Keeping it Simple - Bonuses and Penalties

Specific lists restrict creativity

Lots of games seem to fall into the trap of giving you lists and lists of specific adjustments to apply to die rolls in your game.
I'm calling this a "trap", because if you specify a set of adjustments, then you are strongly suggesting and promoting the idea that only those adjustments are correct.
Yes, you may state that the GM can invent their own adjustments, but unless you put that text alongside every instance of specified adjustment, players will end up treating it like a mandatory list of unassailable law.
Games also have a habit of having lots of levels of adjustment, from lots of sources. The d20 OGL games have a myriad of +1s, +2s, -1s, -4s, +5s and so on. There's a lot of maths to juggle, and in the excitement of an action scene, who wants to be fiddling with mental arithmetic?*

OGL d20 games also have rules on which adjustments are allowed to "stack" - that is, what can and can't add together. Usually (but not always), the same type of bonus cannot stack - but there are lots of types of bonus (circumstance bonus, equipment bonus, morale bonus, etc., etc.), and they don't always follow the rule you might expect - so you have to go look them up.
D&D Next, or 5th Ed, call it what you like, has a neat way of overcoming this maths issue, with the "Advantage / Disadvantage" rule: when circumstances give you better or worse conditions, roll 2 dice, and take the best (advantage) or worst (disadvantage) result.
Unfortunately, as neat as this rue is, it applies in a list of specified case again, resulting in a perceived lack of freedom to wing it.

Broader guidelines promote freedom

Broader guidelines on adjustments allow freedom and creativity. If you give the players and GM a list of a few adjustments that can be made, then they can apply them how they see fit.
If the players are trying to get an advantage, they'll tell the GM how they want to do it, instead of looking up a rule that tells them how they must do it.
Instead of checking through the combat rules to see if there's a bonus for higher ground or charging or whatever, you'll feel free enough to declare that your character's swinging in the rigging and jumping on her enemy like a proper swashbuckling hero!

My "fix"

Let's have just three levels of adjustment: Minor, Major and Extreme. This lets us have bonuses or penalties of just three types, positive or negative. Giving them simple descriptive names lets you make value judgements about them, too.
  • Minor = 2, Major = 4, Extreme = 8
Can we stack the adjustments?
Yes - but to avoid run-away adjustments, here's the only bit of complexity I'm going to add: you need 2 of the lower adjustment to add up to make one of the higher adjustment.
That is, 2 Minor = Major, and 2 Major = Extreme.
In this way, adding a Minor adjustment has no effect on a Major adjustment (unless you add 2 Minors, which add together to make a Major).
And to keep our adjustments from getting too high, I'll say that Extreme is as high as they ever go. If you've ever lucky enough to have 2 Extreme bonuses, then the GM should just rule that you succeed, rather than making you roll.

Will it work?

For games with a gritty or heroic scale of characters (Conan, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction and the like), this sort of thing will work fine. If you need more extreme adjustments (such as in a superhero game, modelling both Superman and Lois Lane), then you'll need to allow them - maybe add an Impossible adjustment level beyond Extreme?
I'll see how we get on with this ruling, and post my findings!

* Yes, some people like maths. Not everyone does.


Keeping It Simple - DCs

Lots of games, especially D&D (all editions - some worst than others), suffer from target numbers or difficulty classes ("DC"s) that are opaque, presented once as a special case, with no explanation as to where the number comes from.

On the other hand, there are plenty of games that give you a set of numbers up front as a basis to let you (the GM or the players) eye-ball the numbers and set your own DCs accordingly - R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020, for one (I think it was the first game I played that used the idea).

How do we set these difficulty-based target numbers?
Decide what difficulty types you want - they should be clear and memorable, and not too many. There should be no doubt which is harder and which is easier.
I'm going with:

  • Easy (little chance of failure), 
  • Average (trained people usually succeed, but may fail), 
  • Hard (trained people need a few attempts to succeed), 
  • Heroic (little chance of success), and ...
  • Epic (even elite trained people usually fail).

Now we need to look at the numbers we should assign to these.
"Easy" should be at least a 50% chance of success even to untrained and untalented characters - so in the d20 system, that's a 10 (you can beat a 10 on an unmodified 1d20 roll 50% of the time).
"Average" should be about a 50% chance for someone with innate talent, or training. In d20 games, a starting character can have a maximum skill bonus of +4, plus their ability score bonus (again, a maximum of +4, but those sort of scores are relatively rare).  So we can set the Average task number at 15, because you need to roll an 11 if you have a bonus of +4, which is what we expect an unexceptional starting character to have.
"Hard" should require talent and skill, and maybe a little more experience. The starting character's maximum ability + skill bonus of +8 can be boosted by Feats like Skill Focus, or by proper tools - so we can set this target number as 20.
However, so far, each of these difficulties can all be beaten by someone with no training, if they're lucky - i.e., they get a high roll. Even an average unskilled person can achieve a hard task sometimes - it'll just take more tries.

"Heroic" and "Epic" tasks are out of the reach of the untalented and untrained.
Let's set "Heroic" at 25 - to beat this, you'll need to roll high, and have a big bonus. That maximum starting character bonus of +8 we looked at a moment ago will need to be boosted with experience or other bonuses to get to the point where Heroic tasks are routine. To have a 50% chance of beating a 25, you'll need a +15 bonus - requiring Feats, experience levels or special tools to reach.
"Epic" needs to be harder, but not out of reach of higher level characters. Let's set it at 30 - that way, Epic tasks won't become routine until you've acquired a +20 bonus.

I've picked increments of 5 for each of the difficulties. Nice and easy to remember, and supported by the game's mechanics: a +5 bonus is normal for a starting character's speciality, and it can be expected to increase by an average of 2 points per level.

  • Easy 10
  • Average 15
  • Hard 20
  • Heroic 25
  • Epic 30

With these numbers set, instead of having to look up the skill, you just have to agree the class of difficulty.


Of course, it isn't perfect - it needs some tweaks to make it work universally. I'll look at solutions to these in future posts, but first, I'll state what the problems are.

Fixed difficulties can make it hard to model tasks that require advanced training.
For example, if someone wants to open a lock, the GM might think "This is just an ordinary door in a house - the lock is nothing special. I'll make it an average task, 'cause the lock is just an average object." However, this would mean that an untrained person with a decent Dexterity could open the lock with a few tries - not very realistic.
D&D and many other d20 games deal with this by saying that some skills cannot be used untrained - if you've not invested your skill points in the skill, you just can't do it. Me, I don't like that so much, as it adds another level of look-up: which skills are prohibited to untrained characters? It's not always intuitive.

Fixed difficulties don't account for circumstances.
If you're trying to break that lock by torchlight, with a kitchen knife and a bent nail, while the rest of your team are fighting a rear-guard action at your back, it's harder than if your were doing it on your table at home under a bright lamp.
This is simple enough to fix - we can make a system of bonuses and penalties to apply. But again, we need to keep it simple!


Keep It Simple, Stupid!

I like my games to be simple, so I can concentrate on the play. I don't like having tables and table of things to look up.
I like games that have a neat core mechanic, and stick with it so that everything runs off one easy to learn rule. I don't like special exemptions.
I want to be able to run or play a game with only my notes or the character sheet in front of me, never needing to dig through the rule book.

I've been playing around with my own d20 hack system for a while now. I'd become very familiar with the Open Game Licence d20 systems through playing D&D 3.x, Pathfinder, d20 Modern, and all the rest - so a d20 hack seemed like the way to go. It's been great, very enjoyable ... but I've been weighed down by a lot of legacy issues from the original system.
OGL d20 comes close to having one core mechanic, but then it produces lots of special cases. The character class system, the feats, the skills - there are far too many special abilities, specified DCs, and so on: too much stuff to look up.

So - I've been thinking about how to get rid of look ups. Using d20 as a base to work from (partly because it's where I'm starting from with my own hack, but also because it's OGL and we can all look at it for reference), I'm going to present alternative methods and examine them to see how they stand up.
At the end of this process - or at least after several iterations of the process - I may have a plan of cuts and adjustments to make that'll turn my d20 hack into a system that really stands up by itself. Or I may just have a set of house rules to bolt onto the rules as written. Either way, I'll be happy.