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.