Design Insights: Static Bonuses

Intro

This will be a new series I’ll post periodically. The base intention here is to discuss concepts relevant to designing 3rd party content for D&D 5e. I will naturally be focusing on topics relevant to the majority of what I make, which is player-oriented content (classes, subclasses, spells, etc). I’ve discussed DM-relevant things like dungeon design before, but for the most part I won’t be touching on things like campaign books, setting guides or any of that.

The other purpose for this series is, put plainly, to widen the possibilities of what we can create within 5e. There is by now a great deal of wisdom on how to make good homebrew content, but that’s achieved by following certain rules and guidelines. With this series I’m looking to examine those guidelines so that we can better understand why they exist, and by extension when and how we can go against them.

Each of these will focus on some aspect of design. Here’s the first one we’re going to tackle:

Using Static Bonuses

Go into any homebrew community and post a non-item brew that gives a +1 bonus to something (like a subclass ability that gives a +1 to saving throws). You will get eaten alive. Why is this? Well, you’ll be told it’s because ‘Static bonuses break Bounded Accuracy’, or sometimes the more general ‘5e doesn’t use really static bonuses’.

Let’s unpack these. I need to start with the second one first, because it’s the one that’s technically correct but not a reason to not use static bonuses.

Why Doesn’t 5e Use Static Bonuses?

Well first of all we need to dispel a bit of a myth here. 5e does use static bonuses. It uses them a whole lot actually. Certainly not as much as older editions, but still plenty often. They’re just not in the places people are used to. In older editions – 3.5, mostly – it was quite common for a feature to give you a flat bonus (like a +1 or +2) to a certain ability. 5e Doesn’t do that. Instead you’ll get a bonus equal to your Charisma modifier (Paladin Auras), or you’ll get to roll a dice and gain the result as a bonus (Bardic Inspiration).

But 5e does still use static bonuses. The AC boost from a shield is a static bonus, cover gives a static bonus (+2 for lesser, +5 for greater), there are even player options that give +1 bonuses (Forge Domain Cleric). They’re rare, but they do exist.

It’s often mistaken that 5e doesn’t use static bonuses because of Bounded Accuracy. This is why that other protest is often given (‘Static bonuses break bounded accuracy’). The reality is this isn’t true, but we’ll unpack that in a second. The reason 5e doesn’t use (many) static bonuses is because they’re very ‘math-y’ and 5e’s designers didn’t want it to be as math-y as old systems were.

In 3.5 you’d roll a dice and then have as many as 4-5 different bonuses and modifiers to account for (both additive and subtractive). This was messy and slow. As fun as it was to stack a huge bonus on a single roll, it was also tedious. It was also a barrier to entry, as to really be good at the game you had to not only be good enough at adding these things up on the fly you also had to really understand the underlying math of the system in order to create effective characters (this leaned into ‘Ivory Tower Design’ too).

5e stripped that out, and is definitely better off for it. You’ll have the occasional roll where you’re jacked to the tits, rolling with advantage plus Elven Accuracy plus a +2 weapon plus guidance plus Peace Domain Channel Divinity, and so on. Even though most of those are floating bonuses it’s still very math-y to add that all together (and arguably slower than before because of all the extra dice rolls). It’s rare though, and that makes it special and fun.

Do Static Bonuses Break Bounded Accuracy?

At this point it should be obvious that the answer is no. If static bonuses broke it then floating bonuses would too and features like Bardic Inspiration wouldn’t exist. If anything, Bardic Inspiration is more likely to break Bounded Accuracy because it could swing as  high as a +6 at low levels. Strictly speaking it kind of does break Bounded Accuracy, but it’s limited in its use so it’s not an issue. That design space exists within the Bounded Accuracy system.

Let’s look at what sorts of static bonuses exist already. We have Shields and Cover (as previously discussed), which both increase Armour Class, Fighting Styles like Archery that alter your attack modifier, and feats like Sharpshooter which similarly alters your attack modifier. These all very directly interact with Bounded Accuracy, but a character putting on a shield doesn’t break Bounded Accuracy at all. Advantage works out to a little over a +3 bonus on average (about +3.3 in fact) and it doesn’t seem to break Bounded Accuracy either.

That’s because at its core ‘Bounded Accuracy’ just means AC and to-hit modifiers don’t scale inherently with level. They scale of other things that are tied to your level (proficiency bonus), but it’s not 1:1. Bounded Accuracy is just a system that creates a limited spread of numbers so that something low-level still has a reasonable chance of hitting something high-level. This cuts both ways, as the mob of goblins have a reasonable chance of hitting a level 15 character just as much as a level 3 character has a reasonable chance of hitting an elder dragon.

It’s actually for the first of those two examples that Bounded Accuracy exists to begin with. It helps keep lower-level monsters relevant even at higher levels of play.

Bounded Accuracy is a concept, not a rigid mathematical system. There’s no Holy Formula that underpins all of 5e’s design that causes the whole game to unravel if tampered with. We can use bonuses, which means we can use Static Bonuses.

How Can We Use Static Bonuses Then?

So now that we’ve given ourselves permission to use static bonuses, how can we and can’t we use them? Well, there’s important concepts to preserve from some of the examples of floating bonuses we used earlier.

Keep Them Limited

An always-on +1 bonus is already a significant boost. Bardic Inspiration giving a potential +6 is fine because you’ll get that exactly once. Features that let you give yourself advantage (again, roughly a +3) are usually limited to a finite amount of uses per long rest, and this amount is often also a floating number such as your Charisma modifier.

So if we’re using a static bonus we need to first decide how big we want it to be, which should itself be informed by how impactful we want it to be. If we want big impact, a +3 is sufficient, and the number of uses should be limited accordingly. This ‘limited accordingly’ part is a little harder to lock down, as not all rolls are made equal in 5e. Attack rolls are something we do all the time and their impact is high, so if we’re getting a +3 bonus to attack rolls then the number of uses should be extremely limited. History checks are barely used, so getting a +3 to History checks can have far more uses (to the point where it could even be an ‘always on’ feature).

Keep Them Low

This is really a different flavour of ‘Keep them limited’, as the other way to limit a bonus is to limit its range rather than limit its uses.

I have a class I’m working on. I want it to feel like an old-school Bard (which used to give ongoing passive buffs, often in the form of static bonuses). I’ve kept almost all these bonuses down to just a +1. Some of the buffs are higher, but they’re affecting less common or less important rolls (which we explored just earlier in the section above).

Understand Your Budget

A static bonus is still a big deal. If we’re giving one out we should be aware that the more consistent we make it the more powerful it is. This seems obvious, but it has other implications. When we design something like a class we have an overall ‘Power Budget’ that we’re spending from. I’ll do a piece that goes more into Power Budgets later.

The class I’m working on has an ability that allows it to give all allies a +1 bonus to their Armour Class. This is huge. It’s like what the Forge Domain Cleric can do but on steroids. The difference is it’s not built on a Cleric chassis. I’ve spent a lot of the class’ power budget on this ability (and the suite of features it is a part of), which means its other abilities are far more limited.

Understand How Bonuses Stack

This is, unfortunately, something 5e has done a poor job of. Bonuses do stack in 5e, but only if they don’t come from the same source. What this means is if you get a +1 bonus from a spell and a +2 bonus another instance of the same spell, instead of stacking them to make a +3 you just take the higher of the two (the +2 bonus). Similarly you can’t have two of the same item to gain double the overall bonus. If you get a +1 bonus from a spell and a +3 bonus from a weapon then they do stack to give you a +4.

The reason this is important to note is if we take our class feature from above and look at how it stacks we get some interesting results.

It’s not a spell, it’s not an item, it’s not a single roll. It’s from an ability. A character could wear magical armour, strap on a shield, cast Shield of Faith on itself, hide behind cover and receive this +1 bonus. All would stack.

So because the +1 from my class feature stacks on top of a whole bunch of other potential buffs it has to be limited accordingly, and I’ve also spent more Power Budget than if it didn’t stack with spells. If it interacted with something that can’t have much stacked on to it (like, say, Insight checks), then the number could afford to be a little bigger.

For what it’s worth, if you’re designing content I’d take a look at how Pathfinder 2e does bonuses. There are only 3 kinds you can ever get: Circumstance, Status, Item. You can stack bonuses of multiple types, but two bonuses of the same type will not stack and you will instead take the larger. For example, if you have a +1 Circumstance bonus from a class ability, a +2 Circumstance bonus from someone else’s ability, a +1 Status bonus from a spell and a +1 Item bonus from a magical sword, your net bonus will be +4.

This is almost what 5e has managed to do, but ‘Bonuses from features’ are not a category, so if we took the above example and transposed it to 5e those two class features would stack and we’d get a +5 as our result. Pathfinder 2e will describe all bonuses in these terms. A class feature will literally say ‘You gain a +2 Circumstance bonus to attack rolls’. 5e wanted to avoid Keyword-oriented design like this, and this is one of the areas where that has hurt them in my opinion.

But I digress…

When Shouldn’t We Use Static Bonuses?

So now that we’ve explored the ways in which we can use Static Bonuses and established why they are in fact ok to use we need to discuss the other side. Just because we can use them doesn’t mean we should, and we should be careful how we use them.

We should still endeavour to not make 5e too math-y. The system is built on that idea, and that means it’s what the playerbase is used to. If we want to make something with broad appeal that feels like it fits well with 5e then we should keep those design principles in mind. We can push the envelope a bit, but we should definitely not tear right through it.

We should also remember that due to the way bonuses stack in 5e if we introduce too many then we will in fact break Bounded Accuracy. If we release a class that is able to self-create, say, an always-on +3 to attacks plus advantage in many situations then we would have something that is going to hit enemies far too often.

We can employ tactics to avoid this by, essentially, describing these bonuses in ways that make it clear they do not stack, or by designing limitations that make them mutually exclusive with one-another. This is something we will be doing because we are aware of how these bonuses can stack, and by extension be aware of where and when we should limit them or avoid their use.

There’s also a fundamental principle in 5e’s design that we haven’t discussed yet that ties into why the system generally avoids Static Bonuses. Rolling dice is fun. Having advantage and getting to roll two dice is a lot more satisfying than just getting a +3 bonus. Using Bardic Inspiration and having that chance at a huge +6 boost is tense and fun. Rolling dice is really cool.

So if we want something that feels explosively powerful or has very noticeable impact we should avoid Static Bonuses and go with something that gives an extra dice roll (or similar). If we want something subtly powerful then Static Bonuses are a great way to achieve that. And some people do want to play things that are subtly powerful! It’s exactly why I designed the Oracle, and is similarly why I’m designing this new class.

5e wanted to avoid ‘subtly powerful’ because on the whole it only has niche appeal. We’re not 5e’s designers though. We’re not bound by that same requirement. We’re catering to a different audience.

When we’re making 3rd-party content we’re inherently creating for people looking for something more than what 5e does at its core, which means we should be looking beyond what’s already in 5e. If we refuse to do anything that breaks convention then we’re not utilising potential design space.

Conclusion

Static Bonuses are a hairy issue, and even if you point people towards this article when they decry your homebrew that includes a static bonus you’ll probably not change many minds. Remember these two things though:

 – You’re not designing for the people giving you feedback, you’re designing for the people who will play with your homebrew.

 – There is no qualification you have to have before you can give feedback on homebrew.

This doesn’t mean ‘ignore all feedback’, but after reading this article you now know more than what someone who says ‘Don’t use Static Bonuses’ knows about designing for 5e. Trust in your own understanding and assess the numbers through practice and playtesting rather than at-a-glance feedback.

Thanks for reading.

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