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 ProgressionI'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 EmotionalSticks 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 TacticalStand 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 BondsThere 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 PhysicalTake 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 StakesForeshadowed 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.
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."
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