Playing Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition with a little more risk and a little more reward.

Three ways I negotiate with my players

The Lost Mines of Phandelver was the first D&D adventure that I purchased and played. Naturally, I started out as the dungeon master and have continued that path for many other adventures. I started a storytelling podcast called Sojourners, Awake! while keeping up with my children’s homeschool game. Since 2017, I have included a few highlights to the game as hallmarks for my particular style of playing. You will see how each of the changes I made revolve around a simple principle – the character sheet holds value and each player can use it to their advantage. I know my players appreciate these modifications as it enhances storytelling and makes for an adventure that effortlessly continues session after session.

High Risk High Reward

As the game master, I produce challenges for my players to solve. I set the stage and leave it up to them on how they choose to engage. As they try out solutions, they might fail. And if they do, I have used “high risk high reward” as a way for the challenge to continue despite a failed dice roll. Understand that I see the character sheet as a player resource that they can use to barter with the gamemaster. This works for our game, because I see 5th edition like a deal between player and game master. On one hand, the game master possesses power to describe outcomes, but players have these resources on their sheet and they want to win the game. I call them for dice rolls and skill checks and if that doesn’t work, the player usually fails – unless they ask for a “high risk high reward”. If they invoke this feature of our homebrewed game, I will then allow the challenge to continue at a price from their character sheet. This can be subtracting their armor class, deducting hit points, dropping a weapon, or exposing their flank to a hungry monster. After we both agree on this deal, the player gives up their goodies, and the game master allows them to keep on trying. Keep in mind, this is still a gamble, but it is a way to keep the player in the game for as long as possible. The higher the risk, though, the higher reward I grant in case of success. This keeps me on my toes and prepared to describe a really great outcome.

More reading on High Risk High Reward

Add some difficulty to spellcasting

Some spells in 5th edition simply happen. The player states they use this as an action, and the spell takes effect. I have found that for some instances involving high stakes, it makes more sense to make this simple spell a challenge. Spells like this may be Cure Wounds or Commune with Nature. These spells normally occur without any cost or try. If I want to up the ante in the game, or display a dire situation, I might call the player to a few skill checks or costs from their character sheet in order for them to proceed. Of course, I first inform the player that the setting it anything but normal, and in fact, there is a great resistance to their success. So, in a particular case of challenge, the player may choose to proceed with the spell at a cost, or back out given it’s challenge.

An example of a unique situation would be casting cure wound under heavy fire. Some combat scenarios involve heavy artillery, or intense lava heat, or suspiciously grievous wounds. Before the player chooses the action, I pause the situation and inform them through their character’s senses that casting this spell would come at a cost to them or the party. Then, the player still possess agency in making their choice.

With Commune with Nature, I might prepare an adventure hook for the players as the druid casts the spell. I inform them that sudden darkness takes their sight and vicious howls fill their ears, calling for your blood – do you still proceed? If the player takes the bait (who could resist?), then they know that upon casting the spell, that they are not entering into a simple spell, but that there is a force to reckon with before succeeding. Giving psychic damage equal to spell level x d6 is a good starting ante. Sometimes, I might call for a skill check not to cast the spell, but to maneuver through the terrain, withstand the environment or avoid an obstacle. No matter what new challenges I add to spellcasting, I harken back to the original principle that makes my game so much fun – despite the challenges, everything on the character sheet is negotiable for trade in order to continue the story. Add a special reward, like an adventure hook, at the end of an otherwise easy task and your players will enjoy the game!

Allow breathing room in worldbuilding

When I set out to world build, I start small. With a single idea, town or person, I only outline the basics of the setting. As the story unfolds, and the player characters make decisions, my world building projects start to expand. Rather than allowing myself to become overwhelmed in describing the setting, I make room for the players to ask question about the scene. As they explore, they can ask a detailed question about the scene regarding something that I didn’t describe. If reasonable, I conclude that detail is now included in the scene! In other words, the players use their worldbuilding skills to negotiate in telling the story.

As you walk into the inn, the sweet smell of incense billows out the door. The cult noisily chants in the corner. Behind the desk, a young woman sits in an oversized chair and looks at you nervously. The stairway leads up to the second floor.

Notice how I didn’t include the young woman’s ancestry. In my notes, I wrote down that she is a human. But as the players explore the room, one of them asks if she might be an elf. I think that this could be likely as there is an elven grove just 20 miles away from this town. Since I didn’t specify her race specifically, I conclude with the player that yes, she is an elf.

The player smiles and says, “perfect”, I would like to speak to her privately in elvish and see if we can learn anything about the cult in the corner.

Since I left out details in my descriptions, this allowed a little breathing room for the players to ask question that supports their character’s abilities. Everything is negotiable on the character sheet and since, the NPC could likely be elvish, the player character can proceed with their exciting plan. This also helps the players world build with you and so further invests them into the game and story!

Listen to the podcast Sojourners, Awake!

  • What about your games?
  • Do you see the character sheet as a game piece the players can negotiate?
  • Do you tell a story as well as play a game?
  • What ways do your players participate in the worldbuilding?

Thank you for sojourning with me today,

May your story continue!

Published by Sojourners Awake!

I talk about family, rhythms of life, homeschooling, travel, role playing games, and personality typology.

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