|D&D is full of great skills, such as Perception, Deception, and... reading...|
But that's only one pillar of an RPG experience. Combat is a big part of D&D, but it's not the only part.
What about skills? How do they evolve over the course of a campaign? (No, not those skills. Not those either.)
Well, surprise surprise, I'm not going to be suggesting you create Skill Challenges for your players. For those unaware, Skill Challenges were a thing from 4th edition where you tracked skill checks from the group and they had to get a certain number of successes before they got a certain number of failures.
Not that you shouldn't use Skill Challenges. They are quite good when built properly. But I'm talking about the individual checks themselves: what sort of skill checks should low-level characters expect? What sort of skill checks should high-level characters expect? How does this affect how you build your game?
But first, a quick word on Challenge Rating and using these skills.
In the Player's Handbook, page 171, the book gives a table of "Typical Difficulty Classes".
- Very Easy: 5
- Easy: 10
- Medium: 15
- Hard: 20
- Very Hard: 25
- Nearly Impossible: 30
This is a great guideline for an average character. and it's certainly an intuitive indicator of what a difficulty class should be in a standard D&D game.
But that doesn't mean you always need to, or should, use it.
|Hey fellas, surely we can talk this out...|
Important note: I'm not saying that you should arbitrarily raise the DC of everything in your game. If simple iron locks used to be DC 10 and now they are DC 20, you're going to have a big problem when you start your next campaign of low-level characters. Instead, just start putting more dwarven mithril locks in your game.
For a given check, you should know whether or not your party has a specialist in that check. This means the character has expertise in the check, and likely has an 18-20 in the relevant ability score. The most common of these are Rogues with Stealth/Slight of Hand/Thieves' Tools, or Bards with any of the Charisma-based skills. The Prodigy feat (XGtE pg 75) also allows half-elves, half-orcs, and humans to gain expertise in a skill.
Assuming you have a specialist in your party, you can assume their skill bonus will be the at the following levels at each tier.
- Tier 1: +5
- Tier 2: +9
- Tier 3: +13
- Tier 4: +17
So, if you have a Bard who specializes in Deception, you can throw really hard Deception checks at the party, right? Not exactly.
Skill checks are divided into three categories:
- If one person passes, we all pass (perception checks, knowledge checks, lock picking, etc)
- If one person fails, we all fail (stealth checks, deception checks, etc)
- If most of us pass, we succeed because we can help each other (athletics checks, performance checks, etc.)
The first category lets the specialists do their thing. Therefore, you can give very hard challenges in this category. Here's a cheat sheet:
- Tier 1: Mostly Medium challenges
- Tier 2: Mostly Hard Challenges
- Tier 3: Mostly Very Hard Challenges
- Tier 4: Mostly Nearly Impossible Challenges
Again, this shouldn't change how the world works. A standard lock is still DC 10. But you shouldn't be putting standard locks between the players and their goals in tier 4 play.
This also solves a big problem that comes up in the first category: if the specialist fails, everyone else wants to try. Many times, the Perception specialist rolls low on a check, only for the rest of the party to shout in chorus: "I look around too!" If the DC is built for a specialist, you can somewhat mitigate these effects.
If we use the average specialization bonuses, that means we get the following success percentages:
- Tier 1: 55% Success rate (chance of getting a 15 or higher with a +5 bonus)
- Tier 2: 45% Success rate (chance of getting a 20 or higher with a +9 bonus)
- Tier 3: 40% Success rate (chance of getting a 25 or higher with a +13 bonus)
- Tier 4: 35% Success rate (chance of getting a 30 or higher with a +17 bonus)
That might seem a little low. But remember that specialists (Rogues and Bards) also have abilities they can use to buff these checks. And the more uses of Bardic Inspiration they have, the more likely it should be needed for a good challenge. Plus, let's look at what happens when we add advantage to the roll...
- Tier 1: 75% Success rate (chance of getting a 15 or higher with a +5 bonus on two d20s)
- Tier 2: 70% Success rate (chance of getting a 20 or higher with a +9 bonus on two d20s)
- Tier 3: 64% Success rate (chance of getting a 25 or higher with a +13 bonus on two d20s)
- Tier 4: 58% Success rate (chance of getting a 30 or higher with a +17 bonus on two d20s)
Additionally, with the Help action and the Guidance cantrip, it's easy to see how these success rates can be buffed into acceptable ranges.
If you don't have any specialists in your party for a particular skill, use the third category's numbers instead.
In the second category, you are going for reverse specialization. Everything hinges on the lowest skill check. Therefore, when designing these checks, you'll have to lower the level of challenge. But do remember that parties will slowly gain access to better and better buff spells to help their weakest members. A Paladin with no Dex and Heavy Armor can still do pretty well on a Stealth check if the Ranger has Pass Without Trace. Here's the cheat sheet:
- Tier 1: Mostly Very Easy Challenges
- Tier 2: Mostly Easy Challenges
- Tier 3: Mostly Medium Challenges
- Tier 4: Mostly Hard Challenges
And yes, this perfectly explains the Passive perception of monsters. A Dragon with Passive Perception of 20 is a real threat when only one character has to fail to be noticed by them.
Note that if a character is by themselves, this can be counted into the first category. A rogue on their own can get away with much more difficult stealth challenges.
In the third category, you need to let your specialists shine, and your reverse-specialists fail. Which means the people who are average are going to decide the outcome. Time to use the middle of the road!
- Tier 1: Mostly Easy Challenges
- Tier 2: Mostly Medium Challenges
- Tier 3: Mostly Hard Challenges
- Tier 4: Mostly Very Hard Challenges
Again, it might seem like asking for DC 25 checks from the entire group is a bit too much. But at high levels, the players will basically have permanent advantage, access to tons of buff spells, and will hopefully be using the help action to its fullest. So expecting half the party to hit 25 isn't completely unreasonable.
|I need to sleight of hand myself a drink|
- Very Easy: Stay on your feet when shoved playfully
- Easy: Keep balance on a sheet of ice, do a somersault
- Medium: Stay upright when shoved forcefully, perform a dive
- Hard: Stay upright on a ship's deck or during an earthquake, perform a flip in midair
- Very Hard: Balance on a tightrope, perform a series of complex acrobatic maneuvers
- Nearly Impossible: Balance on the tip of a sword, use a weapon with your feet, dodge arrows
- Very Easy: Befriend a domesticated animal
- Easy: Calm a domesticated animal, spur a mount, discern an animal's intentions
- Medium: Calm a wild animal, keep a stable of domesticated animals
- Hard: Domesticate a wild animal, keep a mount from becoming spooked
- Very Hard: Calm a monster, keep a stable of animals who are naturally predatory
- Nearly Impossible: Calm a fiend or aberration, domesticate a monster
- Very Easy: Figure out what cantrip an enemy spellcaster is casting, identify a common magic item and know the lore around it
- Easy: Figure out an enemy's low-level spell, identify an uncommon magic item and know the lore around it
- Medium: Figure out an enemy's mid-level spell, identify a rare magic item and know the lore around it
- Hard: Figure out an enemy's high-level spell, identify a very rare magic item and know the lore around it
- Very Hard: Figure out an enemy's epic-level spell, identify a legendary magic item and know the lore around it
- Nearly Impossible: Figure out how a God's magic works, identify an artifact and know the lore around it, including how to destroy it
- Very Easy: Walk up an incline, tread water
- Easy: Climb a steep incline, swim quickly, leap 1 foot further than your maximum
- Medium: Climb a jagged natural wall, swimming against a current, leap 3 feet further than your maximum
- Hard: Climb a smooth natural wall, stay afloat while fighting someone in the water, leap 5 feet further than your maximum
- Very Hard: Climb a man-made wall, swim without injury in an ocean storm, leap 7 feet further than your maximum
- Nearly Impossible: Climb a glass wall or ceiling, run on water, leap 10 feet further than your maximum
- Very Easy: Lie to a child or idiot, lie to a friendly creature
- Easy: Lie to a commoner, win a casual game of poker
- Medium: Lie to a guard, bounty hunter, or street-savvy person, act normally while in disguise, lie to an indifferent creature
- Hard: Lie to a wizard, noble, or formally educated person, win a high-stakes game of poker
- Very Hard: Lie to someone who is an expert in the field you are talking about, win a professional game of poker, lie to a hostile creature
- Nearly Impossible: Lie to an angel or demigod
- Very Easy: Identify a legendary hero before you speak to them
- Easy: Identify a famous adventurer before you speak to them, use basic manners
- Medium: Identify a local hero before you speak to them, act as a part of polite society
- Hard: Identify an important person from a distant land before you speak to them, perfectly follow the customs of a noble court
- Very Hard: Identify a commoner before you speak to them
- Nearly Impossible: Identify a God in disguise before you speak to them
- Very Easy: Figure out the intentions of a child or drunk person
- Easy: Figure out the intentions of a commoner
- Medium: Figure out the intentions of a guard, thief, or someone from a rougher background
- Hard: Figure out the intentions of a noble, wizard, or well-to-do person
- Very Hard: Figure out the intentions of a professional negotiator, merchant, or conman
- Nearly Impossible: Figure out the intentions of an angel or demigod
- Very Easy: Scare a child or animal
- Easy: Scare a commoner
- Medium: Scare a noble, wizard, or well-to-do person
- Hard: Scare a guard, thief, or someone from a rougher background
- Very Hard: Scare a barbarian, Goliath, or Orc
- Nearly Impossible: Scare an angel or demigod
- Very Easy: Learn a piece of common knowledge
- Easy: Figure out how to disarm a simple trap, identify a weapon type from the shape of a wound
- Medium: Deduce the location of a hidden object, learn a piece of uncommon knowledge
- Hard: Figure out how to disarm a complex trap
- Very Hard: Learn a piece of rare or lost knowledge
- Nearly Impossible: Piece together a mystery from seemingly unrelated information
- Very Easy: Pick a sick person out of a lineup
- Easy: Basic first aid, identify and treat a common illness
- Medium: identify and treat an uncommon illness
- Hard: Practice medicine, identify and treat an internal injury
- Very Hard: Professional medicine, identify and treat a rare illness
- Nearly Impossible: Treat a creature whose physiology you haven't studied, identify and treat a brand new illness
- Very Easy: Identify domesticated animals
- Easy: Identify common plants and animals
- Medium: Identify uncommon plants and animals, recall the types of plants and animals in an area without having seen them there
- Hard: Identify rare plants and animals
- Very Hard: Predict the types of plants and animals in a type of terrain you've never been to before
- Nearly Impossible: Identify legendary plants and animals
- Very Easy: See a bright light, hear a voice originating within a few feet of you
- Easy: Catch an untrained person sneaking around, hear a conversation through a closed door, locate a poorly-hidden trap
- Medium: Hear a monster moving through its natural environment, hear a nearby whisper
- Hard: See a camouflaged creature, locate a well-hidden trap
- Very Hard: Read a creature's lips to understand what they are saying
- Nearly Impossible: Locate a trap set by a fiend or celestial, see an invisible creature
- Very Easy: Delight a child or idiot with your performance, delight a friendly creature
- Easy: Delight a commoner with your performance
- Medium: Delight a noble, wizard, or other well-to-do person with your performance, delight an indifferent creature
- Hard: Delight a world-weary or depressed person with your performance
- Very Hard: Delight a professional in your field with your performance, delight a hostile creature
- Nearly Impossible: Delight an angel or demigod with your performance
- Very Easy: Convince a child or idiot, convince a friendly creature
- Easy: Convince a commoner
- Medium: Convince a guard, bounty hunter, or street-savvy person, convince an indifferent creature
- Hard: Convince a wizard, noble, or formally educated person
- Very Hard: Convince a merchant or conman, convince a hostile creature
- Nearly Impossible: Convince an angel or demigod
- Very Easy: Recall the tenants, traditions, and deity lore of your own religion, recall your portion of a common prayer chant
- Easy: Recall the tenants, traditions, and deity lore of a common religion, recall a frequently used prayer from memory
- Medium: Recall a yearly prayer from memory, act appropriately to a high-ranking member of your religion
- Hard: Recall the tenants, traditions, and deity lore of an obscure or outlawed religion
- Very Hard: Recall a once-in-a decade prayer from memory, act appropriately to a high-ranking member of another religion
- Nearly Impossible: Recall the tenants, traditions, and deity lore of a long-dead religion
Sleight of Hand
- Very Easy: Shuffle a deck of cards, cross your fingers to resist a hag's curse
- Easy: Perform a simple magic trick, lift a few coins from a commoner's pocket
- Medium: Conceal a tiny object in your palm, steal a merchant's coin purse
- Hard: Perform a complex magic trick, steal a thief's coin purse, perform complex somatic components
- Very Hard: Steal a coin from a dragon, conceal a small (20-30 lbs.) object on your person
- Nearly Impossible: Steal a coin from an angel, erase a Glyph of Warding without setting it off
- Very Easy: Sneak up on a child, a mushroom, or an intensely focused person
- Easy: Sneak up on a commoner, or a person having a conversation
- Medium: Slip past a guard, scout, or hide from an angry mob
- Hard: Hide from guards who are actively looking for you, sneak past a creature with supernatural perception
- Very Hard: Sneak past an ancient dragon or angel, hide from a creature with supernatural perception that is actively looking for you
- Nearly Impossible: Hide from a divination spell, sneak past a God without their knowledge
- Very Easy: Find food and water in a city, catch a fish
- Easy: Find food and water in a forest, accurately predict tomorrow's weather
- Medium: Find food and water in a swamp or grassland, follow a clear trail left by a creature
- Hard: Find food and water in the mountains or underdark, accurately predict the weather three days from now, follow a light trail left by a creature
- Very Hard: Find food and water in a desert or in the outer planes or the multiverse, follow a creature's trail if they are purposefully evading you
- Nearly Impossible: Find food and water in the elemental planes, the astral/ethereal planes, or the less-hospitable outer planes of the multiverse, accurately predict the weather for a week
|Insert joke about your hometown here!|
Thanks for reading!