How to use “High Risk High Reward” in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition

High Risk High Reward

Occasionally the players will state they wish to attempt to bend the rules or push the boundaries of gameplay. Traditionally, the rule of cool is allowed to keep the gameplay going and allow the players to pull off their stunts. Another approach is to use “high risk/high reward”. In using this rule, the dungeon master and the player both agree that the request is outside the normal action economy of the game, that a dice roll is involved and that even if the feat is successful, it may come at a cost to the party.

Outline your D&D sessions!

Step by Step

First the player must request to push the boundary of the game. It could look like

hey DM, I know my character already used their movement speed for that turn, but could I try something extra?

Jenn, the monk

The DM senses the player wants to push those boundaries, so allows the extra “action” with stating

yes, but this will be high risk high reward.

Jon, dungeon master

The player agrees and proceeds with her description of action. Otherwise, she decides the result is not worth the risk and ends her turn.

“Okay, so my character knows she doesn’t have the speed to make it through the portcullis in time, but she wants to try her best because she hates losing.

Jenn, the monk

The dungeon master calls for an athletics roll and states the DC out loud (15). The player achieves a total score of 16 – a success!

“You press upon every muscle in your body and make a flying leap, sliding underneath the portcullis as it slams shut upon the ground. As you stand up, you feel a tug and the purse around your waist carrying the gemstone is now pinned beneath the metal spikes in the ground.” 

Jon, dungeon master

The player is successful, but at a cost. If she had rolled unsuccessful, she still would have made it through, but losing the satchel and losing HP as she grates her shoulder on the side of the metal gate. The reason this method is so intriguing is it allows for negotiation between DM and PC and views everything in D&D as a resource for gambling.

Not only does this facilitate exciting gameplay, it also increases the drama.

In another example, my PCs are gathering around my NPC noble trying to gain access into his land so they can achieve some research. I informed them to make their attempts within 3 rounds and the roleplay begins. But the dice rolls are terrible and failure seems imminent. I want to keep my word, stay consistent with the NPC’s reality so I describe how the noble calls for their removal from his court. They will just have to find another way to gain access into the land. But then, one of my players speaks up.

Wait! I want to try something.

I sense that this might be good, so I ask, “High Risk High Reward?” The player nods to me and proceeds to describe how he offers a bribe to the noble and the court gasps.

One player begs the DM, “wait, I want to try one last thing!” The DM realizes that something cool is about to happen and bends the aforementioned rules by saying, “high risk high reward?” He agrees and then makes a grand gesture of bribery to the noble, allowing for a final persuasion check. The DM determines the DC and should tell the table, for this increases the tension as all wait for the dice result. Upon success (>15), the noble is turned, but decides to have them supervised by one of his courtesans. Upon failure (10-14), the noble is turned but decides to keep the specific PC in question in prison until the mission is finished and upon a failure (<9) the noble is enraged and orders the execution of all of the PCs. Now the challenge has moved from gaining access into the land for research into escaping the executioner’s blade! Either way, the DM connected the player’s choices, although risky, into the larger world and kept the story going in dynamic ways.

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Ultimately, high risk high reward is a great tool for ramping up the tension and keeping the story from falling flat with a poor dice roll. You, not the dice, are in charge of describing the results. Allow for dice rolls to open up a new loop of challenge, which will eventually need resolution. If players want to persist and push those boundaries, this is a great way to allow them to do so!

May your story continue!

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