D&D Skills: Tightrope Walking and the Cirque du Soleil — The Real Problem isn’t “the Math”

illo of tightrope walkingThere was a huge thread on supposed problems with “the Math” in D&D Next ([5E] The Maths is Wrong!) on RPG.net recently. One of the arguments that the math was wrong struck me as actually showing a completely different set of problem with WOTC editions of D&D in general: the way WOTC editions handle skills and set difficulty numbers.

The argument in the thread went something like this. The 5e rules set the DC for walking a tightrope at 25, which means that even an expert thief, who has dedicated everything to tightrope walking, couldn’t amass enough bonuses to guarantee walking a tight rope more than 60% of the time. Instead of assuming that perhaps the DC should be lower for walking a tightrope, most posters complained that this showed how “the Math” in 5e just did not work.

Someone then pointed out that performers in the Cirque du Soleil, who do things like riding a unicycle on a tightrope while juggling, manage to do what they do in performances all the time without falling and killing themselves. In fact, there has only been one death in something like 25 years worth of Cirque du Soleil performances. This was used as further evidence that “the Math” for 5e was completely off as there was no way D&D Next characters could ever be skilled enough to do this.

However, it sounds to me like there are three problems here. None of which has much to do with “the Math” but with the way Next (and other WOTC editions of D&D) handle DCs and skills.

First, as I mentioned above, the DC for tightrope walking is probably too high. More correctly, it doesn’t take into account the exact situation. A true tightrope that is carefully stretched to the correct tension and is level is going to be much easier to walk than a rope stretched across a crevice in a cave that probably isn’t stretched to the correct tension and is unlikely to be completely level. And this is before you take into account environmental factors in the cave (Is it damp? Is there a downdraft or an updraft? Etc.). So while a DC of 25 is probably way to high for a royal command performance in the castle courtyard, it might be just right in a damp cave where the far side of that crevice is a couple of feet higher the the near side. DCs really need to be set by the GM based on the specific situation, not set by some standard DC list for various activities in the rulebook. The GM should just decide if the specific instance of the task is easy, average difficulty, hard, very hard, extremely hard, etc. and assign the appropriate DC. Some examples of things that are easy, hard, etc. could be in the rule book, but they should just be examples.

The second problem is WOTC D&D’s handling of skills. The rules seem to make it sound like you should roll for every use of the skill, no matter how normal and mundane — or at least they seem to read that way for many players. IMHO, if you have a skill, normal usage of that skill under normal circumstances should not require a skill roll at all, the character should just succeed at the task. (And no, “take 10” and “take 20” do not actually provide this automatic success). Otherwise, even a low 0.01% chance of failure would mean that failure is very likely to happen more often than it does in real life. Someone with the acrobatics skill, for example, should not even have to roll to successfully cross that tightrope strung up level and at the correct tension in the castle courtyard unless there is some reason that it would be harder than normal (it’s wet, greased shoes, etc.).

The third problem is that skill failure and skill fumble should be two different things. For a skilled person, failure at walking a tightrope should just mean you have problems and it takes you longer; or you have to make a DEX check to avoid dropping something as you flail around trying to regain your balance; or you can’t make it across for some reason and have to go back; or the like. You shouldn’t have to worry about falling unless you fumble the skill check and therefore have to save to grab the rope before you fall off or something. If you don’t have the skill at all, failure probably means a disaster of some type, but if you have the skill, it shouldn’t.

The Cirque du Soleil example isn’t so much a rules issue as it is a common sense issue. For a person with the appropriate training (skill), practice often makes even the extremely difficult routine. A Cirque du Soleil performer doesn’t just get up one morning and decide to add a new “riding a unicycle on a tightrope while juggling” routine to his performance. He develops the routine and practices it until he’s as close to perfect as he can get (which may require weeks or months of practice) before he debuts the routine before an audience with the tightrope high in the air and no safety nets in sight. By the time, the performer is doing the act in front of an audience, he has practiced his specific routine so much that it has become a normal task for him. Even though his routine may be extremely difficult with a DC of 40, it has become a normal task for him because of his many hours practicing the exact steps of the routine. And as a normal task, no roll is needed for a basic success.

If I were running a skill-based game and had a Cirque du Soleil group of PCs I’d probably still require a skill roll when the character performs his routine but it would be to determine how well the performance went that day. A success means you did well enough that any minor missteps aren’t noticed by the audience (a critical success would mean even your fellow performers/trainers don’t notice any). A failed roll would mean that you had a problem that the audience could not help but notice. A fumble means you had real problems and have to make a second skill roll to avoid injury. Success on the second means just a really bad personal performance — the sort that might ruin the entire show for the audience. While a failure on the second roll means not only did your poor performance ruin the show but you also suffered a minor injury (a fumble means you also suffered a major injury). If the character has an appropriate Performance skill, a high roll there might allow you to make even a bad mistake in your routine look like a part of the show.

In summary, I think “the math” is getting the blame for a problem that can’t really be fixed by changing the math. What is needed is flexible DCs, recognition that skill rolls really should only be required when the circumstances aren’t normal, and an understanding that most skill failures just mean you failed and not that a “near worst case” disaster has struck.

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7 Responses

  1. Very good post. Good points, well presented!

  2. Rachel Ghoul says:

    As to the DC issue, I think that's just a partial restatement of what they meant by "the Math" in the first place. The DC for it is so high that there's no hope of being consistently capable.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think I'd disagree that Take 10 isn't the automatic success we need (I'm curious why you think it's not), but otherwise yes, I very much agree with you here.

    I personally think that D&D 3.5 got a lot of what you're talking about here "right," and there's a good post at The Alexandrian that goes in to a bit of that — but the fact remains that for "the math" to work out we need to have reasonable and realistic DCs (which is where WotC and ad hoc DMing usually fails).

    I don't reallY agree that the DM should simply pluck a difficulty out of the air, and I don't think that's what you're saying – instead I think we need to have a Base DC, and then have fairly static penalties for various circumstances (upward grade -2, greased shoes -1, juggling -2, riding a unicycle -5) so that the DM can have an objective basis for their decision. We can't and shouldn't have a comprehensive list of such circumstances, but having examples to work from lends consistency from one check to the next (why is this rope harder to cross? The material's slicker, etc).

    But VERY YES to the notion that failure isn't disaster. In general, I think GMs have a notion that every check has to be "meaningful", so every failure must be dire. Checks should be meaningful, but that means "don't make meaningless checks," not "every failure is disaster."

  4. You are correct that the DC is far too high for the tightrope example.

    But that's easily fixed by a DM applying the general DC criteria in the rules.

    Walking a tight, level rope without any distraction should be no more than a DC 15 moderate task–"someone with a combination of natural aptitude and specialized training can accomplish a moderate task more often than not".

    Adding a complicating factor (moving quickly, doing something else while moving reasonably slowly, slack rope, etc) should bump it to a DC 20 hard task. "Even with aptitude and training, a character needs some amount of luck—or a lot of specialized training—to pull off a hard task."

    DC 25 very hard tasks should involve something like a combination of 2 complicating factors while on the rope. "Only especially talented individuals need even try their hand at very hard tasks." This is far too high a DC for something like normal tightrope walking in good conditions.

  5. Randall says:

    @jackstoolbox: I have no desire for some "big book of modifiers" that lists the DC for every possible action and a list of modifiers to each of those action DCs based on all the circumstances that might affect the difficulty of that action the game designers think of. That just wastes time in the game as the GM has to look everything up and compute the DC.

    Instead, I think there should be a column or two of text teaches the GM how to decide if a given task in a given situation is easy, average, hard, very hard, etc. And just use the DC assigned to the level of difficulty selected. It's much faster in play.

  6. Randall says:

    @Christopher John Brennan: You're right, changing the DC is the easy and obvious solution to the tightrope walking problem. People tried to point this out in the thread, but were pretty much ignored by all the posters blaming this on "the math".

  7. Aside from the DC. I read the current rules to suggest that as a DM I should not require any check for a Cirque du Soleil performer doing their normal routine.

    The combination of aptitude, training, experience, practice, optimal circumstances and prior successful performances mean that the normal performance is "so easy" for the elite professional acrobat there is no significant chance of failure. (The chance exists, but it would need to be "significant" for me to require a roll.)

    To me this is both sensible and helps make the game more fun by rolling the dice when events really matter.

    I would probably require a check if the performer was trying to elicit a special reaction from the audience–not for catastrophic failure of the routine but for the effect on the audience. And I would certainly require one if they were pushing the envelope of their normal routine in a way that added significant risk of failure.

    Here are the rules passages I see as especially on point.

    "If a character attempts an action that has a significant chance of failure, have the player make an ability check."

    "Is the action being taken so easy, so free of stress or conflict, or so appropriate to the situation that there should be no chance of failure? 'So easy' should take into account the ability score associated with the intended action."

    "If the player makes clever use of the situation in the description, consider either granting an automatic success or advantage on the ability check."