(stāk)nounplural noun: stakes
- a sum of money or something else of value gambled on the outcome of a risky game or venture.
Setting the Stakes
As a Dungeon Master, your primary responsibility is to create a world wherein your players can explore a compelling story. Secondary to that, you’re the one deciding the degree of risk; how difficult it will be for your players to accomplish their goals, and what the penalty might be if they should fail.
In short, your job is to set the stakes by describing a world (or character) worth saving, the villains who would see it destroyed, and the risk your players will be taking should they fail. One of the best way to grab your players’ attention and convey the gravity of their situation is to remind them that death is on the line, and the only way to accomplish that is by killing a character.
Use your NPCs
Non-Player Characters (NPCs) give dimension to the world wherein your player characters (PCs) discover a story. By answering player questions or by interacting with one another, NPCs can create tension, give direction, and set the stakes.
Unfortunately for our NPCs, one of their best uses is to be murdered as a reminder to your players that their characters may die during their adventure. Whether their death is by some trap, subterfuge, or cold-blooded murder, the tragic fall of an NPC is a great player motivator. When your players witness a murder or hear about it after the fact, it will force them to action and create a more memorable game.
The Active Storytelling vs. the Passive Narration
We’ve all sat at a table to start a new game that the Dungeon Master prefaces with the following tale: “You’re all a bunch of weary travelers who have known each other for many years. You’re sitting in a tavern, drinking a cold ale after a long day, when a man enters the room and declares, ‘I have a job for a group of adventurers!'”
Stories such as these are passive narrations that do little to compel players aside from give them an opportunity to ask, “What job?” It presumes that there’s a choice to be made, leaving the door open for the story to end before it begins. If the opportunity to go on an adventure doesn’t fit the alignments and desires of the characters, then you’re already sunk.
The greatest invitation to start an adventure is one that forces players to decide between life and death. To do this, you’re going to need to scrap that passive narration and instead use active storytelling:
You’re a bunch of weary travelers who have known each other for many years. You’re sitting in a tavern, drinking a cold ale after a long day, when you see a flash of light from across the room and witness a man burst into flames. He screams and curses, then crumples to a heap as his body is quickly reduced to a steaming pile of ash. “It was him!” Shouts a young boy in the corner, pointing to a shadowy figure who runs toward the door. “He killed my father!” As the shadowy figure runs past your table, he drops a folded note beside your drinks, then he bursts through the door and disappears outside.
When you open the note and read it, it says “You’ve been framed.”
Introductions like these set the stakes high and create a compelling reason to undertake the quest ahead. It also creates a world wherein people can be killed in public, which might not sit well with the players. After an introduction like this, they’ll be pressed to find answers quickly:
- Who was that shadowy figure?
- Who was the man who was just turned to ash?
- What did the boy see?
These are the types of questions you want your players to begin asking at the onset of an epic story, or at any time during the adventure when you need to change directions or compel them to action.