Using Skills – Athletics

Welcome to the third part in the Role Play Craft Using Skills series. Last time in this series we covered Animal Handling, and today we’re covering Athletics! I appreciate the feedback on this series so far, and I’m glad a lot of you are finding it useful or enjoyable.

You might notice that we’ve skipped Arcana. This wasn’t intentional – I’m just bad at planning. We’ll cover Arcana next week.


Using Skills – Athletics

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The half-orc carefully chooses another hand-hold on the sheer cliff face, lifting himself little by little toward the ridge above. A kensei leaps from a tree branch far across the skirmish field to land in front of the goblin chief. The sailor, thrown overboard, tries to calmly keep her head afloat amid the storm-chopped water. Athletics is the domain of heroic physical feats against incredible odds.

The Player’s Handbook describes it thus: “Your Strength (Athletics) check covers
difficult situations you encounter while climbing, jumping, or swimming.” (PHB pg.175)

Normal Usage

The main use of Athletics is pretty clear: climbing, jumping, and swimming. Whenever there is a question of success in any of these areas, a Strength (Athletics) check should be called for. It is the crossroads where pure brute strength meets training and practice; the strongest man in the world still must learn how to swim.

The second, but still pretty major, use for Athletics is for grappling. When attempting to grapple an opponent, instead of an attack roll you make a Strength (Athletics) contests roll against the opponent’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics). You can also use this method to instead push a creature, knocking it prone.

Athletics is the only Strength based skill in fifth edition. As such, it’s very important for Strength based characters. Not only will you be the go to person for climbing first to secure the rope, but grappling and pushing provides you with a nice amount of battlefield control. In fact, when fighting from a precarious precipice, it might cut a dangerous battle pretty short if you can just knock the bastards over the edge. Page 182 of the Player’s Handbook notes the rules on Climbing and Jumping, including how to use your Athletics to gain height or length on your jumps.

A good DM should remember that terrain plays an important part of setting the stage for characters to use their skills. High ledges, water, places to jump all add texture to your encounters and set pieces – and fun for your athletic characters. Also remember that NPCs and monsters can utilize Athletics as well. Surprise your PCs by having that Orc barbarian leap across the chasm with axes held high!

 

What It Is Not

  • Any Old Act of Strength – Athletics might be overused since it is the only Strength based skill, but remember that is specifically covers climbing, jumping, swimming as well as grappling and pushing. When trying to lift a portcullis, to bend prison bars, or to knock down a door the rules as written will have you rolling a straight Strength check. However, as some commentators here and Reddit have pointed out, various stunts such as these in published adventures do call for an Athletics check for things like lifting a portcullis. In the end it is up to you as a DM to figure out when Athletics should come into play.
  • Acrobatics – Athletics is for jumping, acrobatics is for performing stunts. Cartwheels, handstands, flips, etc. are Acrobatic. Athletics is for the long or high jumps, when you need distance or height.

 

Optional Uses

The following are optional uses or edge cases for Athletics, and are entirely dependent on the Dungeon Master.

  • Where Strength meets Skill – Strength is overshadowed by Dexterity by a not insignificant margin in 5th edition. This might be why the designers wanted to stick so much into Athletics, so Strength based characters wouldn’t have to use all of their proficiencies on different skills like a Dexterity based character might. Consider allowing your players to use Athletics for any instance in which both strength and training would be needed. Arm wrestling and other competitive sports, for instance, require a degree of knowledge rather than pure brute strength.

 

Dungeon Master Examples

The following examples are meant to inspire the Dungeon Master to design with Athletics in mind. Physical prowess is a constant in myths and legends, from Pheidippides the runner of Marathon to Beowulf wrestling with the Grendel. The world is replete with physical obstacles that need to be climbed, jumped over, or swam around – or should be. In 5th edition it is especially important to let your Strength based PCs shine.

  • The Choice – Sometimes it’s good to traumatize your players. A PC shouldn’t need to roll to swim under normal circumstances. If they are proficient in Athletics they should be able to comfortably traverse waters. The pinch comes when they need speed or are under duress. Consider presenting a situation in which two or more important NPCs have been thrown overboard in a stormy situation. In order to save them, the PC will need to make a Strength (Athletics) check to see how well they can swim in the conditions. If they do not roll well enough, they can save maybe one person, but the others are lost to the waves. I’d set the DC as follows: 15 to save one, 20 to save two, 25 to save three. They would need to make a split second decision to figure out who to save first.
  • The Cut Bridge – In true Indiana Jones style, it might be fun to have the PCs get ambushed while on a rope bridge. Either they or the ambushers could decide to cut the bridge in a spot the causes it to snap in half, each half plummeting and smashing against the side of the chasm it spans. A Strength (Athletics) check to keep a hold of the bridge would be necessary (a DC 10 is fair, a DC 15 more fun), and those that succeed should be allowed to roll again to try and catch anyone that failed. In order to climb it they would need to roll Athletics to see how fast they could traverse it – keeping in mind that enemies still cling to it as well and that they might need to fight their way up using only one hand. Below in the choppy waters at the bottom of the chasm swim crocodiles awaiting a hearty meal to drop from above. Strength (Athletics) would also be used to pull a creature from the bridge to fall below, contested using the Grappling rules.
  • Competitive Games – A city the PCs visit might be hosting some sort of competitive games; a chance to show off physical prowess and a rite to their ancient gods of strength. If a PC wishes to compete, you could design multiple sporting events or instead require a series of Athletics checks and score based on those using the values below. Either roll up or arbitrarily assign point values to multiple athletic NPCs as competition, and decide the winner simply by comparing them. Award some sort of trophy for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winner, as well as a special prize to any that hits the DC 30 on any of their rolls.
    • DC 10 = 1 point
    • DC 15 = 2 points
    • DC 20 = 3 points
    • DC 25 = 4 points
    • DC 30 = 5 points

 

Next week expect Arcana! Because I forgot how to alphabetize.

5 thoughts on “Using Skills – Athletics

  1. Just a note, it often is used for lifting that odd portcullis or opening doors. At least in written fifth edition materials like the hardcover adventures. You often see athletics used for gross physical actions like pushing open barred doors and the like. Even in the core books, there are things like the earthquake spell using it to unbury yourself for an example.

    Because of these things, I see the athletics skill as more a measure of overall physical fitness. An ogre is strong, but not athletic, but an conan-like barbarian knows how to use his strength and fitness to overcome all manner of physical tasks, thats what I see athletics as.

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    1. I would agree with that. Like I said in my Optional Uses, I see Athletics as where strength and training meet. Someone on Reddit mentioned that, for the portcullis example, someone who knew how to deadlift should get the proficiency bonus in that instance, and I agree.

      I haven’t noticed much use of Athletics in the adventures myself, but I could have overlooked it. Do you have any specific examples? I could go back and edit my post to talk about that, as that would seem to be a RAI aspect I could extrapolate on.

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