.

Listen to the character descriptions, and what the players say to reinforce them during play. If no one ever thinks to do this, instead falling back on statements of action without hints of motivation or characterization, you can of course ask them to include such things. If that’s not your style, I suspect that you can glean the same information in post-game chats about cool things that happened and more importantly, why they happened. You might have to start the conversation, but once it gets going, listen.

If you get the sense, or the direct message that the players do not want to talk freely around you because you might use what you have heard against them…? Listen to that too. What does that mean? What does it mean about the stakes that you generally levy in the game. Are you presenting a world with layers and a sense of real interaction that includes peril, or are you simply attacking for no substantive reason justified within the context of play? Listen to what they perceive about the world and make it seethe with meaning. Stakes can be survival of threats, certainly, but they can also be desires for gain which require a gamble or sacrifice dreamed up on the players’ side of the screen. Attachment, (see yesterday) is more than just a connection to the things we like, it is also a connection to not liking certain things. We can leave the liked things alone and still raise the stakes by increasing the presence of the not-liked things.

As a player, I want to be guided into an interesting and possibly complex relationship with the other characters during character creation so that we do not have to address these meta-matters out-of-character once play starts. In play, I want the things which we have established as important to be portrayed as important, and I want to be able to work with those things to form my own specific importance for them in support of what we have established. I want to be able to carve my initials in stuff and to hang on to them for dear life. As a GM, this is what I want of my players, too. I want them to take sides. I want them to care, and vehemently deny. I want them to matter and to have things matter to them. I want to allow them to navigate a world which is not about them, but which has things in it which they imbue with such meaning – positively or negatively – that they think it is about them.

Having to choose between what you have been hoping for, but at the cost of what you have and already love is a great position to be in as a player and I hope my GMs listen well enough to know what those things are. Some parts of a character are keystones, though, and if they are attacked rather than challenged, the character doesn’t get explored, it gets changed – perhaps in ways that make it uninteresting to play. Other parts of a character are the rough edges looking for refinement, regrets looking for resolution, and dreams looking for realization. It is important to know which ones are which, and to do so listening is an essential skill.


Things change over time, but if you continue to listen, then you will be in a position to take what you have heard and act. This means putting what you have learned to good use – now. Don’t wait. Remember, things change, and the world is a busy and complicated often interrupting sort of place. Act now, before your hard earned knowledge is yesterday’s news.

Stakes are rarely so pressing as when there are more than one in your face demanding attention at the same time and they all actually matter. Things which are important, but get pushed to a back burner ‘for now’ while other fires are put out, are great sources of new fires…. or great hooks which scream once, then wink out of existence.

Will we carry on and try to shoulder the loss, or will we go back to try to recover what we have lost? Can we go home again?

The GM is in that seat to bring context and resolution to our declarations of action, and presenting stakes which matter is a big part of that. Play them, and play them boldly. Choose from the cards you have heard played, bluff, raise, and most of all – without hesitation make your move.


The #RPGaDay prompt for August 8th concerns getting more people to play. This is a big topic encompassing things like encouragement to try for the first time, expanding existing groups, spreading interest in specific lesser-known games…  There is much to discuss!

We have entered into the week governed by HOW, and our third questions is, How can we get more people playing?


This is the second week of the fifth iteration of the monthly roleplaying gaming celebration launched by Autocratik for all forms of social media. Share your responses however you prefer to share. If you want to get involved, grab and share the infographic with the prompts and jump right in!

RPG-a-Day 2018 High Contrast@willbrooks1989

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