November 1, 2019

The Sprawl Session Recaps

For those interested in Actual Play for my campaign of The Sprawl, a Powered by the Apocalypse cyberpunk RPG by Hamish Cameron, I've made a landing page for them.  The landing page has setting, PC, and corp summaries to kick this series off.  I plan to aggregate each chapter there.

January 11, 2019

Sidekick Rules

The D&D team released sidekick rules that let you make NPC companions for your party using rules that are only a little simpler than regular player character creation rules.  They have classes, hit points, levels, skill lists, equipment, spell lists, spell slots, and other features that player characters track on a minute-by-minute basis in D&D.

You might like resource management so much that these new rules are really appealing to you.  Many people try more rules light games and give them up because they love more crunchy systems.  If that's you, you'll love Unearthed Arcana: Sidekicks.  But if D&D is already just crunchy enough for you, I have a better suggestion.

I made Companion rules that are faster, easier, and more fun.  Click here for my version.

These rules are inspired by Dungeon World's henchmen rules, old school D&D henchmen rules, and my experience running Out of the Abyss in 5th edition D&D - the module where you start off running a game for a handful of PCs and ten NPC companions. 

In my Out of the Abyss game, I reviewed other folks' custom companion rules, and ended up just asking my players to handle the stats for the ten NPCs.  I caused murder, mayhem, mystery, and party splitting to get rid of as many of the companions as I could, in part because of the table time that it took whenever someone would say "I want to give this surplus magic armor to this NPC" or "I want to buy this NPC a better weapon."  Or just the way it bogs down to have NPCs take their own turns in combat, make saving throws against effects that target everyone, and roll ability checks.

I made these companion rules treat companions more like magic items.  They provide some bonuses that you get to use, but they don't take a turn in combat. 

Take a look

PS:  I turned on document commenting, since this is just a draft I threw together in response to Unearthed Arcana: Sidekicks.  If you have constructive ideas for improving my work, please drop a comment in the document.

January 3, 2019

Dealing with Stun Lock

Dealing with "Stun Lock"

In game systems that use initiative, nothing is worse than having your character taken out of the action.  It's bad enough that your character is either dead, dying, paralyzed, or unconscious.  But on top of that, there's 20 minutes of combat left, and you don't get to do anything.

I loved 4e, but one of my biggest gripes about it is that as you gained levels, stun-lock became an increasingly powerful player tactic and an increasingly common monster power.  When the monster loses their turn, no big deal -- the DM has other monsters.  When the player loses their turn, they've just had 5-10 minutes go by without any input into the shared fiction.  And that sucks.

So what can you do?

The pain of "not getting a turn" is the pain of not getting to contribute to the shared fiction.  The solution is to give the player input into the fiction in ways that have meaning and impact.

If there are any NPC combatants on the PCs' side in the fight, let the player whose character is out of the action play an allied NPC. 

It's less obvious what you should do if there are no NPCs in the fight they can take over.

If the player's character is out of the whole fight, such as if they're in another scene that's not in initiative rounds, or if they've been killed, let them play one or more monsters.  Players will love this.  If you only have one monster left, work with them as a team.  "Who should we attack?  Really?  Isn't it better to take out that Rogue who keeps stabbing us first?"

If the player's character lost just one turn, or if they'll probably lose only one or two turns, ask for their input on things:  "Should the lich use Cone of Cold or Confusion?  Which do you think would be best?"  They're paralyzed.  It's not going to affect them in the short term.  They should be able to keep a clear head about it. 

October 19, 2018

Run a Game has a Google Assistant app now!

Hey I made an app!  (I'm a "developer" now!)  It's on Google Assistant. 

Here's how you use it.  On Google Assistant (Google Home or the assistant on any newer android device), say or type:

OK Google, talk to Mood and Drama Preference in RPGs

That starts a 4-question "personality quiz" type of thing.  It draws 4 questions from a list of 12 at random, so it's different every time. 

It's just four questions, so it's not a perfect measure.  Not even close!  (It's especially bad at assessing people who don't have a strong preference, sorry!)  Also, you're going to prefer a different mood and different degree of intra-party drama in different games and with different groups of people.

Use the quiz and results during your Session Zero or with your gaming group to start conversations about your preferences.  It's not like it's a real scientific measurement, so it's pretty much only useful for starting conversations with other players.

For example, if you're starting a new Vampire 5th ed game, you might find one player expects tons of intra-party scheming and backstabbing while another wants more of a 90s comic book "superheroes with fangs" gothic-punk horror themed pulp adventure story.  You should probably resolve that ASAP, because clashing expectations can lead to all kinds of trouble.

I can modify and improve this thing, so please send suggestions for how to improve this Mood and Drama Preference in RPGs to @RunAGame on twitter.  I've never developed an app before, and I'm also new to making personality quiz type things.

September 25, 2018

Do Split the Party

Most RPGs can handle "splitting the party" decently well.  The problem with splitting the party is that players get bored when they're not actually playing the game.

It's one thing to wait your turn in combat, where you are part of the action -- especially if the GM is highlighting the stakes and context of the situation when it's not your turn (see the twitter thread below).  It's another thing to wait a long time while the other PCs are off scouting or investigating or negotiating.

You can tell GMs to cut frequently.  You can tell GMs what to avoid, how to try to match cut speed to pace, etc.  But what I've discovered in the last three years is that as a GM, you need to learn how to recognize triggers that cue you to cut.

If you're not reminded to cut back to the other players, you might not realize you've gone on too long.  You might not realize you're boring them.

So here are some triggers to remind you to cut.  If you internalize these eight scene cut-away triggers, you'll get better at running split-party scenes without boring your players to death.

Failing a Skill Check:  When a PC fails a skill check, cut!  Cut to the other PCs immediately.  This has a lot of great benefits!  First of all, depending on your system, failed checks will happen decently often -- especially when the party is split.  In D&D, it might happen every three or four rolls.  That's about the same for PbtA games.  Second, it gives you time to think about the move you want to make. With extra time, you can think of a really good complication that really adds to the tension. Third, the player who failed the check will be waiting with bated breath to hear how bad things went with that roll.

A Player Needs OOC Time: This one is obvious - if you're running for a split party, and a player needs time, it's time to cut.  Players might need time for lots of reasons:  OOC things like getting another piece of pizza, using the restroom, taking a call, fixing a tech issue (playing online), or having a sneezing fit.  Players usually won't take a break in a tense moment, so if they signal a need to break, it's at a lull, and a good time to cut.

A Player Needs Time to Think:  Players might also need time to think of a plan, think of what to say, think of how their character would react, make a tough choice, or figure out a character ability.  If you're going to force them to make a decision under pressure, don't cut away.  Apply that pressure.  Talk them through it.

Aside: When you force a player to make a decision in a split second, you're testing the player, not the character.  For some styles of play, this is great.  Actor stance play, such as LARPs, horror games, or high character immersion play can be enhanced by forcing players to make split second decisions in character.  You're encouraging bleed (see here, here, and here).  For other styles of play, this is bad.  Author and director stance play should test the character, not the player.  You might spend ten minutes thinking about how your character would handle a split-second high-stakes decision. In those styles of play, it's often fun to decide that your character made a bad decision. 

There's a Rules Question:  If the table runs into a rules question, cut.  The players can look up the rule while you run the other scene.  This one should be obvious. Just make sure to associate it with a cut-away trigger in your mind.

Cliffhanger Moment: When something surprising happens, cut away after you see the players' reaction.  Don't drop the surprise and cut immediately.  Why?  Because when you get the players' reaction then cut, you get five or ten extra minutes to think about how to play to it!  If you surprise them and cut away immediately, you don't get their reaction until after you cut back.  And that means you have only seconds to plan how to play to their reaction.  Put another way:  The surprise is big.  The players' reaction to the surprise is even bigger.  Your response to their reaction is the third most important thing that happens at a plot twist, and giving yourself extra time to plan that is gold.

GM: "Jasen, you've put down the third vampire spawn.  You're wounded, exhausted, but victorious.  You walk out of the alley, back into the crowd.  Nobody noticed the battle.  Standing there, staring at you is the vampire who commanded the spawn to attack.  She pulls her hood back, and it's none other than Lucia, your former mentor." 
Jasen's Player:  "Holy crap!  I thought she died in the crusade!  I don't care about the crowd. I don't care that I'm wounded.  I charge.  Do I roll initiative or what?" 
GM: "Hold that thought.  Let's cut away."

A Conversation Milestone: Conversations take longer than you think.  When you're GMing a conversation, you take on the NPC's persona, and start thinking about what the NPC wants, what they're afraid of, what they know, what they're watching for, etc.  Often, that means you stop focusing on a lot of the logistics of gamerunning.  You lose track of time, lose track of players who aren't in the conversation, etc.  So teach yourself to cut away when the conversation reaches a milestone.  That is, cut away when something new comes up; a decision is announced; the mood changes; or parties enter or leave the conversation.  Just teach yourself to watch for conversation milestones, as shorthand for that.

Plan B Doesn't Work:  The PC tries one approach.  They don't get the result they wanted.  The PC tries another approach.  They still don't get what they wanted.  It's OK to run a scene where a PC fumbles around a little.  The dice sometimes force that on us.  Players also sometimes don't know exactly what they're after - they go into a scene and just push buttons (literally or metaphorically) until something happens.  That's fine, sometimes.  But while it can be frustrating to the PC who's flailing, it's extremely frustrating to watch.  So teach yourself to cut away when the player's second approach doesn't go anywhere.  This has two benefits:  The other players don't have to sit through more than two false starts in a row, and the active player gets a few minutes to think up a better strategy.

A Clue is Revealed:  When you reveal a clue that's a "piece of the puzzle," cut away.  Unlike a cliffhanger, you don't need to see the player's reaction to a clue.  Most clues are just useful information, not major changes to the conflict.  (If the clue is a cliffhanger, see above.)  Cutting away right after dropping a clue will save you a ton of table time.  First of all, the players who just got the clue need a few minutes to process it.  They have to think about how it fits into their investigation, what it means, and what follow-up questions they need to ask.  When you reveal a clue, the players often ask a lot of confirmation questions -- stuff they already know, but just want to be sure about.  If you give them a few minutes, when you cut back, they'll have cut that down to only the most important follow-up questions.

Handy Infographic Version

Here's a handy infographic you can share if you're so inclined.

Click for a larger version.

Other Run a Game articles on splitting the party

I've written before about the benefits of splitting the party, which is still pretty good, though the game I used for the example is now an edition out of date!

I also did an article on cutting between scenes before, but I think my skills have evolved since, and I've also figured out how to communicate what I've learned in the last three years, since the last time I wrote on this topic.  For instance, in the older article, I recommend 15 minutes between cuts.  Now I'd say 10 minutes is pushing it, and you should aim to cut every 5 minutes, if you can.

Update:  Use these skills even when you're NOT splitting the party!

See this twitter thread about it. (Click through to see the full thread from here.)

September 11, 2018

Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe

Let's say you're running a fantasy RPG, and you want a more serious fantasy tone.  The first thing you want to eliminate is "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe."  It's a silly thing that seems to come from video games, not fantasy literature or historical epics.  But how?

The obvious answer is to tell the players "there aren't magic item shops in this setting."  The problem with that approach is that the players will eventually be dripping with magic items they don't care about, and yearning for magic items that they still haven't found.

They'll look for low-key magic item shops.  "Hey, can we 'donate' these +1 maces and axes to the high temple of the sun god and ask the priests to forge me a magic glaive?"

So the second most obvious answer is to make magic item shops that don't resemble a JRPG or MMO.  You create a red dragon that collects magic items, and will buy them from adventurers for gold (which she extorts from kings and merchants).  You create a shadowy wizard that will sell knowledge (spells and scrolls) for gold to fund his secret experiments.  You create a good-aligned temple that will forge blessed weapons and armor for those who demonstrate their faith (with deeds, yes, but also coin).

But you still haven't eliminated "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe."  You've dressed it up to look a little bit like fantasy fiction, but it's still a transaction of magic items for coin and vice versa.  Because the player activity is functionally the same (tallying coins, asking for prices, deciding how much to spend and what to sell), the fictional activity will largely feel the same.

The best solution

The only way to eliminate "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" is to give the PCs the magic items they want, and only the magic items they want.

The only reason a PC would want to sell a magic item is if that magic item isn't useful to them.  That happens when you give out magic items because you wanted to equip your villains with them (but didn't think of the items' utility for the PCs) and when you give out magic items based on the random tables in the DMG.  The only reason they would want to buy magic items is if they've got a lot of gold (happens a lot in 5e) and feel like the items they want should be available.  Combined, the two factors really make players seek out magic item sellers:

"We have two +1 maces, a +2 sickle of evil, and a +1 heavy crossbow that none of us are using, and I still don't have a magic greatsword yet.  Let's sell these useless things and get the +1 greatsword I need. +1 weapons seem common enough that someone must be selling one, or maybe I can get someone to forge me one."

Giving the PCs exactly what they want doesn't mean you have to be generous with magic items.  You can be more stingy than usual with this technique and the players will probably be happier.  Here's how you do it...

First, call for a wish list

Ask the players to submit a "wish list" of five magic items they want.  Let them flip through the books like kids making their Christmas wish list from the toy store catalog.  They can even make up their own magic items.  If your campaign is going to be shorter or longer, ask for shorter or longer wish lists.  A three-year level 1-20 campaign might call for six or seven per PC.  A 10-session short campaign might only call for two per PC.  If you're running an intentionally low-powered, low-level, short campaign, you might also want to limit the players to Uncommon and Rare items.

When you call for the wish list, show your players this article, so it's clear what you're doing.  If you're transparent with the process, they can be more strategic with their choices.  For instance, they might see value in asking for a Rare Flametongue greatsword and a Legendary Vorpal greatsword, so they get a middling-powered magic weapon early, and get an upgrade to a super-powered one much later in the game.  They can always give the Flametongue to a henchman or beloved NPC.

From that, make a magic item treasure table

Combine the lists into one "treasure table" and arrange them from weakest to strongest.  Always consider defense items to be stronger than offense items, because offense items are more fun (they speed up play and provide wow moments).  This makes a list of 15-30 items.

Using the table, decide on some plot items

Some of your magic items shouldn't be random.  Make plots and villains to contain the best items from the combined treasure table. Cross them off as you place them in the world. This probably cuts your list down to 10-20. The Lich King should wield the Staff of the Magi your wizard PC wished for.  The Glabrezu should have the Holy Avenger sealed away in a trapped vault.  The real nice Ioun Stone should be rumored to be at the top of the ruined tower of the mad mage, deep in a troll-haunted swamp. Don't write these adventures ahead of time. Just make sure to tell the PCs the legends of where they can find these items.  It'll motivate them.

Then just use your table

When you give out treasure and a magic item should be in the hoard, choose or roll from the list.  If you roll from the list, only roll 1d6 and count up from the bottom, skipping crossed off items, of course.  When you give an item out, cross it off.  The reason to use a smaller die than the list is that you want to give out more modest items first.  It's only fair:  PCs with more modest wishes get to use less powerful items longer (since they get them earlier).  Plus, you don't want to drop a Staff of the Magi at level 1.  I like to give out fewer, more powerful items, but that's going too far!

Tip:  Since you're giving out fewer permanent magic items, consider giving out more consumable items -- especially consumable restorative magic items, like potions of healing, Keoghtom's ointment, potions of neutralize poison, scrolls of remove curse, and so forth.  When you're giving out gold and mundane items, here's an inspirational, curated list of select interesting mundane items by value for you that will help give you a little inspiration.

Is "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" really a problem?

Not always.

I've claimed that D&D is its own subgenre of fantasy.  It's a goofy power fantasy, and it can be a lot of fun to play up the... D&D-ness of it, even if you're playing Dungeon World or 13th Age or Pathfinder.  So much of the D&D system intrudes into the fiction of the game world that D&D almost has to be its own genre.  Daily refresh abilities, magic item tables, trap mechanics, Vancian casting, and encumbrance (and therefore henchmen) are system artifacts that create in-fiction shadows that have, over time, made their own culture -- their own fictional genre.  And that's fun because it creates a culture and genre that's unique to our hobby.

This concept ties to the idea of "tone" or "mood" in your game.  Setting the game's tone is a very important "session zero" task, and it's important for the whole group to work together to maintain the tone.  The GM's role in setting and maintaining the tone is even more important.  If you create a "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" situation, you're saying something about the tone, and what you're saying is tied to images of moogles and Azeroth, and that can be awesome or jarring, depending on the tone you're going for.

Image Credit: CC0 license from via

So when you're running a very... "D&D" game (like I am right now), play it up!  Make fun magic item shops run by crafty dragons and mad priests and shady wizards and extra-planar entrepreneurs.

But you might want to run a D&D game that's more like fantasy novels, movies, and TV shows.  And that's fine too.  That's when you need to use the techniques above to eliminate magic item shops.

August 14, 2018

Encounter Stakes

Too many GMs hammer the party with encounter after encounter of "kill or be killed" life-or-death fights to survive.  There are several reasons why this is a problem.

First, it's toothless:  Either you kill a PC every other session, or else your "kill or be killed" encounters are mostly harmless.  Even if you kill a PC every other session, the death risk in any given encounter is probably one in five or one in ten.  Not insignificant, sure, but hardly dire.

Second, it's tiresome:  If every hostile creature you meet turns out to want to kill you or die trying, it gets dull.  More, "kill or be killed" encounters tend to drag.  After about 2 or 3 rounds, it's clear that the PCs have won, and the monsters are just trying to make their deaths as costly as possible.  Once every now and then, that's interesting.  Every time?  Gets boring.

Third, it leads to murder hobos:  If every encounter eventually ends in grim slaughter, whenever a conflict arises, you're going to go straight to grim slaughter as a solution.  The minute anyone cracks wise or threatens your PCs, they're going to go straight for the most efficient kill.

The solution is, luckily, not all that hard.  Just vary the stakes of the encounter.  Here's a big list of encounter stakes that are not "kill or be killed."

Stakes Progression

I've divided these examples into four tiers.  Start with low stakes.  As your adventure progresses, keep raising the stakes.

A lot of stakes come with built in progression:  If the PCs are framed (level 1), they might be at risk for capture (level 4), if the frame-up is successful.  A frame-up is only level 1 because it doesn't lead to the PCs' capture, it leads to a risk they might be captured, if they can't clear their name.

For the lower tier stakes to qualify for their lower level, the PCs have to have a chance to avoid the risk posed by the follow-on stakes:  If the PCs are delayed (level 2), they must still have a chance to prevent their rival from snatching the thing they wanted to get (level 3).  If the delay leads to the snatch without any chance the PCs could have stopped it, then the delay was really a complicated snatch, not a delay.

Level 1 Stakes: Social or Emotional

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.  

First level stakes don't cost the PCs much except their reputation or their good mood.  Getting humiliated or spooked or tricked might ruin your day, or let an enemy get away with crimes or escape capture, but they won't cost you anything and they won't hurt.

  • Humiliate:  The foes win if the PCs feel humiliated
  • Embarrass:  The foes win if the PCs do something embarrassing
  • Reputation: The foes win if the PCs' reputation suffers
  • Enrage: The foes win if the PCs get mad at them
  • Censure: The foes win if the PCs suffer a superior's disapproval
  • Framed: The foes win if the PCs are suspected of a crime they did not commit
  • Count Coup:  Each foe wins if they touch the PCs without getting hurt
  • Scare: The foes win if the PCs flinch (take a defensive or restorative action)
  • Spook: The foes win if the PCs regroup, retreat, or begin acting more cautiously
  • Threaten: The foes win if they take the foes and their faction more seriously
  • Bluff:  The foes win if the PCs believe the bluff
  • Reprisal:  The foes win if the PCs are worried of additional reprisals

Level 2 Stakes: Material or Tactical

Stand and deliver!

If the stakes threaten to cost the PCs resources, they rise to the second level.  Second level stakes can also threaten the PCs' tactical position, raising the stakes they might encounter in the future.
  • Steal:  The foes win if they take stuff from the PCs by stealth, threats, or force
  • Break: The foes win if they break or spoil the PCs' stuff
  • Deplete:  The foes win if they get the PCs to use up limited resources
  • Foist:  The foes win if they make the PCs take on stuff they don't want to carry
  • Block:  The foes win if the PCs don't take the guarded path
  • Oust: The foes win if they force the PCs to leave an area
  • Divert:  The foes win if they force the PCs to take the selected path 
  • Feint:  The foes win if the PCs react to the feint
  • Distract:  The foes win if they get the PCs to engage with them for long enough
  • Delay:  The foes win if the PCs take a few rounds, a minute, an hour, or a day longer
  • Alarm: The foes win if they get warning to their allies
  • Pay: The foes win if they make the PCs pay more than they had to through trickery
  • Sell:  The foes win if the PCs buy what they're selling
  • Beg:  The foes win if the PCs give them charity
  • Extort: The foes win if the PCs pay them a bribe or blackmail money
  • Split the Party: The foes win if the PCs become separated

Level 3 Stakes: Goals and Bonds

There are fates worse than death...

These are goals or people or places or things that might mean more to the PCs than their very lives.  Would you die to protect your community?  Your family?  Would you risk your life to pull strangers from a burning building?  These are character defining questions, and level 3 stakes help us get to them in ways that level 4 stakes do not.
  • In Decline:  Harm or take over an organization they care about
  • Lost Friend: Harm, beguile, or alienate a person they care about
  • Special: Harm or take a thing they care about
  • Noise: The foes win if the folks that matter don't know who to believe
  • Homewrecker: Harm, control, or bar entry to a place they care about
  • Escape:  The foes win if they escape justice that the PCs want to mete out
  • Competition: Claim an opportunity that could have helped an organization they care about
  • Rival: Claim an opportunity that a person they care about wanted
  • Snatch: Claim a thing they wanted to get
  • Outbid: Claim an opportunity that would have helped a place they care about
  • Demoted: The foes win if the PCs lose formal status
  • Divide:  The foes win if the PCs become unjustly suspicious of their ally
  • Lost: The foes win if the PCs get lost

Level 4 Stakes: Personal and Physical

Take no prisoners!

Stakes that are direct attacks on the PCs' bodies are the highest of all, but because they're so direct, they're often very blunt, unrevealing situations.  Of course you're going to fight to defend yourself.  Of course you care about being locked in a dungeon.  On the other hand, they're tense, exciting moments that can feel terrifying or exhilarating -- usually both!

  • Hurt: The foes win if they harm one of the PCs in particular
  • Maim: the foes win if they cause a specific injury to one of the PCs in particular
  • Assassinate: The foes win if they kill one of the PCs in particular
  • Guerrilla: The foes will try to kill the PCs, but will retreat to avoid any casualties
  • Surrender: The foes win if the PCs surrender
  • Capture: The foes win if they capture or arrest one or all of them
  • Consume:  The foes win if they successfully eat part of all of one of the PCs
  • Infect: The foes win if they cause one or more PCs to contract a disease
  • Envenom: The foes win if they poison one or more of the PCs

More About Encounter Stakes

Foreshadowed Stakes vs. Surprise Stakes

Foreshadowed stakes are stakes the PCs know about well in advance.  For instance, they might know that Armlor the Brewer is looking for them to chew them out.  That tells them that there's someone wandering around town looking to cause them some reputation or emotional harm (Level 1 stakes, emotional or status).  They know ahead of time, so they're anticipating it.  In effect, you've already levied the stakes at them.  The stakes are real, even if they haven't met Armlor yet.

Foreshadowed stakes are the best because the players experience them for a longer period of time, and their characters can start engaging with them well before the encounter ("well if Armlor comes by here, you can tell him we'll meet him at sunset outside our inn, if he's got the guts").

Surprise stakes are fun because there's an element of the unexpected. Surprise stakes can be...

  • New stakes out of nowhere:  On the way to the inn, the PCs are attacked by robbers (Level 2 stakes, extort)
  • Significantly changed stakes: Arriving at sunset to discover that Armlor is there helping the owners try to put out a raging fire in the inn (Level 2 stakes, break their stuff) or arriving to find Armlor's fresh, bleeding corpse (Level 1 stakes, framed)
  • Surprisingly increased stakes -- Armlor shows up at the tavern with a cadre of Duke's soldiers to arrest them (Level 4 stakes, capture)

Surprise stakes are the best because everyone loves a twist.  But you can't make every encounter a twist.  Try to use a twist every couple of scenes, though!

Play to Find Out

To make stakes work, think of them this way:  You're playing out this encounter to see if the foes will win their stakes.  Therefore, all the stakes examples, below, are phrased as "the foes win if..." to remind you that these NPCs are done when they achieve their stakes.

Level of Stakes vs. Probability of Loss (aka Challenge)

Challenge matters.  Consider how likely it is that the PCs lose in the contest for the stakes.  For instance, low stakes (humiliation) with high probability of loss (the PCs will almost certainly be humiliated) can be very powerful.  High stakes (assassinate) with low probability of loss (the PCs can easily defeat the assassin) can be very weak.

Higher challenge raises the stakes, but it almost never raises the stakes up a whole level.  Humiliation can be really painful, but losing a fortune, losing a friend, or losing an arm is a lot more painful.

PC Stakes

Your players are going to set their own stakes, based on what's going on in the fiction.  If an NPC gets in their face with threats and bluster, they PCs might decided to shut the NPC down emotionally or to beat them up, or even to kill them.

You don't get to control the PCs and what they decide to do.  Their stakes are their business.  Your job is to control the NPCs.  The PCs' actions might trigger new stakes, though.  If they kill an NPC who's yelling in their faces, they might be wanted for murder.  The stakes go from humiliation (level 1) to capture (level 3) as the town militia is called up to hunt them down for trial.

What do the Foes do when they Win?

Most of these stakes end long before one side or the other is dead.  You, the GM, get to decide if the NPCs have won their stakes.  Once they've won their stakes, they should act naturally.  Typically, they'll just leave.

Does this mean you're going to re-use the encounter later?  You bet you will!

Isn't that boring?  Heck, no!  Players love to see NPCs they've met before.

Will encounters combine?  That is, if the guard goblins succeed at raising an alarm and run away, will they join with other goblins and make a really Deadly encounter later?  No.  I mean, you could do that, but you're creating a strong incentive for your players to kill everything they meet, in case they have to fight it later.  There is an enormous conceptual difference between "get a chance for revenge when you meet the same NPCs again" and "any NPC you don't kill might join with another encounter and make your life harder."

Printable Infographic Version

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Here's a 8.5x11" printable list of these stakes, to put in your adventure prep inspiration kit.