Stakes

7 is How can the GM make the stakes important? That’s a pretty trad-oriented question, I think. In my mind at least, discussing the importance of “stakes” was one of the core topics at the root of so-called “story games” as they were being figured out back in the day.

I’m not sure the GM can make the stakes important. Something is only an incentive when the players feel incentivized. Thinking that the GM can, as phrased in this question, is putting the cart before the horse.

Thing is, players tell us what’s important allll the time. Just ask them. Or watch what they engage with: if they engage with a fictional element, it’s important to them. Likewise, if they just don’t then it’s gonna take a sales pitch to get them into your shiny new plot element. Which, as a facilitator, I’m not beyond. But my sales pitch always incorporates stuff they’ve already flagged.

You can’t do much about players who just lie. And oh gosh, they do. They do. They lie to themselves, they lie to each other, they lie to the GM. They might use various flagging techniques as anti-flags — my defenses against X are impenetrable because I don’t want to deal with this. Or the classic: I’m an orphaned drifter because I don’t want connections to be used against me. Not once, not ever have I stumbled across a player who actually wants to interrogate what life is like as an orphan or a drifter, as in what that’s cost them and how they came to live that way. It’s a tactical choice, not an editorial one.

I’ll still pitch softballs at obvious anti-flags, though, because I’m an eternal optimist.

Bret Gillan has this funny story he told me about learning to play Burning Wheel. In BW, a core conceit of the game is the clear and actionable flag: the Belief. In practice, they serve as a to-do list and a contract with the GM that this is the stuff I care about, and how I care about it. The incentive structure around Beliefs (and Instincts and Traits, and the interaction between all three) doesn’t quite reinforce that, because there are economic reasons to engineer lots of internal conflicts among one’s flags. Best you can do is hope the economic incentives are incentivizing enough for the player to be truthful and actually care to chase the flags that exist because they create great drama.

There’s a perfectly good admonition in Burning Wheel that says “challenge their Beliefs.” Which at first sounds pretty straightforward! But Bret tells this story where he’s like but what does that even mean? (He also waves his hands around and bugs his eyes out, like the Zen student who’s gotten smacked by the teacher Rinzai-style but didn’t get the flash of insight.) And he’s right. Does it mean put up endless obstacles? That can get not-fun real fast. Does it mean question the players’ veracity? Oh boy, now it’s an interrogation. BW Gold, and in particular the Codex, goes into a lot better detail about best practices around challenging Beliefs. That material is pretty portable between other games where personal flags are important, but it took literally years to build up the body of work to a point where it could be taught and not just observed. That, to me, points at how little this hobby has cared about “stakes that matter” beyond advancement and hoarding treasure.

On that note! “Save the world” has got to be the most tedious “important stake,” am I right? How many times can we do this? How often does it get tossed out there completely out of context of any character’s personal stakes? I guess we have shitty adventure movies to thank for that.

Dunno, friends. I keep circling around the idea that the only stakes that are important are the ones the players agree to care about. It’s not really even on the GM’s to-do list, other than to push and prod and recontextualize, and even then you have to have players who find this fun and not just a series of no-win situations.

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#RPGaDay2018 6. How can players make a world seem real?

TL;DR — They can be given input. Without that, all they can offer is color commentary.

Begged question: Why would I want the game world to “seem real”? That sounds like some crazy Mazes & Monsters -ass shit right there.

I assume that what is meant here is “add a sense of verisimilitude” to the game world, i.e., help everyone at the table feel like, “Yeah, I buy that this world would be like this, and our characters would be doing what we’re doing in this way, at this time, in this place.”

At least, I have to assume this interpretation in order to answer the question; otherwise,​ all I can do is point you to the nearest university steam tunnels.

So… players can only add to the feel of the game world if the players can add to the feel of the game world. Tautology, my dear Watson.

If players can’t contribute, they can’t take ownership of anything. If they can’t take ownership, then everything relies upon the GM, i.e, the most likely candidate in this scenario.

I suppose, in that situation, players can do their best to learn and absorb the world on offer — the default expectation, I think, in most big published settings. But, even then, if the player isn’t allowed act a subject-matter expert, then I don’t how much they can actually add to the conversation (all roleplaying is a conversation, yadda, etc.).

This question definitely seems to be coming from a trad-y space, which naturally demands an indie-y answer.

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4. Most memorable NPC?
5. Favourite recurring NPC?

I thought about these for a while before bed last night, and it’s probably old age but my honest answer for both is, “None that I can think of.”

At best, my old Champions character had a son, and while he was pretty much a cypher for implementing that PC’s DNPC disad, I do remember playing at fatherhood, which was often very moving for me (this was long before Henry). But’s it really the idea he represented​ that I remember.

#RPGaDay2018 3. What gives a game “staying power”?

The obvious, unhelpful answer is quality. Good games last, barring external factors (e.g., marketing budgets).

Becky Annison made a good point in her post about the key factor being cognitive load, i.e., we’re adults and ain’t nobody got time for that, etc.

At first, I thought maybe this wasn’t true for me, as the games I keep coming back to (which is how I am reading this question) — Burning Wheel and Champions — are generally considered quite complex.

But! It’s a cliche for both these games now, but I don’t find them burdensome in play. They are, uh, font-cognitive-loaded, if that makes sense. I don’t find them taxing my mastery the way, say, WotC-era D&D always does, i.e., “exception-based ruleset” = you’re almost always wrong about something — add to that the massive prep demands† and you get a game that I’m not sure I’ll ever come back to.

So, for me, these are games that reward mastery, i.e., get better the more you play them, and that are far easier to prep than they look. Add to that subject matter that appeals to me, and you have staying power.

† Please don’t try to counter me on this.

#rpgaday2018 2. What do you look for in an RPG?

A compelling premise implemented with a design that demonstrates a familiarity with current game “technology”. I.e., it has to demonstrate familiarity with games made in the last twenty years, at least.

Good layout and art help, too, honestly. As does seeing more than just white dudes on the credits page.

Do I still go for nostalgia efforts? Yeah, sure, especially if I feel like they are least reviving something off the beaten path, or a game I know that I enjoy, tech be damned.

#RPGaDAY2018 1. What do you love about RPGs?

I’ve always loved books. I’ve always loved fantasy and science fiction. When I was about ten years old and I saw my first roleplaying game, I realized that RPGs were basically fantasy and science fiction books that you could play.

The artifact itself of an RPG (well, the most common conception of an RPG) is a tome that I can pour over, flipping through again and again, as an interface to a shared creative experience.

I love that.

Add in the shared creative endeavor, the lack of conventional win/loss conditions, and all the ephemera (dice, art, maps, etc.) and I’m sold. For life.