The Stakes Should Be Something I’ll Enjoy Playing

I want to talk about a truism in game design theory that you should only roll the dice when something is at stake. In a discussion of scaling skill DCs over at nerdnyccawhis wrote:

When Maldoor made his resurrection survival roll, I should have specified that the stakes of failure included these highly enjoyable pterodactyl cave-babes.

My interpretation of scaling the DCs is that what’s easy for a lvl 1 isn’t even worth rolling for a lvl 10, right? […] If you’re making a lvl 10 character roll to see if he can climb out of a 10 foot pit, that’s kind of lame. That shouldn’t even be an issue for a lvl 10 (personally, I don’t think it should be an issue for a level 1 either unless there is something at stake, but that’s a different story).

chrisg replied: “There’s something at stake! Whether or not your character starves to death before either escaping the pit or punching your DM in the throat.”

This helped me clarify something I’ve long felt about the issue of stakes. It’s not enough to make sure that every dice roll has stakes, or that every decision has consequences. A good game should make sure that playing out the results will be more enjoyable than being punched in the throat.

Sucks along one axis (not limited to 4E, just using it as an example):

  • dice version: Make a Dungeoneering check to see if you can get comfortable enough in this cave for this to count as a rest.
  • decision version: Do you want to pursue the monsters fleeing with the captive, or pause for a short rest?
  • unenjoyable consequences: OK, since you didn’t regain any encounter powers, the next combats are going to be a long slog drained of the usual tactical choices and boring for all of us!

Sucks along another axis:

  • dice version: Your attempted burglary is interrupted by [roll] an orphan waif holding [roll] a battle-axe.
  • decision version: The wives and children of the slain guardsmen rush at you, maddened by grief. What do you do?
  • unenjoyable consequences: So, every time you’re go to town, you’re going to encounter weeping relatives and ever-increasing attempts by the authorities to bring you to justice. No, I’m not persecuting you, I’m just playing out the natural consequences of your antisocial behavior! This isn’t fun for me either, you know.

What should a conscientious gamemaster/designer do about decision points with stakes that you don’t actually want to follow through on? I dunno; being aware of the possibility of this happening is the first step. You could have a discussion about lines and veils beforehand, to make sure consequences stay out of everyone’s squick zone or are dealt with off-stage. You could try not to set up situations that will have likely repercussions that won’t be fun for you to game out. And you can find ways to resolve things more quickly when playing them out in detail will be unpleasant. Being aware when this is going on – staying in tune with whether you’re having fun as you play – is the next step.

5 Responses to “The Stakes Should Be Something I’ll Enjoy Playing”

  1. February 9, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    One of the functions of dice* in a roleplaying game is to give us a ritualized moment that says to everyone at the table “This here thing we’re talking about just happened.” So, I roll to see if my character can climb out of the pit, despite it possibly being a roll I can’t fail. The very act of rolling stops everything and brings peoples’ attention to what’s happening and says very clearly that it happened. From that point on, everyone must consider my character out of the pit (unless, of course, my character falls back in or is pushed, or what have you).

    Now ideally, we don’t need dice for this. But when it comes right down to it, we have a situation at the table where the only way to really guarantee something has happened is to roll for it. You can say things that others don’t hear or aren’t paying attention to or regard as a joke or conjecture. But if you’re rolling for them, you’re secure in the fact that everyone will treat the results as fact.

    The reason I bring this up is because this function of dice is separate from their ability to decide between stakes, but it is quite often confused with it. Which is understandable. Most of the moments we want to guarantee are the moments when something is at stake. “Do I make it out of the pit before the lava flow reaches it?” Holy shit, I hope I do. And if I do, I hope everyone acknowledges that.

    But this confusion causes problems when you want something to happen, and you want to acknowledge it, but you don’t want stakes–you don’t want the future significantly altered by a bad die roll. Adventurers have to camp in all sorts of uncomfortable places such as caves. It would be really neat if there was some way to nail that home without creating intolerable or boring stakes. After all, if I were reading this in a book, a little passage about a hard night spent on a damp cave floor would be pretty cool.

    There are a number of ways to address this event without making it a decision point, but it takes some finagling, because many games (such as 4E) are really designed against this separation. Here’s a trick I’ve used in Gamma World which would work quite well in 4E: if you need one particular result to happen, don’t roll to see if someone can do something; roll to see who does it. Everyone rolls their Dungeoneering and see who rolled the highest. “The rest would have been a miserable one, had it not been for Dorothy’s idea to…” Here I would probably let Dorothy’s player insert an idea.

    Or you could dial the stakes way down. “Someone roll 15 or more on Dungeoneering, or you’re all going to have to act grumpy during this next encounter.” (Might be fun to make this mini game for XP. If the Dungeoneering roll works, everyone gets a small but not insignificant amount of XP. If the roll fails, they only get the XP if they make an Endurance roll or act grumpy in the next scene.)

    You could bypass dice altogether for these sorts of things and just make it some other sort of ritual. A simple one could be to take these moments and make a point of asking a question instead of rolling. “How do you make this dank, hard cave floor something you can rest on?” (There are risks here. Players, being a suspicious lot, might spend more time explaining how they build their defenses then they do actual resting.)

    * I occasionally call this function of the dice Rolling to Smell the Flowers, and it’s the primary reason why the Rogue Phase exists the way it does in Swords Without Master. When I hand you the dice and say, “Show me how you made the cave comfortable enough for everyone to spend the night,” I’m not looking to make a decision point, just a story moment.

  2. February 10, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    That comment is a blog post in itself, Eppy! I love rolling to see who does the thing that has to happen, great advice.

  3. February 11, 2011 at 12:36 am

    Occasionally I like to hear myself type.

  4. 4 James Nostack
    February 11, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    God damn, Eppy, you is a genius. I’m not sure if I 100% agree with the first half of “agreeing that something happened” stuff, but damn thos are some good ideas.

    Tav, the standard way I was handling this in 2005 was like this. “Hey guys, what do you want to accomplish?” (This is VERY different from, “What do you do now?”)

    And depending on what the players said, I’d figure out whether there was anything that could provide opposition. This might be an NPC, a monster (sub-class of NPC), or some sort of hazard or object charged with narrative consequence. (“Oh no! It’s the infamous monsoon season of planet Mordrax–looks like your plans to go deeper in-country are in trouble.”)

    If there wasn’t any opposition to speak of, then it was, “Hey, I guess what you want to achieve happens somehow. Maybe we’ll roll dice to determine how quickly it happens, if that matters to us.” (Alternately: maybe we’ll roll to see how much money you blow, if that matters to us; etc.) This is a lot like Eppy’s idea of “Who did it?”

    If the opposition existed, then I’d have to figure out whether it was “fit” opposition. If the opposition was really lame–like a single Goblin against an entire cabal of Necromancers–I’d usually just go with the stuff listed above, or some close variant. Generally, my criteria of judging if there was fit opposition was whether the encounter would be interesting to play out.

  5. 5 Charlatan
    February 11, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Eppy has destroyed the post I’ve been tinkering with about the social function of dice as the delimiter of fictional space, with recourse to Doomslangers and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”. I’m not sure whether to feel deflated or grateful.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2011

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