In a recent session of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the players jumped on skis and whisked their way down the mountainside, pursued by the cultists’ elite ski troopers –Â dwarves armed with crossbows.
Cue the James Bond music, please.
A little DIY
It was a chance to put into play the chase rules as detailed in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.
For the DIY crowd, the d20 chart in the DMG was easily adaptable to cards, which I always prefer for chases.
I think there is more immediacy to a chase when the players draw a card, read the resolution conditions on the card for themselves, then roll for their chances.
(It’s the same chance as a GM’s random obstacle chart. It’s just that any chance I get to take stuff from behind the GM screen and place it in front of the players, I’ll do it.)
In this case, I left the DCs at 10, and occasionally at 15, matching the suggested targets given as examples in the DMG. This was the first time I had used the rulebook’s chase rules, so this example in play would serve to help me set the baseline for future uses.
With DCs set so low, all the PCs hit those targets with ease. The chase turned out not to be a challenge for them. That was OK for the purposes of the story at that point: They were supposed to rule the slopes and mop up the cult’s snowtroopers for a fast-paced encounter.
But if there was any sense of jeopardy, it vanished quickly. If I am to use this particular chase mechanic in the future, I’ll need to make some adjustments.
Moving target numbers
Setting target numbers for the players’ difficulty chances has always been as much art as science.
The last three editions of Dungeons and Dragons has used the same mechanic to good effect. The GM (or rules) sets a target number (usually increments of 5 from 0 to 45) and the player makes a skill or ability check using a d20 roll, adjusting it with appropriate modifiers.
The adjustment on my part has been the sliding power scale of the player characters’ abilities. Knowing where to set the target so that it is both an appropriate challenge to those characters and a fitting match to that point in the story.
As a matter of practice, I had third edition down cold. Experience on both sides of the screen gave me strong sense of where the target numbers should be for a given situation. For published modules, I knew when the target DCs were good and when they needed to be shifted.
The power curve for fourth edition was completely different, and the suggested DCs on the Dungeon Master’s Screen were of little help. But it must be said, the idea that there was a “range” of target DCs, for easy, moderate and difficult situations, codified what had been only hinted at as a “loose” system in third edition.
Now we’re working with fifth edition, which has a much flatter power curve. It should make setting DCs easier, and with time and experience, that mastery should surely come.
So far for Hoard, this was actually our second chase. Before we had a DMG to reference, I ported over the chase system I’d used previously for third edition games. Perhaps not surprising, the DCs were too high for a satisfactory experience. But the experiment was useful. It demonstrated that fifth edition was, indeed, operating on flatter curve (and gave me reason to trust the numbers in the example chase rules given in the DMG).
The target number system has always been one of the d20 system’s fiddly bits. When it works, it brings together an important element of play, resolving the character’s conflict with the “knowable” part of their environment. The lock needing sprung, the stuck door, the opponent’s armor class are all definable at that moment in time. It gives the PCs something clear and concrete to aim for. “If I roll high and have the correct modifiers, I should have a reasonable chance at success.” But it also sets knowable expectations. The target number for a sturdy lock or the chance for leaping across a 10-foot chasm will be the same, and enables them to make informed choices for given situations.
But setting DCs requires the GM to match A to B properly. While I contend that not getting those DCs right won’t “derail the game” as some insist it does, it can make players hesitant about a given situation. It can cause them to question the veracity of an encounter against the numbers on their player character’s sheet.
So what are your experiences with running chases in d20 games, setting target numbers, or blending in rules from older versions of games? Share your observations in the comments section below.
4th ed D&D was my first foray into the D&D world. I was running games constantly and really learned the system. I could make up DCs on the fly as well as full encounters. Now that I’m playing PFRPG, the DCs are really hard for me to figure out. I just can’t find that sweet spot.
But it’s not just d20 systems. I’m prepping a Neverwhere one-shot and have to figure the DC for tasks so each PC has a chance to shine. Since this is adjective-based, I have the added challenge of figuring out if *this* adjective is better for the task than *that* one on the other PC’s sheet. Fun times. 😀
My rule of thumb for third ed games (including PFRPG) is to use the locks progression skill as a baseline — for nearly all skill checks. It’s not a one-sized fits all, but it is probably the best at informing you, as the GM, how the system scales from easy locks to the most challenging.
You should usually keep the DCs of common tasks low to give the players a sense of their characters’ growth. If every challenge contains DCs that are “appropriate” for their level and skill then they never actually feel like they’re getting stronger.
Let’s take rogues for example. If i need to roll a 10 to pick a DC 15 lock at 1st level that’s a decent challenge. If i make my way up to 10th level and the DM keeps adjusting the difficulty of the locks we face so that it remains a decent challenge, then in a practical sense my character hasn’t gotten any better at picking locks – i still need to roll a 10. Of course you can explain it logically (bigger baddies have more resources to buy better locks) and you can point out that the the 1st level version of me couldn’t have picked these locks, but my experience at the table remains the same.
Only raise the DCs in special cases that demonstrate the increased power of important enemies. As a DM, adjust your thinking – don’t think of those easy DCs as challenges, think of them as rewards. Build the challenges elsewhere.
That’s the trick, isn’t it? In one aspect, the game grows as it levels. Things becoming harder to hit and accomplish as the power level goes up. Yet, some things, like low-level spells sometimes scale up, yet others don’t.
But where do skill checks fit in? As you say, Mutak, you want to have experienced characters have a feeling of accomplishment. If they are in the same arms race as the game, they don’t feel it. Sometimes the GM has to reward, sometimes they have to challenge. Welcome to the tightrope.
Let’s take the chase as an example. I don’t know the circumstances of the one you’ve referenced here, but based on the description i assume the basic is, you are x rounds behind the target. Every round you will get 1 round closer unless something changes that. Draw a card each round. There is an obstacle or an opportunity on it. If you fail to overcome the obstacle you “lose” a round and they maintain their lead. If you succeed at taking advantage of an opportunity you gain on them by 1 additional round.
Assuming that’s basically correct (else modify as needed), here’s how i would offer a scaled option:
Make a second deck with higher DCs, but the opportunities offer higher gain as well – call it the Shortcut Deck.
First player to act gets to choose normal or Shortcut path, and resolve it accordingly. The next player along can choose to take the same path as the first player or the other one. Etc.
If you didn’t feel like investing as much work in it, you could just say that beating the DC of an obstacle or opportunity by 5 or more gives +1 round of “catch-up”.
If you wanted to increase the pressure further you can set some time limits (or just decrease them if they already exist) to encourage them to take more risks. You are x rounds behind the target.You know that he is x-3 rounds away from reinforcements/alarm and x-1 rounds from getting away.
Basically, i’m saying don’t look at it as a tightrope. Don’t rely on getting that one DC right as a determinant of your success as a DM.
It can be a tricky tightrope. I actually like Spirit of the Century’s description of difficulty setting a lot as a guide to why and how to set DCs–though, the corresponding adjective to d20 target number’s not a simple 5:1 ratio or anything mathematically easy.
It’s advice is similar to Mutak’s; keep many challenges constant (so the player’s can appreciate their PCs’ advancement and feel like a badass), and that’ll make the challenges appropriate to their new skills impressive and distinct when they’re tested.
I see no reason to argue about keeping the DCs of common tasks low. They should be constant. For example if picking a cheap lock is DC 15– meaning a person with a little bit of training and the right tools can do it reliably when there are no distractions or adverse conditions– then picking that lock should be DC 15 regardless of whether the PCs are low level or high.
The challenge you’re getting at is that as the PCs gain in power level they’re not facing common tasks anymore. They’re not picking cheap locks. …Well, maybe they are, but it’s become a trivial enough task that it’s not worth spending a lot of game time on. Instead, the story focuses on much tougher tasks that are on the PCs’ level. Like picking a finely made and magically warded lock. Or maybe picking that cheap lock from before but now doing it in the dark (+5 to the DC) and without making noise that would alert the creature sitting inside the room (another +5 to the DC).
Occasionally I remind players of how far they’ve come by noting in my narration what quick work they’ve made of a task that once would have been formidable. For example, “A beginner mechanic could have picked that lock, but not stealthily. You did it in the dark and without alerting the guards playing dice at the table just the other side of the door, maintaining the element of surprise for yourself. When you burst in the room you had the drop on all of them, knocking one out cold before the others could even get up from their chairs.”
I am terrible with chases. I’ve been a GM for many years and never found a system I liked until recently. Paizo put out “Chase Cards” which did well enough to put out a second set. You still have to adjust the numbers every now and again for lower or higher level characters. It works well with Pathfinder and with a little adjustment should work for most D20 systems. Other than that, I have just winged it. This has not always led to a satisfactory result. I am relived to find a mechanic I like.
Nothing wrong with winging it. If I may, if you want an abstract way of representing a chase, while you provide your own off-the-cuff descriptions, you can’t beat a cribbage board. A peg for every player and plenty of room to represent the chase. Something to think about.