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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