Friday Favourite: Really Hard Skill Checks

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 17, 2014

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From December 3, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Really Hard Skill Checks.

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 bother 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 Brian Criswell January 17, 2014 at 10:30 am

I will sometimes use a DC25 skill check, which in Next is a lot, but it has rarely been for anything critical. I am a person who joined D&D for the communal storytelling and think the combat needs to enhance the story. I like the ideas I see here and will incorporate them into our game.

Our last DC25 check occurred when the party rescued Duvessa. The campaign guide said something to the effect that her sharp tongue could make men blush. So after everyone failed the check for listening to her verbal abuse of Vaelish Gant, they found it funny that even the half orcs and dwarves were affected by Duvessa’s speech.

2 Jon January 17, 2014 at 11:08 am

I prefer to give my players low DCs in general, since even a 50% chance of failure is actually quite a nailbiter.

On a similar note, I wrote a post on the value of putting the PC with the low skill in the situation where he has to use it. This discourages minmaxing in point-buy games and lets you use pretty standard situations and average skill check difficulties as hard checks. It lets the star sneak feel spotlighted even when he’s not in the scene, when the machine-gun toting fighter is forced to hide from pursuers and is sweating a relatively easy check, saying “Boy, I wish my ninja pal was here.”

3 Liack January 17, 2014 at 4:56 pm

The main thing is to make the success memorable, and not lock things out upon failing. I had a game where a heavy plated paladin was grappled, and pretty much was stuck making impossible to reach athletics check. Forced movement didn’t break the grapple either. The healers had to compensate for lack of defenders, pretty much boggle down the whole fight.

4 Sunyaku January 26, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Yes, I definitely use “harder than the Hard DC” at times. A well-written skill challenge should not be a binary pass/fail, it should be about degrees of success or failure. Low DC 50/50 odds are too easy for a balanced/minmaxed party to surpass, just by having each character only do what they’re good at. Some of the people I play with can’t fail a moderate DC by rolling a “1” they’re so specialized. Normally I write minor bonuses/hindrances into an outcome depending on how well or how poorly the PCs did. If I used an extra hard DC, there is generally not a significant penalty, but there is likely to be a very significant reward, which I well spend extra time and fanfare to describe, to ensure that it “feels” like something special as well. I also think it’s fine to have a check or challenge that is designed to be hard enough to expect the party to fail. DMs do this with combats on occasion, why not skill challenges? For example, last Wednesday I ran a game where the PCs were navigating a devilish “play room” full of mechanical traps. There was a secret magical “service door” that would allow PCs to skip half the maze, but a PC had to beat the hard arcana DC +1/2 level and be adjacent to be within two squares of the magical door when the check was performed. The door was along a path the party was very likely to go, and there were some very vague contextual clues that something about this part of the maze was a little bit different. Three separate tables have run through this same (MyRealms LFR) adventure now, and one group found the door. Maybe I’m crazy, but I love a good Easter egg, especially when groups interact, and one can gloat about finding something special, helping to make every group’s experience more unique.

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