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How to Choose DCs for Your 5e Game

by Mike on 6 November 2023

Here's a quick way to determine the difficulty class (DC) when characters attempt to accomplish a risky endeavor in your 5e RPG.

Think about the situation in the game's world. Then ask yourself, on a scale of 10 to 20, how hard would this action be to pull off? Pick a number and go with it.

Between 10 and 20

DCs can go as low or as high as you want, but there are practical limits. Below 10 and it's not worth rolling – just let the characters accomplish their goal. Above 20 might make sense when an objective is really hard but still possible. Trained characters with high ability scores can still hit DCs above 20, but not often. Sometimes it's better to just say something's impossible if it's really not possible.

Otherwise, picking a number between 10 and 20 works just fine.

Advice from the Dungeon Master's Guide

Buried way in the back on page 238 of the 2014 Dungeon Master's Guide, we find useful advice on choosing DCs:

If you’ve decided that an ability check is called for, then most likely the task at hand isn’t a very easy one. Most people can accomplish a DC 5 task with little chance of failure. Unless circumstances are unusual, let characters succeed at such a task without making a check.

Then ask yourself, “Is this task’s difficulty easy, moderate, or hard?” If the only DCs you ever use are 10, 15, and 20, your game will run just fine. Keep in mind that a character with a 10 in the associated ability and no proficiency will succeed at an easy task around 50 percent of the time. A moderate task requires a higher score or proficiency for success, whereas a hard task typically requires both. A big dose of luck with the d20 also doesn’t hurt.

If you find yourself thinking, “This task is especially hard,” you can use a higher DC, but do so with caution and consider the level of the characters. A DC 25 task is very hard for low-level characters to accomplish, but it becomes more reasonable after 10th level or so. A DC 30 check is nearly impossible for most low-level characters. A 20th-level character with proficiency and a relevant ability score of 20 still needs a 19 or 20 on the die roll to succeed at a task of this difficulty.

Don't Overthink It

Don't get your head too wrapped up around DCs. Go with your gut. Think about the difficulty of the situation in the world and choose a number.

Don't Set DCs Based on the Characters

Don't set your DCs based on the characters, their proficiencies, or other abilities they have. If they're good at something, let them be good at it. Choose DCs regardless of who's attempting it. An approach might change a DC. If you're trying to intimidate the lich (DC 32), that may not work out very well, but flattery might (DC 14)! Just because the bard has a +12 in Persuasion doesn't mean the lich becomes harder to flatter.

Keep Your Head in the World

This advice feeds into a bigger tip – keep your head in the game's world. Think about things from inside the world. What is it really like there? How hard are the situations the characters attempt? What are the NPCs really like?

5e games are about building a world and wrapping it in DCs against which the characters attempt actions using their ability bonuses, skill proficiencies, and a d20 roll. Every rock, every crevasse, every locked door, every scowling bar bouncer – they all have little DCs floating over them. All you have to do is look at them in the context of the world and read what they say.

Imagine the situation in the world and choose a number between 10 and 20.

Helping Jennell Jaquays

Esteemed D&D designer Jennell Jaquays, the inspiration for many fantastic dungeon design principles, is battling some difficult medical conditions and could use your help. Please help her out on the GoFundMe set up by her wife.

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