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Author Topic: A skill to cultivate: Setting Stakes  (Read 32563 times)
Judd
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« on: December 05, 2005, 10:13:37 PM »

This is all inspired by the link contained in this sentence to Matt Wilson's blog where we talked about stakes.

I can remember the first time stakes became really clear to me.  I was at Luke's for his 5/5/05 BW Revised release party and he and Thor were constantly saying, "What is your intent?"  The words stuck with him and now have become a part of my GM Vocabulary.

I went home and popped that right into my games.

Burning Wheel: The Vault
The Herald of the Dawn and the Lord of Dusk faced off.  Aaron was excited; he knew this character had once held the title, Herald of the Dawn but had fallen from grace.  He had been excited about the possibilty of his existence ever since Luke put the Dark Elves lifepaths online.  Aaron made a Circles roll to summon him.

They begin their Duel of Wits.

Me: If I win, The Herald of the Dawn gives in to spite.

Aaron: If I win, the Lord of Dusk bows to me and becomes my second, my apprentice.

Holy shit.  My jaw dropped


Turns out they destroyed each other's Body of Argument on the same volley.  Neither won.  But they had earned each other's respect.  It was an amazing exchange.  Even though nothing came of it right then and there the stakes were so damned high that the conflict was riveting.  Every roll was rockin'.

Dictionary of Mu: Gen Con (or was it Dexcon?)
It is the last half-hour of the Dictionary of Mu's game at Gen Con (or was it Dexcon?).  As always, the setting's main city, Mu's Bed is taking a horrific beating.  One of the players is seeking to summon the verdant forest that once spanned this now desolate crater.  He fails the Summon roll.

I narrate a twinkle in the sky.  "You haven't summoned the forest, you have made a mistake and instead summoned the meteor that caused the crater in which Mu's Bed now sits.  It wants nothing more than to destroy a city and end life with its impact.  What do you do?"


Now that time I didn't state the stakes before the roll and I think that might be a mistake.  From now on I am going to add the words, "What is your intent," to every roll that is made at my table and state what will happen in success and what will happen in failure.  Success = story and Failure = story, as detailed in &Sword.

I sent an e-mail to the local university's game club's mailing list, a list dominated by people losing their knitting supplies and wondering where they ended up (people go to game club to knit, apparently) and other people complaining that on the list no one talks about Magic the Gathering enough, despite a thriving community in this town.

I got 3 gamers I knew and 2 I did not.  Of the 3 gamers I knew, 2 had gamed together a bunch, my girlfriend, Janaki and my buddy Jeff's wife, Julie.  Oddly, lately, Janaki had been involved in several group projects for her grad. program and we had been talking a bunch about small group dynamics.

So, we sit down and game together, almost no one knows anyone else.  I took out Primetime Adventures and the love just flows, from the pitch stage on.  Its pure love.

What amazed me is how well everyone set stakes.

They were pros and it was this glorious group effort to find stakes that we could all live with and would generate what we would call at the table,  "good TV" either way the cards fell.  After someone would give a good stake idea someone else would inevitably state, "Now that is some good TV!" and Fan Mail would floooow.

Burning Wheel Revised: The Vault
This past week at the weekly BW game I GM a player made a move that I felt really left another player in a bad lurch.  I was in shock; we all were.  I was GMing on auto-pilot and just couldn't put a coherent thought together.  I felt like I had been punched (more on how that happened in another post, that situation of Social Contract breach isn't what this is about) but a player got into a Duel of Wits with this Balrog-inspired bad-ass.

And I was still punched, dazed, reeling.  I couldn't put coherent stakes together.

The Duel of Wits was flat and lame.  This was a violent Orc having a Duel of Wits with a Balrog.  It was flat.  It was just that the stakes were...dull.

And I thought later that when people shrug at Duel of Wits mechanics or have a bad night of gaming with PTA, I wonder how they did with stakes-setting.  Its this new skill that is required for many Forge-baked games and I wonder how well it is stated in the various texts.

I'm not sure where this is going.  I just started thinking about stakes and how it has been making good game happen at my table lately and how important a gaming skill it has become for me.
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DevP
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« Reply #1 on: December 05, 2005, 11:02:41 PM »

Stake-setting is certainly another core competency (like scene framing) that players and GMs need a grip on in order to achieve higher quality play. Just cruise the DitV threads and you'll see lots of posts where the question or potential answer is rooted in setting the right kind of stakes.

Do we want a list of techniques that give us better stake-setting? Or do we need stake-centric games to have a more concrete system for coming up with stakes?
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #2 on: December 06, 2005, 12:41:26 AM »

Do we want a list of techniques that give us better stake-setting? Or do we need stake-centric games to have a more concrete system for coming up with stakes?

Yes. :)

People do not naturally think in terms of story.  They can be taught -- pretty easily, in fact, cause stories make up a large part of our reality -- but it does take an initial step that is not obvious.  It's still new territory, so even great games like Dogs will be, I expect, surpassed by the march of progress.  I'm so looking forward to it!
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Judd
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Please call me Judd.


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« Reply #3 on: December 06, 2005, 02:40:04 AM »

I'm just trying to break down the process.

I) Someone declares a conflict.

II) Stakes are agreed to between players
  A) "If you win, then X and if I win, then Y."
      1) if the players' eyes light up/the table bristles with excitement when both X and Y are       considered, those are cool stakes.  Both X and Y need to be really cool and lead to further story.
  B) Burning Wheel has the possibility of the need for compromising stakes which leads to more discussion between involved players in order to agree on the compromise.

III) Resolve conflict and stick to stakes.
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MetalBard
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Posts: 40


« Reply #4 on: December 06, 2005, 07:18:06 AM »

And I thought later that when people shrug at Duel of Wits mechanics or have a bad night of gaming with PTA, I wonder how they did with stakes-setting.  Its this new skill that is required for many Forge-baked games and I wonder how well it is stated in the various texts.

I'm not sure where this is going.  I just started thinking about stakes and how it has been making good game happen at my table lately and how important a gaming skill it has become for me.

I'll admit that I didn't key into stake-setting as a necessary skill for these games until about my second or third Burning Wheel session I was running and that was after reading through the Burning Wheel forums.  I know it's in the book, but it didn't stick out to me like a lot of the other stuff did and a more in-depth "how-to" would be useful for newcomers, I think.

Stake-setting is most definitely an important skill.  It's something that my group has struggled with.  Everytime we've done it coherently (with Burning Wheel Revised) we've had some really great conflict/tension.  Unfortunately, some of our players shy away from it when we try to set them, instead wanting to see the outcome based on the die roll or really setting very conservative stakes.

Have other people found ways to really draw people into more dramatic stake setting?  I'd be interested to see how people have grabbed those shy players with the really cool benefits to coherent and dramatic stake-setting.
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"If you've ever told someone how your day went, you can narrate." - Andrew Norris at the Forge on player narration

My name is also Andrew and I have a  blog
Bret Gillan
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« Reply #5 on: December 06, 2005, 07:39:40 AM »

Judd,

I think your process description is spot-on, but what's done when the table doesn't bristle with excitement? What do we do when the Stakes do fall flat? Based on your original post, it seems like what we're shooting for here is a Stake-setting troubleshooting manual. Is that fair?
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Thor Olavsrud
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« Reply #6 on: December 06, 2005, 07:44:56 AM »

Stake-setting is most definitely an important skill.  It's something that my group has struggled with.  Everytime we've done it coherently (with Burning Wheel Revised) we've had some really great conflict/tension.  Unfortunately, some of our players shy away from it when we try to set them, instead wanting to see the outcome based on the die roll or really setting very conservative stakes.

Increasingly these days, I see setting Stakes/Intent as a huge portion of my core GMing responsibilities, along with scene framing and providing bangs. There are two things you can do when you've been presented with lame stakes: 1. set blisteringly hot stakes for your side of the conflict and then ask them if they want to change their stakes; and 2. don't be afraid to guide them toward more exciting stakes, and encourage the rest of the group to help each other in setting stakes.

It's very important to reiterate that stakes are not one-sided. They tell you what they get if they win. You tell them what happens if they lose. Between those two things is a middle-ground that can be exploited.

I agree that how to approach explaining stake-setting in a game text is not fully evolved yet.

In Burning Wheel, I think the core mechanics and currency all point to it. Burning Wheel is about challenging Beliefs. Challenging Beliefs almost always happens in the crucible of a Test. A test happens when Vincent's Rule (Say Yes or Roll Dice) tells us to roll dice. A test requires an Intent (stakes that illuminate Belief).

But is it perfect? Absolutely not.

Honestly, I've mentioned this in several other Actual Play posts, I think one of the best tools you can adopt is the Synopsis Sheet from With Great Power, in which Michael did a very good job of explaining how to set stakes (I encourage everyone to check it out). But you can come up with something like the Synopsis Sheet for any conflict resolution game. It forces you to write down the stakes of each conflict before it is resolved. And that means stating it out loud and letting others respond to it and make suggestions. It's surprising how much that helps.
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Judd
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Please call me Judd.


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« Reply #7 on: December 06, 2005, 08:40:55 AM »

Judd,

I think your process description is spot-on, but 1) what's done when the table doesn't bristle with excitement? 2) What do we do when the Stakes do fall flat? Based on your original post, it seems like what we're shooting for here is a Stake-setting troubleshooting manual. Is that fair?

I've numbered your questions for easy reference:

1) You simply say, "Nah, those stakes are flat, let's make them better."  Right?

2)  You re-word the stakes until their eyes light up and getting the whole table involved in the process can't hurt.

3)  Sure, bring it.  Do you want to talk about the PTA game that fell flat for you and yours?
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komradebob
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Posts: 462


« Reply #8 on: December 06, 2005, 08:48:14 AM »

I'm just trying to break down the process.

I) Someone declares a conflict.

II) Stakes are agreed to between players
  A) "If you win, then X and if I win, then Y."
      1) if the players' eyes light up/the table bristles with excitement when both X and Y are       considered, those are cool stakes.  Both X and Y need to be really cool and lead to further story.
  B) Burning Wheel has the possibility of the need for compromising stakes which leads to more discussion between involved players in order to agree on the compromise.

III) Resolve conflict and stick to stakes.

Awesome! This is really helpful to me, as it gives me an idea of how to appraoch the subject for the Family miniatures game I'm working on. Your follow up is awfully helpful, Too.

Quote
Quote
Judd,

I think your process description is spot-on, but 1) what's done when the table doesn't bristle with excitement? 2) What do we do when the Stakes do fall flat? Based on your original post, it seems like what we're shooting for here is a Stake-setting troubleshooting manual. Is that fair?

I've numbered your questions for easy reference:

1) You simply say, "Nah, those stakes are flat, let's make them better."  Right?

2)  You re-word the stakes until their eyes light up and getting the whole table involved in the process can't hurt.

3)  Sure, bring it.  Do you want to talk about the PTA game that fell flat for you and yours?
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Robert Earley-Clark

currently developing:The Village Game:Family storytelling with toys
Tim Alexander
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Posts: 304


« Reply #9 on: December 06, 2005, 09:11:51 AM »

Hey guys, good thread.

3)  Sure, bring it.  Do you want to talk about the PTA game that fell flat for you and yours?

This obviously wasn't directed at me but it makes me think of my first PTA experience, where bad stakes were rampant. You have these issues, see, and you want to hammer on them. Often that's how you get good stakes in PTA, but our first time through we hid from them the whole game. Anytime stakes got set that directly put an issue in stark relief it was hedged away. I think there was a feeling of 'spilling the beans' too soon. So, right, of course it sucked. Thor gives great advice up there when he talked about the GM being able to set hard hard stakes on the other side of a conflict. Stake setting is a negotiation, but it absolutely requires adversity. It seems like it should be self evident, but the sides need to be opposed, and that opposition has to hurt some.

But, this doesn't work if there's no investment. Stake setting (and conflict in general) fails if the players don't have a firm foundation to care about. Take Sorcerer, where the first couple of sessions are a feeling out period for the players. You can set good stakes in those sessions, but it's hard to get great conflicts because people haven't quite figured out where they sit. Soon though, opinions have formed, people are finding their voice, and now stakes are easier to find. Why? Because the players know what they want. That's what stakes are all about.

So, the way I see it, stakes, conflicts and player investment are all part of the same cookie, and keeping that in mind is fruitful. As GM you need to know what your player's care about, and then stress those things. As a player, you need to be aware of what you care about, and vocalize it.

-Tim
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #10 on: December 06, 2005, 09:53:07 AM »

How does this sound, in terms of actual and explicit procedural steps?

1. Protagonist's Player declares the stakes he wants to win; his stakes must be accepted by the Antagonist's Player, but not yet.
2. Antagonist's Player declares the stakes she wants to win; her stakes must be accepted by the Protagonist's Player.
3. The Protagonist's Player either accepts the Antagonist's stakes, or modifies his stakes to what he thinks matches the Antagonist's stakes.
4. The Antagonist's Player either accepts the Protagonist's stakes, or modifies her stakes to what she thinks matches the Protagonist's stakes.
5. Repeat 3 & 4 until stakes are accepted.

So example:

Jim: Okay, this guy is pissing me off.  I'm going to intimidate him.  My stakes are that he backs down and lets me pass.
Sue: Alright.  My stakes are that he forces you to denouce the Revolution before going past.
Jim: Hm, that's uh, kind of lame.  I'm upping my stakes to he lets me pass and doesn't tell anybody about it.
Sue: Is that so?  Well I'll up my stakes that he calls in the secret police on your ass.
Jim: That's better; I'll take 'em.
Sue: Roll 'em.

And stakes could also be downgraded via the same process, to avoid the game-killing stakes like "I figure out the entire mystery" or whatever (see DitV's GM and her responsibility for keeping stakes managably small).  Would this also mediate between one player who's shooting for big stakes and another player who's shooting for small stakes?  Would they meet in the middle, or keep diverging wider?
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Michael S. Miller
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« Reply #11 on: December 06, 2005, 09:54:22 AM »

In designing With Great Power... I thought a lot about setting stakes. One of the tools I came up with was the Synopsis Sheet as described by Thor above. If you have to write down the Stakes every time, it's hard to forget about them.

Another tool is the minutae of who sets their Stakes first. Essentially, whoever is proactive in the scene sets their Stakes for how their character wants the scene to end: "If I win, I get X." Then, the opposing side (there is ALWAYS an opposing side) sets their Stakes by compeleting this sentence: "If I win, not only do you *not* get X, but also Y happens." Opposition Stakes in WGP always involve moving past a simple "no."

In order to help the GM determine what Y is, I designed a process for creating the villains' plans. Every set of Stakes the GM sets should bring the villains' plans closer to fruition. That way, if the GM is having a bad night, she can just look at the plan and ask "What would be best for this plan?" and come out with her Y.

Another thing that helps with Stakes in WGP is the fact that the players choose which card to play after they know the Stakes. So if they've decided what their character wants isn't what they want, they can choose to play a low card, in the hopes of losing the scene (and gaining a bonus card in the process). Of course, the opposition Stakes makes that choice costly in other ways. Being able to choose to lose allows players the freedom to set Stakes really intensely, knowing that their character can be giving it their all, but still not succeed.

Finally, when cardplay is tied, each side must raise their Stakes. Play gets very exciting as people scramble for ways to raise  what they previously thought was their best-case scenario.
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MetalBard
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« Reply #12 on: December 06, 2005, 10:01:24 AM »


Increasingly these days, I see setting Stakes/Intent as a huge portion of my core GMing responsibilities, along with scene framing and providing bangs. There are two things you can do when you've been presented with lame stakes: 1. set blisteringly hot stakes for your side of the conflict and then ask them if they want to change their stakes; and 2. don't be afraid to guide them toward more exciting stakes, and encourage the rest of the group to help each other in setting stakes.


These two points are very helpful, but I suspect with my group (which may be true for others) I may have to do both.  For example, some players, when presented with blazingly hot counter-stakes (for failure) will take that as feedback that their intent is really reaching and that the consequences for failure are really high.  This is probably a problem of transitioning from a task resolution system to a conflict resolution system.  I still think it's a good idea though, because once those stakes for failure are out, you've got the player's attention go straight to #2 and can say, "So, you want to re-think your stakes to try for something more?" and show them how blistering hot stakes* are NOT NEGATIVE FEEDBACK.  I think this needs to be stressed, based on many gamers' experience with a lot of task resolution RPGs and GMing styles.

*(It's lunchtime right now and the term "blistering hot stakes" is making my sandwich pale in comparison...  sorry for the pun)
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"If you've ever told someone how your day went, you can narrate." - Andrew Norris at the Forge on player narration

My name is also Andrew and I have a  blog
Bankuei
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« Reply #13 on: December 06, 2005, 10:03:18 AM »

Hi gang,

Quote
I think your process description is spot-on, but what's done when the table doesn't bristle with excitement? What do we do when the Stakes do fall flat?

One of the main reasons I've seen weak Stakes come up is when GM's call for conflicts out of habitual, "We need to roll dice or something" rather than actual conflicts.  

What usually remedies this is to really drill the players on their power for calling for conflicts in games, and letting the players decide when something is or isn't a conflict.  When players call for conflicts, it's almost always because something is at stake, either -a) they really want something, or b) they really DON'T want something to happen that is proposed by the GM.  This also requires that the players grasp that the GM's words are open for their conflicts- not laid in stone like a lot of historical play.

The role of the GM then shifts from being the "Mother-may-I" of player input, to the person who helps finesse Stakes when conflicts are called for.  That tweaking of Stakes will usually be either raising them enough that the players will find them worth fighting for ("Or else she believes you betrayed her..."), or lowering them if the players are shooting too high ("And now we'll resolve overthrowing the Empire, ridding the world of evil, and making the cure for cancer").

The other part is really applying "Say yes or roll the dice".  If the players are calling for a Conflict, but there's nothing really important at Stake (nothing you could see someone fighting for, literally or figuratively), then just say Yes, and push play along, aiming to apply more pressure.

Chris
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John Kim
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« Reply #14 on: December 06, 2005, 10:31:44 AM »


Do we want a list of techniques that give us better stake-setting? Or do we need stake-centric games to have a more concrete system for coming up with stakes?

Since no one else has mentioned it, I'll point to Ben Lehman's Polaris as a great example of a system for negotiating stakes.  You can start the conflict with no idea what the stakes are, and through a fairly smooth sequence of statements you negotiate what they are.  

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- John
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