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Author Topic: A skill to cultivate: Setting Stakes  (Read 49925 times)
Mike Holmes
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« Reply #15 on: December 06, 2005, 11:23:06 AM »

The skill that's being identified here is a procedural one, and Brett's question is a valid one. I think the real skill isn't just "doing it" but in identifying stakes well on the earliest try. That is, I don't think that in most cases the best policy is to have one player propose stakes. I think that what works best in practice is that everyone at the table shouts out suggestions and a consensus is quickly acheived. Meaning that as an individual player (and most often GM), I'm often trying to use my ability to see the stakes to help other people identify them. As GM in many cases this probably looks and feels a lot like me simply imposing my will. And to some extent that's the case.

Mike: How about the stakes are that, if you lose, you end up without a leg. Cool?
Player: Cool.

Note the use of the term "cool." That's shorthand code for, "Do you agree that this is a good stake for the contest, or not?" Everyone gets that.

Again, the "real" skill in my mind is getting it right on the first guess, or early on. Basically not taking a lot of time in coming up with an agreed set of stakes.


Mechanically lots of systems already make this a piece of cake in many circumstances. I invented the game, "Stakes" (a 24hr design) pretty much to address this directly (the character is defined by poker chips that are gambled playing poker). In my game Synthesis, and substantial change to the character is accompanied by gain or loss of some trait. In HeroQuest, at the "heroquest moment" of a heroquest, the player actually has to select some ability that they're gambling, against some ability that they may gain. In fact you could say that all my design thrusts of late have incorporated the idea that conflict is represented by mechanically changing the character.

I think that this is the simplest and most powerful method to do this sort of thing. As long as there is a list of abilities to gamble sitting in front of the player on the character sheet, coming up with good stakes is simplicity itself. It's only when stakes are set in some non-mechanical way that questions of things like "balance" come into play that can make a certain paring of stakes on each side seem out of whack.

The mechanical penalties assigned to a character for losing in HQ are interesting, too. The actual stakes are set up before the contest (using the more traditional method), but when the dice have been rolled in HQ, the GM simply gets to assign a penalty to the loser. Meaning that the GM gets to refine the stakes after the fact to his own liking. Yes, this runs the risk of bugging players, but I always ask, "Cool?" and get their OK. And that works just fine.

Mike
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Judd
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« Reply #16 on: December 06, 2005, 11:31:07 AM »

Clinton put it really well in the ]AP thread for the Quicksilver game at Vincent's shindig a few weeks ago:

Hardly any conflict was over "can I do this?" Most was over "what happens when I do this?"

There is a real problem with some gamers who have to break the habit of trying to pick the lock and opening the door when failing to do so stalls the adventure.  The stakes aren't, do I pick the lock and open the door, but do I do so before the guards come (is that from the Burning Wheel Revised book. I feel like I took it from somewhere?).
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Judd
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« Reply #17 on: December 06, 2005, 11:33:04 AM »

Note the use of the term "cool." That's shorthand code for, "Do you agree that this is a good stake for the contest, or not?" Everyone gets that.

Rock on.  Because if you don't identify them early, rather than gaming you get people at a table talking about gaming, which just isn't as much fun.
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Jon Hastings
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« Reply #18 on: December 06, 2005, 11:50:35 AM »

So, I definitely get what Mike and Judd are saying in terms of seting stakes on the first try, but one of the things I like to do when I'm setting stakes as a GM is give the player some wiggle room to either heighten the stakes, pull back a little, or shift their focus.  For example, here's an exchange from a recent PTA game:

Me: So, how about the stakes are, "Can you settle this dispute without resorting to violence?"

Player: Well, how about the stakes are, "Can I resolve this without someone getting killed"?

Me: Cool.

In this case, the back-and-forth allowed for the player to increase the intensity of the scene.

Here's another example--same player, same PTA game, during a scene where the character was trying to give a life lesson to his son:

Me: How about the stakes are, "Does your son finally show you some respect?"

Player: Umm, how about, "Does my girlfriend think I'm a good (single) parent?"

Me: Cool.

In this case, the player didn't increase the intensity of the scene, but was able to shift the focus to something that was more important to him than what I suggested.

For some people, this kind of back-and-forth can be distracting, though.
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #19 on: December 06, 2005, 11:58:00 AM »

Mike, a direct hit first try is great, and making that happen more often is a good thing.  However, it doesn't always happen.  I'd submit that when the stakes aren't a direct hit the first try, the players making the stakes a direct hit (through whatever means) is what teaches them how to make the direct hit the next time.  In terms of my five step thing, once you get going, I doubt there would be much reframing of stakes; it's just a safety net that's there in case there is some disagreement.  Make sense, or way off base, in your experience?
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Thor Olavsrud
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« Reply #20 on: December 06, 2005, 11:58:43 AM »

There is a real problem with some gamers who have to break the habit of trying to pick the lock and opening the door when failing to do so stalls the adventure.  The stakes aren't, do I pick the lock and open the door, but do I do so before the guards come (is that from the Burning Wheel Revised book. I feel like I took it from somewhere?).

That's from BW Revised. Yep.

Also, just want to underscore Mike's post. Setting stakes has got to be a collaborative process, and all parties involved have to be cool with the stakes as proposed before play proceeds. Players should also have the opportunity to say, "I just can't accept those stakes, I don't want to go forward with this conflict."

Actual Play example:

We're playing the Throne of Fire campaign using the Burning Sands: Jihad supplement for Burning Wheel.

Dro is playing the 9 Ambassador to the beseiged planet. He also happens to be the Duke's cousin and the brother of the Duke's Analyst. The Duke (played by Clancy) is desperate for a alliance with 9 under which the 9 will provide the Duke with legions of its fighting machines. The Duke hopes these fighting machines will allow him to survive the jihadi onslought.

We've already established that the Duke is callous, paranoid and murderous (he usurped the throne of this planet by murdering his brother).

In his first scene, Dro's character is told by his superiors among the 9 that they want the Duke to agree to allow Dro to marry the Duke's niece (daughter of Anthony's character, who was the consort to the Duke's murdered brother). They further wanted the Duke to agree that Dro's child by the niece will be the Duke's successor.

The niece, as a symbol of Ancestry, actually becomes the focal point of the ambitions of most of the player characters.

A little later in the game, the niece disappears from the Duke's palace and everyone assumes the jihadis have kidnapped her. At this point, Dro used a relationship with his 9 followers on the planet to justify a Circles roll to bring Selene (the niece) into the story. Dro's Intent (stakes) was to put Selene in his power, with the hope of using her as a bargaining chip to push his agenda with the Duke. I told Dro that my Stakes were that if he failed the roll, I would invoke the Enmity Clause and Selene would see his character as a disgusting, dirty old man, and would be utterly resistant to a marriage.

Bang! Dro knew he would find the girl no matter what. But the roll suddenly took on a whole new importance. If I won, I wasn't really going to interfere with his plans in any way. He'd still have the girl in his power, and he'd still have a bargaining chip to use.  But his relationship with his future bride was at stake.

I told Dro the Obstacle was 6. And he now had the choice. He knew this was a very difficult roll for him. Did he want to take the chance with the Stakes that were on the table? Or did he want to walk away and find some other way to pursue his agenda?

 Dro decided he would go ahead and make the roll anyway. He pulled out his Ancestry through a Persona point, but came up 1 success shy anyway! Excellent!

Dro thus determined that Selene would prefer to see him dead. In the very last session of the game, he managed to put Selene in his power. He had her in his ship and was headed toward the 9 fleet. He'd gotten everything he wanted. Until she stabbed him in the gut and killed him. Payback's a bitch.
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Judd
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« Reply #21 on: December 06, 2005, 12:17:13 PM »

He'd gotten everything he wanted. Until she stabbed him in the gut and killed him. Payback's a bitch.

Wow and it was all from that one failed Circles roll.

Nice.

Fients within fients...
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MetalBard
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« Reply #22 on: December 06, 2005, 12:19:36 PM »

I told Dro that my Stakes were that if he failed the roll, I would invoke the Enmity Clause and Selene would see his character as a disgusting, dirty old man, and would be utterly resistant to a marriage.

Oooh...  threatening to invoke the Enmiity Clause ahead of time if the Circles roll fails... I love it...  perfect example of great stakes proposed by the GM.  This is the sort of stuff I can use at the gaming table.  I may not be GMing, but I think I'll be suggesting this more than a few times when I ask for a Circles test.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #23 on: December 06, 2005, 01:35:50 PM »

Mike, a direct hit first try is great, and making that happen more often is a good thing.  However, it doesn't always happen.  I'd submit that when the stakes aren't a direct hit the first try, the players making the stakes a direct hit (through whatever means) is what teaches them how to make the direct hit the next time.  In terms of my five step thing, once you get going, I doubt there would be much reframing of stakes; it's just a safety net that's there in case there is some disagreement.  Make sense, or way off base, in your experience?
I absolutely agree. In fact, I'd say that actually hitting it perfectly on the first swing is rare, in part because people want to at the very least reframe what you're saying in their own terms:

Mike: So lose legs if defeated?
Player: Like all the way to the top, right?
Mike: Yeah, that's what I'd imagined, too.

I wasn't saying that you don't need process, system. I'm saying that I don't see following process as much of a skill (though I suppose the banter process that I'm advocating instead of the rigid step by step does have some skill to it). You follow a good one, or you don't. The skill that I'm seeing, per se, is in suggesting things that are ironed out in the fewest number of exchanges. If I can get an "Exactly" out of a player following a proposal, then I know I'm doing well.

Note that occasionally there is also retroactive stuff:

Player: Wait, you meant lose my character's legs? I thought you meant the frog legs in the bucket he's carrying.
Mike: Oh, sorry. Let's do it over then. The conflict is over the frog legs then? <skeptical>

Mike
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Jon Hastings
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« Reply #24 on: December 06, 2005, 02:10:33 PM »

Hi, Mike:

The skill that I'm seeing, per se, is in suggesting things that are ironed out in the fewest number of exchanges.

How much do you think this is a general, learnable skill, and how much does it have to do with getting used to the kind of stakes a specific player/group might respond to?  Or is "reading" the player/group part of this skill?

I bring this up only because, in my regular gaming group, where we've recently been playing PTA, setting stakes has been a breeze.  But when I applied these stake-setting methods while playing PTA with a different group, the results were not so hot: lots of contention over the precise wording of stakes and lots of discussion about wether the stakes put too much on the line.
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Judd
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« Reply #25 on: December 06, 2005, 02:31:15 PM »

But when I applied these stake-setting methods while playing PTA with a different group, the results were not so hot: lots of contention over the precise wording of stakes and lots of discussion about wether the stakes put too much on the line.

What were the gaming backgrounds of these two groups?

I'd guess that the group that didn't have good results was from a more traditional gaming background where the stakes were mostly hit points and such and the DM was out to screw 'em.  Right?  Wrong?
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Jon Hastings
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« Reply #26 on: December 06, 2005, 02:45:52 PM »

Hi, Judd:

No, that's not quite right.  In my regular group, one player and I have lots of past experience with traditional games (AD&D2e and Amber in my case, and Vampire in his), but we haven't played these games in years.  The other two players started rpging recently, and have only played Forge games.  In the other group, most of us have experience with/exposure to a lot of Forge stuff (though we have all also played traditional rpgs, as well).

I guess what I am trying to get at with my question to Mike is whether or not good stake setting skills are universal or whether or not you have to re-learn your stake setting skills every time you start playing with a new group.
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Judd
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« Reply #27 on: December 06, 2005, 02:49:44 PM »

Jon,

I wasn't at all saying that D&D players are bad at it and WE're good at it.  But that traditional games, that I know of, dont' have stakes setting as part of the process.  The people I game with regularly come from all kinds of gaming backgrounds from traditional D&D to wargames and we all get it.

I guess what I am trying to get at with my question to Mike is whether or not good stake setting skills are universal or whether or not you have to re-learn your stake setting skills every time you start playing with a new group.

The idea that we have to re-learn it every time we sit down with a new group is really fascinating.  It reminds me of something Ron wrote about the first games we play with a new group being about trust.
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TonyLB
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« Reply #28 on: December 06, 2005, 02:57:41 PM »

I definitely think that learning to set stakes is something you can learn differently with every new group.  But I don't think it's primarily about trust:  it's about empathy.  In order to set good stakes you need to be able to look at someone and know "X is what is important to this person in this situation, but Y is just color."

This is where a strongly defined genre or setting can really help.  It provides cues to figure out that X.  Dogs in the Vineyard, for instance, gives you a very good idea of what is important:  Sin.  If the player is not interested in judging sin then why's he even playing Dogs?  My Life with Master gives you a very good idea of what is important:  Love.  PTA lets you describe your own categories (Issues), but that means that the tools are only as good at communicating as the Issues themselves are.  If they get across a lot of information then you're set.  If they don't then you're not.
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Judd
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« Reply #29 on: December 06, 2005, 03:20:24 PM »

Tony,

The stakes' relationship with what is on the character sheet is something I had not considered.  Good call.  That is an aspect of this that I had internalized and hadn't considered writing about.
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