DnD 101: What Is DC & How Does It Work?

Dungeons & Dragons is a great tabletop RPG that has brought plenty of great games and memories to the table. While 5th edition has a reputation for being extremely beginner friendly for both players and DMs, there are still some game mechanics that seem to confuse many players and DMs.

DC is short for “difficulty challenge” and is the measurement a Dungeon Master uses in DnD (or other TRPG games) to let a player know how difficult any particular task or action will be. They are used for either checks or saves. While technically on a 5-30 scale in 5E most DCs in campaign will range from 10 to 25.

For players used to a very detailed number crunching system, DC can seem like a bit of a mystery in how it’s used in 5th Edition DnD. However, it’s actually quite easy to adjust to and provides a great tool for both DM and player to measure their options in each given situation in a campaign.

jumping over a cliff
Is the jump really that easy…or did the view obscure how far the distance actually was. DM, what’s the DC?

If you’re a little confused about how DC works in 5E or want some guidance on using it, read on to unravel the mystery and become an absolute expert and tossing out an appropriate difficulty challenge for any given situation that comes up in your next 5e tabletop campaign.

Calculating DC in DnD

A lot of this is situational based on the campaign and can be pretty fluid based on the situation. First, the normal guidelines (and thinking of anything regarding DC for skill checks as guidelines versus rules helps clear out confusion) are pretty clearly laid out in the Player’s Handbook, chapter seven.

This isn’t a mathematical formula like players from 3.5 days or Pathfinder might be expecting, but instead given “ranges” of difficulty that offers guidance while also giving some degree of autonomy for the DM to shift the difficulty up or down as they see fit.

DnD players handbook and Xanathars Guide
The DM looks giddy…prepare your books, I sense many DC checks coming in the hours ahead!

You will want to make sure to always have a copy of the 5E PHB around, as well as any other books that might affect a check or save, such as if you are playing certain sub-classes from Xanathar’s or taking feats from Tasha’s, or any other custom character information that offers bonuses.

Ability Check table 5E DnD

The information you’ll want to figure out DC as either a DM or player is going to be found in the Player’s Handbook, Chapter 7 in general and page 174 is especially useful in particular (pictured to the left).

While technically the DC can even be lower than 5, generally the range is 5-30 and even then it’s usually narrowly. I know personally as a DM I never have a DC that is under 10. It just doesn’t make sense most of the time.

10 is already considered easy, something an average NPC has a fair chance at, much less a trained and skilled adventurer. So unless there’s a rare situation where a catastrophic failure is in play (assuming you use the automatic botch Nat 1 house rules that many tables use) there’s just no reason for it.

Not to mention that even at low levels certain classes are going to have a +5 bonus to the stats needed for certain checks. Meaning they would just pass anyway.

So 10-25 is the normal range, with the very occasional 25-30 later game for high level campaigns, like those where a player wants to literally punch a Chaos God in the face and somehow succeeds (nice roll, Callahan).

Something easy to do is a 10. Something that’s fairly difficult is a 15. Do you think the task is in the middle? Just throw out a 12 or 13 then. Simple.

Is someone punching above their weight to try to read someone? That’s a hard. Trying to see through a possible illusion you’re not sure is there from a high level mage? That’s a 20-something.

Punch a god in the face – that’s a 30. Good luck, 16th level Monk.

A primer we sort of use for 5E in our group that expands on this slightly as a guideline goes as follows:

  • Easy: 10
  • Average: 12-13
  • Fairly Hard: 14-16
  • Hard: 17-20
  • Very Hard: 21+
  • Good Freaking Luck: 27+

It’s not exact or perfect, but for a few of us who were really detail oriented, it shifted numbers a bit based on in game experience to provide a good outline until we were comfortable with pulling a random DC out of thin air.

Also, especially for low level parties, the middle “medium” or “average” rankings for rolls in the PHB just doesn’t make sense. A roll that you have a 75% chance of failing if you don’t have specialized skills is not “Medium/average.”

We’re not the only ones who think so, either. This great Hipsters & Dragons blog post has their own remix of how to more accurately measure difficulty levels.

Do You Need to Match or Beat a DC?

In 5E ties go to the player. If you are in the role of DM you want to give the player the number they need to hit in order to succeed. If you think a 17 is the lowest number that passes, then the DC is 17, not 16.

When a player ties a difficulty challenge (DC) the tie goes to the player. The player has succeeded in that action or challenge!

This helps cut down on confusion and helps things run more smoothly.

How Character Stats Change DC

Generally there’s no direct change made to a difficulty challenge. The advantages of certain classes comes through other game mechanics such as imposing advantage or disadvantage on a roll, or the proficiency bonus a player has for individual skills their character is proficient in.

You don’t need to move the DC on sneaking into a guarded house from 20 to 15 for a rogue. The rogue has a higher stealth score so they already have their advantage. A even relatively modest +8 to stealth means for a rogue a DC 20 for sneak is really like beating a DC 12. Since those things are already balanced into a game, there’s no need to adjust the numbers!

If you really want to push things slightly in either direction as DM, offer advantage to help the player or disadvantage to challenge them.

DC: Skill Checks Vs. Saving Throws

DC can come up in two situations: skill checks and saving throws.

Generally the DM makes up what the difficulty challenge is based on the players, the campaign, and the situation. They decide what the DC is based on the general level of difficulty of the situation.

There is one exception where this is not the case.

Spells that have a saving throw will have the DC listed in the spell’s description. If a spell has a save DC of 20, then that’s the number to save from, period, end of statement.

So when the spell gives an exact number run with that as the answer. Otherwise it’s up to the DM to create a difficulty challenge that makes sense based on the situation.

How to Calculate DC in DnD

Unlike really number crunching systems like Pathfinder, the 5th Edition of DnD is much more open to DM’s discretion for these types of checks. Because of that you won’t find something like a DC calculator for DnD. Because each situation has different circumstances and game masters, this makes an exact calculation that fits every party and campaign impossible for 5E.

So if you’re looking for a DC calculator, it’s not going to work for a 5E system. Take this as an opportunity to sharpen the improv skills!

D&D DC Skill Check Examples

So what do some skill checks look like? Here are a few examples of an action with very different skill check scores based on the situation at hand.

Example 1: You need to break into a house to steal a magic idol that holds dangerous powers.

DC 5 – The person doesn’t know what they have and live in an isolated house on a quiet street. No dogs, no special skills, no spell, no noisy neighbors. Probably a setup where the DM feels like toying with a party’s paranoia and laughing at them as they wait for the setup that never comes. Basically no security.

DC 10 – Need to sneak through the dark house of a non-special NPC who is an average sleeper. The magic idol might be hidden, but a simple DC 10 investigation check reveals it in a relatively sparse house, assuming your DC 10 stealth check passes.

DC 15 – There are locks, the NPC is a light sleeper, there is likely a couple of guards or perhaps a hired goon keeping watch. Expect a basic bell alarm if you break in without seeing and disarming it first.

DC 20 – Multiple guards, magic idol is in a locked room. Very good chance of an alarm stone or magic protections that are on the room as well as the idol itself. Perhaps one or more fake idols. NPC or guards have some fighting ability. Possible connections to merchant’s guild or thieves’ guild.

DC 25 – Competent magic users and rogues are among those guarding the mansion of a local noble. There’s a secret room as well as serious security. Might have a hidden basement to a cult or cave system the party wasn’t aware existed. On a timer as those with the idol are actively moving it away. Possibly mimics as well as hell hounds and other creatures. Legitimate chance of death if they try to brute force it.

DC 30 – Did I say house? I meant the king’s castle, fully garrisoned. Almost certainly invisible wizards within the inner sanctum.

Example 2: I want to seduce the _______________ (stupid bards).

DC 5 – Fine, the bar wench never had a chance.

DC 10 – The guy/gal pretends he/she isn’t interested, but a minimal amount of charisma makes it work.

DC 15 – You remind them of an ex, so they are hesitant to trust you and have enough fighting skill to make you hurt briefly if you botch.

DC 20 – The band of merry thieves seems more interested in the size of the gold pouches than doing any flirting.

DC 25 – The angry Orc princess isn’t having any of it, especially after what you did to their camp.

DC 30 – You stupid mortals who think you can punch so far above your weight, the demi-goddess scoffs.

Example 3: I want to try to convince two armies on a battlefield to a temporary truce to buy time to prove both sides were deceived by the evil necromancer who wants war to add to his army.

DC 5 – They were allies until recently, the opposing generals were friends, and the orders from above have been…eccentric at best recently.

DC 10 – There is serious unease, but official orders haven’t been tossed down. A few from both camps were killed in the night, but there isn’t direct evidence it’s the other side.

DC 15 – Militaristic city-states. We’re here to fight, but codes of honor dictate if you can provide a good argument or evidence this would be in violation of their code, they’re honor bound to give you at least a chance to prove it.

DC 20 – Tensions have been building for years, especially around the disputed border. The burned down villages on both sides of the river was the last straw and local militias want blood.

DC 25 – A Machiavellian prince sees his chance between two kingdoms who have a war filled past, and many in both countries believe a fight is long overdue. He is loathe to let up on this chance to press a perceived advantage, even if the causes are suspect.

DC 30 – These kingdoms have been mortal enemies as long as they existed, and proven assassinations of nobles have taken place frequently in the past few years on both sides. Neither trusts either side at all, both have been guilty of past atrocities, and no one believes there will ever be peace as long as both kingdoms exist.

So There You Go

Those are just three examples, and other DMs may shift the numbers based on campaign, dice luck, or levels of players. If you have level 20 adventurers, for example, you may have some pretty insane DCs to make it a challenge.

It’s also worth noting that while a session should always be considered a group story time, if certain things need to happen it’s best for the DM to simply not allow a DC. While there are only a few times this heavy handedness should be used, it can be incredibly important. If you can put it in story terms, “Your observation of the situation lets you know from years of experience that nothing you say right at this moment will affect their decision,” then it can smooth it over and let the player know: usually go for it, but in this case sit back and watch the fireworks.

While this can be intimidating at first, it won’t be long at all before you just “know” what DC number to throw out and the player will know the campaign enough that if the number seems odd, he/she may ask for a reconsideration.

It’s a good system, and one that works very well with the open 5E mechanics.

Difficulty Checks in 5E DnD, In Summary

At the end of the day using a sliding scale of difficulty checks (DC) shouldn’t be that hard. It’s an outline that allows a game master and player to use the same measurements on how difficult any given action is during the campaign.

I hope you found this article useful and if so please consider checking out some of our other great DnD content!

Other DnD Articles You’ll Love