Why Setting High Stakes Matters

January 14, 2019 game_design osr lessons_learned rpgs

I’ve had a lot more success recently describing Old School RPGs as high stakes” instead of high lethality” and here’s why.

A lot of my new players or casual observers get the idea that high lethality = arbitrary death, which in my game it doesn’t. It means actions have consequences.

The whole benefit of a ttrpg to me, over say a video game, is that I have real agency, I can try anything. I can do anything. And see what happens.

If the results of my experiments are always success, or even, success anytime I roll over 10+ on 2d6, my actions feel arbitrary.

I want my great plans to succeed and I want my shitty plans to fail. I want enemies to surprise me. This all requires an impartial referee and of course, stakes that are sufficiently high such that I care about the result.

Does this have to mean death? Absolutely not. But putting death on the table consequently puts every other consequence on the table. Failure is a real option. And I find in games without death as a consequence, a lot of other fail states go out the window as well.

A common response to high stakes games is that players want to invest in their characters and it’s not worth it if they’re going to die. I think both can be achieved, and that the presence of death enhances rather than diminishes attachment to your character.

Here’s a Mothership Actual Play that we did with Board With Life where the stakes were incredibly high. But you can really see the PCs getting into their characters because they know their choices matter. The follow their characters for good or ill.

If you’re the kinda player who likes to write their backstory before session 1, then I can understand why you’d get frustrated if your character died in session 1. But I’m a big believer in growing attached to your character as opposed to starting attached to your character.

DCC teaches this best with its Funnel System. You start session zero with 4 0 level farmers and ditch diggers fighting in their village’s first confrontation against evil. Those who survive become level 1 HEROES.

Now that really is high lethality. But it teaches you that the game is hard, that your choices matter, and that heroics are something you earn, not something you’re born with. And that’s DCC the most gonzo old school game around.

My point is: think hard about the stakes of your game. If you’re a storygamer: are they sufficient for the kind of tale you want to tell? And if you’re more challenge oriented: are they high enough such that clearing them is an actual accomplishment?

I wrote this thread originally on twitter.

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