The long and winding road of 4E skill checks

Since 4E has been released there has been quite a few changes with target values of skill difficulty classes (DC). This is something I’ve complained about before and I’m surprised that such a fundamental aspect of the game has changed so much since its release. I realize a lot will say this doesn’t affect how a group plays, that the DM can just adjudicate things and run the game they want. All true.

However having a standard, or ‘official’, set of rules for skill checks and skill challenges is important. It gives a lot of insight into what is expected as a reasonable challenge, and what should be a good yardstick for a DM to use in their own games. More importantly, if gives a lot of guidance to new DMs that might not have a lot of experience or knowledge of other RPG systems to draw from.

Lastly, I feel most players appreciate a system that has rules and is predictable. While good players realize at times a DM might need to herd the story in a direction, meaning some attempts at a skill would always fail. If things are too fluid and appear simply at the DM’s whim, players can get frustrated as they feel have no real influence on feats of skill.

Looking at 4E skill difficulty classes when it was released, easy, moderate, and difficult checks were set at values of 10, 15, and 20, respectively. These increased with the player’s level, but in effect relatively stayed the same as 4E introduced the idea of a constant modifier of +½ a characters level for just about everything from defences, attack rolls, and also for skill checks. Interestingly, there was an additional +5 modifier to all skill check DCs (DMG pg. 42), but was dropped in an errata.

When the DMG2 rolled around the DC values were dropped significantly to 5, 10, and 15, for an easy, moderate, or difficult check, respectively. This was a big change and really opened up how effective skill training (along ability modifiers) could be in skill challenges. Likely it was too lenient a bar as the latest iteration of the rules and skill DCs are now higher, almost to what they were with the initial release of the 4E rules.

Now for a level 1 character the DC values for easy to difficult check range from 8, 12, and 19. Further, where the older versions of the rules increased DCs every three levels, this new version increased with every level. Also, the easy DC values scale up a little less compared to moderate and difficult DCs.

These changes give some important ideas on how skill checks should be implemented and what a DM might consider when working with skill challenges.

Failure is always a possibility – Right off an 8 is needed to pass and easy DC check. Even with the appropriate skill training, a character can fail. Add in ability scores, typically with a standard array this would be a +2 or +3 bonus (although +4 is a possibility), and you can usually eek out a success for an easy check. This is an important philosophy with the game. There are no sure things, and PCs should expect to fail if making a check under duress.

Training is not enough – That +5 bonus helps a lot. But if PCs want to really improve their chances, they should expect to tag that training to ability modifiers. This is one aspect I am not too keen on, as it means there is no amount of training a player can undertake to make up for a similar character with innate bonuses from ability scores. However there is a work around of sorts with the last point…

Taking 10 can be the best option at times – Given that characters can fail, and that simply training in a skill alone will not guarantee a success, PCs really need to consider just taking 10. In fact, I’d push that a DM should offer this up as the default for any skill check made by PCs trained in a particular skill. If that streetwise rouge botches a simple check, I’d seriously consider that they came away with a little knowledge of the local comings and goings. I expect that taking 10 is not something a lot of players do. A DM should encourage it, as those non-skill challenge, non-threatening situations, mean that the players can accomplish quite a bit taking this route.

This leads me to an interesting observation with skill DC values, although they are scaled to take in account the player’s level, they really don’t break down more than just being an easy, moderate, or difficult check. Something overlooked (especially when considering making a challenge more difficult) is the level for DCs. I think this is something being explored with ideas floating around of ‘novice’, ‘journeyman’, and ‘master’ levels of knowledge. I expect this might lead to additional modifiers a DM can thrown into skill challenges. If anything, they’d give a DM a better gauge to figure what would be an appropriate challenge in certain situations.

What does this mean for my game? I’m looking at the idea of altering DCs for certain skill challenges taking level into account. As a general idea with combat encounter building, if I run a +4 level encounter I can expect a tough fight. Likewise, if I bump up the DC ‘level’ of a skill challenge by 5, I can expect a tough challenge even if it the complexity is simple.

It’s something to play with, quite possibly expanding the normal -/+ 2 modifier a DM uses to even greater values of -/+ 4 (which is in effect just bumping up skill DC levels). So that lock on the door of a high level mage might not just be a typical difficult DC check, but would bump up even higher taking the NPC’s level into account. I’ll have to tool around with it, but I think incorporating relative level in with DC values might give a more dynamic range of DCs needed for skill checks.


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