Setting Stakes: Pre-Flight Checklist #1

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

We now have a lot of games that resolve stakes (as opposed to tasks). Each of these games tell us how to set good stakes for the kind of play they support. Today, I came up with a handy little baseline for stakes-setting, as a supplement and re-stating of lots of the good techniques from those games. Think of this as the first box on the pre-flight checklist during your "free and clear" beore you roll. It's just this:

Stakes are good when the players involved are invested in all of the established possible outcomes.

In other words, "Don't agree to stakes that you cannot (as a player of the game) bear to lose." The point of stakes are: they can be won or lost. In simplified terms, stakes are a fork in the road of your game. The outcome sends you down one path or the other. Before agreeing to any set of stakes, take a look down those paths. If one of the paths holds no interest for you as a player (or, worse, is damaging to your enjoyment of the game) then the stakes are not good enough yet.

As an example, here are some bad stakes:

Buffy's player assumes Buffy can dust one vamp. Conflict with a vamp comes up. The stakes are "Does Buffy dust this vamp?" The player is invested only in protagonizing Buffy by showing off her bad-assitude. An outcome of "No, she doesn't dust him," will crash this player's game experience. This is task resolution masquerading as the resolution of stakes. 50% of the time, when I hear people complaining about stakes resolution systems it's because of this error in stakes-setting.

What I'm saying is, "If you don't want X to be at stake, don't set it as the stakes." Crazy, huh?

UPDATE: Here are links to some threads where I talk in more detail about setting stakes -- specifically in PTA, but I think most of it applies to any CR-based game.

More Questions
Scope of Narration, Scene Requests, and other questions

If you want to comment on those threads, but not regarding PTA, please post in the comments here instead.


Blogger joshua m. neff says:  

That's really good, John. It seems obvious, but I can think of many instances when my friends and I pick up the dice to roll them (or are asked by the GM to roll them), but it's not really conflict resolution, it's task resolution writ large.

Blogger Matt Wilson says:  

This, as you may well be aware, is the subject of every other thread in my forum.

Blogger Philip says:  

Why are you hatin' on stakes? Have you ever tried stakes? I use stakes all the time and they work for m---

Oh, wait, wrong conversation.

Blogger jhkim says:  

Well, if people have problems with stakes-setting, then the system should do more to provide help and guidance. Blaming the user (such as for not setting stakes right) is always problematic. I think there's room for improvement in this. For example, the whole of stakes-setting is covered in Dogs in the Vineyard as:

Establish what's at stake. Any player can make suggestions, and everybody should feel free to toss it around until you arrive at the right thing.

There's nothing inherently wrong with leaving it undefined in this way, but conversely if some people have problems setting good stakes, then maybe future designs could improve on this by providing better principles for setting stakes.

Blogger John Harper says:  

John, I don't know why you chose to come into this discussion talking about "people" having "problems" and "blaming" -- but it looks like baggage from another discussion, to me.

Take another look at my post. I hope you can see how my post is trying to do the exact thing you're suggesting, and is not "blaming" anyone for anything in any way.

Setting stakes is tricky to get right at first. I'm proposing some solid, one-sentence guidelines to help make it easier for folks. This is the first in a series.

Do you have anything to say about the contents of the post itself?

Blogger jhkim says:  

Sorry about that. I was off on a tangent about stakes.

The short form is that yes, I agree that in a game like Dogs where the results of a conflict are locked in from stakes-setting point -- then you should never agree to stakes unless you can bear either outcome. A no-brainer there.

I note that some games give an out for this, by allowing a resource to be spent either before or after the roll (i.e. hero points). So if you are depending on a particular outcome, then you spend a point or two. This makes decision-making easier by giving more margin for error (particularly if you can spend after the roll).

Blogger John Harper says:  

No worries, John.

You're right about Hero Points and similar mechanics. I still believe that bad stakes up front are just plain bad, though. Even if you have a resource to modify outcomes. (Which Dogs does have, by the way. :-)

Another technique to make the stakes-setting lower pressure: "Crap. I really don't like how this conflict went. I think the stakes were all wrong. Can we do that one again?"

Nothing beats player-to-player open communication.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

Indeed. Communicating with players (and getting/having/encouraging communication between them) is very important, pretty damn core especially in RPG's--if you don't know what players want, how do you help them get it?

I like the ideas presented here. Though I like the idea that it perhaps stakes should be something shared by the group in a playgroup much of the time and that they cooperate in resolving/setting/etc.

Blogger Fred says:  

Stakes-setting needs to be more explicitly described in conflict resolution games. Instead of asking a question, it should be a question and two answers. "What are we trying to do? What happens if we succeed? What happens if we fail?"

The thing is, setting up all three of these in a multiple character conflict can be dicey, especially if someone has a strong "my guy" stance. I know that I personally HATE having my characters mind-controlled. Maybe it's peurile of me, but I have been known to set down my pencil, lean back, and say, "Let me know when the character's mine again."

I also never use mind control on PC's. It's just distasteful.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Hey Fred,

I'm not sure what you mean by "mind control." Can you elaborate?

Blogger Clinton R. Nixon says:  

I thought I already knew this, but didn't realize the logical conclusion - that everything that happens in the game could be cool - until I started playtesting my new game pretty heavily.

A ton of the stakes in the game have absolutely nothing to do with success or failure, but things like the perceptions of the world about your success or repercussions thereof. It's cool, heady stuff.

Blogger John Harper says:  


PTA was the game that made this click for me. "We all know Buffy will dust the vamps. The stakes are: will it make Riley feel even more useless?"

Of all the indie-game widgets, this is probably my favorite.

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