Risk vs. Reward

Calculating the payoff for derring-do

Last week, I presented my rationale for awarding experience in Chimera; my belief is that it addresses the needs of a majority of campaigns. But Anthony over at of Pedantry raises an oft-forgotten aspect of role-to-advance models: how does the system account for risk vs. reward?

In other words, adjusting the Advancement Roll in proportion to assumed risk. Also, it needs to apply to non-combat activities. Plus, the system must be objective, elegant, and intuitive. One that looks nice, and not too expensive...

I’ve been rolling 3 potential solutions around; this post contains the synthesis.

Defining Risk

Risk-reward curve
Risk/Reward Curve

My working definition of risk is “a chance of loss.” Literally. I’m not concerned with what you might lose—just the odds of losing it. Ergo, a 75% chance of failing a Diplomacy roll represents a greater risk than a 55% chance of falling into a pit of liquid hot magma. For purposes of experience, the act of exposing yourself to risk is more significant than the consequences of failure.

If you’re looking for a quantifiable measure of risk, you might start with the relationship between an action’s Target Number (TN) and a character’s chance of achieving it, after applying his Action Roll (AR) modifiers.

I’ve decided that a chance of failure greater than 50% constitutes risk. Based on a d20, this means an adjusted Target Number 12 or more. Let me plant this stake in the ground:

  • An action is risky if (base TN - AR adjustment) ≥ 12

Experiencing Risk

Let’s start with the last bit first: Attempting a risky action qualifies you for a base Advancement Roll bonus equal to +1 per point above TN 11 (i.e., +1 at TN 12, +2 at TN 13, +3 at TN 14, etc.).

Now, let’s put some parameters around this, lest we end up with the same bean-counting issues that prompted me to ditch XP in the first place:

  • Only Clutch Situation actions are eligible for this bonus (i.e., a Clutch Situation damage roll, for example, does not qualify).
  • You need a Normal Success or a Critical Failure to get the bonus (a Normal Failure isn’t sufficiently instructional, and a Critical Success could be a fluke).
  • The actual outcome of the attempt (i.e., what happens in the game) is unrelated to the bonus—what’s important is that you either succeeded or failed miserably.
  • Multiple bonuses are additive, though the total bonus cannot be split across more than one Advancement Roll.

That’s the nickel tour. Let me blather about my rationale for a bit.

I figure that Clutch Situations are important enough to leave a lasting impression on the character—certainly enough to affect his shot at improvement.  In other words, a Clutch Situation is more than just a “mulligan”—it can be a developmental milestone.[1]

This approach also lets the player chose the situations—and level of risk—he wants to “apply” toward his Advancement Roll (he could even use multiple Clutch Situations to get a bigger bonus). This optionally decouples experience awards from combat—now the character can get a bonus for any action that involves sufficient risk. And, appropriately enough, the bonus is proportional to the risk assumed.

Finally, by limiting “risky” rolls to Clutch Situations, I’ve taken care of a few pesky details: (1) it provides a framework for what rolls constitute meaningful risk, (2) it ensures that the player applies some discipline to his acquisition of Advancement Roll bonuses, (3) it offsets the “current level penalty” applied to the Advancement Roll (thus overcoming level limits), and (4) it doesn’t require a lot of bookkeeping.

Qualitative Tweaks

You’ll note that I said “base Advancement Roll bonus” above. You know I’m a sucker for tweaks, right? Let’s talk about the qualitative value of risk.

risk v. reward
I can haz pelican?

This is harder to quantify because different things have different values to different characters at different times. That said, we can make the sensible generalisation that temporary or tangible rewards (money, consumable goods, tactical gains) have less overall impact on experience than permanent or intangible rewards (survival, influential connections, strategic advantage).

If this distinction makes sense in your game, halve the Advancement Roll bonus for temporary rewards (round fractions down, minimum +1), but leave the bonus as-is for permanent rewards. My rational is that short-term gains provide a quick, one-time learning lesson, but long-term gains, having more lasting consequences, provide a longer “learning tail.”

Tying It All Together

Klar the barbarian (Vet 2; AB Athletics +3, Fight +2, Shoot +1, Sneak +2; AdCost 10) has 2 Clutch Situtations (until he reaches 3rd-level). During an adventure, Klar is the “point man” for the party, and he needs to sneak past a pair of orc sentries. The attempt is TN 16, adjusted by Klar’s Sneak +2, for an adjusted TN 14. Klar uses one of his Clutch Situations and rolls 2d20 for results of 8 and 17. He takes the best result (17) for a Normal Success.

Because the action was risky (TN 12 or more) and because Klar used a Clutch Situation,[2] the Advancement Roll bonus is +3 [adjusted TN 14 - 11]. Because this was a tactical gain, the GM rules that the +3 bonus is halved. His Advancement Roll TN equals his AdCost of 10; adjusting for his level (-2) and his bonus (+1), he must roll 11 or better [10 + 2 - 1 = 11].

He makes the Advancement Roll and gets 2 Improvement Points. He opts not to level-up, since he still has 1 unused Clutch Situation (let’s say he improves his WL and Fight by +1 each instead). In the next adventure, Klar has an opportunity to make an ally of an influential priest. This requires a Diplomacy roll against TN 12. It’s definitely risky, because Klar does not have the Diplomacy Ability and therefore suffers a penalty of -4 to the attempt [TN 12 - (-4) = 16]; Klar uses his remaining Clutch Situation.

He rolls 2d20 and comes up with 10 and 4—both short of the mark—but he takes the 4 since it’s a Critical Failure and, while he’s probably insulted the priest hopelessly, he can at least learn something from his mistake. The Advancement Roll bonus is +5 [adjusted TN 16 - 11], which the GM leaves as-is because the attempt was for long-term gain. As before, his Advancement Roll TN equals his AdCost of 10; adjusting for his level (-2) and his bonus (+5), he must roll 7 or better [10 + 2 - 5 = 7].

Final Words

Well, that was crunchy, yeah?

I believe this delivers on the requirements of objective and elegant. Intuitive remains to be seen, as I’m seeing this through the author’s lenses. My only additional comment: this system can be used in conjunction with (or as a substitute for) story-based Advancement Roll bonuses, so you can make it optional without breaking anything.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and feedback. If it makes sense, it’ll be added to the 5th Printing.


  1. Just to keep you up to date, this is how Clutch Situations are defined in the 5th Printing: Heroes tend to come through in a tight spot. You get 1 Clutch Situation per level; each Clutch Situation you use grants 1 additional die on any roll you make, and you may select the best result. You must declare how many Clutch Situations you’re using before a roll is made, and they’re lost once spent, regardless of the roll’s outcome. Clutch Situations renew when you level up; unused Clutch Situations do not carry-over from level to level.
  2. Klar’s player may or may not have known the actual TN (depending on how the GM feels about that sort of thing) but remember that, to be eligible for an Advancement Roll bonus, the action must be TN 12 or more and be made as a Clutch Situation.
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