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The Sticky GM – Stakes (part 5)

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This is part 5 in a series:

You have set up an encounter for the party and when it comes to break out the dice the players treat it as ‘just another fight’. Sure, they may not know what is going on in the background, yet, but they are seeing if as another “insert sword for 20 exp” encounter.

High stakes encounters are tenser, have consequences and keep the players engaged. Most players do not fear for their characters lift when they see a minor skirmish laid out before them. These encounters fix that perception. There is more at stake than just life or death.

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The technique introduces higher stakes to each encounter, on top of the possible life or death, using up resources and slowing the characters down. You think of a really cool complication, a hostage, a burning bridge, run away coach, and when you plan an encounter you slap one of these increased stakes sticky notes on top.

I touched on stakes last time without really explaining them. Stakes can be seen as modifiers to a situation, things that can cause a change of focus or objective. Last time I suggested introducing a hostage or innocent into a combat. That is an example of a stake. Other stakes could be time limitations. If the villain is fleeing, the bomb about to explode, or the cultists about to complete their ritual, these are all time-sensitive stakes.

Another stake raising technique was shown in the zombie encounter. By adding more, in this case zombies, to the encounter as time progressed it increased the stakes for the party. The ‘safe’ option of putting the weaker characters at the back of the party doesn’t work when the party is being turned about. If the party’s ‘go to’ solution is Fireball, being attacked from three different directions negates that strategy or ramps up its cost in resources.

Another option is to introduce movement. Many things can move. enemy can fall back and retreat, possibly raising an alarm, They can scatter in different directions. The terrain can move, bridges collapse, ledges and walkways crumble, gantries fall away. A moving terrain requires dynamic changes to the characters plans. You can place the entire combat on a moving platform such as the roof of a train, the deck of a ship, an iceflow.

Unknown elements can increase the stakes. I like to think of this as the seeds of doubt. If you players think that the mission is get in, kill everything if they have to, get out. That is how they will play. Kick in the door, kill the monster, take its stuff and move on. If you introduce an element that throws that simple view into doubt, it can shake the characters confidence. An example of this could be, you want to throw six orcs at the party. You introduce twelve orcs to the scene, but the leader barks orders to half his squad telling them lot to let them get away, and sends half the orcs off on a different mission at a run.

What do the players make of this? There is apparently something else going on that is more important than their invasion of the orcs cave/lair/city/whatever. Do they follow the six orcs who have been sent away? Do they press on with their original plan? What is the right thing to do?

In your GMing folder you create these complications as you get inspiration. You could see something in an action movie, are real life event, a scene in a book. Whenever the inspiration strikes you grab it and write it down. As you are running your game, you can play the complications almost like betting in poker. “I’ll see your 2d6 goblins, and raise you an escaped wild boar!”

PinPoint Process

If you have been following this series you will notice that the method of separating the events from the dungeon map means that everything you prepare gets used. You are not detailing every room, placing every encounter on the map and rolling up every possible NPC. You create the parts you want to play, the GM is playing the game as well, and you place them in the path of the characters. The players want to have encounters, that make the game fun. They want those encounters to be exciting and different. There is no advantage to anyone if you have a great scene planned for the kitchen involving two gas cylinders and a T. Rex, if no one goes to the kitchen.

Applying increased stakes to a regular encounter, just as they are needed, ticks all of the boxes. At the start of an adventure a ‘straight’ encounter amy be enough to convey the threat level, set the tone and draw the characters in. Now you can apply an increased stake to an encounter, just to up the excitement a little. Once you are deep into the adventure you layer your increased stakes. Not only is the bridge on fire, but the hostages are trapped on the far side, the goblin captain sends three of his minions off back into the cave to get axes and bring the bridge down.

This is the pinpoint process, applying the increased stakes at exactly the right time to heighten yours and your players enjoyment of your game.

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