Let’s Talk Stakes

So, you’re writing a D&D story. Or you’re adapting one. Or maybe you’re just the littlest bit curious about what the process looks like. It doesn’t matter what your motivation is, because you may not know it yet, but you have a problem. Your story is going to be missing a very key and critical ingredient – STAKES. Delicious, integral, and definitely not something you should have well done under any circumstances. Which means you need to get those suckers on and off at just the right time, and have them cooking right from the get go.

Why stakes? Well, it’s simple. Your story could have some of the best and most intriguing hooks around, but if none of the players bite, it doesn’t matter at all. You need investment and interest. You have to make sure your players are actually eagerly awaiting the story, rather than simply showing up week after week to throw dice and crack stupid jokes.

Don’t get me wrong – your stakes can be simple enough that throwing dice and cracking stupid jokes is more than enough. But you have to do that with intent, rather than let it simply be the end result of misunderstanding.

Because that is going to lead to some central misunderstanding of the types of stakes your players want, and only a scant handful want to receive a stake prepared the way you like, instead of the way they like. You need to gather some knowledge first, and then you can start being clever and adding all sorts of things, as long as they don’t compromise the actual story that your players enjoy.

And so, we look to stakes. Not just to hooks, because all that’s going to do is get a foot in the door. Hang your stakes on hooks, I guess is what I’m saying. But then get to work on the important parts.

The Secret Sauce

Stakes are what happens when a character’s story is tied to your grander, overarching, and let’s be honest, probably a little too long plotline. We’ve all been there, I don’t blame you. But stakes will keep your friends invested and excited! They are what their characters are risking each week when they dive into your dangerous world. And if we don’t understand what those stakes are, and wrap the dramatic questions of our adventures around them, or adapt pre-built adventures to include them, then we’re missing one of the most important parts of writing and running Dungeons and Dragons adventures. And that’d be such a huge shame, I guarantee you, because stakes are very easy to comprehend.

All you need to do is look at what’s at risk. You can go with the tired cliche of “the whole world!” and that’s not terrible, I suppose, but I wouldn’t recommend it especially as a first resort. If the world’s at risk, why are your low level new folks the ones ultimately responsible? Sure, you can resort to Gandalf talking about why Bilbo was chosen in part because he was one of the ordinary folk that kept darkness at bay, but your players deserve better. So choose something they can actually resolve without it taking them twenty sessions, and make the stakes more direct and personal. 

People rarely care about abstracts, but if their best friend has been abducted and is set to be sacrificed as part of some foul life-lengthening ritual, you can bet they’re going to get righteously furious and not stop until their friend is safe. So find something like that. Look at a character’s backgrounds, bonds, and traits. Do they have some mentor who set them on the path to adventure? Was something important to them stolen? Well, then you have a very simple and easy job ahead of you.

Tie those things to the story. What’s at stake? The reputation of that mentor, who has been accused of facilitating some heinous crime. That lost trinket is going to be moved as part of the same crime, and if the perpetrator isn’t stopped, it’ll be lost forever.

Once you start running with these smaller stakes, it gets easier very quickly. Most players will see what you’re doing and get invested. They’ll want to help write the story, even if that’s just through their actions. Some of them might even write you further backstories, just so you know precisely how to yank on their heartstrings, or clench their hands into fists. But you shouldn’t rely on that right out of the gate.

Instead, you should do some homework.

It’s simple, really. I know – I’ve said it before. But it is! Just do a Session Zero. And if you’re already past Session Zero, and you’re on Session 12, or 25, then run a Session 25.5. Make sure you ask the questions that should really matter to your story: Why is your character here? Why don’t they just settle down somewhere and open a bar, or become a farmer? If a character doesn’t have motivation to adventure and they’re just a blank slate, then you’re going to find it hard to engage them, so help them develop one! 

That said – some players are just there to hack and slash, or to enjoy some laughs with friends, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make sure that you find that out so you can match their stakes. If you have a group of beer and pretzels players, then you don’t want to spend the time designing a Lord of the Rings epic tale with fifty pages of backstory. They won’t want to engage with it, and both sides will just wind up frustrated.

Tell the story that you all agree to tell together. D&D is a collaborative storytelling experience at the heart of things, and part of the joy of this hobby is letting the group’s experiences as a whole collectively influence the story. So figure it out, and do your homework. 

There’s no sparknotes for talking to your crew.

The Juicy Stakes

So we’ve talked about understanding what stakes are, and we’ve talked about knowing the stakes that your players are interested in exploring with their characters, but we haven’t yet covered what good stakes look like. So let’s talk preferences, and let’s talk about what you want to avoid at all costs.

You’re a good Dungeon Master. You’ve sat down, and realized that you now understand stakes. You’ve talked to your party, and sussed out just what kind of stakes they’re interested in. But, dear friend – your work is not yet done. It’s time to get back in the kitchen and whip up something that will wow, impress, and delight. And in our kitchen, we’re crafting the finest of fine courses, which means cutting away some of the fat, and making sure we do a great job with prep. In the following examples, I’m going to boil down players into some pretty basic tropes. People are obviously more complicated, but in storytelling as with all things, we start with the basics. Learn to crawl before you walk, and learn to grasp the tropes before you start trying to manipulate them.

In order to do a good job with prep, we need to look at what our audience wants, and what we’re capable of offering. Let’s say that your party has got four players. One of those players is a really intense roleplayer who wants a story that lets them go from downtrodden nobody all the way to self-confident hero, another is here for the hacking and the slashing, your third cares mostly about treasure and the accumulation thereof, and the fourth simply wants to have a fun night out. This isn’t an unusual group, but too many DMs will treat everyone in it the same way, and that’s just not going to cut it.

Player number one doesn’t want to die in a way that isn’t meaningful. Death, for them, is simultaneously one of the greatest but least desirable stakes. They’d much rather be playing for the lives of their lived ones, or to recover a lost kingdom, or to fulfill an ancient prophecy. Killing them off in a meaningless fight is just going to leave them salty, and no one likes oversalted stakes. So don’t do it!

Play to their interests. There’s nothing wrong with keeping combat dangerous but less threatening for one particular character’s life. Stories in other mediums do it all the time, and we can emulate that as well. And you can still keep the danger alive for others, like…

Our hack and slash hero. They’re there for a challenge, and if they aren’t getting challenged, then they’re probably bored. If you want to make sure the party feels like they’re getting threatened, then you’ve got to challenge this person. They like feeling powerful, which means you occasionally have to knock them back, then give them the chance to seriously get their revenge. 

Defeat and a loss of reputation is going to be a seriously intense stake for our slasher. Death might honestly be less painful to them than defeat. Creating a villain that can beat them and survive, or at least escape their wrath, is going to seriously rattle them. And if they encounter that villain again in situations where they can’t just kill them, then you might even get some exceptional roleplay from the slasher, all born out of a desire for revenge.

Revenge may be best served cold, but as a stake, it’s red hot, and can’t be undervalued. You can even the start campaign with this character already having an established nemesis, and watch that relationship shine on until a climactic final battle.

But these bards and warriors will be naught without their calculating and clever companion. Or, as the case may often be, their rakish rapscallion. We might lambast the ever-greedy rogue for their looting, but you can count on one thing from this player: a desire for treasure and wealth, and, quite frequently, spreadsheets to track the whole glutted inventory.

If there’s a relic on the line, they’ll want it. And if you put it in front of them early, it’s almost always going to be something they want to snatch, even if it means injury to their friends. But give them some time and satisfy their initial cravings, and watch something very interesting happen when you pose that same problem to them down the line. If the stakes are possessions or people, don’t expect them to always pick people. But when the chips are down, and they have to risk the loss of a precious item to save their friends, that’s when you get the grit and the hair-pulling and the drama.

Accumulating possessions often comes from a desire for power and security, and chipping away at those gathered resources or threatening to take them away entirely for a while creates an executioner’s axe pointed straight at their throat. So we hold that axe there, and watch them squirm. 

What if the the slasher’s nemesis also happens to hold a stake in the bank where the rogue is keeping their gains? What if recovering that lost kingdom is going to take access to a particularly valuable item from the rogue’s stores? 

We don’t need to tie these stories together every time, but doing so can create a shared loathing for an enemy, and bond your players and their characters together in glorious purpose. 

I haven’t forgotten our last erstwhile hero, however. Their goal might simply be to have a good time, but they still have a purpose, and still have stakes. Their stakes are simply, in general, far more meta than the stakes of the rest of the party. They’re still going to want to be a part of the story, but that doesn’t mean that they want to be the one in the spotlight, or someone who has to have a crunchy and full understanding of combat, or someone who’s first to every chest. 

They just want to spend time with their friends. So their stakes can be something far sillier, or just simpler: will they get to open that tavern they’re always on about? Will they recover their family’s lost sword that is just always perpetually out of reach? Will they achieve revenge for their cabbage cart constantly being demolished by the villain? Give them the steps to achieve these goals, and put these simple plans at risk courtesy of our powerful and wealthy kingdom-snatching villain, and watch the rest of the party come together to help their beloved friend (who will frequently be the social glue of the party) achieve their dreams. Nothing brings heroes together faster than when a villainous punk beats up on someone they want to protect, after all.

Presentation and Plating

Knowing how to work with stakes gives us so many phenomenal tools, and teaches us two very significant lessons along the way. I can bet that you may have guessed one of them already, but the other one is a bonus little tip from me to you, learned through many failures and mistakes.

Let’s tackle first things first. If you take away one thing from all of this, this is what I want you to remember.

Death is %&#@ing boring.

No, really. It is. It’s a terrible stake when relied upon as the general motivation, and when you haven’t given them a stake that incentivizes them to stay alive. It’s one thing to have the party risk death when fighting a terrible foe, or as a result of a series of poor choices, or even as a brave sacrifice and last resort, but it’s wholly another to casually and flagrantly thrust it upon them. They should feel afraid of death, but not so afraid that they are unwilling to adventure.

D&D is a game about adventure, and if you’ve so terrified your players that they won’t risk their beloved characters on your adventures, then you’ve failed as a game master.

Stop using death as your story crutch. I guarantee you’ve leaned on it before out of desperation or uncertainty, but you can do better, and both you and your players deserve it. If you all work together, then you can come up with stakes that leave everyone thrilled and nervous to see what the cost of their heroics is, and create situations where characters will choose to risk death rather than having the risk of death thrust upon them.

And that’s going to be more memorable every single time.

Our last bonus little tip is an easy one, as well. Straight forward and simple from me to you.

Don’t resolve your stakes before their time. Savour them, and give them their chance to matter to the players and the world.

Then plate, serve, sit back, and watch the smiles.