The DC 5 Skill Check Must Die!

In game design, role-playing games, techniques on December 2nd, 2007 at 9:40 pm

After helping Jay Little out with this year’s tournament adventure for XCrawl, I decided to check out a few other D&D/d20 modules. I was curious about the current state of the art, at least from major publishers, in adventure design. While D&D isn’t something that fits my style as a GM, some quality stuff is being published. I’m even a little tempted to tweak the modules in Paizo‘s new Pathfinder series and run them.

I have seen one disturbing practise repeated by numerous designers across all publishers. The DC 5 skill check sets a terrible example for new GMs, and it is a blight on the hobby.

The problem with them may not be immediately obvious. Consider the thought process that puts a DC 5 skill check into an adventure.

  1. “Hmmm…to get the players over here, they’ll have to know about this.”
  2. “I can’t just give it to them, though. That’s just not realistic. The noble/sage/ancient library/information source X wouldn’t just hand it to the characters without some persuasion. I better put a skill check on it.”
  3. “Ooooo…but if the players fail the skill check, the adventure will just grind to a halt.”
  4. “Aha! If I set the DC at 5, they can’t possibly fail!”

That seems reasonable enough on its surface.

Does it still seem so reasonable, though, when I point out that a roll of 1 is an automatic failure? To say nothing of the fact that many DMs make 1s critical failures? Roll a 1 and the adventure grinds to a horrible stop while the DM flails about for another plausible source. Or he makes the players re-roll the skill check until one of them succeeds, which points up just how ridiculous it was not to hand over the info in the first place, roll-free.

Why can’t the module designer just accept the fact that he wants—no, needs—the players to get this piece of information, and hand it to them without a roll? Step 2 above overlooks a key fact. RPGs are supposed to be fun, not another source of stress and frustration. This kind of adventure design creates fails this test.


  1. Couldn’t agree more, and I believe that the Gumshoe system takes just this sort of thing into account, though I have yet to play it myself. Also, a roll of 1 on a skill check in d20 isn’t an automatic failure, only a 1 on a saving throw or attack check.

    Also, it is cool to read a blog of a fellow Nova Scotian interested in Small Press (or whatever you like to call them) games. I am in Dartmouth myself. Keep up the good work, I have your blog in my rss reader.

  2. Hi Darren. Welcome to My Play.

    Hmm….my bad on the automatic failure thing, although I suspect it gets house-ruled to being an automatic failure or fumble a lot.

    Yes, Gumshoe is kind of designed to work around this exact problem, although I have heard that is has a couple of issues of its own, notably that a group can get screwed when they run out of resources. I may be wrong about that, though. I’ve never seen a Gumshoe game, let alone played one.

    Dirty Secrets takes another approach to the issue, by making the development of the mystery the core of the game, but I’m not sure if there’s any way of applying it’s system to any sort of game that’s not a straight-up whodunnit.

    And it is cool to hear from another “story games” (that’s the label I’ve been using) enthusiast in the area. I live about half an hour north of metro. Glad to have you “on board.”

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