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.
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.