A couple of years ago, then Pixar storyboard artist Emily Coats tweeted pieces of advice on making stories that she had picked up from working with Pixar, which were later compiled in several places on the internet, such as this io9 post. Later, Dino Ignacio created image macros of the individual rules which I am using in these posts.
Rule #16: “What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.“
This one takes us all the way back to the first post in this series and the notion of setting stakes and consequences. Whereas in that post I was concerned with not setting stakes too high or making the consequences too dire, this rule is the counterpoint to that: Putting things at stake is how you make a conflict engaging. A conflict with no sense of stakes might be mechanically interesting, in the way that watching a pair of strangers play a casual game of chess is interesting, but it doesn’t carry much weight.
“What are the stakes?” is a vital question to ask yourself before you kick off any conflict because if you can’t answer that question, you probably don’t have a conflict to begin with. As a GM, it’s really easy to get an idea of a cool conflict in your head and run with it without stopping to think about whether it needs to happen in the first place. You might think it’s cool to make your players match wits with an NPC con artist, but if you don’t establish whether the players have anything the con artist wants and whether the players have any reason not to just give them that, the whole thing is liable to fizzle at the table.
Another trap that’s easy to fall into is thinking “Fight to the death!” is stakes enough to carry a conflict. It really isn’t. Not unless your players are already bringing some personal reasons to want to kill the opposition into it. Consider a classic dungeon setup: The party runs into a group of kobolds, and the DM says “Roll for initiative.” What are the actual stakes here? Are the kobolds defending their territory, defending their warren, or on their way to conduct a raid for resources? Is the party merely exploring, or are they hunting for a specific treasure or trying to put a stop to raids on a nearby village? Knowing the answers to those questions helps you figure out what each group is trying to accomplish and how far they are willing to go, to say nothing of whether a conflict needs to happen in the first place. If the kobolds are just defending territory, they may be willing to concede defeat and retreat if they face stiff opposition. If the players are hunting for a specific treasure, they may be willing to back off if the kobolds can convince them that they won’t find what they’re looking for in their territory. And if the groups do end up fighting to the death, it can lend some pathos to the situation if the players find out afterwards that it was mainly a misunderstanding.
The important thing in setting stakes is finding things your players care about and putting them at risk. This is why putting the characters’ lives at stake is so common; it’s easy to get players to care about whether or not their character lives or dies. Likewise, going after something on their character sheet, like a valuable item or their stats, is something that you don’t have to work hard to get them to care about. The fact that those stakes are so easy, however, makes it tempting to get lazy and overuse them, at which point you either have to go around killing or hamstringing PC’s left and right, which is frustrating to the players and counterproductive to telling a consistent story, or else pull your punches and watch the drama drain out of the game as the players realize that your stakes are empty threats.
If you want to avoid that trap, you have to get your players to care about something other than their characters (and their stuff), and that means getting them to emotionally invest in your NPC’s and world. Once you’ve done that, you can put NPC’s they care about and their relationships and status at risk in order to motivate the players. If you can get the players into the right mindset, you can get them to fight hard for stakes that, from an outsider’s perspective, aren’t all that dire. Games where the players play children or teenagers, such as Monsters and other Childish Things or Monsterhearts, are great for this, because kids are pros at turning small problems into huge, world-ending catastrophes. You know you’ve made it as a GM when you can get your players frantically trying to come up with a way to fix the bad grade they got on that quiz because their parents will be so disappointed if they find out. Or when they’re moving heaven and earth trying to get their diary back from that Witch, not because they can use it to curse them, but because if the school finds out who they have a crush on their lives will be over.
The flip side to that is that once you get your players invested in your world, you need to be fair-minded in how you put their connections at risk. There are a lot of old jokes surrounding D&D that you should always make your characters orphans without connections, because any character you put in your backstory is just a big old target for the DM. So GM’s: don’t go fridging your players’ favorite NPC’s for some cheap motivation and pathos; it’s lazy as hell, and teaches your players not to form any attachments to the world around them. If you’re going to do something bad to a PC’s connections, you should give them a chance to do something about it for the sake of player agency if nothing else. Moreover, their connections should be more than just targets; give them some scenes where they are able to spend some quality time with their connection or where the connection does something to help them out. If connections only show up for the purposes of getting in trouble, then players will start to wonder why they even care about this character who can never solve their own problems (to say nothing of how badly it telegraphs your plots).
Essentially, good stakes are both the foundation of, and the payoff for, getting your players to emotionally engage with your game. If you set good stakes, your players will enjoy conflicts they can sink their teeth into without constantly worrying about the destruction of their character. You’ll enjoy a greater variety of conflicts you can employ and the ability to go after the players without pulling punches. And when the odds are stacked against the players, they’ll throw in everything they have because they care about the outcome, and not because they’re just trying to survive.