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Advanced Conflict & Stake Setting

August 31, 2010

This Primetime Adventures game has been super-educational for me. We’re getting about 80% really awesome conflicts, and maybe 20% ok ones. So I’ve been thinking hard on what the magic line is we’re crossing between that 20/80 split.

What I’ve come up with, are some things which I think can apply to a lot of games that use stake-setting mechanics.

Is it Emotionally Charged?

This seems kind of obvious for Primetime Adventures, but the trick here is to realize that any character’s Issue is a sign, not a destination. Most of our most emotionally charged, and good, conflicts come out of secondary things we found while pursuing the Issue, but not the Issue itself.

This is also why I think it takes a little time to totally hit stride in this- you have to be able to see what the written down Issue/Flag is as a start, and through play, hone in on what it is the players are -really- interested in. That’s where you find the gold.

For our game, I think a lot of the split deals with that. We had a lot of conflicts which were “Do you win the fight?” which PTA points as being pretty crappy stakes, but looking closer, what was -really- at stake was stuff like, “Do you save your home planet from being invaded?” “Does your clone prove the doubts you have about your ability?”, “How much will you sacrifice to hold up your ideals?” etc.

We didn’t have to explicitly say these things – some of them were just unconscious to us as we played, but definitely charged the conflicts and made them fun.

The 20% of so-so conflicts simply didn’t load with emotionally charged consequences, so I need to step back and be willing to simply “Say Yes” and let those go.

Is it a Question or a Statement?

When you have games where you can set a wide range of stakes, nearly anything can become a conflict. But should it be a conflict?

One thing to consider is if what the player is doing is a statement about their character… or if it is a question, something that is not yet decided and the character is struggling with.

If your character is courageous, it’s pretty disempowering to have conflicts that make your character a coward if they fail- your statement is being overturned. When you’re playing games that use stake setting, it’s important to avoid turning statements into conflicts.

Now, if your character has had an issue or concern that isn’t decided, that’s up in the air… that’s a Question. That’s totally worth milking for conflicts. “Can you tell him how you feel?”

Part of this is thinking about your stakes and outcomes. If you can’t see interesting and fun outcomes, both ways, then you shouldn’t make it a conflict.

For our game, we had a scene where Jono’s character killed his clone. Given that we’re basing it on Star Wars, it would not have been out of place to make that into a conflict on the basis that good Jedi wouldn’t necessarily kill someone after defeating them and leaving them helpless.

But.

What would the outcome be in challenging that? It would be me taking away Jono’s statement and turning it into a question – robbing the moment of what it was. Likewise, Sushu’s character had a point where she was defying a superior – I set the stakes as, “Do you keep your authority?” – since it wasn’t going to be, “Do you change your mind and buckle under the command?”

It’s a fine art figuring out where players are making statements vs. questions, but at least keeping it in mind and being mindful goes a long way. I’m thinking this is really the most dangerous pitfall for stakes setting games.

Overall

Asking those two questions is actually pretty easy and intuitive in play- though I’ve written a lot here, it’s not like you have to think hard about it. It’s just something to be aware of, and then you can keep it off to the side, checking in once in a while and helping your game as you go.

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