Hipsters & Dragons

Because roleplaying is social, creative, fun… and kinda cool!

Not The Dreaded DC 15…

On page 174 of the Player’s Handbook there’s a table of Difficulty Classes for ability checks that goes a little something like this…

DIFFICULTY CLASSES (PLAYER’S HANDBOOK)
Task DifficultyDC
Very easy5
Easy10
Medium15
Hard20
Very hard25
Nearly impossible30

As you can see, to succeed on a Medium difficulty skill check you need to roll a 15.

What’s my problem with that? It’s way too difficult, that’s what!

Without modifiers you only have a 30% chance of succeeding at something that is supposed to represent an averagely difficult task. But even with a +3 modifier of someone incredibly naturally gifted at this type of challenge (ie. someone with a score of 16 in Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom etc.), and a +2 proficiency modifier for someone with relevant skill and training, you will still need to roll a 10 to succeed at this ‘average’ task.

A trained and talented hero has a 45% chance of failing at a Medium difficult task in their greatest area of strength

This means a trained and talented hero has a 45% chance of failing at a Medium difficult task in their greatest area of strength (at least until level 4… although the picture hardly changes greatly, even towards mid and high tiers).

That really bugs me.

15 is pretty much the standard DC baked into any published 5e D&D adventure and also the one that DMs give out for any task when improvising on the fly… of course they do. The rules pretty much tell them to.

Low fence jump…. shall we say DC 15?

It works well enough when it’s a group check that only one PC has to succeed at, such as a Perception check, but it can make getting even seemingly basic tasks done almost impossible when PCs are acting alone.

I’ve endured countless irritating times at the table when my insanely agile rogue can’t walk across a simple log bridge without taking a swim in the raging river below…

I’ve endured countless irritating times at the table when my insanely agile rogue can’t walk across a simple log bridge without taking a swim in the raging river below, or my beefy barbarian can’t climb a rope, or fails to break down a door. Some of these challenges are ones I’d fancy my undextrous, unbeefy self to be able to do in real life! (Not break down a door… that is really tough, as I once had the misfortune to find out!).

The picture gets far worse the minute you need to succeed in two or more tasks. A stealthy barbarian that needs to climb up a wall (DC 15 with +5 modifier), then sneak past a guard (DC 15 with +4), then lower a drawbridge (DC 15 with +5) would have only a 15% percent chance of pulling off their mission. With those odds maybe he should just go back home!

And before you start writing your comment, I actually love failing in D&D. It’s fun, dramatic and often very funny.

And yes, I do also understand the narrative power of set backs, and the experienced and talented DMs I am lucky enough to play with often offer ‘get out’ checks, or other chances to deal with failed rolls that often improve the story. And that’s great.

But nonetheless I want my heroes to be able to succeed at the things they’re great at 8 or 9 times out of 10… not barely more than 50 percent of the time. And that way, the times they do f@ck up will be memorable, and not annoyingly frequent… almost to the point of being predictable.

(And let’s not forget, there’s still ALL the things that heroes are crap at for them to fail at, without having to see them mess up the things they’re supposedly good at quite so often).

Can We Get Some Love for DC 10?

Anyway mild-tempered rant over. The point of this post is to encourage the dungeon delving, dragon-slaying world that DC 10 should be the new DC 15, and that their game will make more sense for it.

I feel labelling DC 10 as ‘easy’ in the Player’s Handbook has been bad branding for this unloved check point, which in most cases will still deliver a solid 20-50% failure rate.

And let me say that there’s nothing wrong with DCs 11-14 either (or 6-19 for that matter), if it means giving a PC a few extra percent chance to succeed where it makes sense to do so.

I am also a big fan of DC 12 as another “go-to” Difficulty Class. The way I see it, both DCs 10 and 12 offer a real chance of failure on any given check, without loading the odds unnecessarily against the hero.

I’ll sign off with a tweaked Difficulty Class table that I hope will encourage DMs to think about DCs a little differently…

DIFFICULTY CLASSES (HIPSTER’S REMIX)
Task DifficultyDC
Very Easy5
Easy8
Medium10
Tricky12
Hard15
Very hard20
Incredibly hard25
Why bother?30

So readers… are you feeling me? Or not really… leave a (respectful) reply in the comments!

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14 Comments

  1. chris stomberg

    I wholeheartedly agree. Dungeons and Dragons is a game of heroes, not a drunken bunch of bumbling incapables. I have found, in my games, that setting improvised DCs outside of the “5, 10, 15, 20” suggestions makes for a more cinematic adventure. Not only that, but it keeps the players guessing. One rule I also like to implement is DC modifications. If a player stands up from the table, puts on his angriest barbarian rage face, and gives his best attempt at a high kick while roleplaying his character bashing open a door, you can bet I’m reducing the DC. Actually, in this case I’d probably provide the player advantage on the roll. Either way, a successful DnD session is based on the story and the experience, not the dice.

    • duncan

      Hi Chris

      Thanks for the comment! Glad we’re in agreement here.

      Interesting that you like to keep the players guessing… whilst I see the advantages there, when DMing I often like for players to know the DC of what they are trying, in order to give them a chance to change their mind if our imaginations are not aligned. For example, in their head, they might think that their Acrobatic rogue can jump off the back of one dragon onto another in mid air relatively easily. But when I set the DC to 30, then they at least know the risks before they most likely kill off their character, and a potentially upsetting scenario unfolds! Extreme example, but you see my point. People imagine things differently so it’s good for players to know what they’re attempting, particularly in scenarios where failure will hurt.

      I enjoyed your idea of giving advantage for spirited acting! Haha, well I like to set Charisma check DCs according to how well the player spoke, and how convincing their arguments were, but I never thought of adjusting DC for physical tests… until now ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Jeff

    I am so happy I found this article! I have only recently bought the 5e rules and have been a DM for friends. I haven’t played D&D since the 80s!
    Well, I do love the new rules but when I saw that DC chart and it says “Medium” difficulty was a 15 roll I immediately thought that was too hard.

    Thank you of validating my gut reaction! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • duncan

      Hi Jeff

      Great to hear you’re getting back into the game! I also took a long break between 1996 and 2016.

      Glad the post helped. Obviously different scenarios call for different DCs, but I wouldn’t throw out 15 as your ‘go-to’ DC.

      Happy gaming ๐Ÿ™‚

      d

  3. Gabe

    Funny, when I read this I thought “but WotC updated this in an errata ages ago right?” I went back and realized they updated this in 4th edition, not 5e.

    Right after 4th came out they got this feedback and changed the DCs from 15 medium to 10 medium (there was more of a chart for skill checks based on character levels in that cursed edition).

    You can google “January 2009 4th edition DnD update” and find it.

    https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/dnd4/images/4/4d/Update4E.4.pdf/revision/latest?cb=20130702100132

    I didn’t even notice this when I read the books because I’m so used to playing against the other chart.

    I wonder why they went back to these old DCs? Because I totally agree that this is a much better way to play.

    • duncan

      Very interesting, thanks Gabe!

      I didn’t play any 4th edition (or 3rd!), so I was totally unaware of this.

      If I remember, back in 2nd, or maybe even 1st edition AD&D, we used to roll underneath our ability score to succeed on a task. I am not sure if those were the official rules or not though!

      But anyhow, strange that they’ve had this issue before, ‘fixed it’ (depending on your POV) and then gone back.

      I can only assume that it’s because DC 10 can feel too easy for many group checks where only one person need succeed, or for high level parties.

      I think it just shows though, that if 10 and 15 weren’t nice round numbers they wouldn’t be used as the checkpoints. Otherwise you’d assume there would be no need for WOTC to be going back and forth on themselves.

  4. Angel

    Ok. So Iโ€™m new but I guess I misinterpreted (or misunderstood completely) the rule. I thought the task was relative to the players character. So to kick open a door for a puny guy youโ€™d have to role a 20 and for a strong guy heโ€™d only have to role a 10 because kicking open a door would be an easy task for the strong guy but hard for the weak one.

    • duncan

      Hi Angel

      I’ve not seen anyone interpret the rules this way, although that would certainly make sense if you were going for realism.

      D&D’s system is not very realistic at all in that it gives pretty much everyone a chance to succeed – or fail – at doing something, only slightly modified by their natural aptitude or training. If realism is your goal, your approach would make much better sense, or you could even recalibrate the game so that ability modifiers were your ability score minus 10 (I.e. Strength 15 = +5, Intelligence 8 = -2 etc. etc.) and then raise the average DC challenges.

      To defend the existing system I’ll say that it’s more fun to have that chance of success and failure always somewhat in the balance, and that also many skills checks take place in challenging circumstances… breaking down a door in one round in order to escape, or scrambling up a tree while injured and being chased by a pack of giant hyenas, in which case luck always plays a large role.

      I’ve seen Jeremy Crawford state in certain circumstances, like an arm wrestle, the best thing to do is compare Strength scores and see who has the highest to determine the winner. That’s actually very ‘anti D&D’ for me… ๐Ÿคฃ

      My personal approach to add a bit more realism to the game would be to keep skills checks as they are, but to award advantage or disadvantage in cases where it makes sense. Tough guy taking a run up on a door with a huge axe = advantage… weedy wizard with no athletics proficiency = disadvantage.

      Advantage / disadvantage is great for realism because it really consolidates the probability of something likely happening (or something unlikely not happening).

  5. Adrian

    Thanks for pointing out the math on this. It does put it in perspective a bit and may affect how I handle things going forward. I might have some ideas to contribute to the conversation.
    1. It had been suggested to me the idea of success, with consequences/complications if players miss a DC by one or two. EG, the DC15 lock pick check. on a 14 the door is opened but the lock is jammed with a tension bar stuck in it making it obvious it’s been tampered with. This might even just be something in the DMG I’d just forgotten about.
    2. In generic repeating checks like again the DC15 lock pick, I don’t like to second guess published adventure DCs too much… but I’ve toyed around with adjusting the DC via use of 1-3 fate/fudge dice (permanent, per door, not modifying the DC on each player attempt). These are the dice that are labeled -1/blank/+1. I’d just learned about this idea recently. So a dungeon with a bunch of DC15 locks will still be DC15 on average, but it’ll give some infrequent outliers of DC12 or even DC18 to add interest. Typically reserved for things where the attempt can be repeated and/or doesn’t risk harsh punishment for failure. Because players start assuming default DC15 after a while too. I haven’t played with this very much yet, so can’t say if it’s a *good* idea yet.
    3. I liked Duncan’s idea above of letting players know the DC, mostly. I’ve been trying to come up with ways to better convey a character’s common sense to their player. I don’t want to take away the sense of risk completely, but I think going forward I’d have them make a related check for appraisal. Like if they were about to try to jump a chasm that exceeds their normal long jump, and I’ve set a DC15 on it I think I’d have them make a nonstandard DC15 Wisdom(Athletics) check. Passing that I think I’d tell them the exact DC of the jump. Undecided how I’d handle degrees of failure on the wisdom check. Already doing something similar in another scenario – implementing a low DC Wis or Int check to determine if I’m going to tell the player that they’re about to try something that their character should just know better about – when the player forgets a detail of a spell or class feature, or forgets their character’s own recent personal history for instance.

    • duncan

      Hi Adrian

      Sorry, seems I forgot to reply.

      1. Totally agree! Complications beat outright failure and add extra drama.

      2. I had never seen this idea before… but it has some merit, although could slow down gameplay. I’d be tempted to use it after the PC has rolled their Thieves Tools check… PC: “So I got 16” DM: “Ok, now let’s see what the lock’s DC is…” and then roll the fate dice in front of them for extra drama. Or once they know the system roll them all together with the player, almost like a contest.

      3. Makes sense… although better to roll their Wisdom check secretly, and then tell them the DC dependent on what they got, misleading them if they rolled real bad. I would use this sparingly in any case, or in slow moments of the game only.

      Cheers for input!

  6. Ankheg

    I like margin on DCs, where result changes, depending on how much you get higher or lower on a roll than a said DC. Characters donโ€™t exactly fail if they get lower result โ€“ they get complications, or other interesting tidbits happen.

    • duncan

      Yes, I like that style of DMing too ๐Ÿ™‚

      The rolls can inspire the story…

  7. Highland Troll

    I think you’re coming at this from the wrong angle. The rule of thumb is:

    – If the task is easy enough that the character shouldn’t ever fail, don’t roll. Just describe that they’ve succeeded.
    – If the task is so hard that the character can’t possibly succeed, don’t roll. Just say it’s too hard. If the player insists on trying…
    – If there is a chance of either success or failure, choose a DC that fits your estimate of the likelihood, roll the dice and narrate the outcome either way.

    So if you think your rogue should be able to cross that log bridge easily, either don’t roll at all or set the DC low. If she still fails, maybe she’s a cocky so-and-so who needed taking down a peg (didn’t notice that bit of moss…?).

  8. I think it may just be a matter of nomenclature. “A simple log bridge” is an EASY task, not a medium one. And honestly, if it’s that simple, why roll for it at all? If a failure at something doesn’t make a difference other than to make a hero look like a zero, don’t call for a roll, just let the player cross the bridge already.

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