The Slippery Slope of Stakes
Stake Setting is a technique that has become fairly popular over the last few years. At its most basic Stake Setting is simply clearly articulating before the core mechanic is deployed what will be resolved in the fiction by that mechanic. In the earliest games that used this technique it was pretty clear that Stakes were about the in-fiction intentions, goals and wants behind the actions of the in-fiction character. However, over the years Stakes Setting has slid down a slope that is actually detrimental to playing passionately.
The slope takes Stakes away from being about the immediate in-fiction character concerns about an in-fiction conflict and shifts it towards a focus on the player’s desired outcome. For example, we may see players strategizing for character failure. “If I win, the villain kills my guy.” Sometimes the group resorts to hashing out in full what will happen for BOTH success and failure. “If I win she marries me, but if I lose she marries Joe.” At its most extreme sometimes Stakes will concern things wholly outside the character. “If I win the monster is really the ghost of Captain Roberts!”
Most often what the trip down this slope is about is protecting the player’s vision of how the story “should” go. The simplest form this takes concerns pre-deciding whether the character should succeed or fail at the conflict at hand and then Stakes become about negotiating what the consequences of that are. This is done in the name of avoiding “disappointing” outcomes when the players are clearly invested in how things “should” go.
When this happens, Stakes stop being concerned with short-term resolution of at-hand conflicts and become about resolving huge chunks of story all in one go, so that players start competing over how much story they can carve out for themselves. It’s no longer about whether NPC Alice right here and now is receptive to my character’s flirting. Instead it’s suddenly about whether or not Alice marries my character. Soon that becomes, if she doesn’t marry my character then she has to marry NPC Joe because then at least my character can fight him and so on and so on.
That investment in outcomes and how the story “should” go is what I meant by player-side railroading in my previous article. What’s happened is that the players have cut off their ability to participate as an audience member (with no idea what’s about to happen) in favor of being pure authors (imposing what you WANT to happen).
Constantly coming to vigorous creative agreement about how the story “should” go and always going for what the players *want* to have happen means the players never challenge themselves. They never let themselves be surprised (in the audience sense) and are never forced to re-evaluate where they want to go next (in the author sense).
Playing passionately is a delicate two-step between being an author and being an audience. It’s about participating as an author in the short term while preserving all the excitement and anticipation of being an audience in the long term. That happens by being invested in the tension of the situation at hand and rolling with the outcomes the system delivers.