Hold The World Hostage – The Mechanics of Stakes

Shit, Meet Fan

Overall, Stars Fall Up is a rather low-stakes game. Death isn’t really possible or ever a potential consequence of any action, even when things get crazy. SFU’s pitfalls are meant to reflect those you likely face in real life, ones that can be emotionally prickly and discouraging, but hopefully nothing life-threatening. The “Shit Happens” table is where players go when everything else goes wrong, and serves up the kind of bullshit situations that life throws at all of us sometimes. However, unlike in life, when the RNG of the world falls on your shoulders, a character ends up on the Shit Happens table because they’ve accumulated too many Knocks. Characters get Knocks from failing Challenges, which can represent bumps and bruises of the body, morale, reputation or relationships. A rule of the game regularly checks for characters who are hoofing around with more Knocks than Shots- the worst off catches the hot potato and suffers some karma on the Shit Happens table. However, characters do have an option available to them to reduce their Knocks- If they take a round to deal with What’s On Their Mind, they’re able to convert those Knocks into Experience. This is another example how the game uses a mechanic to reinforce a theme- in this case, “it’s healthier to process unpleasant emotions than to ignore them”.

Y So Srs

I’m a big believer that if you take your story seriously (but not too seriously), you can make your audience invested in stakes of just about any level. In any sort of fantasy-inclined story there seems to be this arms race to create stakes as large as possible; like, when’s the last time you saw a blockbuster action/fantasy franchise in which the entire world/universe wasn’t somehow at stake? For me at least, there’s no quicker way for me to become disengaged with a narrative. How does one human actually conceptualize the peril of something so colossal? Within the wide scope that stakes can manifest in, I’m of the mind that there’s a focal “sweet spot”, one in which people can more easily conceptualize and relate to peril, something that’s more localized or personal to them, even if it’s not on the level of rending planets or unwinding the fabric of existence. It can be as simple as endearing an audience to a character, and then making that character suffer; their happiness or wellbeing are the stakes, and a well-written (or re-written via fanfiction) character can hook people like nothing else.  And if you’re a master storyteller like, oh, just for instance, Ryoko Kui and her manga Dungeon Meshi, you can even create intense stakes around a character’s death, in a world where death itself is trivialized due to an abundance of resurrection magic. Most people would care in some generalized way about a maniacal villain ending the world, but it’s such a 0 to 100 concept it takes a long time to ramp an audience up to that level of emotional investment. If you want to make people care about an entire world being destroyed, you first have to make them care about that entire world.

 

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— Nagi

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Author: Nagi