The Yarning Portal mazzmatazz's blog

DM Tutorials - DCs And How To Make Them More Interesting

I will return to the homebrew world building post next week - I'm getting my internet upgraded so that I can stream at a better rate, and I'd like to stream the next part as well as write about it! So this week I'm going to look at another part of the game; difficulty checks.

A Difficulty Check (DC) is one of the basic components of any D&D session. The rogue wants to pick that lock? Dexterity check with Thieves’ Tools. The ranger is trying to forage for some food? Survival check. The DM determines how difficult that task is going to be, some dice are rolled, and then the players succeed or fail. That’s the most straightforward way of looking at it. There’s a lot more you can do with DCs however.

One of the most common things you may hear is ‘failing forward’. I didn’t even know what this meant in a D&D context when I first heard it said, so I had to go and read up on it, and then I learned I was doing this already without even realising!

The simplest way of using a DC is as already mentioned. You set a difficulty as per the rules, the player rolls, you say yay or nay depending on the outcome. Failing forward however, means that regardless of the outcome, the story still moves forwards. For example, that rogue picking a lock rolled a fail? Perhaps it just takes longer to pick the lock and they have less time to carry out their task, or a patrol gets closer and they have to be more quiet? Perhaps they didn’t check the door was already unlocked and so the door swings open as they push their lockpick in?

If you want a good example of failing forward in movies, I once heard Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie used to demonstrate it. He failed on a lot of stuff (got Greedo to pull his gun on him, failed to persuade stormtroopers on the death star) but still moved the plot along and succeeded when he needed to (shooting Greedo and coming to Luke's aid).

I recently published an adventure for the first time, and something that has been commented on was my table for perception checks, which could be considered failing forward. Depending on the roll result, more things are noticed, but something is noticed regardless of the roll.


I don't do critical success, it's not RAW, and there are situations where it's not really feasible that automatic success happens. I also don’t really do critical failure unless I can think of something amusing that doesn’t cause detriment to the PCs. Going back to the rogue lockpicking example, a rogue in my home game recently rolled a nat 1 on that check. So, I told him he broke his favourite lockpick. It didn’t adversely affect the movement of the story (he could have tried again, but in the end the barbarian smashed the door open in frustration) and it didn’t adversely affect the PC directly (he had other lockpicks, also he found the parts and got another PC to cast mending to repair it) but it gave everyone a chuckle at the table, and it made it feel more real, as everyone who uses a set of tools for a job has their favourite ones (I’m looking at my crochet hook collection and feeling this right now)

Another thing I do, is to use unexpected skills, because to me it gets dull asking people to roll perception or investigation all the time, and it allows the lesser used skills to get some love. It also prevents minmaxing (something I don’t personally enjoy at my table, as I feel the best stories come from characters with flaws) as my players aren’t building their characters around a great passive perception score. One of my pet peeves as a DM is people making an assumption about what I am going to ask them to roll and rolling it, without waiting to hear what I am going to ask. I don't always ask for what a player expects! So, for example, the aforementioned rogue that I play with wanted to check a door for traps. I had him roll performance, and as he checked, he hummed a song he remembered the bard singing… and something behind the door started humming along...

Sometimes I ask my players to choose the skill they would like to use and justify it. That’s how I ended up with a wizard using an acrobatics check to find a mushroom once. He stood on his head and contemplated what it was like to be a mushroom. He failed, but it made everyone laugh and as you can see, it was memorable (for me at least). I like doing this in skill challenges. Skill challenges are 4th edition mechanics, but haven’t really found their way into 5th edition. Basically it is where you have a task that needs undertaking, and you have to succeed a certain amount of times before you build up too many failures, and failing has consequences. Here are some examples of skill challenges to give you an idea of how they work - perhaps you could modify them for your games.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to use DCs more creatively to bring life to your sessions. I hope this has sparked your imagination to find ways to use DCs more creatively!


DM Tutorials - What do your players need from you?

I rarely play as a PC. Like, honestly. I’ve played in 2 games, but DMed over 60 at time of writing. It’s not because I haven’t been asked, it’s just my personal preference. I love running the story, bouncing between NPCs, and watching what my players come up with to react to the situation. Because of that, I often forget what they need to know when I set up a game. I therefore made a list of questions that players tend to ask me because I’ve forgotten to make this information clear.

Things to consider when asking players to create characters

  • What level are the characters going to be starting at?
  • How are stats going to be chosen? Standard array; Point Buy, Dice rolls?
  • If using dice rolls, how do you want that to be evidenced?
  • Are there any class or race restrictions? Are homebrew races or classes allowed? How about multiclassing?
  • Where is the campaign going to be set? Forgotten Realms? A homebrew world? If in a homebrew world, give a brief summary of the world, to aid in backstory creation. Are there any backstory elements you’re going to allow or disallow for your PCs?
  • For classes such as Paladin or Cleric, is there a specific pantheon of Gods that the player should be drawing from? What patrons are Warlocks allowed?
  • How serious do you want the PCs to be? Will it be proper RP characters only, or would you allow Randy the Savage, Barbarian Wrestler Extraordinaire?
  • What level of min-maxing are you going to allow your players to undertake, if at all? Would you prefer them to make flawed characters to add depth to the story, or are you happy for them to make killing machines?
  • Which variant rules are you going to allow? Are you going to let your players take feats?

If you are recruiting for a game, it might be worth trying to incorporate as many answers to these questions as possible in your recruitment post, to make it simpler for people to submit applications. If you already have players, perhaps a handout with these answers will help players to get on with character creation, without too much back and forth waiting for responses to questions on either side.

If you don’t feel comfortable and confident with things such as a homebrew class, or letting people roll for stats, tell them. If you are running the game, you get to make this decision, because you are going to be controlling the world they are playing in. Yes, players may argue, complain, or try to persuade you, but if they really want to play, then they will accept your decisions. In my games, I flat out refused to let any homebrew classes to start with, and I am not letting my players multiclass until they hit level 6, because I felt this was too complicated for me starting out, and I was still learning how to balance the game. To be honest, I still am. I throw combat at them that is meant to be deadly on the CR, and they breeze through it, and content that is supposed to be simple sometimes knocks party members out. You can never gauge how the dice will fall or the tactics your players will take - but how to work those situations is a topic for another day.

I hope this article was useful in helping you consider a few aspects of your world that you need to establish as well as for helping your players to create a character for your world.

Once again, thank you to Frank for reading over the article before posting, and also for contributing several points to the list.

Happy Gaming!


Introducing my wingman

When I started writing the articles for this blog, I wanted a second eye on what I was putting out there, so I didn't say anything too outrageous. One of the players in my regular games, Frank, is also a new DM with a similar amount of experience to myself, so to me he was the obvious choice. We get on really well, bouncing ideas off each other and stealing things from each other for our own campaigns! I've therefore gotten him to write a little intro too, since he'll be chipping in here and there.

Bonjour, everyone! I'm Frank, and like Mazz here I've been a DnD 5E DM since about May 2017, though I had started playing in January. I was also not the best when I first started, but after some trial and error I've managed to find my groove with the group that I DM regularly (and also smaller groups I run one shots for.) Comparing myself to Mazz, I run a much looser style of game, a lot less focused on RAW, and also with a lot less prep (sometimes going into sessions totally blind.) My main role for this blog is to give a second opinion on certain topics from my point of view. You'll often see my own notes written in with Mazz's (whether or not those notes will be called "Frankly Speaking" is up to Mazz and her obsession with puns, haha.)

Going over my own DM heroes, Matt Mercer is definitely up there. I have shamelessly stolen a lot of ideas from him to use in my own game (his resurrection rules, "how do you want to do this", etc.) I'm also a really big fan of The Adventure Zone's Griffin McElroy and his skills as a DnD storyteller. Respect must also be paid to Chris Perkins and the awesome work he's done on Acq. Inq. and DCA.

That's all from me for now, I hope to see you all soon on this awesome project! Au revoir!

Find Frank on twitter here

Please note - Frank greatly overestimates the amount of prep I do. We talked about it after he wrote this, and we agreed that one of the things good DMs do is look like they know what they are doing. If you have the confidence, a wholly improvised session can seem like the most perfectly planned and executed game to your players. And little things you make up on the spur of the moment can turn into key points in your campaign. But that's something we can talk about in another article.

Thanks for reading, and the first DM article, "Herding Cats", will be posted tomorrow!