How can a GM make the stakes important?
You make the stakes important in two ways:
Make it personal. An RPG isn’t a long con, nor is it one to be incredibly subtle about, really. This is the story of the players, so making it relate to them in some way is the best thing to do. “Why should I care?” Is a terrible thing to hear from a player. When I ran Tremulus, my biggest problem was that all the players barring one (the player who left the group one session in) made characters who were effectively transient. The game wanted people who lived in the town but were new or returning. Without this, it was too easy for players to wonder why they remained there instead of simply leaving the horrors and mysteries behind. The game was salvaged with a new player who was briefed on this and hired the other players. 7th Sea’s solution of every player picking the story they want is great, if a little difficult for some players to work out ahead of time. My favourite way with D&D and Dungeon World is to start the players off with a simple setting, a location to be invested in and then build up relationships with it. Then, you put it all under threat as the players have got invested.
Make it known. In a more literal ‘how to make the stakes more important’, simply tell the players. You can give them a peak behind the curtain by saying up front what the campaign is about so they can build characters accordingly or ask you to make amendments in order to give them something to invest in. Mechanics like clocks and egg timers have been good tools for making the pressure of the stakes get higher which you can share with the group when necessary. If my group are faffing, I’ll remind them of the stakes by turning an egg timer. Sometimes I’ll have a bad event listed down on a clock and tick it along when the players fail, delay or time passes. It’s got to the point where the group recognise the motion of me scribbling out a section of the clock behind my GM screen. I’ll share the information with them if they ask, but often the movement itself is enough to know the pressure’s on.
Another brilliant tactic has been John Wick’s “Dire Peril” card. Have one to hand and when people are making a decision or taking a course of action which can lead to an automatic death without rules even coming into it (e.g. falling from a precarious cliff, taking on an army alone) then as GM, hold up the card and ask whether they want to take the action, knowing as they do that death is on the line. I have never seen a player turn it down, but they know exactly how high the stakes are.