Stop Setting DCs?

This discussion started with Sorcho (Ed Heil) on the Discord channel brought a video to the attention of the larger group. The video comes from the channel of Cetx Etc and can be found here.

Feel free to have a listen, it is less than 11m in duration.  

In the video, the author expresses the idea that DC or Difficulty Class is arbitrary and that setting the DC gives the Game Master (GM) extra authority, elevating them over the other players. The arbitrary nature of DC makes it difficult to decide how challenging an action is in comparison to other actions. Cetx Etc proposes a solution to this problem, but (spoiler) I think the solution causes more issues and does not address the problem at all. Not in a meaningful way.

Although the video shows Shadowrun and shows and mentions Call of Cthulhu, the focus here is on D&D 5E, Tales of the Valiant, and Pathfinder. I think Pathfinder 2nd edition. Never mentioned are the dozens of games that handle this situation in a different and often successful way. But since this is pointed right at the D&D sphere, I want to tie it into some actual play of D&D.

UA Playtest Material

The group I play Champions and Marvel Super Heroes with decided they wanted to try out the new Unearthed Arcana playtest material for the new version of D&D 5E… which is not how versions work, but I digress. I offered to DM, because I have no desire to play 5E, but nam scientia, I offered to run it for them. I chose 3rd level for all characters, as that is where everyone gets their sub-class. For a situation I fell back on an oldie but goodie, I chose the Manor House / Dungeon from Mentzer’s* Basic D&D as it had a variety of challenges but was not too monster heavy once you were inside. 

There is a paladin, bard, rogue, ranger, and druid. I did not think D&D could create even more powerful fantasy Special Ops characters, but they have managed it. Kobolds have been, to borrow a phrase, nerfed, with their Pack Tactics removed. The party slaughtered zombies, kobolds, and harpies on their way to clearing the first floor of the dungeon. 

On the second level, I managed to ambush the group. They were feeling cocky and I managed to use ranged hit and run attacks to wear the group down. And then they lined up in lightning bolt formation. I had given the kobold sorcerer leader a lightning bolt because of kobolds association with dragons. I thought at most I would catch 2 party members but I hit four of the 5 and three of them went down in a heap. The party scrambled to heal the dying members, while my sorcerer and her last soldier fled to team up with Bargle. We have one more session. I’ll let you know how it goes.

DC is a Speed Bump, not a Road Block

One of the fundamental issues with Cetx Etc’s solution, which I will get to in a moment, is that it ignores some of the fundamental design reasoning behind 5E-related D&D games. Heroes are supposed to succeed most of the time and even low level, 1st level, characters are meant to be hypercompetent. When a DC is set by established designers, they are designing the situation with that in mind. Resolution in these games is still, largely, pass-fail. You hit or you don’t. You save or you don’t. Gone are many of the truly horrific ends to failure. This is the design thesis statement for this set of games. And DM’s take their cue from these published encounters, but there is flexibility baked in. As a DM I can adjust a set encounter if needed to ramp up or diminish the challenge. Not every tightrope challenge is the same.

Cetx Etc’s solution is this: Take proficiency modifier and double it, add it to ability modifier and then you have the threshold number. Example. Prof is 2, ability modifier is 2 so your Threshold is 6. And, although they are not explicit, it is implied that you roll low. This creates a 30% chance of success for a 1st to 4th level character.

My Issues

This is already long so let me do this in points.

  • It ignores that these systems are designed to be roll high systems. One can subtract Etc’s solution from 20 and get the same result but for rolling high. Even so, without the modifiers added to the roll, that low chance of success undermines the design and makes play incoherent.
  • It only works for skills. And it only works if there is no variance in situations regarding the use of those skills. I guess you could use advantage / disadvantage but I mean, even then I am not sure its effective. 
  • It does not work for other aspects of the game. It does not work for untrained skills. It sure does not work for combat. 
  • I am not sure it solves the fundamental problem of DCs being too arbitrary. I disagree with that assertion in any case, but I can see where someone feel that way or their experience has not been good with DC.
  • In a system that gives DMs the authority to set a DC for a particular action, it removes that authority. 

Ironically, I think Cetx Etc.’s problem is solved by a game system they mention but did not follow up on and that is a % based skill system like Call of Cthulhu. Success is based on the character’s abilities and can be adjusted by the Keeper for more difficult situations.

Many folks had thoughts on the video, so please feel free to chime in. My reaction has been largely one of opportunity, and I would love for folks to critique my reactions to. Especially if someone could do the maths. 

*An aside, because its fair to acknowledge things like this. Frank M has been accused of some bad behavior over the years. My choice to run this adventure is in no way a defense of or support for that behavior.

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5 responses to “Stop Setting DCs?”

  1. Generally I agree with you on two levels. The video lays out a set of problems and then offers a solution but the connection between the problem and the solution is not so clear. Secondly, I don’t think setting DCs is particularly taxing or otherwise problematic in a system where that is what the GM does. It some ways it gives one the flexibility to make different problems, well, different.

  2. (Disclaimer: There is one TTRPG published under the D&D Trademark I like, and perhaps one or two games mechanically derived from some publication with D&D on it I’ll play.)

    I can’t speak to the specific mechanical nuances of the proposed rules, but it doesn’t matter. The issue expressed isn’t one that can be engineered away. I’ve encountered this specific *anxiety* more than once. It is a hell of one’s own making. Look at what is expressed in this video – the anxieties are around delivering a set experience!

    From the video, after 9 minutes in.

    “…the fact of TTRPG is that success is the actual default setting, for an rpg to continue the player character’s have to ultimately succeed or they tend to die or stagnate or they fail and the world adjusts around them and creates a new game plot. Either way skill tests aren’t’ deciding the outcome of the story, they way the story gets told.”

    If one is working for a mindset that the DM is the deliverer of The Adventure™, the provider of fun, the guide down the path or maintainer of engagement. You are creating anxieties, making problems and frankly wasting your time with needless worry.

    Again, you can’t engineer this away.

    • I completely agree with you.

      It also raises the valid question of what target numbers actually do, within a given system, in a positive context of genuinely playing. The answers in this case would not be fixes, as for a problem, but an understanding of something enjoyable.

    • I’ve been chewing on this for a bit. I read over and reminisced about games that use variable Target Numbers set by a Game Master.

      For me, it comes down to creating an interactable world that exists independently of the player characters. It can create meaningful distinctions between places and characters by providing something to measure one against the other.

      In a game of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons (using the Essentials Rules Compendium), I used the Difficulty Classes as a tool to flesh out the environment. Journeying down well traveled and patrolled roads would be a lower DC, than cutting across country. It was a means to create a “character sheet” for things beyond People, Critters and Creatures.

      This edition of 4e has a few different ways of determining DC, each with its own qualities and uses in play. These rules pushed me to consider the environment and people more-so than I normally would at the time. An additional benefit was when I needed to set a DC, the process I adopted made it intuitive and easy to do so.

  3. I think the video creator’s take that setting DCs as a GM is the one GM job that goes “too far” is a little bizarre, but I do have sympathy with it based on my play experience.

    The thing I’ve GMed most recently with DCs was Worlds Without Number, which has your typical 3e D&D and beyond DC-setting and attendant advice. Almost every time I found it a tiny bit wearying to set a DC. I never felt quite sure I was doing it “right”, i.e., providing the fair level of challenge to the PCs and bringing the world or a threat to life in the way I wanted to.

    When I skimmed Runequest 2 shortly after running this (which uses the roll-under skill system he lauds in this video), it felt really welcome, the easing of a burden.

    Of course these two ways of doing a thing are just two ways of doing a thing, with features that may be positive or negative in any given context. I’m currently playing in a 1-GM, 1-PC game of Burning Wheel, and setting DCs (Obstacles in that game) is an extremely frequent part of the procedures of play. Now, I’m not GMing that game, but setting Obs in BW has never felt so fraught as setting DCs, and Obs are way more important to BW than DCs in Worlds Without Number. To the video maker’s point, in BW the designer does a huge amount of work in showing example Obs for nearly every skill, and the culture of play around BW is such that players often become a part of the Ob-setting process, since everyone can look up the Ob examples in the skill list and we can discuss what’s appropriate.

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