Master Improvisation Using Story Stakes to Amp Up Your Game

I recently polled several GMs with this question:

If you could learn anything about GMing that would significantly improve your gameplay, what would it be?

The overwhelming response was the desire to improve improvisation skills.

Tonight’s coaching workshop is dedicated to that very topic. It will focus particularly on setting Stakes, an aspect of improvisation that can transform your GMing.

What are Stakes?

I was a latecomer to incorporating Stakes into my GMing toolbox. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve begun to use them. Now I can’t imagine GMing without them.

Stakes pose a seemingly simple yet often tricky question:

What’s at risk for the PCs?

The word “risk” here implies two crucial considerations:

  1. What might the PCs gain?
  2. What might the PCs lose?

This taps into the core reason why players and their characters should care and become more engaged.

Why Bother With Stakes?

Previously, I would start encounters with a standard description, outlining the setting and ongoing events:

“You enter a large, dim room. At the centre, a circle of cultists chants. Within the circle, a demonic being drenched in blood and lightning emerges from an open, glowing gate, gaining form slowly. What are you doing?”

However, by questioning what’s at risk for the player characters, we introduce a new level of awareness, engagement, and drama:

“You enter a large, dim room. At the centre, a circle of cultists chants. Within the circle, a demonic being drenched in blood and lightning emerges from an open, glowing gate, gaining form slowly.

“The demon appears to be far more powerful than anything you’ve encountered before. If you don’t interrupt this ritual before the demon fully manifests, it could spell the end of your adventures.

“What are you doing?”

This approach shifts players’ focus from their character sheets and potential actions to the immediate, serious threat of a total party kill (TPK), heightening drama and adrenaline, and transforming a routine moment into a tense, thrilling situation.

In addition, as the encounter progresses, we can revisit the stakes set earlier to enhance storytelling and amplify our GM charisma at the table.

“Krug, the wizard’s fireballs seem ineffective against the creature, which is now halfway into this plane.

“It looks like Little Phingers is in deep trouble too, surrounded and bleeding from multiple wounds.

“If you don’t prevent the demon from fully entering, you might soon find yourself meeting your ancestors in the Celestium! What are you doing?”

Use Stakes at All Tiers of Game Scope

Stakes help players attune to the opportunities and dangers they face, promoting a focus on the story layer of our encounters. They encourage roleplaying, bold moves, and clever tactics to tackle the perceived risks.

While my example focuses on a terrifying encounter with a powerful demon, we should apply stakes at all tiers of game scope.

Here are the tiers as outlined in my short tutorial (Wizards of Adventure, watch the tutorial here):

For instance, consider how the demon threatens not just the immediate encounter but also the broader world, campaign, or adventure. Each tier provides a new layer of narrative.

Presently, the party is concerned with the Encounter Tier Stakes: will they survive?

But at the adventure level, we could describe how the demon threatens the party’s quest. At the Campaign Tier, how the demon endangers everything the players strive for. At the World Tier, the potential end of everything—families, friends, allies, homes.

Thus, stakes are an indispensable tool for GMs aiming to run epic campaigns.

Once we master setting stakes for encounters, we can adeptly apply them across all game scopes, enhancing drama, excitement, and player engagement in every session.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to join tonight’s live workshop. However, if you are a Platinum Wizard of Adventure, I’ll be sharing the recording as a new tutorial in your hoard of loot soon.

And if you’re not yet a Platinum Wizard of Adventure, become one today to access the Stakes Workshop recording & workbook once released.

Have more fun at every game!

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