Exploring Skill Checks and the New DCs (Part 1)

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on November 22, 2010

Recently our friends at Wizards of the Coast updated the skill check DCs… again, and I admit that I did shake my head when I heard this. Shortly thereafter there was a disagreement at my gaming table about why these changes were made. After a lively discussion I realized that there are fundamental questions about what a skill check actually is that needed to be addressed before you can make use of these newly minted numbers.

What is a skill check? On the most basic level it is a die roll where you add your character’s relevant aptitude and circumstance as expressed as a number. The result is an abstraction about how skilled your character is or how fortunate they are in the circumstances. There are two distinct types of skill checks that you can make – opposed skill checks and skill checks against a set DC.

Opposed skill checks are when some other factor is trying to actively surpass your skill. For example, someone is trying to swim faster than you are. Skill checks against a DC are used when your character is trying to accomplish a given task. The DC represents the task’s difficulty with the DM making adjustments due to favourable or unfavourable circumstances. Examples of tasks with set DCs include holding your breath each minute, chopping down a tree over the course of an hour, or remembering a name quickly. Notice the constraints of time are normally a factor as a short duration over which the check takes place adds greater strain on a would-be hero.

Some might argue for a third type of skill check – a skill checks where the DC for the task is set and stable, regardless of the PCs level or other circumstance. For example, you always need the same DC Athletics check to jump across a 10-foot wide pit. However, I’d argue that such static and unbending skill checks are a myth. There is not one circumstance where your character will not be interacting with some environmental force or the clock. The amount resistance the environment applies to your character may be irrelevant to the concerns of your gamming group but mechanically speaking it is still present. Because most people play D&D to slay giants and learn the secrets of the multiversity we neglect to monitor our character’s bodily functions until they become relevant in Skill Challenge: Survive Nerve Gassing.

Now that I have skill checks stated simply, I ask: “Why are you making a skill check?” In order to make the skill roll meaningful you need to establish what your character is attempting to accomplish. This depends very much upon the circumstances. They determine which types of checks are required, and which skills actually come into play. Having determined this, we arrive at our skill challenge.

In this example our hero, Conscore McSwordy, is submerged underwater. He’s just escaped from the town jail and is trying to swim faster than the pursuing Bailiff. While swimming, Conscore has to hold his breath, find an escape route and avoid the Bailiff.

In this example would you as the DM require Conscore to make an Athletics check to swim? Why? What are you trying to accomplish in doing so? Are you trying to create a highly tactical game where every skill point counts and as such your try to validate or punish the characters builds? Personally, I like a good story. For me D&D isn’t just about using the game mechanics as a means to realize the physical laws of a pretend universe. I want to see Conscore fight the Bailiff underwater because that would be a cool encounter.

If I want the fight to happen can’t I just force my player into it? What’s stopping me for just saying that the Bailiff catches him? There are valid story reasons (since those are what I claim to be interested in) to make support my decision. For example, Conscore is trying to swim while wearing chain mail, the idiot, and at my table if you try to swim in metal armor I more or less have you start making death saving throws.

Let’s say I make this call and the player protests. He thinks that Conscore McSwordy is a great swimmer, and that he can certainly out swim the fat, out-of-shape Bailiff if only I would give him the chance. In the spirit of the say yes rule, I allow the check. However, I apply a -5 to Conscore’s final result for wearing chainmail (house rule). In the end Conscore can’t out-pace the Bailiff and eventually the Bailiff catches him. We have a failed skill check. What does this mean?

To understand what the failed check means we have to go back and understand why the check was made in the first place. Initially I wasn’t going to have the skill check at all but because my player felt that the skill check was the expression of the character-that-they-built’s ability to out perform another I allowed the check. To this player the mechanics of the game are the realization of their character concept and as such must be honoured. We had different ideas about what the narrative ought to end up like and so we threw dice.

Does this skill check deserve a mechanical resolution? If I had had my way from the onset there would have been a simple narrative explanation for the course of actions but now I say, the Bailiff catches up to you and begins to attack Concscore, trying to strangle him under water.

Once again my player protests; he claims that while Concscore may have failed the check compared to the Bailiff, the Bailiff’s result is of no consequence because the swim rules dictate that a DC 15 skill check is required to swim at half the character’s speed. Since Concscore and the Bailiff have the same base movement and neither of them have a swim speed, the Bailiff can roll whatever he wants and he’s still never going to catch Mr. McSwordy.

Is this the kind of game I want to run? Is it more important for me to tell a cool story or is it more important for me to appease my rules-oriented player? Is this player even at the right table? Depending on my leniency and my player’s persistence, my game could end up on the grid at all times and in initiative order to determine who gets to speak first and wither or not one character could hear the other from across the room. We’d end up with scenarios where on character says he wants to walk to the park and I have to ask if he’s going to double move because he’s exactly 92 squares away from the park’s front gate.

Although I’m only half way though my exploration, what are your thoughts on the various kinds of skill checks? Would you rather let the narrative drive the scenario or do you want actual skill checks to drive everything? Where do you draw the line at your gaming table?

Visit Dungeon’s Master tomorrow for Exploring Skill Checks and the New DCs (Part 2). Check out The Shattered Sea actual play podcast and listen to how I run skill checks and skill challenges using the methodology I’ve described above.

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1 Franco November 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm

A DM should never be arbitrary when it comes to the fates of characters – or rather, should never appear arbitrary.

A player’s at your table because they want to tell a story, yes. But they have a character sheet because they want their story to be based around on what they choose to do. If you arbitrarily decide that the bailiff has caught the fighter, why does the fighter have a character sheet – why does he have skills?

Don’t get me wrong – I love fourth edition because it allows me to tell high fantasy adventure stories. It allows my players to be powerful heroes and tell stories /with/ me. If a player decides he wants his story to involve his fighter having the strength to cut a path through the water despite wearing chainmaille, then that’s his choice, surely.

You can claim that he’s at the wrong table of course. But I think it’s always best policy to meet players half way and only when they flat out refuse to maybe start to throw a little more weight around. But never appear arbitrary (with an aim to never actually be arbitrary).

To illustrate using your example – the fighter succeeds at keeping pace away from the bailiff. But that armour is heavy, shouldn’t he start taking endurance checks? Perhaps increasingly difficult ones. Each time he passes he gets closer to shore, and the unfit bailiff a little more weary.
If the player now demands I stick to the “rules as written”, then yeah, we might have a problem.

I love storytelling and have never been able to stick to rule-heavy systems. But while the story should come first, it should A) be everyone’s story and B) The simple framework of 4e should be paid lip service (at least!).

2 Lahrs November 22, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I believe the problem stems from expectations between you and the player and how you both envision the game to be. Now, whether that means he is at the wrong table is between you two, but I have to side with the player on this one, but based on this one example, I do not believe it is a table breaker. Every table has disagreements from time to time.

My group understands that when I DM, story trumps rules, and fortunately they accept what I am doing. But just because story trumps rules overall, doesn’t mean it trumps rules every time or that becomes too much of a railroad. If a player wants to let the dice and rulebooks do the talking, sometimes it is better to just say yes. If something is integral to the story, you can always bring it back later (the bailiff eventually catches the guy on land or something).

I agree, an underwater battle would have been different and very cool, but a player asked to let the dice do the talking and it is hard to justify forcing, or strongly suggesting a cool encounter should trump the die roll.

As far as tactical gaming, I use skill challenges a lot, but I do not consider it making a highly tactical game. If the player knew how to swim, I would have just stated he made it without a roll, unless it was A) a long distance, in which case an endurance check would come up, or B) heavy armor, which again, would force an endurance check. Since the bailiff was very out of shape, he should be held to the same check, and I would even throw in the -5 the player received to punish the guy for not using a stairmaster between meals.

I do need to listen to the podcast, which I probably should have done before posting, because I am sure I would get a better feel of the context of the situation, but based on what was given, the player should have made a heroic escape, which is a pretty good story element as well.

3 Charisma November 22, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Using your example, you were attempting to force a player into a situation that stats and dice are specifically there to mitigate. He could have statted his character out to be the best swimmer, and yet you’re trying to deny him the chance to swim away? What if he was statted to be the best swimmer, and was also was the weakest fighter ever? You are saying that arbitrarily placing him in combat would be a good story idea?

For that matter, you could have an NPC opponent simply “get away” to avoid a fight with the party’s best combatant, thereby nullifying that player character. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Also, in the case of comparing the base speeds of the two swimmers – you said that the bailiff could never catch the PC. Well, this is completely wrong. Skill challenges were thought up exactly for this reason. Two combatants can be of equal combat skill, yet a “combat challenge” is used to determine the winner. The same is true of swimmers – Use a Swim Challenge.

4 Bauxtehude November 22, 2010 at 4:44 pm

@ All: the example of the swim meet was a hypothetical one to demonstrate a continuum of possible rulings between narrative driven a game mechanics realizing. You won’t gain much by disagreeing with a DMing choice that was never made… this article is about the reasons for making use of skill checks and why, not about picking apart the unimportant details of absinthe paragraph…

@Franco: I am not sure how to take your comment, as you are either claiming to have knowledge about my players that you couldn’t possibly have, or see above. If you want me to weigh in and say if I think the way that the swimming contest was adjudicated by (who has become as such in the discussion following the article) hypotheical Bauxtehude, I am afraid that I cannot as the example wasn’t robust enough to be scrutinized as such. Again, see “@ all: …”

5 Alton November 22, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I am hesitant to comment because I haven’t read the second article, but there is a lot going on.

1) You’ve got your opposed checks: grappling etc… No one can argue this one. It is straight forward.

2) The second point I am a little lost on: Are we talking set DC’s for Skill Checks or set DC’s for stuff like climbing and jumping and Acrobatics etc…

a. If it is the latter then it should be no problem. These skills are listed in the Players Handbook and should be treated as the rules. For example, a Rogue jumps from 30 ft. up trying desperately to get away from the Ettin. The Rogue should be able to roll his Acrobatics to negate some of the damage. Now not all people would agree that these players should be able to just roll and get away with the most unbelievable stuff. I am one of them. Most times I will let them. C’mon they are adventurers, a cut above the rest of the peasants, and should be treated accordingly. Instead as mentioned in the article: “you always need the same DC Athletics check to jump across a 10-foot wide pit. However, I’d argue that such static and unbending skill checks are a myth. There is not one circumstance where your character will not be interacting with some environmental force or the clock.”
As a DM it is my job to flavour the encounters sometimes. What players should normally be able to do very easily, should be challenged once and awhile. In the encounter, icy terrain would add +5 or +10 to the check to make that 30ft jump. It is the DM that should change the environment to suit the rules oriented player. What I mean is…let them roll all they want. You know you have a player at the table like that, and then there should be things ready to spice up even the best skill check. That is where the flavour should be added.In your example with the bailiff, I agree that the story should be number one, but I would never railroad my players like you did in that example (I know it was an example). I would have instead let the player roll his endurance check and athletics and whatever else he wanted to roll so he can get away from the bailiff. As he was rolling his checks I would have then, made the character perceive out of the corner of his eye, the bailiffs assistants running to where they think the character will come out of the water. Hmmm, will the character turn and face the bailiff or come out of the water totally spent from the swim in chainmail armour and accept a -2 penalty to attack rolls for the ensuing encounter.

b. Skill challenges are set DC’s no matter how you look at it. Now, if you wanted some story to it is to let the players know you are looking for explanations on what they are doing during their turn of the skill challenge. As a DM if you are not satisfied with what they are about to do, then you can impose a -2 or -5 to the players roll. No one has to know, they either pass or fail and that is all you have to say.

A DM should never, IMO, ever force the players to do what the DM wants! If teaching has taught me anything, all players are different, some have imagination and are natural storytellers, and some love to follow the rules to a tee. A DM has to satisfy all around the table, no matter what genre of person you are playing with. We play to have fun and there are always ways to flavour the encounters no matter what shows up.

So far so good. I cannot wait to read the second part.

6 Franco November 22, 2010 at 8:21 pm

@Bauxtehude: You’ve misunderstood and I’ve misunderstood too. I was treating your example as a hypothetical one, generalising along with the scenario set in terms of what players ‘at your table’ – that is to say, people playing with any given DM. I didn’t mean to have presumptions on your group or you at all, merely the attitudes in your example.

And while you are talking more about how and when skill checks should be used, my mistake was going off on a tangent about how arbitration relates to storytelling. Sorry!

7 Bauxtehude November 23, 2010 at 1:01 am

@ Franco: I understand where you’re coming from, even if we seem to have had a misunderstanding. One issue that comes up endlessly, and is largely the subject of this article, is that of interpritation. If you’re a DM you’re a story teller, and it seems that the little story hooks I have including in the article as examples are what people with that mind set want to run with.

It makes me smile that the throw away comment I made about the bailiff being fat got picked up and mentioned so many times in peoples comments. To be honest when I wrote that I had one of my players in mind who is a RP lawyer. To him there isn’t any rules interpritation that cannot be overridden by some small detail about a NPC of a location that I made in passing, often without even knowning. But I guess because we’re DMs we pick up on these things.

@ Alton: When I DM in my own campaign setting I try to set the tone for the world and then just set my players loose and ajudicate as infrequently as I can mannage and instead just fill them in with the descriptive details they need to keep interacting.

While there are rules that address how each of the skills ought to be handeled and what they can be used for, you will never play in a game where there are no house rules (for reasons you can be gad about) and DMs will call for checks at times and places that other DMs would never. The thing to do is ask yourself how the way you ask for skill checks changes the game. This I get into a little more in the next part of the article, but…

For example… I might decide that I want all my players to preroll 40 d20 rolls before they come because I want everything to be fast paced. They know what the next result is going to be and can plan accordingly and I might be ok with that. Some players may try to imbrace this as a character choice, and make physic characters or some other such nonsense. To save more time I might half the whole party’s hit points and double all the monster damage (and vice versa) so that combat is lightning fast and the party is always living on the razors edge.

8 Kenneth McNay November 23, 2010 at 4:39 am

I do generally favor story; however, in consideration of opposed skill checks, I’d explain that this is not the careful grid of a 6-10 second round from a combat encounter. I’d say that the use of skill checks to represent the escape is an abstraction to represent a portion of the distance swam and the relative success of each swim check that might have been involved.

Were the swim only three squares of movement from shore to shore, the skill check would be rather trivial. But the suggestion that it is opposed indicates that it is not being opposed by the water or the heavy armor. It is being opposed by another individual with a skill set and mechanics that represent those skills. In many skill checks the PC needs only to succeed, but in opposed skill checks, even the degree of success or failure can be used to tell the story.

I’d have had the character making athletics checks to swim; each check would need to be passed successfully. They would also have to be making opposed endurance and athletics checks to indicate that their personal fitness level was contributing to their success to a greater degree than the following bailiff. The NPC would still need to successfully swim, but his opposed athletics and endurance checks woudl indicate his level of personal fitness being pitted against the PC.

Consider if the circumstance occured without water to create a swim check. The mechanics of running is already quite simple. The game assumes that a character having the knowledge and ability to walk also shares the ability and knowledge to run. Does that mean that a dwarf or gnome could never attain the fleetness of humans or elves even? The foot race between such different races would have to include more than just the ability to move over the distance, but also the contributing factors of athleticism and endurance.

Even if the character expects to play the rules as written, there is not a written rule denying the DM from calling for and adjudicating opposed skill checks. The ever present DCs of swimming, climbing, jumping and holding one’s breath underwater are fine, but they do not rule over opposed checks. The character could be successful at swimming and holding their breath, but still lack the personal fitness to overcome the fitness level of the bailiff. This is because the opposed check must be adjudicated by the DM–even if the DM has a particular plot device in mind.

9 Acheron November 23, 2010 at 9:38 am

Very good article, I would vote on story telling as strongest factor, I do enjoy an underwater fight as more cool, anyway good arguments on the matter, will wait for the second article before developing further, nice article man, very good explanation of the skills will re read in the hopes of good explanation of them for the new players that wind brings to the table.


10 Philo Pharynx November 23, 2010 at 2:03 pm

In regards to DC’s. I tend to know what the skill levels of my players are. I look at the problem in terms of complications to the plot and challenging them. If a player builds up a skill to ungodly levels, they get a free pass on most things without a roll. They are the Einsteins, the Favres, the Kennedys of their individual expertises. Every once in a while I’ll put in really difficult checks to make sure that thier expertise is rewarded. “You knew the menu for the last meal before the Army of the Lion invaded Squirentia?”
On the other end are challenges that everybody has to perform. Often these are physical or social. Endurance, athletics, diplomacy. Experts will pass them automatically, but I’m challenging the people who aren’t good at this. Sometimes I’ll let the experts aid the less proficient to challenge them both.

11 anarkeith November 23, 2010 at 2:29 pm

My initial reaction was to remind the DM that the story really belongs to the players. However, I am a storyteller DM, with a vested interest in the direction of the story myself. The skill challenge represents a mechanic to resolve this potential fight for storytelling control.

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