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For an Epic Hero, What is the DC to Pick a Lock?

A perfect capture of when a player is excited to use their character’s skills.

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.

The World Has an Underlying Truth

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.

The Heroes are the World

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.

Implications

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.

Editions

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).

Writing for Multiple Levels of Play

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.

Recommendations

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.

If the World is Static

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.

If the World Mirrors the Heroes

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?

6 comments on “For an Epic Hero, What is the DC to Pick a Lock?

  1. MerricB
    September 16, 2021

    It is when the DC is so high that it can’t be explained in the world’s fiction that I get antsy. A DC 20 lock is something that makes a lot of sense. A standard cliff that is DC 25 just because it’s for a Tier 4 party? Not so much.

    The big difference between 4E and 5E in approach (and it’s also between 3E and 5E) is bounded accuracy, and it tilts the equation greatly towards the static. That’s because monsters remain threats a lot longer than in 4E or 3E. My 16th-level party was being challenged by trolls in recent 5E sessions. In 3E and 4E, the trolls wouldn’t even be able to hit the party.

    As you might tell, I prefer a static world. However, the threats the party face are scaled to them – by the mere act of finding threats are that challenging. A cliff is iced over and slippery. They’re fighting a god rather than the local goblin lord.

    It is, in fact, a tremendously bad idea to put a DC 20+ check for a group activity in 5E. Cliffs are a great example. Imagine everyone needs to climb the cliff. The fighter trained in Athletics might have a +10, as both their strength and their training have improved. The Wizard has never trained, and is still at -1. Those high DC activities should be aimed at challenging individual characters, or be there so that other methods (spells, etc.) can be employed.

    • Alphastream
      September 16, 2021

      Sean Reynolds recently blogged about updating Against the Giants, where there were rooms with dozes of trolls. I recall such a room in AD&D Castle Greyhawk. We mowed down trolls, because (as you note) it took dozens to threaten us. Many RPGs can’t even do that. A troll eventually is inconsequential, regardless of how many we have. And, it’s also a strange fiction. It is a very different story to say we face dozens of trolls (why are there dozens here?) vs two trolls that ate magical acid and became greater acid trolls.

      5E does a better job… but high level characters still have that PC vs goblin issue. At some point we need hundreds of goblins and special rules to run them… and some tables won’t enjoy that. Are goblins simple never a threat ever again for such heroes? Or can tougher goblins exist?

      With your cliff example, here again it’s about simulationist vs character-focused. I can say a cliff doesn’t get harder than DC X in my world. Or, I can say that the cliff is based on the challenge. A cliff and on top is the thing one PC needs to get during the battle? That can be a harder DC. A cliff everyone needs to climb? That’s like a door… if the characters need to do that, then we need to write up the challenge so it works. It can’t be pass/fail. That’s character-focused design, and has to be done well. And if the adventure is for a wide variety of levels of play… then we may have several possible numbers for that DC.

  2. david canela
    September 16, 2021

    Nice blog and I also really appreciate all the great tips you share on the podcast with Shawn Mervin, thank you for that!

    I think I lean towards a simulationist approach, here’s why: Chances are, if characters are really of such a high level, they’ve had plenty of opportunities to experience the thrill of trying to pick a lock in that campaign (or in previous campaigns; it’s likely mostly experienced players that start campaigns at high levels), so I’d try to offer a different kind of challenge or very special situations (“you’re picking a masterfully crafted lock with broken fingers during an earthquake, how many rounds will it take you to pick it?” while the advantage/disadvantage system is super easy and convenient, it’s useless at this end of the power range, so a DC way beyond 20 seems reasonable.)

    Imho, scaling with character level brings a big risk of making character progression meaningless (as happens in some video games) once the players figure it out. I’d try to let my players savour the sweet victory of having improved their pc’s skill so that previously challenging tasks become achievable or even trivial and then mostly move on to diffferent challenges.

    At the end of the day, though, I think what matters most to me, is how well for instance a high DC (beyond the bounded range the books suggest) can be justified by the story and the world. If it fits narratively, it won’t mess with suspension of disbelief. But always keeping an eye on not invalidating a player character’s progress.

    Now, making adventures flexible so they can work for a large number of groups, that makes a lot of sense and is a bit of a different thing (except in extreme cases, in which the whole story premise might be the bigger problem, e.g. why are lvl 20 characters clearing out a random innkeepers rat-infested cellar?)

    However, I feel like a huge power factor is group size and that is completely ignored if you use average party level as a parameter for balancing. It’s not as simple as 3 first-level characters being as strong as a 3rd-level character, so using the sum of all pc levels isn’t perfect either, but it would seem like a better power level indicator, wouldn’t it? Do you deal with party size differences somewhere else in the adventures you write or have you found a good range that seems robust and common enough for you to assume it (e.g 4-6 players)?

  3. David Kinsman
    September 16, 2021

    Nice article about the ramifications and implications of bounded accuracy in 5E play from a DM’s design perspective. However, you seem to overlook a few key considerations that are hinted at by some of your examples, but still go unacknowledged.

    Importantly, 5E D&D doesn’t assume a particular party makeup, and therefore also doesn’t assume a particular level of aptitude at overcoming ability check related challenges. Yes, picking a DC 15 lock is a cakewalk for a high level Rogue with expertise in thieves’ tools, but if the best the party can do is someone with a +4 or +5 Dexterity modifier and no proficiency in thieves’ tools, then this is still a meaningful challenge. Likewise, an obstacle that requires every member of a party to make a single type of ability check, like a Strength(Athletics) check to climb an obstacle, is not going to be automatic as even late tier Strength-dump characters have an decent chance to fail a DC 10 check.

    Obviously, either of these types of situations can be mitigated by the large number of spells or class features that either specifically buff ability checks or otherwise allow PC(s) to bypass some types of challenges without risk, but this is usually the point of these types of obstacles in the first place – force the PCs to make choices about taking risks or expending resources.

    • Alphastream
      September 16, 2021

      Excellent point. 5E is really different than 4E and 3E in how skills work. That rogue with expertise might be +17, but if everyone is a -1 Dex build (doubtful, but let’s pretend), then the 20th party only has a -1 if no one is proficient. A more likely scenario is that someone is +11, being proficient and having a high Dex. When in a campaign, a DM can adjust for this easily. It’s harder when designing. We have to decide whether to adjust for the various possibilities. In general, when designing for others I avoid roadblocks. The adventure should never fall apart if no one can achieve the check. For example, when fighting the red dragon, we don’t need the orb to succeed. If we can get it, that’s a boon. But it isn’t a roadblock. Same with climbing a cliff during a combat.

  4. Jacob
    September 18, 2021

    The thing is, in the first example, the Rogue would automatically succeed at picking even a DC 27 lock. The highest DC I can find for a lock in any officially published adventure is 25.

    Granted, WotC has only published one adventure for 5e that reaches Tier 4, but even a Level 13 Rogue with Expertise and 20 Dex would automatically succeed at opening a DC 25 lock.

    I cannot recall a single fictional story where a master Thief/Assassin/Trick had any difficulty picking a lock.

    Cracking a legendary, high end safe…sure.

    But when it comes to picking locks it’s basically as effortless for them as breathing, and the mechanics of 5e reflect that.

    And if you want to put in a Legendary lock that has its own three paragraph backstory, the sure, make it require multiple DC 30 checks. But if it’s for a published adventure you are probably going to want another way to bypass that lock, because there’s no way to guarantee the party will have a character with expertise in the use of thieves’ tools.

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