RPG-a-Day 2018 Day 07: How can a GM make the stakes important?
Making the stakes of a game feel important is an eternal issue for GMs when you consider that in most fantasy games, magic exists that can bring a character back to life, thus making death a meer inconvenience at a certain point. Character death is the ultimate “stake” for players, particularly at low levels when they are weak, vulnerable and the chance of an errant natural 20 can quite easy kill them outright, I know because it happened to me and it scared the shit out of the rest of the party…
I’ve told this story before, but I was playing a Rogue who through a series of unfortunate natural ones triggered a fight with a cyclops and during that fight I made a dumbass decision to take a risk to re-position myself, flubbed the roll with another natural 1, and took a natural 20 critical from a Large Greataxe. Now what happened next was interesting to me as an experienced player watching less experienced, and in one case a brand new, players see a character die in combat with no warning. I had done the rough math pretty quickly in my head based on knowing the weapon stats, an estimate of the Cyclops’ Strength and knowing the multiplier, so I knew I was toast before the GM even rolled the dice. The rest of the group didn’t know this, and their reaction was facsinating. Suddenly everything became very real, the group rallied as everything came into focus and the threat of the monster in front of them became tangible. I was so proud of them in that moment, I wasn’t that fussed about my character dying but seeing the group experience it, realise combat can change on a dice roll, and react to it was facinating. Yes there was a degree of panicking after the combat ended as they didn’t really know what to do, but that didn’t matter, suddenly character death was real to them and could happen at any moment.
Now eventually that character death was undone thanks to a number of sessions adventuring to find a druid of high enough level to cast Reincarnate, but not without us implementing a house rule for ressurection spells that Matt Mercer uses that means that it’s not a certainty that the spell will work, which you can find here. It’s a simple rule that means life magic is not a guaranteed solution to character death which becomes less reliable with repeated uses. I like it as a house rule, it’s simple, encourages roleplay to help provide bonuses to the role, and adds tension to the game.
Now I’m not saying character death is the best way raise the stakes in a game, you can’t just go around killing players when you need to wratchet up the tension (well you can but it doesn’t bode well for the game). For some players, their character’s reputation could be a primary concern and not allowing the perception of them or the group to be tarnished might spur the group on, failure to rescue the village children from the goblin tribe will adversely affect how future interactions with the village and it’s inhabitants. Maybe it’s a wager, putting gold on the line in a bet/challenge can add an extra edge to the proceedings.
I think overall, the best way to make the stakes feel important is to clearly define what defeat means, sometimes that can be something unexpected, which is probably harder to do in general but can always be alluded to or demonstrated via NPCs or unfortunate twists of fate. Others can be more overt and can be directly communicated via the narrative and it’s up to the characters to decide how willing they are to suffer the consequences for failing to succeed. The joy of RPGS is that no matter the outcome of these situations, the story goes on. Character death can add depth and emotion as players have to deal with the loss of a party member, and how they react to the new character. Dealing with failure and the related repercussions is very much where the juice of RPGs is, and can lead to a much richer experience and interesting story than just winning all the time.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this article, tomorrow is Day 8 and the question is how can we get more people playing…?
If you have ideas for how GMs can help the stakes feel more important then use the comments to share. Until next time, you can follow me @bargtheogre on Twitter, or check out the Inside the Ogre’s Cavern podcast at @itocpodcast