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How should I handle players who make secret plans?

I am a first-time DM running Curse of Strahd for 6 new players. All of us are good friends. This week during our session, my players made a secret plan together they wanted to do that involved forging a copy of a journal and handing it to a major NPC. They made a deal to give this journal to the NPC but it contained magical information and they didn't trust her with it.

There were a few problems with this.

  1. They are new players so they don't have a good grasp on the rules or how hard something is to pull off. I don't think they did much research into how forging a document works in 5e and they didn't ask me about it ahead of time. None of them had a forgery kit or were proficient with using one.

I'm still a little sketchy on tool proficiencies myself but, I said that because they didn't have skill with this tool that the DC would be 25, it would take them a large chunk of the day to complete, and probably still wouldn't look that good if the NPC was familiar with the handwriting.

One player got frustrated with this and thought it should be easy to pull off. I disagreed and it made for an awkward moment.

  1. The session was all about a big event that we had been building up to. In-game, this event was about half a day away. I wanted to skip ahead and start right off the bat at this event for a strong opening and to save time (we only play for about two hours a week).

I think I made a mistake not checking in with them to see if there were any last-minute things they wanted to do, so when they brought up their forgery plan, it derailed me. I totally understand that adapting to them and changing my own plans is the whole game, but I still think it was smarter to just start at the festival, especially because their plan wasn't well thought out (they didn't really know what they wanted to forge or what they wanted to gain out of it). The whole forgery debate ended up wasting a lot of time imo.

My question is should players be encouraged to make plans like this? I feel like they think they have to keep it secret from me because I'm the DM and I can counterplan them if I know what they want to do.

I'm torn on it. On one hand, I definitely think that if your next session is a heist, for example, they should talk before the session to get a game plan. It would save a lot of time during the session.

On the other hand, they aren't good at planning yet, and when their plans aren't feasible it grounds the session to a halt while they figure out what to do, and I think it just makes them feel frustrated.

How should I handle this going forward?

Tl;dr: My players are inexperienced at making plans and I want them to talk to me about them and ask questions, but they seem to think they can't trust me. What should I do?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "they didn't really know what they wanted to forge or what they wanted to gain out of it" - you sure? I mean, when I was thinking that about my players it was usually that they did know, only didn't communicate it to me. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Oct 28, 2021 at 21:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a thought, is that really what a forgery kit is for? I'd assumed it was for making official looking documents like a deed of ownership or official orders from the king. Copying a journal is a different matter I'd think as the person receiving the copy may have no way of knowing it is fake. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2021 at 23:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Oct 29, 2021 at 2:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not an answer, but a note: spur of the moment rulings are often wrong, which is ok, but a lesson you can learn here is that increasing the DC for lack of proficiency isn't the right thing to do, it is already harder because they lack proficiency, you just made it even more difficult. A task is the same difficulty no matter who undertakes it, proficiency just makes it more likely to succeed. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 29, 2021 at 7:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think the [propblem-players] tag is appropriate here. The question isn't about a particular problematic player, it's all about players-DM miscommunication due to the DM's lack of experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Oct 29, 2021 at 9:40

6 Answers 6

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It sounds like you need to have a conversation with your players.

Let them know that this is not a DM vs player game. This joint storytelling, they should be including you for two reasons.

  1. The most important is so you can prepare material, you need to be able to get maps and NPCs ready. They can't expect you to pull things out of your butt. If they don't fill you in on their plans the session is just you preparing material for two hours while they twiddle their thumbs.

  2. You the DM are there to help them turn their ideas into parts of the story using the rules. Planning is great, you encourage it, by including you they can understand what they will need to implement these plans. You should not be telling whether it is a good idea or not, that is the thing you as the DM have to give up. It is their plans let them decide if it is a good idea or not (now if they ask an NPC then you can can chip in). What you can tell them is what possible outcomes their characters might predict, after all their characters live in this world the players do not. To player Bob, "Bosco the bard would know forging documents is tricky and requires skill, preparation, and the right materials, for Bob that means someone needs proficiency with a forgery kit, the kit itself, and ideally a sample or description of what you want to forge without the last it will be harder to forge but still possible." You can tell them what they need in order to do what they want instead of stumbling around blind.

It also sounds like you are under a time crunch, in which case instead of skipping time cover these time period off the table, between sessions, in texts, emails, conversations, etc. The players don't know what time in the story is important, you do, they don't know you intend to skip time so to them it feels like having the carpet pulled out from under them. They may have thought they had more prep time. this also gives you a chance to focus in on individuals and encourage RP and again to prepare things. This will also help with tedium, shopping or such can be done between session unless someone wants to RP a scene.

As last mention, generally not being proficient either means you can't do it at all or you roll without your proficiency bonus, that is why it is harder, not a higher DC.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the comment! Yeah, it seems the consensus is that they should at least clue me in on the basics of a plan ahead of time. We're all new players so we are still learning, so anything we can do to help each other only makes us better at it. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 29, 2021 at 16:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Let them know that this is not a DM vs player game." Weeeeeeel... it is Curse of Strahd. Might as well be playing Paranoia :P \$\endgroup\$
    – Corey
    Oct 31, 2021 at 13:30
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Let's have a Session 0, again!

These steps I am about to present are things that I typically discuss during a Session 0 before the adventure begins. But, you are already into your adventure, so its too late to have a proper Session 0. So what do you do? Have a Session 0 in the middle of your adventure. We need to hit pause and discuss a few things as a table, so we can set this adventure back on track.

Part 1: D&D is not "Players vs. DM". Make sure everyone is playing the same game.

This the first thing you need to talk about with your players. D&D 5e is decisively not a "players vs. DM" game. Working together to create a fun and enjoyable social space is the player-DM relationship described in the game rules, as presented in the introduction to the Dungeon Master's Guide (pg. 4-5):

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game. That said, your goal isn’t to slaughter the adventurers but to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more! If you’re lucky, the events of your campaign will echo in the memories of your players long after the final game session is concluded.

[...]

The success of a D&D game hinges on your ability to entertain the other players at the game table. Whereas their role is to create characters (the protagonists of the campaign), breathe life into them, and help steer the campaign through their characters’ actions, your role is to keep the players (and yourself) interested and immersed in the world you’ve created, and to let their characters do awesome things.

Knowing what your players enjoy most about the D&D game helps you create and run adventures that they will enjoy and remember. Once you know which of the following activities each player in your group enjoys the most, you can tailor adventures that satisfy your players’ preferences as much as possible, thus keeping them engaged.

Both you and your players should be approaching the game with the mid set that we are all working together to make this game fun. Everyone at the table needs to understand this, because that is the game you are playing. The "Players vs. DM" version of D&D is a completely different game from the one described above. To be clear, a "Players vs DM" style of play is not "bad wrong fun", rather it is a style of play that should be agreed upon prior to starting play. The cooperative style of play is the default style for Dungeons & Dragons, as outlined in the DMG quotes, but when everyone agrees upon a "players vs DM" style of play, it can work just fine. It is when one or more of the people at the table are expecting a cooperative playstyle, and others at the table are expecting "Players vs. DM" that we run into conflict.

So make sure that everyone is playing the same game.

Part 2a: Clever schemes make for great narrative, and since we're building this narrative together, let's talk about them.

There is nothing more satisfying than devising a clever plan to trick the bad guy, and then executing that plan effectively. This is why the DM and the players should have constant and open dialogue about their plans and schemes - "storyteller" is one of the DM's many hats:

As a storyteller, the DM helps the other players visualize what’s happening around them, improvising when the adventurers do something or go somewhere unexpected.

The DM has to prepare the world that the characters interact with. By knowing the character's plan, the DM can prepare the world to present challenges to overcome, to make the execution of the plan more interesting, and to give it some real stakes.

Part 2b: We should talk about your plans so that we can align our expectations.

The DM has another hat, "referee":

as a referee, the DM interprets the rules and decides when to abide by them and when to change them.

Part of being the referee is deciding when to change the rules. Putting referee and storyteller together, the DM has to weave together the narrative being told and the mechanics being implemented at the table. If the DM and the players are working together to build the narrative by communicating with each other about their plans and how those plans translate to the rules of the game, then the players and the DM can align their expectations about the outcome of the plan. You can guide them on things they didn't think of, things they need to do to execute, and the rules that are going to come into play at each step of the way, so that the players know what they're getting into, before they get into it.

Misaligned expectations lead to immensely frustrating situations, and that is what we have here. The players had a plan, and they packaged that plan with a set of expectations. When they brought the plan to the table as a surprise for the DM, you had to fall back on what you knew to keep the game moving: you made a ruling based on the rules.

Part 3: If you keep your plans a secret, you must be prepared to accept the DM's ruling.

This is sort of the "tough love" portion of this advice. There are very good reasons for the players to communicate with the DM about their schemes. Once you have talked to the players about everything else I've mentioned, you need to establish this last point. As the DM, you have to make a ruling and get on with the game. You cannot stop the game for any extended amount of time to ponder their scheme or argue about what the right call is. If you need to check a rule to help you make a decision, that's fine. But you have to make a ruling, and the players need to understand this. You will do your best to make a fair call, and you will probably make mistakes, which is okay.

To summarize? Communicate.

This is what it comes down to. Communication is crucial. You need to talk to your players about the kind of game everyone is playing, and you should encourage them to share their schemes with you so that you can work on building the world together.

And keep communicating afterward. Ask them how they felt about your handling of their plan. In my experience, consistent communication is one of the biggest contributors to consistent fun at the table.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for taking the time to comment! We never had a session zero because none of us knew that kind it existed but I definitely wish we had done one. I think it's too late to do a true one now, but I will definitely bring up communication in our next session. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 29, 2021 at 16:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthewWood It's never too late to do a session 0. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 29, 2021 at 17:34
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By (a) encouraging them to share their ideas with you with an open mind, and (b) by listening to their plans with an open mind and responding to the plans fairly

The Scenario

When your session started:

  1. You had an event for the characters to attend coming up in a half day's time. The game "had been building up to" it, so presumably the players were aware of it.
  2. The players proposed that their characters do something which you were unprepared for.
  3. You ruled that the proposed plan would be nearly impossible to achieve.

Strahd is a sandbox-style adventure. There are a lot of paths the players can take to the conclusion of the adventure. Without some DM nudges, they may wander off and do anything, or nothing. In a pure sandbox, there may be no overarching goals. In a pure linear adventure, scenarios (important locations, NPCs) are expected to be visited in a particular order. Strahd is not pure sandbox--there is a goal, defeat Strahd--but players can visit important locations or encounter important NPCs in any order they choose, or in a somewhat random order if they don't learn some things about the world.

Since Strahd is a sandbox-style adventure, you do have to be open to the fact that the players may do things unexpected, and you have to adapt to it. This can be exceedingly challenging, even for an experienced DM. However, the players have to realize that choosing to do one thing may forestall doing other things. In this case, spending time creating the forgery could threaten attending the festival. That's a choice that they have to make. Or, they could decide to go to the festival (saving your plans for that session) and create the forgery later, if it is still important to them.

More info on sandbox-style adventures, including how it relates to Strahd and other adventures published by WotC, can be found at Goals and Sandboxes.

The Ruling

I'm still a little sketchy on tool proficiencies myself but, I said that because they didn't have skill with this tool that the DC would be 25, it would take them a large chunk of the day to complete, and probably still wouldn't look that good if the NPC was familiar with the handwriting.

There are three parts to this:

  1. You set the DC at 25.
  2. You said it would take a large chunk of the day to complete.
  3. You said it still wouldn't look good if the NPC was familiar with the handwriting.

First, I understand that you were surprised by their plan. I think your surprise shows up in these reasons, particularly setting the DC at 25. Only 5 more would put it in the category of "Nearly impossible", and adding it "probably still wouldn't look good" is basically saying "I'm not going to let you do this." It is understandable that the players would have reacted in a way that suggests they thought you were just making things difficult for them. I would encourage both you and your players to try to understand each others' point of view here.

The most important part of your ruling is #2. Frankly, saying this would take a large chunk of the day is too generous. Even without referring to the specific rules, if you were to ask a random person (not even necessarily a D&D player) how long it would take to forge a journal, that is, pages and pages of handwriting, with plausible content in some kind of chronological order, that is internally consistent, doesn't contain the wrong information at the wrong time, and is physically aged appropriately (papers yellowed a little, a lot, not at all?), the answer would be weeks at a minimum.

Depending on where the characters are in Barovia, it could take them days just to get the materials they need. Did one of the characters just happen to have a blank book in their backpack?

As it so happens, there are rules in Xanathar's Guide to Everything for this, although XGtE isn't a core rulebook, so its content is basically all optional, you might not even own it, and as a new DM you shouldn't be expected to know this even if you do own it. Nonetheless, here are the rules (HT: @Linnc):

Quick Fake. As a part of a short rest, you can produce a forged document no more than one page in length. As part of a long rest, you can produce a document that is up to four pages long. Your Intelligence check using a forgery kit determines the DC for someone else's Intelligence (Investigation) check to spot the fake.

These rules aren't bad, and save you from having to set the DC. Instead, this is a contested Intelligence check. Since the characters don't have the forgery kit proficiency, they don't get to add their proficiency bonus to the Intelligence check. Whoever they give the journal to makes an Intelligence (Investigation) check to spot the fake. If the NPC is familiar with the handwriting, I would model this as advantage on the check. (Someone may not be good at spotting forgeries, but still be able to recognize their spouse's handwriting.)

This handles #1 and #3. I already addressed #2, but here is some backup in the rules for such an extensive forgery taking a long time. The characters can create a document up to four pages long during a long rest. How long is this journal? A four page journal doesn't sound very believable. Is it 40 pages? 80 pages? That's 10 days or 20 days. It is entirely plausible that forging an entire journal will take a long time.

The Real Issue

The real issue has to do with the word "secret", and what it means.

It could mean that the players are treating this is a contest, and they are trying to "win". Planning secretly is intended to throw you off and defeat your plans. If this is the case, you should talk with them. Make clear that this isn't a contest. My players often discuss their plans in front of me, because we are not opposing teams trying to defeat each other. My players know that I want to see them succeed. And sometimes I'll say things like "It occurs to you that that might not be a good idea because" of some information the characters are aware of, and the players are just forgetting or not taking into account.

In your case, if your players had discussed the forgery in front of you, when they first brought it up you could have said "You immediately realize that creating an entire forged journal will take weeks." If they want to proceed with the plan, they can, and then you can ask if they want to go to the festival before trying to acquire a blank book.

"Secret" could also mean that the players just happened to have a conversation when you were not present. Conversation between various subsets of players (and here I am included the DM as a player) has been common in many campaigns that I have been in, both as a player and as a DM. We aren't around each other all the time, and there is nothing wrong with your players doing some planning between sessions. In fact, it can make things go more quickly when the session starts. This is only problematic if they get heavily invested in an idea and can't accept that the idea won't work. But I would check to see whether this "secret" session was in fact intended as subterfuge, or was just players having fun between sessions.

In either case, you have a responsibility to listen with an open mind and respond to the plans fairly.

Big picture, encourage them to share their ideas with you between sessions, and respond fairly to their plans, as best you can even without preparation.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the comment, it was super helpful! I definitely now know in hindsight that my ruling was wrong, and how it did basically say there was no point to it. I want them to be able to do fun schemes without railroading them, so I'll definitely let them know at the next session we need to communicate better. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 29, 2021 at 16:53
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Yes, they should be encouraged to make plans like that.

That kind of crazy plan can make the session more fun. The plans will be getting better as the campaign progress. They'll learn from their mistakes, etc.

About the forgery kit, by its description (PHB p. 154):

This small box contains a variety of papers and parchments, pens and inks, seals and sealing wax, gold and silver leaf, and other supplies necessary to create convincing forgeries of physical documents. Proficiency with this kit lets you add your proficiency bonus to any ability checks you make to create a physical forgery of a document.

The proficiency with the forgery kit helps to forge good documents, but it's not required at all. In that case, I would instruct the player like you did, but I would say that they'll need to buy a forgery kit, and follow the mechanic from Xanathar's Guide to Everything (p.81), I would ask them to make the Quick Fake:

Quick Fake. As a part of a short rest, you can produce a forged document no more than one page in length. As part of a long rest, you can produce a document that is up to four pages long. Your Intelligence check using a forgery kit determines the DC for someone else's Intelligence (Investigation) check to spot the fake.

This Intelligence check will not add a proficiency bonus in that case.

Anyway, the players will always do plans behind you, you're kind of an enemy as you said, so it's natural. If they want to faff about, let them do it. Know your players, what they like, if they like Acting, Exploring, Investigating, Fighting, Optimizing, etc., and adapt your campaign to do more of what they want. If their decision is not smart, or terrible, let them do it; maybe it could give you a very funny session with the ridiculousness.

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    \$\begingroup\$ crazy plans are great, when the DM can include, them which can only happen if the DM is aware of them. "we're not going to fight the dragon, we are going to move to anther town" makes for a interesting story but only if the DM has another town ready, otherwise it is "interesting idea but you never said anything so I only have the dragon fight prepared so we do that or the session is just 2 hours of me preparing stuff while you play on your phone. " \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Oct 29, 2021 at 0:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Oct 29, 2021 at 3:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @John for situations like that, I usually use the Theater of Mind approach. I don't think that map is a requirement for the session. In the Storm King's Thunder (the first campaign that I was DM), there are many encounters and cities that the players can go without a map. Improvisation is the key. \$\endgroup\$
    – Linnc
    Oct 29, 2021 at 8:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ A DM should be able to improvise something, but it's not generally a good thing for players to keep a plan secret from the DM. Some DMs may want their players to be more proactive about sharing plans for the next session, if that's what they're more comfortable with. Sounds like that was the case for this DM, at least in the surprise of the moment. Also, discussing plans with the DM will give the DM a chance to let the player know how their character would anticipate the difficulty, and stuff like how the rules would apply. Your answer doesn't support intentionally keeping a secret. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 29, 2021 at 9:12
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Forging strahd is an expected use of tools, from other players.

As this post covering tool uses in Strahd, some forgery is expected.

Basic uses for tools could potentially be used in the campaign:

Alchemist supplies - to make alchemist fire Brewer's tools - to help out with the wine situation Carpenter's tools - also help out with wine situation, craft some barrels, maybe Carpenter/Mason/Smith - a lot of buildings are in disrepair, peddle your skills for some room, board, and good will! Disguise Kit - keep a low profile, especially for Ireena Forgery Kit - plenty of uses. Lure the Watchers out of Vallaki with a forged invitation from Strahd! Gaming set (any) - Gamble your life away Herbalism Kit - Make potions of healing Musical Instruments - If you're a bard, natch Poisoner's Kit - Always useful to deal extra damage Vehicles (land, water) - Possibly, if you steal a Vistani cart, or deal with inclement weather on the lake

You get a handwriting sample, and he's ripe for exploitation, so this is a common usage of tools.

If the PCs do something unexpected, a common thing is to offer a quest or a cost.

You should be ready for them using skills, proficient or otherwise. This is a normal part of the game.

Remmeber that their characters are competent adventurers. They would likely know that forgery wouldn't work well. To add immersion, it helps to have some idea of why it's hard. So, tell them this.

"You know that your own skill at forging isn't great, and that most letters come with a seal of some sort to verify their owner which you can't emulate. You don't believe you could forge a letter of the right sort on your own. However, xyz skills or background or contacts might be more skilled and willing to help make a better forgery."

Then they can go to someone who can do it, and you have a side quest.

If you don't really care about it, you can make them pay 2 gold a day to hire a skilled NPC and resolve the plot. If you care about it, this could be a side quest. From the sound of it, you wanted to move ahead, so let them hire the person and move on quickly.

It also helps to ask the players what they expect to accomplish with any plans. If they have no plans, make it quick. If they do have a plan, and their current actions stand no chance of accomplishing it, tell them what other things must be done to do it.

For example "If you wish them to leave, you must make it realistic. That requires a sample of their writing and seal. In addition, you must make some threat or problem grave enough for them to leave. What will you do?"

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for sharing that tools post? It has really good ideas! I'm still trying to learn how to rule when players want to use tools or how they can gain proficiencies with them. The hardest part is figuring out how much time it takes them to do things. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 29, 2021 at 18:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Glad to help. Easiest thing to say is yes, or yes and. Unless the players are doing something consequential best to resolve it quickly, often without dice if it doesn't matter. In terms of gaining proficiencies, one popular way is to have them gain it in downtime between sessions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Oct 29, 2021 at 20:44
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Discuss at the end of the previous session how the next session will start

Rather than some fundamental problem with the group at the table, this smells more like an awkward situation brought about by innocuous miscommunication and inexperience.

As a DM you need to know, to a lesser or greater extent, what will happen next. This was an issue for me as a new DM. I would prepare what I guessed would happen next, not what the players wanted to do next. I wasn't good at the kind of off-the-cuff rulings you need to make when players tell you what they want to do and it doesn't line up with what I guessed they'd want to do.

But as DMs we still need to prepare so how do we figure out what the players want to do next session? Ask them directly what they intend to do next session. If they don't know what they'll do, ask them to discuss what they want throughout the week. There's keeping a secret, and then there's just forgetting to talk to you about it beforehand or deciding it at the table. Make sure they keep you in the loop, and to ask you questions. Your job is not to force the players down any one path. You advise them on whether an action is possible or not and what the consequences of their actions would be, so they can make an informed decision.

This way you can avoid the awkwardness of your players having built up their expectations for the better part of a week about what they want to do, you having prepared something completely different, and your players receiving an at-the-table ruling that disappoints them.


An aside about DCs and Tool use

If you judge that someone is capable of a task but with "a chance of failure" (meaning, something you would actually ask them to roll for since it is not impossible for them, but also not guaranteed) then that task's Difficulty Class is set. The rules are a little... unspecific, but as a DM you need only set the DC based on how difficult the task is in general. Whether an individual is well suited to succeed at a possible but uncertain task is what their stats, proficiencies, and advantages/disadvantages are for. Their chance of success is variable but the DC of the task is not. You can reference the basic rules' section on Ability Checks and Task Difficulty.

Task Difficulty DC
Very Easy 5
Easy 10
Medium 15
Hard 20
Very Hard 25
Nearly Impossible 30

For Tools specifically, you can find the rules on tools here, if it is possible to perform an action without tools + proficiency, then not having them doesn't change the DC.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've replaced the image of the difficulty table with a markdown version of the table, it should be friendlier to some devices than the picture was. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 29, 2021 at 18:19

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