The answer is pretty simple. Crack the book, and read how skills work in their entirety, instead of just the basics of how a check functions.
|Seriously, guys, you make this a LOT harder on yourselves than you need to.|
The Book Already Has The Balance You're Looking For
As I said way back in my post Operator Error is The Biggest Cause of Problems in RPGs, most of the problems DMs have behind the screen come from gaps in their knowledge about how aspects of the game actually work. For skills, most of us never move beyond the DC 10 for a simple task, DC 15 for a difficult one, and DC 25 or 30 for a nearly impossible one. However, that scale is only part of how skills work in Pathfinder.
Let's start with Perception, since it gets the most hate, and seems to cause the most problems. The most common use of Perception is to counter either a Stealth check, or to notice someone using Sleight of Hand. However, it is also used to locate traps, with the base DC of 20 for mechanical traps, and 25 + the highest spell level for magical traps.
|Some traps have lower locate DCs than others.|
Now, if you're a DM who is constantly frustrated that your party always finds your traps, locates your ambushes, or stumbles across your secret doors, you need to ask yourself two questions. One, why are you annoyed that your players are succeeding, using the resources they invested into their characters? Two, are you actually applying any of the appropriate negatives to the situation according to the chart on page 102?
You see, Perception is not just about the DC; it's also about the conditions you're using it in. Bad conditions? That's a +2 to the DC. +5 for terrible conditions. Distance? It's +1 for every 10 feet away the character is. If the creature making the check is distracted, that's a +5 to the check. Hearing something through a closed door is also a +5. It's +10 per foot of thickness to perceive something through a wall. It's a +20 if something is invisible, and then there is the question of whether the person making the check can see in the dark, can see in dim light, or if they understand what they're hearing.
All of that is a built-in feature of the game, and it's expected you're actually applying those negatives to situations where PCs are making Perception checks.
The other major problem I find is DMs who aren't actually running a skill the way it's listed in the book, and as such are making it more powerful than it should be. Intimidate and Diplomacy are the best examples. When you demoralize a creature in combat (one of the most common uses of Intimidate) the DC you have to beat is 10 + target's hit dice + the target's Wisdom modifier. So, while it's possible for you to Intimidate the dragon, you had better have Skill Focus, a racial bonus, a favored class modifier, a trait bonus, an equipment bonus, and roll above a 15 if you expect to demoralize that thing for even 1 round. It is not a roll-off of your Intimidate versus the target's Sense Motive (a skill most monsters don't even have most of the time, which would practically guarantee your success).
Then there's the creature's attitude. You see, it's entirely possible to use Diplomacy to change a creature's attitude toward you... but you can only move them 2 steps along the chart. So, if a creature has a hostile attitude toward you, the absolute best you can hope for with a Diplomacy check is to shift it to indifferent. And that means you need to make a check that beats the check of 25 + creature's Charisma modifier by 5 or more. So, at minimum, you need to hit a 30 just to make them not care one way or another.
But what about friendly creatures? Well, friendly is often misconstrued as, "I won the check, so now they do what I want." That isn't how that works. If you manage to change a creature's attitude toward you to friendly, either using Intimidate or Diplomacy, that creature doesn't immediately become a pawn under your control. It becomes "friendly," which means it will treat you as a friend. Depending on what you want, the DC will also go up (such as a +10 increase to the DC for giving dangerous aid, or a +15 or more for aid that could result in punishment). And if you use Intimidate rather than Diplomacy to make a creature friendly toward you? Well, that's a short-lived victory. It's also only really good for interrogations, since it only lasts for 1d6 X 10 minutes, after which the target treats you as unfriendly, and is likely to do things like report you to the town guard.
Don't Take Away Their Victories (But Don't Make Them Easy)
Pathfinder is a rules-dense game, and that means it's entirely possible to go through a whole campaign without touching on big sections of the rule book. But when you're a DM, and your players want to use those rules, it behooves you to learn them, and to run them with all the positive and negative aspects they're listed with. Because while it's entirely possible for the half-orc rogue to terrify a prisoner into submission in order to find out how many men are inside the bandit stronghold, or for the ranger to hear a twig snag as ambushers approach the camp while he's dead asleep, it's important to remember those aren't flat DCs. Sometimes it's easier for a character to succeed on those endeavors, and sometimes it's harder. Especially because natural 20s are not a guaranteed success on skill checks, by the rules.
However, while a DM might lament that someone in their party regularly hits checks in the 40s by level 10, take a moment to stop and ask what they had to do in order to get those numbers. How many feat slots, skill points, attribute bumps, traits, items, class features, and even spell slots are they dedicating to making sure they have the ability to spot ambushes with eagle-eyed clarity, or to fast-talk their way past all but the most astute guards. Just like barbarians with brutal attack numbers, or wizards who always seem to have just the right spell for a situation, don't punish the player for properly investing their resources to make effective characters.
Just make sure they're following the rules, and that they understand some situations are more difficult to overcome than others. Not because you're arbitrarily changing the rules, but because the rules were built with that difficulty curve in mind.
That's all for this week's Crunch post. Hopefully it helps both frustrated DMs, and players who have been wanting to go a little more in-depth with their skills. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help fund me and my blog so I can keep bringing you posts just like this, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference to me, and it gets you all kinds of sweet swag just for being a patron.