DC Building

How do you decide on a DC?

  • Bottom Up

    Votes: 16 48.5%
  • Top Down

    Votes: 17 51.5%


David Jose
I'm not normally a fan of polls, but I was kinda interested in seeing how people arrive at the numbers they use for on the fly Difficulty Classes.

So, Bottom Up - A player is trying to climb a wall. You decide that the wall has a rough, brick-like surface (DC 20), and is covered with some kind of grody, slimy fungus (+5). The player needs a 25 to climb this wall.

Top Down - A player is trying to climb a wall. You decide that you want this wall to be hard to climb. The player is 14th level and you look at the Target DCs chart and see that a 25 is considered a hard DC for a 14th level character.

I'm not talking about standard DCs like stabilizing someone, or detecting a 10th level magic item on the other side of a wall. Also, no sitting on the fence and claiming that you always do an exactly equal number of both. You've got to have some kind of gut reaction as to what chart you turn to when a player throws you a skill check curveball.
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I voted bottom up, and that is mostly true. For 4E skill challenges, I do top down. And the circumstances of the situation are likely to have a top-down effect - it is much more likely that high-level players will adventure in places with nearly unclimbable walls made of force or polished ivory and low-level heroes in rough-hewn stone walls.

Aust Diamondew

First Post
Top down usually, but with a caveat. I don't necessarily reference the Pc's level but instead decide what level the the challenge should be and base a DC off that. For instance, climbing most mundane sufaces, i.e. things that are possible to climb in the real world fall somewhere in the heroic tier for its DC.
So far I haven't DMed epic tier, so that ask me to draw a distinction between whats paragon and whats epic.

btw Nytmare, I like your binary poll. Wishy washy ones always seem less useful to me as one always falls more into one camp or the other and the in between answers don't make any more clear one's results.


First Post
I tend to run them bottom up.

We often add things like if you're trained in Athletics and the party needs to climb, you can use an active perception check to find the best path and effectively lower the DC by 2 for anyone who takes it. Naturally those untrained would try that path.

These things usually arise due to player creativity and common sense. A mountainside would have various DC's of rock face to climb and a skilled climber would know what to look for.


First Post
Top Down. To some it probably feels gamy that a wall should become harder to climb as you level up, but I create obstacles where they are meaningful. And if the DC of a climb becomes meaningless, the obstacle may as well just be part of the narrative.

The DC's are for actual challenges (whether it be an obstacle in the middle of combat or a skill challenge). I decide, this wall is going to be hard difficulty to climb, PC's are level 14, DC should be 23. At this point, I decide what the DC 23 wall should look like. It's a stone wall that's been weathered down with wind and sand, so the stones are smooth, what may once have been seams in the wall are filled with sand and calcified, hand holds are difficult to find.

Then I begin to cheat, and look at the Athletics skills for the PC's, three out of five have +18 or higher, and the lowest score is a +12. So this is not going to be very challenging for them. To add a little more excitement, I decide it's going to start raining just as they get to the wall, making the climb harder, increasing the DC by 2 for the first half the encounter, and by 5 for the second half.

If this was say a task requiring Thievery skill, and I realized the highest bonus in the party was a +9, I might be inclined to change something in the opposite direction, perhaps part of a mechanism is rusted or cracked, making it easy to smash and take out of the equation, and I'd lower the DC by 2 or 5.

So I basically start with the numbers, double check what the PC's are capable of, and then build in the picture based on the setting the challenge will be in.
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