The Difficulty Class by Level Chart

As a player and a DM, I hate having to stop the game to look up rules; a silly statement, to be sure, as I doubt there are many gamers who enjoy seeing the flow of a session disrupted just to look up a rule.

One rule—or set of rules, rather—that my group consistently has trouble with are skill check DC’s. Each skill has a multitude of ways it can be used, and each of those uses has a different way of determining the DC.

Take a look at Arcana: There are three suggested ways to use it listed in the Rules Compendium (four if you look in the Player’s Handbook), and each use has its own complicated way of determining a DC, along with effects for success and failure. After a while, you’d think I’d start to memorize the information there—but I haven’t. And neither has my group’s magic-user.

That’s just Arcana—don’t get me started on Athletics! For the life of me, I’ve never been able to remember how to calculate high jumps or long jumps. Each use has almost a page of text describing how to calculate the DC!

On average, I found we were spending 25-30 minutes of a four-hour game looking up rules related to skill checks. After I decided the madness had to stop, I turned to my old friend, the Difficulty Class by Level table on page 126 of the Rules Compendium.

Any time a character does something out of the ordinary—something where there isn’t already an established DC— the Difficulty Class by Level table assists DM’s in finding an appropriate DC based on the level of the creature and the difficulty of what they’re trying to achieve. For example, if Maril, a 1st-level wizard, is trying to do something very difficult, the DC would be 19. It’s that easy.

That’s when it hit me: Why can’t every DC come from this table, ignoring any pre-written DC’s established in the skill chapter?

If Maril wants to jump over a pit at 1st level, I just need to think in my head: how hard is it? Is it no larger than 5 feet across? It’ll probably be easy, making the DC 8. Or maybe it’s more difficult and I think he’ll have some trouble making the distance: a moderate DC of 1st level is 12. What if Maril is trying to determine if there is a magical phenomenon in the immediate area? I decide that he has an easy chance of discovering a magic spell cast on the lock of a door and set the DC to 8. Or maybe there’s a strange conjuration in place and I think that he’ll have a very difficult chance of discovering it—the DC is set to 19.

As much as I’d like to take complete credit for this idea, most of the skills chapter already operates under the assumption that DM’s are doing this. For examples of this in action, see the rules for balancing, bluffing, diplomacy, insight, intimidate, streetwise, and thievery. Many of the uses for these skills already use the Difficulty Class by Level table. My thought was to make its use consistent across the board: any use of any skill will draw its DC from the table, based on the level of the creature performing the act and the difficulty of the task.

Like with most house rules, this one doesn’t come without some oddities—certain acts that should have a static difficulty technically get harder as the characters level.

For example, an easy to jump pit is DC 8 at 1st level. At 30th level, that same hole in the ground suddenly becomes DC 24 to jump over. It’s the same pit, so why should it be harder to jump just because the characters are of a higher level? If anything, it should be easier! One way around this conundrum is, if it’s something a 1st-level character could do easily, it should be an automatic success for a 30th-level character.

Though this house rule may require a bit more DM adjudication than before, it instantly reduces the amount of rulebook page turning—at least as far as skills are concerned—to zero. All a DM has to remember is three simple numbers—the easy, moderate, and hard DC for the level of the adventurers. These numbers could easily be written down on a note card or in the margins of the current adventure. Of course, the Dungeon Master’s Screen also has the Difficulty Class by Level table printed right on its surface, along with an enormous amount of other useful information.

I realize this house rule isn’t for everyone; for groups trying to simulate real life, it’s the opposite of what they would find enjoyable. But for my group, who’s looking for a mixture of realism and cinematic excitement, this kind of house rule lets us focus more on what’s important: playing the game.

Two last additions to this house rule: skill failures and retries.

Many skill rolls come with consequences if the check is failed by 5 or more. Don’t forget about this minor, yet important rule! If a 15th-level character is rolling against an easy DC of 15, and they roll a 10 or less, they’re going to suffer some negative effect, which can be anything from falling, to drowning, to misremembering a bit of history. How bad the consequences of such failure is depends on the check being rolled and whether the check was supposed to be easy, moderate, or hard. DM common sense will definitely come into play here.

As for whether retries are allowed, that will tie largely into how badly the roll failed. If it failed by 5 or more, then a retry will almost never be allowed without some change to the situation. If the failure was by 4 or less, then a retry will almost always be allowed. Again, this will rely largely on DM common sense and what makes the most sense to the story and the situation.

Our group has discovered that one exception to the above house rule esists: the Stabilize the Dying use of Heal, which is listed in the Rules Compendium as a flat DC 15.

At first level, under my house rule, the DC is 8 (I would always make any checks to help comrades an easy DC). However, at level 16, the DC is now 16—one point higher than the standard rule, and technically 5% more difficult than it should be. At 30th level, stabalizing a dying comrade jumps all the way to DC 24! Of course, you could just handwave it by saying, “At 30th-level, characters are so good at what they do, they can automatically stabilize dying friends.

However you choose to work it—whether Stabalize the Dying becomes an exception to the house rule or you just handwave it after a certain level—it’s important to note that some interesting issues could crop up.