2019-10-24 Stakes must be high

I’ve been fascinated by Amber Diceless for many years. I still have the book in my shelf somewhere even though I never got to play it. Recently I was talking about feeling strange after a RPG session with little or no dice rolling. A few people on Mastodon responded and what spoke to me was the reply by @PastaThief:

I’m honestly least enamoured of combat of all the parts of standard TTRPGs, and I recently started playing a campaign where we basically didn’t roll any dice at all the whole first session. I liked that immensely and was euphoric after. Then I played another session with another GM where it was mostly all talking and interaction, but they incorporated a LOT of performance/reaction rolling. I’m on the fence as to which was better. The latter caused more unexpected wackiness, though.

Back in 2014 I wondered about rolling dice on ever fewer occasions until all I was left with was a basic 2d6 reaction roll. Don’t get me wrong: I think 2d6 is great. All the Powered by the Apocalypse games illustrate how great it can be. The point is not 2d6. The point I’m concerned about is the lack of drama. I come away from these sessions wondering where the excitement was.

I think it all goes back to something I read or heard a while ago: if all the opposition is rational, then all conflict is going to be resolved by reasonable debate. Where’s the “unexpected wackiness” in that? I love that part of the game.

Still trying to figure it out but I also like excitement and that seems to be coupled to things being on the line.

@PastaThief then said:

Yeah, definitely it’s more intense when the stakes are high. I think it’s important to find a variety of ways for the stakes to be high. 🙂

True, that. So... ten ways for stakes to be high?

  1. fear of character death (and combat and all that)
  2. fear of time lost (wasted? but wasted time in a RPG is still fun? 🤔
  3. fear of character networks (threatening friends and relatives, which requires characters interested in having friends and relatives)
  4. fear of investments (threatening of things characters own, which requires characters building something for themselves)
  5. fear of dishonour (competing for status, which requires a setting where status is important)
  6. but maybe honourable things, too (preventing an injustice, helping the innocent, just doing good stuff seems to be high up on the list of my players, luckily)
  7. fear of anguish (like being condemned to hell, or escaping from a prison, or some other oppressive regime – it’s not death but the humiliation and the imagined pain that drives the plot)

More stuff?

I guess I’m looking for things that would motivate players to actively take an active stance because my impression is that they don’t care for dungeons. When dungeons are optional, they see them as death traps and don’t feel like going unless I railroad them: “you need to go into the pit and fight the little white haired men that were imprisoned under the lake or else they’ll invade the land!” In our last session I said that I was not convinced of their ability to rebuild the dam and asked them to think of some other option, and I emphasized that going into the pit was optional: if they didn’t want to, they didn’t have to. And then they decided they didn’t want to, or they felt that this was the secret referee hint for them, I don’t know.

So now I’m thinking: how can I up the stakes for a game that’s not about dungeon delving.

🔥 Stakes must be high! 🔥



I think that a key element that’s not in your list revolves around building an authentic character. If you help the players develop a deep persona for their characters, then you can put them in situations where the stressor is attempting to achieve and maintain character authenticity. (The honour element you mentioned can be part of this.) It leverages cognitive dissonance, which is I think is one of the more powerful motivators. Given a situation in which either the player knows that the character would make a “bad decision”, that can really up the ante for people, and make people take deep ownership of a train wreck in motion.

Irfon-Kim Ahmad 2019-10-24 15:30 UTC

Totally agree, high stakes are key. When I shifted over from Greyhawk/AD&D to Harn/Magic-free RuneQuest the tone of the game shifted from dungeons and high fantasy which was fun, to political adventures which was amazing.

  1. Fear of character death was real. Combat was lethal. My players were willing to go out in a blaze of glory for the cause, but didn’t want to die foolishly for nothing.
  2. Fear of losing the war! The game in question was about rebellion and the stakes were the crown. Failure in some adventures could tip the balance against their Earl even if the character survived. Good times.

– Ruprecht 2019-10-24 18:40 UTC

Thank you both. I like the development of a deep persona in play. I like how this is done in Mountain Witch and Lady Blackbird where the referee uses small breaks in the action to ask players about their character – asks them to play a conversation at the fire, talking about their families, for example. What I don’t like is when character creation takes too long because then the stakes are “fear of character death because character creation is long and tedious” (which is something I disliked in newer D&D games, in Rolemaster/Harp, and Burning Wheel when I tried them.

I do like the moments in a game when players go through with bad decisions because it’s what their character would do, but only if the table likes it. I don’t want to excuse rude players annoying their fellow players because “that’s what their character would do.” There’s a fine line, there. But also much goodness to be had indeed!

I love the fear of losing the war! That’s a good one.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-10-24 19:45 UTC

Please make sure you contribute only your own work, or work licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Note: in order to facilitate peer review and fight vandalism, we will store your IP number for a number of days. See Privacy Policy for more information. See Info for text formatting rules. You can edit the comment page if you need to fix typos. You can subscribe to new comments by email without leaving a comment.

To save this page you must answer this question:

Please say HELLO.