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.


  1. I like this rule. Would you combine with the 5th ed system so that it just determines the number of dice you roll (Picking the highest/lowest) or would you use it as modifiers (+/-2, +/-4, +/-8). I guess the number of dice required is prohibitive? (does anyone carry 8/16 of each type?)

    Is there a reason that you wouldnt use the "Impossible (+/-16)" in a heroic scale game? Players are idiots they will try and do impossible stuff still.

    1. When you do some probability calculations on the 5th Ed D&D advantage / disadvantage system it turns out it's a effectively a big adjustment to your roll (about +/- 5). However, adding more dice to the pool doesn't give you a linear probability change. For that reason, I wouldn't use more dice, as the probability is difficult to eyeball.

      The adjustments given here are for use after you've set the difficulty of the task in hand for normal circumstances.
      That is, if I've got a proper tool kit, and access to the internet, I can fairly easily build a PC out of parts - so I'll call that difficulty "Average".
      I want to use these adjustments for when circumstances are against me. It's still an average task to build the PC, but now let's imagine I'm under hostile fire, and only equipped with a spoon (a typical RPG situation). Or conversely, I've got a set of good instructions, a dedicated PC-building tool kit and no distractions (a typical PC factory setting).
      I adjust the roll, rather than changing the target number.

      It's a subtle difference, but it helps to keep the difficulty of the task separate from the difficulty of the circumstance.