I had a great conversation with Christoffer over on the FU Facebook page about setting stakes in your games of FU. At the core of the discussion was how do we ensure that our games don’t grind to a halt when a player rolls a “no” results.
Up until now the process I have been advocating is:

  • Character is faced with an obstacle to reaching their goal (A lava-filled pit blocks your way.)
  • Player poses a question (Can I jump across the lava-filled pit?)
  • Dice are rolled to answer the question
  • Player and narrator use the result to move the story along

But what happens if getting across that lava-filled pit is literally the only way out of the blocked cavern? And the player rolls a “No” (with or without a “but” or “and”)? Or if the logical response to failing to jump across the lava-filled pit is “You fall into the pit. You die.”
It is very possible that players find their characters in situations that they cannot logically get out of, if they follow through with the result of the dice. Or, there might be a way out, but it requires a fair bit of brain-power from the game master and/or players to constantly be interpreting the dice “on the fly”.
The key is setting up the initial problem / question in a way that ensures we have somewhere to go, no matter what the result is. This is what I call setting the stakes.

Setting Stakes

When a character’s progress towards a goal is blocked by an obstacle or adversary, take a moment to consider what the potential outcomes of any conflict might be.
The very first thing would be to check if there is an interesting option whether the character succeeds or fails. Sometimes success is not interesting, just like sometimes failure is not interesting. In these cases, I would consider not even rolling – just go with the interesting outcome and avoid the potential of having the game suddenly stopping because you have been left with either a boring outcome, an outcome that makes no narrative sense, or a situation where no further progress can be made.
In all other instances, however, consider what is actually at stake. What do the characters stand to gain and lose? What are the potential benefits and hazards of a particular course of action?
Assuming that both success and failure present interesting outcomes, consider what the most interesting option for both outcomes is. While the tension created by the threat of death is cool, death itself is rarely interesting. Personally, I would take “you die” off the table for all but the most climactic of moments in an adventure. What (nasty) alternative to death can you apply as a penalty for failure (or success…)?
When you know what the stakes are, pose the question so they are clear. When confronted by a lava-filled pit, don’t ask “Can I jump across the pit?” as that doesn’t actually convey the stakes. Instead, ask “Can I leap across the pit unharmed?” or “Can I jump over the lava with my heavy pack on?”
The “formula” for such a question is pretty simple:

Can I do X without/before Y?

  • Can I leap the pit without hurting myself?
  • Can I hold the door closed long enough for my friends to escape?
  • Do I pick the lock before the guards return?
  • Do I pick up the bandit’s trail before night falls?
  • Can I shoot the gangster without being shot back?
  • Do I subdue the ogre without suffering an injury?
  • Can I throw Captain Doom into the building without causing too much collateral damage?
  • Can I lay down enough covering fire before I run out of ammo?
  • Do I reach 88MPH before I drive into that giant billboard…

Posing your question with clear stakes not only ensures everyone knows what is at risk, but also takes the pressure off when interpreting the dice roll. You can adjust the expected outcomes by making them better or worse depending whether the result is modified with an “and” or “but”.

An example

Consider a situation where a character is trying to pick a lock into the King’s bed chamber in order to find a stolen doodad. For the adventure to continue the character really needs access to the room, so failing to pick the lock is not only not interesting, but will stop the adventure cold. Instead, the player and GM discuss the situation before posing the following question:

Do I pick the lock before the guards return?

The potential outcomes might be:

  • Yes, and you slip into the bed chamber and lock it behind you, without anyone noticing.
  • Yes you slip inside and a short time later hear the boots of the guards walking past.
  • Yes, but as you slip through the door you drop something – what is it?
  • No, but the guards have only just rounded the corner and are a long way away.
  • No you hear the lock click open as the guards round the corner. They draw their swords and lunge at you!
  • No, and you are so busy unlocking the door that you fail to notice the guards until a heavy hand is placed on your shoulder.

Notice how in every instance the character manages to unlock the door – there is no situation where that is not an option. Instead, the situation escalates by increasing the possible threat of the guards arriving before the deed is done.
Note! I would not work out the six potential responses before rolling! That is way too much work to do before every roll.

Setting stakes will make your games run faster and smoother and help you avoid those moments where everyone stops and scratches their head and wonders “what next?” There is no need to devise them in advance, either, as every roll will rely on the context of the situation.

This article was first published July 7, 2016

This article originally appeared on a website dedicated to Freeform Universal. I have consolidated that material here in order to bring everything into one easy-to-find location.