Big List of Combat Stakes

June 23, 2013

“If the villain did the smart thing the movie would be over in the first 15 minutes.”

There’s a pretty big divide between make makes good drama and what makes tactical sense in a game, and a lot of rpgs which focus on both a) a long term campaign, and b) lots and lots of combat, end up having to work overtime to bridge that space. Mostly it comes down to making death for protagonists, not so common, whether by magical healing/resurrection, fudging dice rolls, or NPCs whose primary function is to rescue PCs.

The key to this problem is that a lot of these fight-y games put death on the table in every encounter. Eventually the odds add up. But most adventure fiction doesn’t have death as a real threat most of the time – there’s other things at stake.  So why not a list of other stakes/goals to use when you’re either encounter building or having to improvise in the moment?

Encounters, goals and stakes

Assume you can flip any of these around – each goal works equally as well for the players as it does for NPCs – in which case, the players’ goal switches to “Stop the other side from…” as the prefix.

Use this list either to improvise in the moment or plan a big set piece. (“We rolled a random encounter… let’s see, the Owlbear is actually just trying to drive you out of her territory…”)

Don’t forget that players may have their characters take action which can create encounters without your prompting and this list is a great way to meet that in the moment. (“Forget this.  If we kidnap the Baroness, we don’t have to negotiate!” “Ok, gimme a second… yeah, she travels to her estate by coach once a week…this will be a chase scene…”)

Holding Action/Take Territory

Time limit can be fiction based (“until the 3rd dawn”), mechanics based (“12 combat rounds”), or triggered upon an action (“One of you has to go unstick the chain for the gate”). The last option is often fun to play with, but can be very swingy – clever solutions can get the win condition quickly, bad luck or not having appropriate skills can make it nigh impossible.

– Hold off the opposition until allies come
– Hold off the opposition until allies can escape
– Hold off the opposition until the gates can be closed / the river floods/ the bridge is destroyed
– Hold off the opposition until the supplies/treasure/Macguffin can be loaded
– Hold off the opposition until a machine can be fixed (drawbridge, shield generator, etc.)
– Hold off the opposition until a message can be relayed
– Hold off the opposition until a trap can be sprung / superweapon readied / magic spell completed
– Hold off the opposition until information can be destroyed/erased/falsified
– Hold off the opposition until information can be found/deduced in time
– Hold off the opposition until pathway/gate can be opened/bridge lowered/fixed, etc.
– Hold off the opposition until a critical person is captured/killed
– Hold off the opposition until a critical object/supply is captured/destroyed
– Hold off the opposition until a weakness in the enemy can be found


These tend to focus on speed and stealth. These can be played in two ways – either with lots of detail and research and planning, or “Wahoo! Let’s swing across the reactor shaft!” kind of action. This should be clear with the group so no one is surprised or trying to play things the other way.

– Get in, see what you need to see, get out
– Get in, take a crucial item (map, magic item, royal seal, damning evidence), get out
– Get in, get as much of thing/resource as possible (cattle, starship fuel, ammo), get out
– Get in, kill a single target, get out
– Get in, abduct or rescue a single target, or a group of people, get out
– Get in, sabotage a single object/location (bridge, dam, warp drive, etc.) get out
– Get in, leave false evidence, get out
– (optional – you can use many of the goals listed under “Holding Action” if they make sense)


Few games do good chase scenes. Fiction focused games tend to do well at this, but everything else tends to flop, especially map & movement focused games. You will need to think hard before putting these into a lot of games as you will either have no rules support, or the rules will not make for a good chase. Good chase scenes are all about hazards- landscapes, other people/vehicles, etc., things to dodge around, climb over, fly under, etc.

– Get a person or object to another person/place/thing, safely
– Get yourselves to a person/place/thing
– Force the opposition to a particular place through trickery/violence
– Lose your pursuers, either by straight outrunning them, clever maneuvers & traps, or combat

Optional additional complications:

– Within a certain time period (see stakes under “Hold Off” for ideas)
– Before the opposition gets there
– Secretly, without being detected
– Without direct violence
– Target person/place/thing is also moving/in transport

Dominance/Social Show

Social stakes work very different than the previous stakes listed. They tend to be non-lethal with very minor injuries, many rpgs have no rules to determine when you’ve “impressed the king” or such, and these conflicts tend to be short. You may need to use judgment or house-rules to determine some of these – “Ok, uh, let’s use a fear check to see if you break under the pressure and look scared in front of everyone.”

A lot of these goals may overlap or become part of the situation as you play out the encounter – repaying an insult almost always goes hand in hand with humiliating the opposition, for example.

– Show your superiority in front of the public/a leader/a key person
– Put fear into the opposition & possibly humiliate them
– To make a threat that you can and will do worse unless they do X thing
– To simply be a bully – proving to yourself you’re dominant
– Abusive control – to KEEP dominating a person to keep their will broken
– To repay an insult (upon you, upon another, etc.)
– To win a public contest/combat sport/wager

Consequences of Failure

The best failure consequences are not all-or-nothing… they’re ways in which things get worse that the players care about.   “You all die” might be something they care about, but there’s no real way to engage with it in play – it’s an end condition.

It should be clear to the players how things WILL turn out worse for failure – “We lost the West Gate.  This means no one can get to the wells in the city anymore.”   Each failure leads to more problems – a lack of resources, another threat, a loss of opportunities, etc.

(A pitfall to avoid – if you run an Illusionist/railroady game, players will detach and not care about the consequences, and often the encounters themselves.  Buy-in in games is based on having meaningful input, and telling people, “You should care about THIS” doesn’t work well.)

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