How can the GM make the stakes important? That’s a pretty trad-oriented question, I think. In my mind at least, discussing the importance of “stakes” was one of the core topics at the root of so-called “story games” as they were being figured out back in the day.
I’m not sure the GM can make the stakes important. Something is only an incentive when the players feel incentivized. Thinking that the GM can, as phrased in this question, is putting the cart before the horse.
Thing is, players tell us what’s important allll the time. Just ask them. Or watch what they engage with: if they engage with a fictional element, it’s important to them. Likewise, if they just don’t then it’s gonna take a sales pitch to get them into your shiny new plot element. Which, as a facilitator, I’m not beyond. But my sales pitch always incorporates stuff they’ve already flagged.
You can’t do much about players who just lie. And oh gosh, they do. They do. They lie to themselves, they lie to each other, they lie to the GM. They might use various flagging techniques as anti-flags — my defenses against X are impenetrable because I don’t want to deal with this. Or the classic: I’m an orphaned drifter because I don’t want connections to be used against me. Not once, not ever have I stumbled across a player who actually wants to interrogate what life is like as an orphan or a drifter, as in what that’s cost them and how they came to live that way. It’s a tactical choice, not an editorial one.
I’ll still pitch softballs at obvious anti-flags, though, because I’m an eternal optimist.
Bret Gillan has this funny story he told me about learning to play Burning Wheel. In BW, a core conceit of the game is the clear and actionable flag: the Belief. In practice, they serve as a to-do list and a contract with the GM that this is the stuff I care about, and how I care about it. The incentive structure around Beliefs (and Instincts and Traits, and the interaction between all three) doesn’t quite reinforce that, because there are economic reasons to engineer lots of internal conflicts among one’s flags. Best you can do is hope the economic incentives are incentivizing enough for the player to be truthful and actually care to chase the flags that exist because they create great drama.
There’s a perfectly good admonition in Burning Wheel that says “challenge their Beliefs.” Which at first sounds pretty straightforward! But Bret tells this story where he’s like but what does that even mean? (He also waves his hands around and bugs his eyes out, like the Zen student who’s gotten smacked by the teacher Rinzai-style but didn’t get the flash of insight.) And he’s right. Does it mean put up endless obstacles? That can get not-fun real fast. Does it mean question the players’ veracity? Oh boy, now it’s an interrogation. BW Gold, and in particular the Codex, goes into a lot better detail about best practices around challenging Beliefs. That material is pretty portable between other games where personal flags are important, but it took literally years to build up the body of work to a point where it could be taught and not just observed. That, to me, points at how little this hobby has cared about “stakes that matter” beyond advancement and hoarding treasure.
On that note! “Save the world” has got to be the most tedious “important stake,” am I right? How many times can we do this? How often does it get tossed out there completely out of context of any character’s personal stakes? I guess we have shitty adventure movies to thank for that.
Dunno, friends. I keep circling around the idea that the only stakes that are important are the ones the players agree to care about. It’s not really even on the GM’s to-do list, other than to push and prod and recontextualize, and even then you have to have players who find this fun and not just a series of no-win situations.