Really Hard Skill Checks

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 3, 2010

Have you ever needed to roll over 20 to succeed at a skill check? If you’re a combat-heavy PC then the answer is probably yes, but what if you’re a well rounded PC with decent attributes? Does your DM ever make a DC so difficult that it’s practically impossible to succeed? With very few exceptions most DMs won’t present DCs that are out of the reach of the average PC. My question is why not? I know I do when I’m the DM.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the actual numbers when it comes to skill checks and DC. We already covered this issue last week in Bauxtehude’s articles Exploring Skill Checks and the New DCs part 1 and part 2. The point I want to discuss today is whether or not DCs should ever be out of reach to all but the very best and most highly trained characters?

Too many players focus too much on combat and forget just how important the skills are to the game and to their character. Players need to realize that feats and powers that provide bonuses to skills are just as vital to victory as the feat that gives bonuses to attacks and damage or powers that deal multiple weapon damage.

By presenting circumstances where incredibly high DCs rear their ugly head, the DM reminds players that they shouldn’t expect an easy victory all the time. These reminders need to be nailed home for out of combat encounters even more than for combat encounters.

Think about it, many DMs will do this for combat encounters without flinching. The PCs find themselves up against a monster or monsters that are a few levels higher then what’s considered appropriate. Some players will realized that they’re in over their heads and back off; usually after someone has fallen unconscious or the party is out of healing. But more often than not the party will still try to fight the monster despite the long odds of success. Rarely will the players object to the challenge and complain to the DM. They’ll assess their own capabilities, work together and strive for victory.

This is exactly what should be happening with skill challenges and even just one-off skill checks. It doesn’t make sense that every party should have someone capable of overcoming any skill check with flying colours. Every now and then the DM should make it clear that the required check is out of reach for most PC. Even the guy with the best skill modifier still needs a 20 or higher to succeed. This skill check, by definition is an impossible task. But this is also a task that if accomplished will have serious ramifications to the adventure and the characters themselves.

One of the cardinal rules of skill challenges is that success or failure should never hang on a single check. Throwing a really hard check at the players shouldn’t break this rule. If the check is successful then the PCs will have access to some avenue of pursuit that wouldn’t otherwise be available. If they fail, then they have to go about accomplishing their task by more traditional and normally methods. The more mundane solutions are usually rife with danger and take a lot longer. The really hard check should almost act as a short cut, bypassing a combat encounter or providing a clue that will aid the PCs later on their quest.

Now that the DM has put this really hard DC in front of the players and they realize the immense difficulty of it, the ball is suddenly in the player’s court. It’s up to them to be creative and try to achieve success. The absolute worst thing they can do is to simply let the player with the best skill roll and hope he gets that 20. In order to avoid this eventuality (because we all know that some players will try it), I often place the DC just out of reach. The player with the highest skill modifier still needs a 21 or 22.

The players should realize that the only way they’re going to have a shot at this is to work together and assist the best guy. Normally I limit the number of assists to two or three for most checks, but if the DC is going to be through the roof then perhaps this is a good time to say yes and allow everyone to chip in. You know that at least one guy will likely flub the roll incurring a -1 rather than the +2 so if there are five PCs assisting you’re likely looking at +7 from the assists. This really hard check just got considerably easier.

This is where a good DM should reward strong role-playing and creativity. I believe that this should be the case during all skill challenges, but this is especially true when you’ve intentionally set the DC really high.

One of my pet peeves with assisting is that most players simply say “I’m assisting” and roll the check. At my table I need to know what you’re doing to assist the guy making the primary check. Where I allow considerable latitude is regarding which skill you use to assist. Just because the main skill being used is Intimidate doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to use the same skill to assist.

The movie the Untouchables has a great example of this exact scenario. Sean Connery’s character uses Bluff to “interrogate” a man that was already dead and then shoots him for not answering. Kevin Costner’s character gets a bonus to his Intimidate check when questioning the other prisoners who believe they just saw Sean Connery kill a man for not cooperating.

I can already hear a lot of DMs asking why both even putting really hard skill checks into the game. If the PCs are never going to make the check (short of a miracle) won’t this just frustrate and anger the players? My feeling is that you make the game better by putting some really hard skill checks into your adventures.

Consider what would happen if you never put really hard skill checks into your game. Once the players realize they’ll never have to face really hard skill checks because you refuse to make any check impossible, then they’ll never take feats and powers that provide skill bonuses. However, if they know that from time to time they’ll need to roll a 19 or 20 to succeed then they might just take that utility power that provides a +4 bonuses or a feat that gives them an additional +2, +3 or +5. Suddenly the check that most PCs need a 20 to make on their own only requires a 12 from the PC with the proper versatility.

Look at a similar combat situation by comparison. What if a PC had a magic sword that was average most of the time, but super awesome when he fought dragons? During most games he’s content to have his regular magic sword. But on those very rare occasions when he actually gets to fight a dragon he is suddenly the star of the show. He had the right tool for that job. It wasn’t that special any other time, but when it was special the advantage was considerable.

This is exactly how players feel when they choose feats or powers that boost their skills. If you never put really hard skill checks into your game then they just walk around making every check without ever rolling. I’ve seen character with over +20 modifiers to some skills as early as level 11. Even with the newly modified DC they’re going to automatically make moderately difficult checks without even rolling. Meanwhile other PC might only have a +5 modifier simply for reaching level 11.

Using really hard skill checks emphasizes the greatness of that one player who chose to improve his skills rather than try to keep up with the best combatants. It also acts as a great advertisement for players who never, ever make any effort to shore up their poorest skills that there is a good reason to think about taking more than just fighting feats. You give the PCs with incredibly high skills a forum to demonstrate just how good they really are. The player will thank you and it will likely be a very memorable part of your camping, regardless of the outcome.

Now that I’ve said my piece and explained why I believe that more DMs should use really hard skill checks in their adventures do you agree with me or do you think I’m way off base? Should the DCs always be within reach for most players? Without a few really hard skill checks why would any player ever decide to pump up their skills to ridiculous levels? More importantly, for those players that do, how else do you provide them with opportunities to put those skills to use in an exciting and meaningful way? Let the debate begin.

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1 Ryven Cedrylle December 3, 2010 at 12:49 pm

The problem with Hard skill checks is that, quite simply, they are not ‘hard’ in play because the character with the best skill mod is usually up to bat and has a very good chance of hitting. The numbers match their ‘difficulty’ titles much easier in group-based checks. It’s a problem I run into quite often in that my players can’t freaking fail a skill challenge. Occasionally I can ‘trick’ them into using the ‘wrong’ skill but that’s not really a good workaround nor is it good game design. The work I’m doing now on designing a framework for social conflict skill challenges has a lot to do with this experience.

2 Ameron December 3, 2010 at 1:22 pm

@Ryven Cedrylle
My recommendation is to make the check really, really, hard – bordering on impossible. Forget the Skill DC table. Just look at the skill modifier of the best guy in the party and add 25 to that number. So if his Arcana check is +20, and the rest of the party is hovering around +10, make this particular DC 45. The only way the best guy can make this check is to get some help. And even with help he’s still not likely to make the check without an awesome roll.

If the players known that the DM will do this from time to time they’ll take feats, items and powers to give them modifiers. This isn’t happening in most games and the guy with +20 Arcana just knocks the check out of the park every time. Make him work for it and make it really cool when he does.

3 Ryven Cedrylle December 3, 2010 at 2:21 pm

That’s definitely a brute force method and will give it a shot next game. I’m not necessarily sure I want to take away a player’s spotlight like that as much as I want to mechanically promote the use of untrained skills.

4 Wyatt December 3, 2010 at 9:14 pm

The only time I do Really Hard Skill Checks™ is to promote an alternate means of accomplishing task. You could go into the adjacent hallway and find a roundabout way into the room, possibly taking you hours, or you could try to clear the massive boulder that’s blocking the straight-line path to your destination. The Hard Check should be more rewarding, and there should still be an out even when the Hard Check fails – and there should be, in my opinion, a choice to opt not to roll the Hard check.

Either way you’ll get somewhere, but the suboptimal choice takes less effort. However, I make sure there are meaningful consequences for taking the “easy way.” Things like “it takes you more time” are immaterial to the PC without there being an explicit consequence (“it takes you more time…so the next encounter has 4 more kobolds in it; but if you somehow move this boulder by rolling a hard check, you’ll be fighting less Kobolds next time”).

5 Lahrs December 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I have altered some of the mechanics of the skill checks to make it more difficult without just upping the DC, not that I don’t do that either, but I do not have to do it as much.

For many checks, thievery, history, dungeoneering, arcana, religion and some others, I have made it so they can only be rolled by people who have the skill trained. Anyone wishing to assist has to have the skill trained unless they have some story way of explaining why they may have the knowledge (untrained history can roll if the history in question had to do with something locally where they grew up or someone can assist in healing by holding the bandages like a nurse would assist a doctor). At most, I allow two people to assist, as I consider more than that as having too many people and they end up getting in each others way.

Skills such as acrobatics, endurance and athletics can be used without being trained.

Trained skills become much more important and I no longer have five people telling me they assist. With fewer having the ability to roll in certain situations, my players realize they need to be make good decisions in training skills and they end up being treated as the four roles are in combat.

There have been a few grumblings, but after a few sessions, all of my players were on board. The main goal was to cut down every person rolling a check and being assisted by too many people. This cuts down on all the bonus modifiers and the chance that someone is just going to get that lucky roll. The person who gets that lucky roll should be the one that spent years training in that skill.

I think some DCs should be hard. The players are heroes, not gods. As heroes, they are going to do extraordinary things, but sometimes it is going to take some skill and a lot of luck to accomplish it.

6 Ameron December 7, 2010 at 8:40 am

I agree completely with your take on the really hard skill check. Thanks for mentioning that the really hard skill check should always be optional. I wouldn’t put players into a situation where they had to make the really hard skill check, there’s always choice. But I know the guys I play with and they’d likely give it a try.

We’ve always played that monster knowledge checks can only be made by a PC trained in that skill. I like that you’ve taken the training requirement one step further and I like your approach a lot. It really gives the PCs strong motivation to take feats to train skills. It also reminds a party where their strengths and weaknesses really lie.

7 Acheron December 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Very good Article and comments! Thanks a lot, in my case I definetly follow the example of Wyatt, making them optional with the benefict of getting a task done more smoothly, but i haven’t taken in cosideration the fact that it could motivate players to use more the feats to enhance skills in the campains I have played those have being left behind, thanks for a way and a reason to start implementing them.


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