This is an idea that comes out of the new Marvel RPG I’ve been reading. Basically, when the GM sets the scene, they either have already included one or more scene distinctions that can be used by either side of the encounter – OR the players/villains impose some distinction upon the scene as it plays out.
For example, you may be in a Dark Alley. Because of the environment, the GM includes the Distinction “Dark” which can then be creatively used by either side. Marvel rates these Distinctions on a sliding die scale, so if it was just kind of dim, it might be scaled as: “Dark, d4.” If it was pitch black, maybe that scales up to a d6 or even a d8. When either side uses the Distinction, they get to roll the extra die and add it as a bonus to resolving their action.
Imposing a Distinction works by allowing a character to actually create or add a distinction to a scene. This could work by spending some sort of plot point, or it could work by spending an action, or series of actions, to add the Distinction. For example, the villains might be trying to escape a bank robbery, and one of them sets fire to the place as a distraction. This might impose a Distinction: On Fire, d4 to the scene. This kind of Distinction might optionally grow or shrink as time went on, or additional actions might be taken to change it as well (such as putting out the fire, or fanning the flames).
I like the idea of using a completely separate die for this, as it gives the scene something tangible to interact with. Marvel recommends placing the die on a post-it to remind everyone it’s there. The main question with this is how to balance this out so that everyone isn’t playing scattegories and trying to bullshit their way into bonuses that don’t make sense on every turn or with every action – turning the game into a constant argument between players and GM. Maybe it takes a plot point to allow you to roll the distinction die for your action, or maybe it can only be used by one character per round. I’m not overly fond of these ideas as they break immersion a bit on the game, and one of my main design goals is to avoid disassociated mechanics.
Scene Distinctions are basically a formal codification (or a Thingification) of something GMs have been using forever: situation bonuses. I like this though because it removes a little bit of the arbitrary judgement and actively encourages player interaction with the mechanic because the die is just sitting there begging to be rolled! Also, because you’re rolling another die, it’s not a static bonus that gets lost in a sea of other static bonuses. You clearly see the impact of the scene’s environment physically in front of you.