Exploring Skill Checks and the New DCs (Part 2)

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on November 23, 2010

Since the launch of 4e D&D, Wizards of the Coast has given us three different charts to measure the DC for skill checks. Clearly they’ve recognized that the DCs were off and they’re trying to find a more suitable model. Rather than wait for them to get it right I decided form the beginning that I was going to tweak the numbers as I felt was appropriate for my game. Following the DCs set out in any of the iterations of the skill DC chart just seemed to arbitrary given most circumstances.

In Exploring Skill Checks and the New DCs (Part 1) I explored the idea of when to actually use skill checks and when to let the narrative drive the story. In part 2 we’ll look at the actual numbers that determine success or failure and how to derive them.

The new DC scale a lot more drastically than those originally printed in the DMG of those in the update (errata). DCs listed in the revised chart now depend on the character’s exact level and not just a range. I see two likely reasons for this approach. The first reason is that there are tasks that a character finds challenging regardless of their capacity as an adventurer (i.e., current level). These would be tasks that get harder as the character gains more experience. The second reason is to provide a guideline or a starting point for determining the appropriate DC for a given task. In this case tasks that are the same DC regardless of who’s attempting to accomplish them.

Let’s look at an example of the first kind of DC described above and see if it holds water. Continuing with the example from Part 1, Conscore McSwordy is trying to escape his captor by swimming away. Let’s assume that Mr. McSwordy has taken swimming lessons for years (trained in Athletics). Shouldn’t he have an easier swimming DC then a non-trained character? The DM in this fictional scenario ruled that holding your breath underwater is a difficult DC regardless of your level (the DM was never a very good swimmer). However, the DM rules that Conscore gets an additional +2 to his roll above the +5 he already gets for being trained because of his swimming experience. Another DM may decide to rule that due to Conscore’s experience he simply gets to roll against a moderate DC instead. Should this skill check represent the relative challenge of the act of swimming or does it represent the challenge relative Conscore’s level of skill? Would a lesser swimmer have to roll against a different DC or should the check required be the same for characters? It seems like the idea that some tasks are universally difficult is a bust.

It seems reasonable to believe that the second idea is the case in this instance. The DM can use this list of skill check DCs as a indication of where the number should fall depending on easy, moderate or hard difficulty. It saves the DM the time of actually figure out the odds. For example, if the DC is 20 and the PC has a skill bonus of +10 then they should succeed 55% of the time. By using the scaling DCs you get a ballpark figure to go by that will be reasonable most times. This method of deriving skill DCs also saves the DM from figuring the approximate ability of their party, and to some people, rewards players who invest in improving their skills.

Using this system would you rule the example encounter differently? Swimming faster than the pursuing Bailiff requires Conscore to make a moderate check. The DM doesn’t have to stat out the Bailiff, but it seems that such a man would be an even match for our hero. If Conscore is a higher level than the Bailiff, he’ll have an additional +1 for half his level making him a marginally better swimmer. Is swimming faster than the Bailiff still a moderate check?

If Conscore is level 9 a moderate DC to swim faster than the Bailiff requires a DC 17 Athletics check. If Conscore is level 10 (one level higher) a moderate DC now requires require an 18. Suddenly it’s harder for Conscore to swim faster than the Bailiff even though the Bailiff hasn’t changed. It’s going to take Conscore 8 more levels before the initial DC of 17 is considered an easy check. Until then the Bailiff’s swimming ability inexplicably increases with Conscore. One compromise is to make this an easy check when the DC passes the half way mark between easy and moderate, but then you’re conceding my point.

Would you rule DCs this way? I’m sure there are good reasons to do so, such as most times it’s better to play on than argue about rules interpretations. However, if DMs are given ballpark figures to then further ballpark to iron out the inconsistencies wouldn’t one’s time be better invested in coming up with a better system that doesn’t have to be adjusted every time you break your skill system with power creep? The answer will turn out to be no.

I don’t believe in the above-mentioned method of implementing skill DCs because it doesn’t realize the sort of game that I want to run. I don’t want my players to be aware of target numbers for their level, I would rather exercise my own judgment on what the party should find difficult, and I don’t want to ballpark figures that attempt to scale DCs and only end up distorting them like in a house of mirrors. In my game I use an absolute system of skill check where a given task is always of a given difficulty, after which conditional modifiers are applied. These DCs are stable through and through, regardless of the level of the PC attempting to make the check.

For example, picking a simple lock requires a DC 25 Thievery check in my game and it always will. In my mind no one has ever accidentally picked a lock, and even people who are nimble with their fingers are at a loss in accomplishing this task. This makes the check impossible at level 1 for someone without training and assumes that those with training will also have an aptitude. So if you have a 20 Dexterity (giving you a +5), by level 2 it is possible for someone with a really good Dexterity to make the check 5% of the time, which seems right to me. That means they won’t be getting through that door with any likelihood of success until they train Thievery, bump up their Dexterity or gain more experience. By the time this character is level 10 they’ll have a +10 to Thievery assuming they haven’t trained or raised their Dexterity score.

The assumed rationale I work under is that in 10 levels of adventuring this character has cultivated enough knowledge of locks that even though they still haven’t had any real training, they have a rudimentary capability. At level 10 this puts the party’s Rogue with a base 20 Dexterity score and two stat bumps (+6), who has acquired a set of thieves tools (+2), some magic thieves gloves (+2), training in Thievery (+5), and a skill focus in Thievery or maybe some supplemental bonus off another feat (+2) for a total modifier around +22 before they even roll. They will succeed if they roll a 3 or more which means a 90% chance to succeed. You might note that in my games the PCs don’t start off being much more powerful than the average person, who in my mind has the attributes of a level 1 character, just without special class powers and training in more than one or two skills at most.

In this absolute system every unopposed check has a set DC. Another DM might want to set the DC for a simple lock lower (and there are very good reasons to do such a thing), but a simple lock is DC 25 in my game. The same lock sitting under the main water fall of the green river requires a DC 40 Thievery along with an Endurance check to say the least. As my players perform more and more tasks with some degree of regularity they come to understand the various challenges in these tasks and it is my hope that their characters come to exist in a stable and understandable world. I want to run a game where the players understand the context in which their characters operate, so that when it comes time for me to pull the rug out from underneath them and the laws of time and space bend, they know it.

The way I’ve chosen to use skills DC in my game is fairly arbitrary and personal, although it is based in some logical reasoning as I’ve tried to explain in the above examples. You’ll never see me compile a list of my DCs for the same reason you saw Wizard’s of the Coast move away from endlessly long tables common to previous editions of D&D. The table will never be long enough to account for every situation, and such a document would be so long and detailed it would be unwieldy to the point of uselessness.

I’ve chosen to cast aside skill checks as they’re presented in the rules in favour of creating my own system that works at my game table. It works for me because it makes sense to me as the DM. It works for the kind of game that I want to run. It may not work for everyone, but that’s not to say that you can’t just as easily come up with your own system. As critical as I’ve been of the way the DCs are set up, I know that a lot of people are happy to use them as presented. Some choose this because they feel that the system works for them and others feel that it’s too time consuming to make the kind of changes I’ve taken on. In the end you need to decide on the best way to use skills in your game.

What are your thoughts on skill checks and the new DCs? Are you happy to use them as presented? Has my rant infuriated you or inspired you to tweak the existing system?

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 Kenneth McNay November 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm

i’m of the opinion that the circumstance sets the difficulty of the DC. Such as the conditions of the body of water setting the DC of swimming regardless of level or training. Thus a trained PC has a boon over the attempts of others. Perhaps the bailiff is also a trained swimmer and somewhat strong, thus he struggles against the same DC, but may have different results.

I wouldn’t allow a player to receive a special +2 bonus unless that had been a part of the background which occupied about 90% of the character’s past. trained is enough of a bonus.

However, I still use the older chart of DCs. I like the older chart because it expresses the difficulty of tasks in small groupings of levels rather than each independent level. Thus, while PCs are near the bottom of that grouping, tasks seem harder; as they reach the top of that grouping, tasks seem easier. Tasks that remain static in lower grouping of levels might no longer require a check, or at least are not a difficult check any longer.

I agree that a simple lock may be the same DC regardless of PC level; however, does that mean that more complex locks require higher DCs, or simply that more complex locks involve more skills to successfully pick? It sounds as though the more complex tasks slowly evolve into brief skill challenges in stead of a skill check.

honestly, i’m toying around with the use of dice pool games right now. that brings a different perspective on the use of skills and the difficulty of tasks.

2 Brian November 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Could you link to the source of the new DCs? I can’t seem to find anything regarding them in the errata section of the WotC site…

3 Ameron November 23, 2010 at 2:08 pm

The new DCs are from D&D Essentials. They were previewed in Dragon #391 in the article Design & Development: Skill DCs By Stephen Schubert. Unfortunately you need a DDI subscription to read it.

4 Dave November 23, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Brian, you can find the new DCs here:

Bauxtehude, good article. I want emphasize to beginner DMs that the DCs-by-level should be used as a guideline, but if you want to maintain verisimilitude you should be able to explain in non-meta-game terms why the DCs are increasing as the PCs increase in level. Doors don’t suddenly get harder to open, but higher level adversaries are likely to use steel reinforcements, deadbolts, and wizardlocks.

5 anarkeith November 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm

If I read you right, we agree on how to use DCs. That is that they are determined by the challenge, rather than the level of the character. Swimming across a river would always have a set difficulty, modified by circumstances. Swimming across a river and avoiding a pursuer is a little bit different challenge. How you choose to adjudicate that is part of the art of DMing.

6 Ryven Cedrylle November 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm

You can’t forget the scope of the game, which if I may be so bold, I believe you may have failed to do here – though in your defense you did bring it up in Part 1. Is a standard court bailiff even a threat to a Level 9 character? By this point, a character is nearing Paragon Tier and beginning to run with the Big Dogs of the area. He or she is a legitimate concern for giants and aboleths and junk. Some Andy Griffith-type from Town X somewhere isn’t a challenge. DCs don’t get harder because the character levels, they get harder because the THREAT gets nastier. In your case, I would put the DC appropriate to maybe level 3 or 4 (where the town guard is still something to be concerned about relative to the plot) and then make it a Hard check for swimming in chain mail.

All in all a very good article, though, and has helped me think about a mechanic of my own in a new way. I will be sure to credit you in the writeup as an inspiration once I complete it.

7 andurion November 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm

The way I would run it, I would ask “What is easy/moderate/hard for a character level X,” where X is some level of interest. Importantly, X does not have to be the level of the PC. Then I just have the PCs roll.

My understanding is that the DCs of various task don’t automatically scale as the character levels. What was a hard task at level 1 will, with levels, become a moderate and then eventually easy task. But, again, I always approach it with the thought “Who would find this task easy/moderate/hard?” The players may be beyond that or not quite up to that.

8 Granger44 November 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I personally use the level of the encounter and not the level of the character to determine the DC of skill checks. So in your example, if I set the Bailiff as a level 8 encounter, Conscore’s DC is 18 whether he’s 7th level, 8th level, or even 30th level.

Now, if some game time passes, I might redo the encounter with the Bailiff to represent him also gaining experience or power or some other edge. Or I might not to represent the Bailiff being sedentary (or if I just want to give the players a power trip). Or maybe the old Bailiff was fired and the new Bailiff is even tougher.

The chart shouldn’t get in the way of your story; it’s there to help you figure out what DCs give the appropriate challenge for your players and their characters so they have fun.

9 Alton November 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Good finish. The point is made. I agree that standard DCs are standard DCs. Difficulty is adjusted due to situation ie. the waterfall example.

I think the DM guide DCs are a guideline for those who are not yet comfortable with adjusting the DC accordingly.

Good article.

10 Tourq December 3, 2010 at 11:40 pm

It’s important to note that “level-dependent DCs” are only to provide a challenge in appropriate circumstances. For a high-level character, you wouldn’t require a high DC to break down a door if it was an old door, in an old house, in an old part of town. It’s simply important to know WHAT is supposed to be a challenge for the PCs and what isn’t.

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