How can a GM make the stakes important?
The short answer is that you can’t. Not by yourself. ~ But, the good news is that you can make the stakes very important if you’re willing to let go of control of the world and the “story”.
No one likes a boring game. Games can become horribly boring if there are no real stakes, or if nobody really cares about the ones that have been presented. Unless the players have some skin in the game, they aren’t likely to care no matter how compelling you make the pitch sound. “We’ve just got to get that Yellow Fever serum to Carson City!”
This sounds like it’s the responsibility of the players to buy in to the scenario that the GM cooks up, and that’s partially right. Like I said yesterday, players can make the world seem real by acting if it’s real, & that includes acting as if the stakes are important. But that’s only half the battle. Until the players feel the stakes in their guts, until they squirm when the dice come out, until they make involuntary cries of despair when that awful NPC comes down the hall, the stakes just haven’t crossed that boundary into the land of what matters most. ~ That’s where games become exciting.
This next points isn’t at the heart of the matter, but it’s important. When the dice come out, let them speak. Don’t fudge rolls. And when they come out, it should be for a reason. It doesn’t always have to be epic or incredibly meaningful, but if there’s a chance of failure, if that failure would have consequences, release the plastic hounds & stay out of their way. Let them do their job. You’ll know if they’re doing their job, because the players will be sweating it out. That’s it. Good dice.
Still not the real answer, but have stakes that make sense for the fiction. Not just for the genre, but for the specific situation. Always ask yourself “What would happen if they did that?” ~ But don’t always keep this to yourself. If it makes sense that the characters would know the potential consequences of a situation, tell them! Remember the wisdom of Doctor Strangelove as he admonished Soviet Ambassador de Sadesky ~ “Of course the whole point of a Doomsday Device is lost, if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world eh?
All of that is important to making the stakes seem important, but the real answer is much simpler. ~ It doesn’t matter what you (The GM) think is important. What matters is what the players & their characters think is important. Those are the real stakes. ~ This is one of the reasons that I shy away from “The Story” or “what the players are supposed to be doing” or such approaches. I’m a big fan of scenarios and dynamic worlds where the characters become interested in things and we all “play to find out” what happens. In a very real way, the GM plays to find out what matters to the characters, & then the fun begins.
So, pay attention to the characters. Find out what they want, what they value, what they are afraid of. Look to see what relationships they develop, what they become interested in, how they interact with the world. ~ Instant stakes. Dangle some carrots based on what they’ve shown you that makes them tick. See if they take the bait.
Then hit them below the belt. ~ OK, not all the time, don’t be a jerk GM, that’s not the point. However, if you want a game that’s not boring, where the stakes seem important, where it’s not some ho-hum “is the pizza here yet?” excuse to kill a couple of hours, find out what’s important to them and then hit them with it. You have to adjust for the tone of the game, but If even if you never want to play it, looking at Vincent Baker’s instructions for how to GM Apocalypse World is worth the look. It’s all about paying attention to the players as they tell you what’s important to them, & then screwing with it. One of my favorite sessions as a player was in our All For One game where Francois Letarte of the JdrD30 YouTube Channel ran a two part session for me called Not how it used to be where he beat the crap out of my character by bringing in all sorts of elements meaningful to young Phillipe and forcing some difficult choices with lasting consequences.
These difficult choices, where players are faced with having their characters torn between motivations or risking consequences to get what they want (or avoid what they don’t want) are where RPGs become the most exciting and compelling for me. The stakes are never higher, and the players defined them for us. All we had to do was listen.