Skills, Saves and Ability Checks

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Non-Combat Challenges

Outside of combat, and even sometimes inside combat, characters will use skills or just raw talent to try to achieve goals or outcomes. Usually, this involves a skill check, using one of the skills of the game. Other times, no skill is available to cover the scenario, and only the character's raw power, charm, or wit can overcome the obstacle.

In some cases, the GM can allow players to role-play these situations, describing how their character interacts with the situation, and if it is convincing enough, the GM may just allow the character to succeed. However, sometimes the action they're describing has some risk involved. It's not a sure thing, or the consequences for failing are significant enough that adding a bit of randomness to the outcome increases the suspense, and therefore everyone's enjoyment of the story. In these cases, the character will be required to make a skill or ability check against a DC determined by the GM.

But how does the GM choose these DC's? What seems impossible for a level 1 character rapidly becomes trivial by the time they're 10th or 15th level. Epic level characters are an even more volatile case, with potential skills ranging anywhere from pathetic to god-like. This page describes how to select an appropriate Difficulty Class for both skill checks and ability checks.

Choosing a Difficulty

To use the tables below, determine how hard you want the skill or ability check to be, using the following criteria:

  • Easy: An easy check should be something that a random townsfolk could reasonably attempt. This is an everyday task, or the sort of thing that a first-day student of the skill could try to do. If the check is to do something that /anyone/ should have a pretty good chance of succeeding on, it's an easy check.
  • Average: An average check is the sort of task a commoner would only succeed on around half the time. Gambling against amateurs is an example of an average skill check. The average person at the table (thinks he) has about a 50/50 chance of winning. Average checks could also be for common tasks among modestly skilled folks. Fashioning nails or horseshoes at a smithy would be an average task. It's easy for an expert, but quite hard if you've never done it before.
  • Challenging A Challenging check is one that CAN be made by someone who is not obsessively dedicated to a particular skill, but it will not be easy. This is something a commoner might pull off occasionally for great bragging rights, and even a skilled and focused hero will find non-trivial. Challenging checks are very hard for someone who only relies on skill ranks, and even experts can expect to need a reasonable number to pull this off. Sneaking past a guard dog or tricking a tavernkeeper about those pesky bloodstains are good examples of a challenging test.
  • Hard: A hard check is something best left to the experts. This is something a common townsperson will nearly always fail to do, but a hero has an average chance to succeed. Hard checks assume the person making the attempt is very good at the task in question, and even then, there's a decent chance for failure. Sneaking past an alert guard, or lying to the head of the Thieves' Guild are examples of hard skill checks. Hard checks are also good target DC's for performing something cinematic or so clever it forces the opposition to re-evaluate their approach.
  • Impossible: An impossible check is the sort of thing that bards sing about for years to come. It is the sort of task that no one could really pull off, so if a player character manages it, it is remarkable and cinematic and a true expression of their worthiness to be called a hero. Impossible checks are also useful for those times the player wants to try something that should just never work, but won't break the adventure if he manages to squeak through it.

Level of the Check

The skill check's level should, whenever possible, be based on the creature who is forcing the skill check to be made, rather than the character attempting the check. For example, a rogue picking a lock on a nobleman's house would need to beat a DC based on the level of the lock (or locksmith), rather than using the rogue's level. This is why picking the same lock becomes easier as your character gains levels. The lock's DC doesn't change, but your skill may increase. Similarly, a heal check being performed on an ally PC to stop a Bleed condition would be based on the ally PC's level, not the healer's level. Making a Heal check to stop a Bleed condition on a level 1 peasant is quite easy for a higher level character.

In some cases, it may not be obvious what the level of a skill check should be. GM's are encouraged to improvise something appropriate for the situation. If characters are in a dungeon filled with monsters 2 or 3 CR's higher than they are, any skill checks related to the dungeon will likely be of a similar level to the local monster CR's. Conversely, a character attempting things which should be simple at her level would likely need a skill DC based on a much lower level than the character.

Some Important Suggestions

  • Be careful never to allow plot-breaking skill checks, no matter how much the players beg.
  • Conversely, if someone wants to try something that is fancy or cinematic or just plan neat, don't make it an impossible check (or, if you do, award the character a circumstance bonus for trying something cool, to actually give them a chance to succeed). Generally a Hard or even Challenging DC is appropriate for these things. If you make it too easy, it doesn't seem special that they pulled it off. If you make it too hard, they won't try neat things in the future, since they know it will just waste their action to try.
  • If you are asking the players to make a skill check that will give them that vital clue that leads to the next step in the adventure, you should either make sure the check DC is low enough that someone will actually get it, or have a backup plan in mind if no one gets it. It's okay to punish the players for missing a clue as long as it doesn't cause the whole adventure to stall out because they don't know where to go next. In fact, it's kind of awesome if the plot gets more difficult or complicated, or the bad guys get an edge, if the players all failed their check for something. Just make sure you can keep your plot moving no matter how the dice rolls turn out.
  • ALL the numbers below are Targets only! Especially for the Hard and Impossible columns, these targets assume there is a player who is not only VERY VERY good at a set of skills, but has expended considerable resources on it as well. That being said, if your team of players has not gone to those lengths, you should be prepared to have them fail those target DC's regularly. You can either give them access to NPC's who can lend them Circumstance bonuses, or let them get the information via role-play, or possibly lower the DC's to numbers more suited for your specific campaign. Or, you can just let them fail until they decide to expend some resources! The important thing is to have fun, as always.

Skill Checks

In any case where a skill exists to make a check, the skill should be used to resolve the check. Characters who don't have the skill, particularly when the skill requires training to perform, simply can't make the check. An exception to this is when the target DC is below 10, which anyone can attempt (even on a trained-only skill). However, you will note that those DC's are quite rare, and only exist for the easiest of checks. If the skill can be performed untrained, anyone can roll.

Level Easy Average Challenging Hard Impossible
1 9 12 15 19 24
2 10 14 17 21 26
3 11 15 18 22 27
4 13 17 20 24 29
5 14 18 21 26 31
6 15 19 23 28 33
7 16 21 25 30 35
8 18 23 27 32 38
9 19 24 29 34 40
10 20 26 31 36 42
11 22 27 32 38 44
12 23 29 34 40 45
13 24 30 35 41 47
14 25 31 37 43 49
15 27 33 39 45 51
16 28 35 41 47 53
17 29 36 42 49 54
18 31 38 44 50 56
19 32 39 46 52 58
20 33 41 48 54 60
21 34 43 50 57 63
22 36 45 52 59 65
23 37 47 54 61 67
24 38 48 56 63 69
25 40 50 58 65 71
26 41 52 60 67 73
27 42 54 62 69 75
28 43 56 64 71 76
29 45 58 66 73 78
30 46 60 68 75 80
31 47 62 70 77 82
32 49 64 72 79 84
33 50 65 74 81 86
34 51 67 75 83 88
35 52 68 77 85 90
36 54 70 79 87 92
37 55 72 80 89 94
38 57 73 81 91 96
39 58 75 83 93 98
40 60 77 85 95 100

Save DC's

Sometimes it will be necessary to determine a save DC for an ability, magic item, or effect that is either undefined, or uses a Pathfinder-based static DC when it should logically scale with level.

To determine the difficulty of a saving throw for an effect on a magic item, refer to the following:

  • Magic weapons, armor and shields which have properties that force a saving throw always use the Average Save DC for the wielding character's level.
  • Wondrous magic items, even those with spell effects such as wands, use the wearer's level, but the difficulty of the save is based on the caster level of the item, as described below:

The level of a saving throw should always be based on the thing causing the saving throw to be necessary. For example, a trap uses a saving throw based on the level of the trap, not the level of the character who triggered it.

Wondrous Magic Item Save DC's

Caster Level Difficulty of Save DC
5+  levels below character level    Easy
0-4 levels below character level    Average
1-5 levels above character level    Hard
6+  levels above character level    Impossible

Saving Throw Target DC's By Level

  • Note: This table is intended to provide DC's that anyone (player characters or monsters) must overcome.
Level Easy Save DC Average Save DC Hard Save DC Impossible Save DC
1 11 14 17 20
2 12 15 18 21
3 12 15 18 21
4 13 16 19 22
5 14 17 20 23
6 15 18 21 24
7 15 18 21 24
8 18 21 24 27
9 18 21 24 27
10 19 22 25 28
11 20 23 26 29
12 21 24 27 30
13 21 24 27 30
14 22 25 28 31
15 23 26 29 32
16 25 28 31 34
17 25 28 31 34
18 26 29 32 35
19 26 29 32 35
20 27 30 33 36
21 29 32 35 38
22 30 33 36 39
23 30 33 36 39
24 33 36 39 42
25 33 36 39 42
26 34 37 40 43
27 35 38 41 44
28 36 39 42 45
29 36 39 42 45
30 37 40 43 46
31 38 41 44 47
32 40 43 46 49
33 40 43 46 49
34 42 45 48 51
35 43 46 49 52

Ability Checks

Ability checks are checks made against a character's raw ability score. These are used for situations where the character wants to try something for which there is no defined skill. For example, to win that drinking contest against the local barbarian chief might require a Constitution check, since there is no obvious skill to allow that task to be performed. However, even at epic levels, ability checks will never have as much variance as a skill check. Ability modifiers can only be raised so high, after all. Thus, the target DC's for ability scores are necessarily lower.

In nearly all cases, monsters should not make ability checks. If a DC is needed for a monster, but no skill seems appropriate to the task, GM's can either make a generic skill check at an appropriate difficulty, or they can make an ability check, using the same table as PC's (below). However, in most cases, monster ability scores are quite arbitrary, and are not scaled in the same way that PC ability scores scale. That is, monsters are able to have ability scores much higher or much lower than PC's could have at any given level. Hill Giants, for example, have strength scores of 75 and more, which is MUCH higher than a PC could ever attain. It may be more appropriate to make skill checks to avoid this arbitrariness. (On the other hand, it may be perfectly appropriate that Hill Giants nearly always succeed on Strength checks.)

Optional Rule: Minimum Required Stat

GM's can require that, in order to even attempt an ability check, the character must have a minimum ability score equal to the ability check's target DC. This prevents the pox-laden, unbathed fighter from making a lucky roll and appearing more attractive to the princess than the bard with the 20 charisma. Using these rules, that fighter who has a 7 charisma isn't even allowed to roll. Of course, sometimes these outcomes are hilarious, and can be justified as the princess having really strange taste in men. GM's should decide if they want to apply this rule, either all the time, or on a case-by-case basis.

Ability Check DC's By Level

  • Note: This table is intended to provide DC's that anyone (player characters or monsters) must overcome.
Level Easy Ability Check Average Ability Check Hard Ability Check Impossible Ability Check
1 5 11 13 19
2 5 11 13 19
3 5 11 13 19
4 5 11 14 20
5 5 11 14 20
6 5 11 14 20
7 5 11 15 21
8 5 11 15 21
9 5 11 16 22
10 6 12 16 22
11 6 12 17 23
12 6 12 17 23
13 6 12 17 23
14 6 12 18 24
15 6 12 18 24
16 7 13 19 25
17 7 13 19 25
18 7 13 19 25
19 7 13 20 26
20 7 13 20 26
21 8 14 21 27
22 8 14 21 27
23 8 14 22 28
24 9 15 22 28
25 9 15 23 29
26 10 16 23 29
27 10 16 23 29
28 11 17 24 30
29 11 17 24 30
30 12 18 25 31
31 12 18 25 31
32 13 19 26 32
33 13 19 26 32
34 14 20 27 33
35 14 20 28 34