Small rant on skill DCs for multitable specials.


Pathfinder Society Roleplaying Guild

**** Venture-Agent, Netherlands—Utrecht aka Quentin Coldwater

First off, I love the fact that there's now a simple table for skill checks and saves. Makes it much easier to reference.

I just ran the Hao Jin Cataclysm special, and once again I was suprised by how easy the skill checks are. I am going to have to spoil the DCs of these checks by necessity to be able to talk about them, but I will give ample warning so people can go in blind if they don't want to be spoiled.

My main concern is that all these skill DCs seem way too low, removing all challenge from the game. I didn't tell what the DCs were, but I knew from the start that whoever was attempting the check had a 90% chance of making that check, even the Hard check DCs. I know for specials you can't be guaranteed to have a specialist in certain skills at every table, and you want the game to keep moving at a certain pace due to limited time, but if players catch on to the fact that the skills are only pretty much mandatory obligations in order to proceed, it removes all excitement. My players literally made all of the checks except for two, which were social checks because people wanted to take part in the conversation, as someone else was doing all of the other checks on his own. Ideally, I'd like to see more difficult checks, but with even more leniency to which skills apply, in order to increase the chance of multiple people trying to succeed. I'll come back to that once I've crunched the numbers below.

Skill check DCs and breakdown:

I ran tier 5-6, so I'll mainly focus on that. However, all the other tiers scale pretty evenly, so this applies to all other tiers as well.
The Easy DC is 16, Moderate is 20, Hard is 24.
Now, assuming a level 5 character has put a rank into the tested skill at every level, he's already rocking a +8 (+5 from ranks, +3 from it being a class skill).
Probably at least a 10 in the relevant stat, at max 20 (from headband/belt), maybe 22 if you really cheesed it. So that's at least a +0, at max a +6. Let's be conservative and say +2.
And maybe a +2 from miscellaneous things such as traits/feats, active spells or magical gear boosting the skill.
This person is rocking a +12, before aid anothers are even factored in. That means that for this person, succeeding at a Hard DC means rolling a 12. And that person, assuming he's pretty good at this skill, only has a +2 in that stat. Casters can easily have a +5 instead, so that Knowledge or Diplomacy check can be made while taking 10. That doesn't sound like it's Hard, right? Yeah, it'll be Hard for people who aren't specialised in that specific stat, or haven't put ranks in that skill every level, but that's where this system becomes weird. To make it a challenge for the specialised people means making it virtually impossible for the average character. That DC 24 Diplomacy check is very difficult to make if you have a Charisma of 10 or didn't spend a skill point at each level, for instance. How can we make this fair?

I have some ideas how this problem can be balanced. None of them are perfect, I have to admit, but maybe we can collectively suggest some cool things. First is the problem of balancing skill DCs between non-specialists and specialists. If we simply up the skill DC so even specialists have trouble with it, it'll become impossible for non-specialists to make those checks. The combination of skill ranks and stat bonuses increase the disparity disproportionally. A smart character will obviously invest more in INT-based skill checks than non-smart people. In this regard, I kinda like PF2's system of skills, where those disparities are much smaller, but that's beside the point. One possible solution is, aside from setting a skill DC, setting a stat DC. Say for instance a DC 30 skill check is needed to succeed, or a DC 17 in the relevant stat. A person who hasn't invested much in that skill can't possibly make that skill DC, but could possibly make that stat check, if he's lucky and didn't totally dump that stat (assuming a stat of 10, that's a 20% chance of him making it, which seems like a proper Hard check).
A different idea is to allow automatic assisting, like some scenarios do in the more recent chase variants. Everyone rolls, everyone who gets a 10 automatically assists the highest roll. This means that a person with an average skill modifier who rolled well can still beat a specialist who rolled poorly. I've seen so many times where people assisted the best modifier to boost him even more, only for him to roll a natural 1, while a second person who rolled alone for the hell of it would've succeeded if they'd assisted him. This also makes the special more accessible and fast-paced, as there's no bickering about who is assisting whom. Also, this allows the skill DCs to increase even more, as there's more chance that people can try the check and roll well. It feels really cool to beat that DC 30 through teamwork, rather than one person making the DC 22 just because he's the only one trained in it (one person out of one needs to roll a 13+ to succeed, versus one person out of five needing to roll an 18+, for instance. Mathematically it's more likely the latter's going to happen, for instance).
A third option I see is to up the DC, but allow even more skills to apply. This won't work all the time, as it might not always make sense in the fiction, but it allows more skills to apply. A social encounter might specifically need Diplomacy to pass, but maybe a Sense Motive to intuit what the person wants to hear, or a relevant Knowledge check to bring up cold hard facts could work as well. Most social encounters already do this, but really open it up. Or explicitly let people come up with things on their own. If you need to cross a river and the party needs to make an X amount of checks, the scenario suggest building a raft using Craft, Profession, or Survival, but maybe just leave it at "you need to cross a river." If a player comes up with building a raft, other people can build on that, offering to go find wood, find the best place to enter the water, and so on. The same skills essentially apply, but it allows players to think outside the box and really be creative. If the Rogue has maxed Sleight of Hand, let him tie the knots, for instance. It doesn't matter which skill is rolled, just that the check is made. Now people can actually roleplay and add to the story.

So, basically these are my grievances with the last few specials. The specials themselves have been great, don't get me wrong. I just feel like not as much thought has been given to the skills as the story and the combats, I mean.

Sovereign Court **** Venture-Lieutenant, Netherlands—Leiden aka Ascalaphus

I can pretty much echo Kwinten's frustrations. I ran Scoured Stars Invasion last saturday, and the table didn't fail a single Hard check; I'm pretty sure they could have made all of them on Take 10. Yesterday I played the Hao Jin Cataclysm, and quite often at least one of the requested skills for a check I could not fail the hard DC on a 1.

I'm not sure what the best solution is. I don't think widening the range of requested skills is it; as-is, I got to apply my best skills quite often already.

Something that's worked better was requiring more PCs to input with checks; like saying each PC can do a check as a standard action, and there's time pressure to accumulate enough successes. This does let specialists shine, but they also need the other people to pitch in. By rotating which (from a not-too-big-list) skills are required, different people get to be the specialist.


A thought off the top of my head is challenges which require X number of successes before Y number of failures off a list of 5 or 6 skills with different DCs depending on which skill is used. I've seen that mechanic in a couple of scenarios. An alternative is having the DC go up with each failed check.

Shadow Lodge ***** Venture-Lieutenant, California—San Francisco Bay Area North & East aka thistledown

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Huh. When I ran Solstice Scar 3 at tier 10-11, they could almost never succeed at any of the skill checks.

**** Venture-Agent, Netherlands—Utrecht aka Quentin Coldwater

The "make X out of Y checks" is indeed a good one, and one I like. Even better would be if a player can only do one check, to incentivise other people to chip in as well. That works best for social encounters, but would maybe make less sense for other skill challenges. Then again, the "limited timespan" Lau suggested also helps: "Player A is busy making a raft, and it doesn't seem like there's much time afterwards. What are you going to do in the meantime?"

Raising the DC after each failed check seems counterintuitive, as that encourages only having specialists do the checks even more.

The main problem I see, and this is even worse at higher levels, is that Pathfinder rewards specialisation. If you're only moderately good at something, you might as well not have put effort into it at all. A Fighter is never going to make that DC 30 Knowledge check reliably until at least level 10 or so, while a Wizard can do that around level 5. At level 1 and 2, making a DC 18 Diplomacy check is still pretty tough for everyone, even Bards, but everyone can theoretically make it. Once the DCs go above 20, the chances of non-specialists making those checks go way down, as there's no way a Sorcerer is going to make a DC 23 Sense Motive, for instance. It's not a class skill, and it's not important for their class, so putting points in it is nearly pointless when the Inquisitor can do it without effort. Trying to cater to both of these characters at once is futile.

Another issue I see is assigning meaning to the numbers. What should an "easy" check entail? Assuming a 10 in all stats for commoners, is an Easy check a check that they can possibly fail (e.g. DC 5), or can take 10 on? Or similarly, is an Average check supposed to mean moderately challenging, or do I have to put in any kind of effort at all? The difference being, in the first example taking 10, essentially half-assing it, means I still make it, while in the second example I still need to roll above a 10. And is a Hard check only possible to be made by specialists, or can anyone who has moderately invested into that skill accomplish it? From what I can tell from the skill check table from the special, Paizo seems to think an Easy check is taking 10, Average is slightly more, Hard is rolling a 15 on the d20, all taking non-specialists into account. I don't necessarily need a reworking of this system, but some clarification would give me insight into the developer's mind of what he/she intended.

Let me repeat that last bit: all taking non-specialists into account. Developers seem to think that, and this is reflected in the spoiler tag in my first post, a hard check is hard for someone with only a smattering of effort put into that skill. This is an incredibly small sample size, but after having seen every special with the easy/moderate/hard system at least once, I've never seen people be screwed over by this. Again, I can understand Paizo wanting specials to be easy-access and guarantee to be able to make the checks, even with unfortunate table arrangements, but I find the current system lacking teeth. There's no excitement anymore. Veterans know by now that they'll be able to make the checks almost no matter what, and even the newbies at my latest table were catching on halfway through. Specials aren't just special because there's multiple people in the room playing the same adventure, but because I want to see cool things happening. Beating impossible odds, and so on. I've seen people be down on the Year of the Shadow Lodge special, but my favourite moment was beating that DC 50 door. That felt cool. I know it goes into the face of design policy, but I want specialisation to be rewarded. If a non-specialist can beat a Hard check without problems, things are going wrong. Sometimes people need to fail. That makes victory all the sweeter.

One possible solution to that last bit is to either make an extra tier of difficulty, or maybe include an "if people beat the DC by X or more..." text. That way, excellence (or sheer luck) is rewarded, and a GM can say, "because of your incredible efforts, you manage to squeeze out a bit extra," which always feels good.


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I have seen in scenarios language to the effect of "Exceeding the DC by 5 or more counts as 2 successes." That could easily go into a multitable special and reward a specialist without taking away the ability of someone less specialized to contribute to overall success.

*

In addition, it could turn into Really Not Fun if no one at the table has say, K: Religion for PFS2 9-99: Temple of the Slime Lord and there's a whole buncha rolls that no one has the skill trained for.

There needs to be a work-around for 'The One True Skill' in a given scenario, whether the information is less valuable yet pertinent, or to prevent the GM just throwing encounters at players because they can't make any of the informing checks to avoid said encounters.

...or spend two hours trying to cross a pit trap because no one has any applicable skills and they keep trying to shoehorn ones that are really not appropriate to make it work...

Shadow Lodge ***** ⦵⦵

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I don't see what the alleged challenge is supposed to be when the objective is "get a high number on a skill check"

Combat has a lot of elements beyond build: Spell seclection, positioning, when to use certain combat maneuvers, where a modicum of skill, teamwork and cunning can make a fair bit of difference. If you want that to be harder people can up their game to meet the challenge.

But skills don't have that. By and large they're a straight forward linear this is your D20 and this is your bonus. Thats it. Making them "more challenging" is just saying you want people to fail more often and there's no player agency to mitigate that.

If someone has gone all in on a skill to the point that they can make a hard check on a 1 that's their characters way of being heroic. They should be rewarded for that. You shouldn't punish them (and everyone else) with escalating the skill check DCs. The check actually IS hard. Thats why an expert can fail at it.

Extra rewards for hitting absurd DCs are fine though.

Sovereign Court **** Venture-Lieutenant, Netherlands—Leiden aka Ascalaphus

@BNW: both as a GM and a player, skill challenges become a lot less exciting when you realize you'll consistently succeed at them because they're too easy.

Grand Lodge ***** Venture-Captain, Arizona—Phoenix aka TriOmegaZero

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It also becomes a lot less exciting when you're just repetitively rolling your check with no actual choices to make.

*

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Lau Bannenberg wrote:
@BNW: both as a GM and a player, skill challenges become a lot less exciting when you realize you'll consistently succeed at them because they're too easy.

That is because the specialist do not want exciting, they want to succeed. That is why they invested so heavily in that area.

Shadow Lodge **** Venture-Captain, California—San Francisco Bay Area South & West aka JohnF

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While a scenario that's too easy may be less exciting, I think that's generally preferable to a scenario that's too hard (and potentially lethal).

Sovereign Court **** Venture-Lieutenant, Netherlands—Leiden aka Ascalaphus

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John Francis wrote:


While a scenario that's too easy may be less exciting, I think that's generally preferable to a scenario that's too hard (and potentially lethal).

I understand the specials are written to also be accessible to new players, and that's a good thing. But they're mostly playing at the low tiers. Maybe the difficulty scale could be a bit steeper from the 5-6 tier onwards?

**** Venture-Agent, Netherlands—Utrecht aka Quentin Coldwater

thorin001 wrote:
Lau Bannenberg wrote:
@BNW: both as a GM and a player, skill challenges become a lot less exciting when you realize you'll consistently succeed at them because they're too easy.
That is because the specialist do not want exciting, they want to succeed. That is why they invested so heavily in that area.

That's why one of the possible improvements I suggested was an even wider range of skills. If one guy wants to be the absolute best in Craft: Balloon Animals, and it never comes up, that also feels like a waste. Specialists can still do their thing, while dabblers also get a chance at succeeding.

During the last few specials, specialists literally couldn't fail, or only if they rolled a 1 or 2. Yeah, they're specialists, that's what they do, but I feel like specialists should still have a chance to fail. Just spewing random numbers here, but let's say a specialist needs to roll a 7+, while a dabbler needs 14+ or something. Luck of the dice is still a thing, so you don't want it to be too hard, but if you choose your skills carefully, pretty much everyone can roll. Statistically, out of a group of 4 players, someone is bound to roll a 15+. And if not, well, it's a Hard check after all, you're not supposed to succeed at hard checks all the time.

EDIT: Also, I like the idea of making X out of Y checks. I've mentioned it before, but that really alleviates that kind of problem. High numbers are hard to hit, but if you just need a majority, that evens out. You need to balance the number of checks against the allotted time, but I think an increase in that number would be nice, IMHO.

Dark Archive *

Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Having X of Y will only work if there's enough individuals with the skills (I'm looking at the trained-only ones) to actually make the roll.

Otherwise it could really turn into a slog if the specialist's die rolls are only a small fraction of the needed successes.

Shadow Lodge ***** ⦵⦵

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Kwinten Koëter wrote:
but let's say a specialist needs to roll a 7+, while a dabbler needs 14+ or something

Oh hell no.

You need some of those rolls to advance the plot and get the story. You could quite easily have no one at the table who can make 1 roll and then keep failing at the second one again and again and again.


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Kwinten Koëter wrote:


<snip>
That's why one of the possible improvements I suggested was an even wider range of skills. If one guy wants to be the absolute best in Craft: Balloon Animals, and it never comes up, that also feels like a waste. Specialists can still do their thing, while dabblers also get a chance at succeeding.

During the last few specials, specialists literally couldn't fail, or only if they rolled a 1 or 2. Yeah, they're specialists, that's what they do, but I feel like specialists should still have a chance to fail. Just spewing random numbers here, but let's say a specialist needs to roll a 7+, while a dabbler needs 14+ or something. Luck of the dice is still a thing, so you don't want it to be too hard, but if you choose your skills carefully, pretty much everyone can roll. Statistically, out of a group of 4 players, someone is bound to roll a 15+. And if not, well, it's a Hard check after all, you're not supposed to succeed at hard checks all the time.

It's still a hard check. The specialist has just invested a lot of skill ranks, feats, and magic to be able to do the hard things. As an example, it takes a lot of work and investment to have a +37 in perception, but the payoff is making that DC50 check to spot something that was supposed to be perfectly hidden.

Venture-Agent aka MadScientistWorking

Kwinten Koëter wrote:
That DC 24 Diplomacy check is very difficult to make if you have a Charisma of 10 or didn't spend a skill point at each level, for instance. How can we make this fair?

Actually, its really easy to make a DC 24 check with a base score of 10 and less skill points of every level. That's kind of what makes specialists really bad trying to base difficulty around because in that tier range depending on the skill you'll have around a 20 base check.

**

With PF 1.0 at the end of its lifecycle, lessons about this should probably taken into design of 2.0 more than flipping it

I ran 10-00 for a 4man table 10-11, with 2 int characters (A wizard and an alchemist). They failed a single hard knowledge check by exactly 1, on having 2 3's rolled.

There is a very large skill disparity inherent in the system. I have 10 PFS characters currently (10 different classes), and the hunter and the warpriest can pretty much only make perception and sense motive checks, the monk only intimidate, and not hit any of the treshholds on a 20. Meanwhile my Bard, Arcanist, and Witch would all of these on hard on a 5 at the lowest. Before assists or items. My upcoming Rebirth Psychic, probably on 1's. The combo of Int class + Bardic Knowledge is complete overkill. Our lodge has 1 Bard / Lore Oracle which is potentially more ridiculous.

This makes designing a skill challenge almost impossible. Either you exclude the lower half of your player base completely, or you trivialize it for tables that do make it.

The problem is more fundamental than "these rules that have to fit in 2 paragraphs and be understood by the players are unfun."

That said, let's take a stab at it:

1. Encourage spending resources for bonuses (The special does do this, by giving a static bonus for "creative solutions"). But you could replace this by a "boosted" reward that is only given in return of somewhat serious investment. On average such a thing should pay off, but not always (Just like being Good should probably pay off in the long run, but can also really screw you over).
2. Make it clear that roleplay can give bonuses.
2. Have multiple treshholds per roll, and different success conditions. For instance, the best result could need 5 successes, where 1 player can get a maximum of 3. An assist would instead be 1 success.

The downside is that any system with more math than this would probably be bad to run on a special. I really like when different sections use different rules, but I already winged some things because I'm also dealing with 20 potential combat encounters, a ticking clock per segment, modifiers on announcement, and in our case, ambient noise drowning out the table at times so rules were missed by players.

There's also some statistics involved here that's easily overlooked.
Say only 1 person can make a check. The odds of him rolling a 16 or higher are 25%. So that sounds pretty tough.
But if you let 6 players roll, the odds are (1-16^6/20^6)~74%.
So a check that is personally hard, is actually easy for the table.
And this is why a multi "success" system works better than a single treshhold.

In scenarios, I would highly encourage a bit more unique or complex systems. For instance, like Shores of Heaven did.

But the real work needs to be done in 2.0 so that characters at the same level can't be more than a +10 apart. That way you can stick it on a 10 for the true specialist, a group can work together to make a somewhat invested character have a 50/50, or a lone dude can lucky and roll a 20.

Shadow Lodge ***** ⦵⦵

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PF 2 is heading that way but its creating a fair bit of its own problems.

****

I find that the table of skill DCs is artificial and doesn't actually reflect the task at hand.

But I accept that it's the only way to write a special without writing bespoke content for every tier.

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