The Alphastream Game Design Blog
A level 20 hero finds a treasure chest in a D&D 5E game. What should the DC be to pick a lock? The Player’s Handbook tells us that typical lock has a DC of 15 to pick. A level 17 or higher rogue with expertise likely has a +17 to their check. What should the DC be?
We might argue that the DC should be a challenge, so maybe it’s DC 25 or 30. Or, we might argue the DC should be 15.
How you feel about this is a preference, and I’ll argue there is no right or wrong. Let’s take a look at the two broad options.
In this first “simulationist” view, the world is logical and consistent. As characters level they become stronger, but the world does not. Sure, characters may encounter greater threats, but the world remains the world. A lock has a consistent DC and a goblin is a threat only to new adventurers.
If we take this approach, we know that a lock has a DC of 15. This means that low-level characters often fail to pick locks. High level rogues never fail to pick locks. While it is conceivable that there could be some incredible locks out there, they are likely very rare and the DC should not change wildly. If we are protecting a chest in a high level adventure, we should probably protect it with something other than a lock, because locks are not a challenge at this tier of play.
Similarly, if we encounter a goblin, they are a threat only to low-level adventures. And, if we find a trap protected by a trip wire, we probably use the DC stated for the “collapsing roof” trap in the DM. The DC to spot a trip wire is 10.
In this second “character-focused” view, the world is a construct reflecting our heroes. It’s their world, and their story. While the world should feel real, it exists to reflect them. As characters level they become stronger, and we focus our world on their experiences. The world changes, with the story supporting it, to challenge them.
In this world, the DC of a lock is generally 15, but it really varies. A baker may not be able to afford a 10 gp lock… so they might rig something that is DC 10. When higher level adventurers find the treasure of an evil warlord, that warlord had the resources to find better locks. There are lowly goblins, but also various more dangerous goblins. A trip wire can be woven from very thin materials, resulting in different DCs.
It is good to know which of those approaches you prefer. Whichever path you choose, you want to be deliberate in your approach so that your design and DMing style reflects it. It can also be useful to know what your players prefer, so that you can do the best job possible of creating fun situations that aren’t jarring to them.
Let’s say that a level 20 rogue runs over to the chest in the middle of a battle, hoping to grab the orb of dragonkind and control the ancient red dragon attacking the party. If you believe that all locks should be consistent, then they automatically succeed. The lock isn’t a challenge at all. If you believe locks scale across tiers of play, then the lock is part of the challenge and the rogue may fail.
Another example. The tier 4 heroes face the god of goblins (Maglubiyet). If goblins are lowly creatures, then placing goblins in this encounter would be a huge letdown. We might describe them being present, but the threat would have to come from different fearsome creatures Maglubiyet has chosen to protect this chamber. If goblins scale, then these could be epic goblin heroes, empowered by their god.
5E tends to prefer the simulationist approach. Locks have one DC in the Player’s Handbook, and the way traps are created scales damage with level but ties the DC to the level of danger (Moderate, Dangerous, Deadly) instead of character level.
4E tends to scale to the PCs. For example, in the Dungeon issue 200 in the adventure Flame’s Last Flicker, the level 20-22 epic adventurers face off against the now skeletal dragon Flame… protected by level 18 flamebred kobolds. Those are some mighty kobolds, and we are told they were spawned by Flame. 4E as an edition tends not to have a monster of a single threat level but rather to provide several variants of a monster so you can experience those classic threats at different levels of play.
However… 5E says one thing and in practice does another, flirting with 4E’s approach. For example, Tomb of Annihilation has a stone chest with a DC 20 lock. Rime of the Frostmaiden has several chests with each lock requiring one minute and a DC 20 check. Another is in Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and so on. We can also see that authors can’t resist beefing up monsters. Volo’s gives us the CR1 kobold dragonshield and CR 1 kobold scale sorcerer. Rime provides the CR 3 kobold vampire spawn. The lowly CR ¼ skeleton has shown up in various forms, from a CR 5 giant shark skeleton to a CR 16 storm giant skeleton (Candlekeep Mysteries).
When I worked on the D&D Open in 2016 and 2017, we were directed to create a fun challenge for Adventurer’s League heroes from levels 1 to 10. Shawn Merwin, Sean Molley, and I decided to scale what the players faced based on the average level of the party. The same room had slightly different monsters and slightly different DCs based on that average level.
The free 5E Dwarven Forge Dungeon of Doom adventure is written for characters of levels 1-10, and each encounter has scaling information covering those levels. We did this because we wanted DMs to be able to drop the Dungeon of Doom into their campaign without having to go back and make level 1 PCs. To make this possible, encounters have monster scaling and DCs and treasure also scale. Here is an example:
We also scale the rewards, providing 25/100/200 gp based on level. Very importantly for good play, the exact monsters vary by average party level:
The beginning of the adventure has DM information, including how to use this system:
Eric Menge and I did the same thing when we worked on Jungle Treks, a series of short jungle encounters. Tomb of Annihilation spans levels 1-10, so this way a DM can drop a jungle trek into their campaign regardless of the party’s current level.
There are huge advantages to this approach. An adventure gains far more utility, serving the needs of many more players. However, it’s especially when you use this approach that DMs notice the simulationist vs character-focused difference. If an adventure for level 8 PCs says climbing a wall is DC 14, most DMs won’t think anything of it. If an adventure covering levels 1-8 says the DC 10/12/14 based on level, simulationist DMs may find that jarring. The DC is the same for their level 8 PCs, but they noticed because of the approach.
Whichever approach you choose is up to you. There is no actual right or wrong way, so long as it is fun for you and your players. However, there are recommended practices based on your approach.
At high levels, it isn’t worth placing locks in your scenes. At best, you may describe them for fun (“you easily break or pick the lock on the chest”) but it isn’t worth taking up the rogue’s action on the automatic success to pick the lock. Many other checks, from spotting a trip wire to climbing a wall, will likely become unworthy of anyone’s time. Focus instead on what does matter and build challenges accordingly. When you do place something where PCs are expected to succeed, do so to pump them up “you all climb up the crumbling wall without any problems, racing after your foe.”
Turn to magic and other elements to provide challenges. That rope may be just as easy to climb at level 1 as level 20, but perhaps at high levels the threat is a magical bolt of energy firing at regular intervals. The characters face a check not to climb the rope, but to time their ascent to avoid the danger.
When the tier 4 heroes face the goblin god Maglubiyet, it would be rather strange to not have any goblins present. This is the god of goblins! Add in goblins, but place them on the periphery as noncombatants. Or perhaps give them something they can do as actual low level goblins. Maybe they chant, empowering Maglubiyet, and the characters can spend a few actions with AoE to easily silence them. We have a consistent world, but still manage the right feel.
Your greatest challenge here is verisimilitude. If a lock is very hard, you must explain why. If a level 20 hero breaks into a baker’s shop… the lock on the door should not be DC 30. But the chest in the evil warlord’s chambers could be secured with a cunning lock crafted by expert locksmiths and merit a higher DC. The ancients may have had cunning locks to which a modern-day adventurer is not accustomed. Or perhaps it is similar to what Rime did, described as a set of three intricate tumblers requiring a minute and a higher DC. Be careful. Before it becomes incredulous, switch to something else. A magical trap, a guardian, a puzzle. These can all scale more easily than a lock.
Rope is rope. It doesn’t change. But maybe there are air currents. Or maybe it is old and fraying… or covered in ice or grease (and again, this must be believable). Maybe the rope needs to be climbed as various traps fire at the heroes. All of these could be realistic if we properly explain the situation to the players.
When our epic adventurers reach Maglubiyet, we can more easily support epic goblins. But the heroes should have heard of them beforehand, so their presence isn’t jarring. Maglubiyet rewards his favored, reincarnating them. It is said that such goblins grow stronger with each death, until they are rewarded by becoming his personal servants. Or maybe Maglubiyet takes goblins that please him and infuses them with power in a vile ichor, and that pool is something the PCs must contend with during the encounter. Perhaps they can even undo the effect empowering the goblins. Verisimilitude is important.
Whether your world scales or not, the situations should make sense. Mike Shea likes to talk about a high level adventure we played at a convention where swashbucklers and bandit captains were robbing shops. Yes, those opponents are a balanced encounter. No, it doesn’t make sense for such threats to be robbing a dress shop.
What do you think? Which approach do you favor, and how do you make it work in your design and at your table?