GM’s Guide: Ruling Guidelines for STR, DEX, and CON

In order to run any RPG, it’s important to calibrate your expectation to the system’s rules. A lot of arguments, including edition wars, stem from people expecting a game to be good at one thing when it isn’t, or not noticing when a game transitions from one tier to another. There are many valid complaints about 3.X, but several of the complaints to do with the system stem from a misunderstanding of its tiers. Legendary blacksmiths from the real world are not level 20 experts, they are level 5. The greatest heroes of many fantasy worlds are between levels 5 and 10. Higher levels are the domain of demigods. This is one reason why epic level rules for 3.X often fail. They assume that level 20 is the pinnacle of heroic potence, but not near the realm of the gods. In truth, level 20 3.X characters are firmly in the realm of the gods, with the gods of most fantasy settings being in the neighborhood of levels 15-25. The Alexandrian has an excellent article on exactly this subject, so I will let that speak for itself.

We aren’t talking about 3.X, of course, so all of this is just to present an extreme example of how far off expectations can be from experience, and the harm that can do to the play experience. Later editions, including 5e, have sought to more closely model the expectation that the average fantasy world will go from level 1 to level 20, whereas in D&D 3.X most fantasy worlds went from level 1 to about level 8. In other words, 5e made 20th level characters much less powerful so that Aragorn and Conan can be level 20 characters instead of level 8.

To calibrate expectations for 5e, here is a chart showing various DCs and at what level characters can be expected to meet them. This gives us a much more solid grasp of what it really means to be level 5, 10, or 20 in 5e. Before we dive into the chart, though, let’s define some terms. Non-specialists are assumed to have either a good attribute bonus or proficiency, but not both. Specialists are assumed to have both a proficiency and a good attribute for their level.  Experts have, in addition to the bonuses of a specialist, a double proficiency bonus from a race feature, class feature, or (particularly rarely) a feat. Generally speaking, only Rogues and Bards get expertise, but it’s reasonable to assume that an NPC blacksmith or the like would have this class feature without the rest of the Rogue or Bard class. 5e doesn’t have NPC classes like Expert, but if it did, Expertise would probably be one of the only class features that Experts got.

You can get a proficiency bonus either from having a skill trained or from having relevant tools. Generally speaking, these don’t overlap, some tasks you get skill bonuses on and some you get equipment bonuses on. Both of these are in fact proficiency bonuses, so in the rare cases where both apply, they do not stack, however you should probably give advantage on the roll.

Speaking of advantage, according to anydice.com using the formula “output [highest 1 of 2d20]” and the “at least” results graph, there is a 51% chance of getting at least a 15. This means that if a character has advantage, it’s reasonable to rule that they can take 15 instead of taking 10 (alternatively, you can consider them to have a +5 bonus when taking 10, but applying a bonus feels contradictory to the spirit of the advantage mechanics even if it’s mathematically very similar). Bizarrely, anydice.com reports that [lowest 1 of 2d20] will give an average of 7 (49% chance of 7 or higher), not 5. I have to trust anydice.com because the probability math on advantage dice is beyond my fairly meager knowledge of statistics (I knew I should’ve taken that course in high school), but kudos to anyone who can explain why this is in the comments.

DC Who can do it?
5 Trivial for anyone.
10 Routine for anyone.
15 Reasonably professional quality work. Routine for the average person with assistance or the level 5 specialist (a master blacksmith).
20 High quality professional work. Routine for the level 5 specialist with help (a blacksmith and his apprentice, for example), the level 10 expert on his own (probably the most renowned blacksmith in quite a wide region), or the level 20 specialist.
25 Masterpiece. Pinnacle of the efforts of the level 5 specialist, routine for the level 20 specialist with help, the level 15 expert, or the level 10 expert with help (a renowned blacksmith and his apprentice).
30 Pinnacle. Absolute pinnacle of a level 20 specialist or level 10 expert’s work, routine for a level 15 expert with help (the best blacksmith in all of a large and powerful empire and his equally talented, if less experienced, apprentice).
35 Legendary. Routine for nobody, possible only for a level 20 expert (the best blacksmith possible).

A masterpiece is literally the piece that proves someone a master, and it might seem odd that such a piece is within the grasp of a level 5 character. A journeyman blacksmith hits level 5, continues forging weapons, and twenty blades later he will have, on average, produced one masterpiece without having reached level 6 or higher. Is that really right?

It is, because the level scale goes much beyond the standard level of accomplishment of ordinary people. Keep in mind that most blacksmith shops in any population center of the size of a market town or up will be run by a master who employs some number of journeymen and apprentices for the grunt work. Larger towns and cities will have multiple different shops each run by a different master. Level 5 represents an average level of accomplishment for someone perfectly ordinary who spends a lifetime pursuing a career. They needn’t necessarily even pursue it with particular dedication, as long as they are not particularly lazy, either.

A good equivalent to a master blacksmith would be a captain of the guard, and a level 5 captain of the guard is, presuming he has pure Fighter levels, right around on par with his villainous equivalent, the hobgoblin captain from the Monster Manual. He will have slightly less HP (unless you let him max out his starting hit die automatically like a PC, in which case he has about the same HP), a slightly better attack score, he will use Battle Master maneuvers like Commander’s Strike and Rally instead of the hobgoblin’s Leadership ability, he shares the hob’s multi-attack, and he has an action surge and a fighting style on top of it. You wouldn’t expect the captain of the guard to much more than level 5, nor would you expect him to be much less, and you wouldn’t expect someone like a master blacksmith to be higher level than the captain of the guard (you wouldn’t expect a blacksmith to have PC levels at all, but he’d still be the equivalent of about level 5). Heroes and villains can easily expect to reach levels of accomplishment far beyond the common town master.

STR: Athletics

DC 5: Climb a 45 degree slope, wade through chest deep water.
DC 10: Climb a wall with plenty of good handholds (equivalent to one of those rock-climbing walls you get in modern gyms), swim in calm waters.
DC 15: Climb a wall with unevenly spaced handholds (your average good climbing spot in the wild), swim in rough waters.
DC 20: Climb a treacherous cliff face with few and unevenly spaced handholds, swim in stormy waters.
DC 25: Climb a cliff face that slopes outwards and has few and unevenly spaced handholds, swim in a mild hurricane.
DC 30: Climb a cliff face with handholds barely large enough to fit a finger into, swim in a full force hurricane.
DC 35: Climb a cliff face that is nearly smooth, swim in a full force hurricane for an extended period of time.

STR also governs jumping, as is covered in chapter 8 of the PHB. With a running start, a character can long jump their STR score (not bonus) in feet, and must succeed on a DC 10 check to clear a “low obstacle.” You can also high jump up to 3 plus your STR bonus (not score) feet. Speaking personally, I can jump obstacles tall enough that I apparently have a +2 modifier to STR (+3 on a good day, so call it a 15), but in terms of carrying capacity I am, if anything, below average. I am rather nimble, though, so characters should have the option to use their DEX in place of STR for purposes of jumping.

DEX: Acrobatics

DC 5: Keep your footing on a beam six inches across, fall out of bed without damage.
DC 10: Move at half speed on a beam three inches across or while walking across icy ground, fall five feet without damage.
DC 15: Move at half speed on a tightrope, keep your footing while running across icy ground, fall ten feet without damage (or reduce falling damage by 1d6).
DC 20: Move full speed across a beam three inches across, leap from one pole to another, fall twenty feet without damage (or reduce falling damage by 2d6).
DC 25: Move full speed across a tightrope, keep balance on a pole so narrow as to require you stand on tiptoe, fall thirty feet without damage (or reduce falling damage by 3d6).
DC 30: Run across a tightrope, dance on shifting, unstable poles so narrow as to require you stand on tiptoe, fall forty feet without damage (or reduce falling damage by 4d6).
DC 35: Run across a slippery tightrope, fall fifty feet without damage (or reduce falling damage by 5d6).

DEX: Sleight of Hand

Set DCs are given for various pickpocketing activities here. This assumes picking a target out of a crowd more or less at random. If a specific target is being pickpocketed, roll Sleight of Hand opposed to Perception like normal.

DC 5: Tie your boots.
DC 10: Hide a tiny object under a coat for a medium creature.
DC 15: Hide a small object under a coat for a medium creature, hide a tiny object up your sleeve and slide it, unnoticed, into your palm (if it is small enough to fit in your palm), juggle three balls, pick a pocket.
DC 20: Hide a small object underneath a normal set of clothes which are not loose or large, but not skin tight either, juggle five balls.
DC 25: Hide a medium object underneath a trench coat for a medium creature, hide a small object up your sleeve, remove someone’s belt without their noticing, juggle eight balls.
DC 30: Hide a small object up someone else’s sleeve without their noticing while giving them a handshake, remove someone’s shoes without their noticing.
DC 35: Palm an object right in front of someone’s eyes without their noticing.

DEX: Stealth

This is almost always covered by opposed checks, which means the Hiding sidebar from the PHB and principle of “let it ride” discussed earlier are sufficient guidance for making rulings on a roll-by-roll basis. We’ll have more thorough advice for proper stealth encounters later.

CON

For most ability scores, the specific skill DC guidelines provide good guidelines even for general ability checks that don’t fall under those proficiencies. Like STR, however, it has some movement-related checks attached to it in Chapter 8 of the PHB. On a forced march for 9 or more hours a day, characters must make a CON check every hour with a DC equal to 10 plus the number of hours past 8 they’ve been marching. On a failure, they take a level of exhaustion (rules for exhaustion can be found in the PHB’s appendix).

What this means is that characters can march a number of hours equal to 8 plus their CON mod without getting exhausted on average. A character with +1 mod can usually make it 9 hours, with a +2 they can usually make it 10, and so on up to characters marching 13 hours with little trouble at +5. The difference between a +1 and a +2 is supposed to be a full hour of travel, but in practice it’s usually lost in the noise of the die roll, so in most cases it’s best to allow taking 10 on CON checks against exhaustion from travel, only requiring rolls when characters attempt to exceed their limits.

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