On Skill Deconstruction: Acrobatics

This is the first post discussing individual skills. I'm going to use the pathfinder list, because they have distilled the skills into the broad categories in an attempt to cover 'everything'. This makes it a good framework for looking at the types of conflict in games. We'll be using the principles of When to Roll A Skill Roll and Ways to Make Skill Rolls Effective.

I should also point out at the start of this series, that I enjoy playing a game that caps out at the human power level. This is not the default state of the pathfinder/3.x rule-set. The most common way to address this issue in pathfinder is to run an E6 (E8, E12 whatever) game. I will include examples of the scaling.

My analysis of the skills below is my interpretation of their utility. Discussion is welcome. There are many more solutions then the ones I outline. Please leave your own suggestions in the comments.

Acrobatics is a skill reflecting physical ability and agility. It uses the dexterity stat as a modifier.

What can you do with Acrobatics?

 Balance: Any situation in which you wish to balance on a surface less than 2" in width has a DC 20. 1" width is DC 40, Hair-thin is DC 60, Liquid or any surface incapable of supporting a characters weight is DC 90, and standing on condensed water vapor (clouds) is DC 120

Jump: For each success, you can jump 1 foot horizontally with a running start of at least 10'. You need 4 successes for each vertical foot. (from our previous example, of an acrobatics skill of 37, this means that on the mythical average roll, a level 15 character can jump nearly 50', or 13' straight up.)
     Increased land speed gives a bonus of +4 per 10' over 30, meaning a 15th level monk has a +20 to this check from land speed, meaning his average roll is nearly 70! (allowing him to jump 67' horizontally, or 17' straight up vertically).

Reducing the impact of a fall: A DC 15 check will allow you to ignore the first 10' of falling damage on a deliberate fall.

 And Tumble: This is an ability to allow you to get past an opponent without taking a free attack.

Which of these have ground for use?

The answer to this question for many of these has a lot to do with what type of game you want to run. If you like superhero games or fantasy characters with superhuman powers, then the balance and jump categories fit right in.

Historically, this is one of the easiest skills to buff, meaning that anyone that decides to focus on this skill can start to achieve really impressive numbers quickly. Is that such a bad thing? Not really for a pathfinder game - little will be broken by the monk being able to jump fifty feet or so at level 10.

Balance: Balance skills are bad game design. They are made as part of another action with the penalty of "you lose your turn". It is not a particularly fun activity to sit around a table and roll to see if you get a turn.
 It is used under a time constraint and you cannot model it at the table, but the result of 'lose your turn' is less a serious consequence and more something crappy that happens and there is no conflict with another entity.

A better solution would be just to apply the "you move at half speed and lose your dexterity bonus to armor class while balancing", with a requirement of needing to not be wearing heavy armor. This keeps the same flavor without requiring tedious rolling and missing your turn.

As much fun as it is for DM's to make players not get to play the game - it is somewhat unfun for the participants.

Jump: A commoner of average dexterity can make a running leap on a flat surface and jump either just 1' or 20'. Though this technically fits within human norms (an average long jump is 12', Olympians can reach double that with intensive training), it is far too much variance. Also, this type of activity requires years of special focused training to reach a distance of 24' - a distance possible for your first level rogue.

I do believe that these types of leaps are very much the type of supernatural ability that monks should exhibit, so I think total elimination of jumping is a bad idea. This is an example of a skills where the variance on the d20 roll is much too high to model any sort of jumping consistency. The original 3e check was much more realistic but more complicated (Distance was 5 ft. + 1 ft. per 1 point above 10.) If you were to perform a series of long jumps, they would all be within a few feet of one another.

I have a hard time not simply allowing players in light armor to make any jump less than 15' or so even if they have to catch the other side and pull themselves up. I would simply allow monks to jump much farther. In a combat situation I'd set a default range and anything at that range to 5' farther I'd require some sort of pass/fail dexterity check. This solution is perferable to me, because I don't want level 9 characters able to jump 30'+.

The biggest issue with the jump skill is the 'time constraints'.

In nearly every non-time constrained situation there is another way around the situation making this skill useless.

Jumping does hit two of the points, damage is a serious consequence, and it can't be modeled at the table. This is the only check with a partial result for a success. Which means that interesting situations can occur at the table, but frequently don't.

Reducing the impact of a fall: This is another thing that seems like a class feature; it doesn't increase with distance or level. Making this a class feature of the rogue or monk seems the simplest route.

Tumbling past an opponent: Here is where there is some ground for a skill. This has time constraints, puts you in conflict with another entity, has a serious consequence for failure, and can't be modeled at the table. It is also something that comes up quite a bit in play.

Pathfinder has a really excellent innovation for this, the combat maneuver check. The key part of this is the maneuver defense. In older games allowing a normal melee attack at this combat maneuver defense to avoid getting hit seems like a good solution. Anyone who wishes to focus in these techniques could use their level instead of their attack bonus (thieves, et. al.)

Current Analysis

What is it we gain by having this skill?

That's really the question I'm addressing here - how often does it come up, how important is it to what is going on at the table, how big a difference does it make to the actual enjoyment of the players.

The only part of it that comes up every session with any regularity is the tumbling part. If you're buying into the rest of the d20 skills system, then tacking acrobatics on isn't a complete waste of time, but the skill is not necessary for adjudication of these situations.

What do we lose?

Acrobatics is one of the worst offenders at skill hiccuping. These rolls often have little drama and they are called for far too often. Often it is best to avoid using the skill at all due to the high variance of the results. The consequences are a hideous trifecta of not very severe, uninteresting and unfun.

Conclusions & Suggestions:
  • Balance on any reasonable surface (1"+) in light armor, move at half speed and get no dexterity bonus to armor
  • Jump auto success on jumps less than 15', dexterity check to succeed at jumps between 15' and 20'
  • Monks and Rogues can reduce falling damage
  • Use an attack check versus hit dice + 10* to avoid an attack when doing something that will cause you to be hit. Allow training to have the attack check be equal to level instead. *(either BAB+strength bonus to hit vs. HD+10, or melee ThAC0 vs AC 10-HD, feel free to modify by size or circumstance)


  1. God damnit, -C! I was seriously on my blog, about to click "new post" so I could write a breakdown of Pathfinder's skills, which ones were worth keeping, which ones needed to be modified, and which needed to be dropped from the game. Then I see that you posted THIS, and now I want to put my post off so I can read your thoughts on the rest of Pathfinder's skills!


    Your analysis is excellent. But I would like to comment on your suggestions.

    -What about other applications for balance? I make players roll balance checks when they take strenuous action on a difficult-to-balance-on surface. Walking across a 1" surface unmolested is certainly something an adventurer could perform. But what it the 1" ledge is covered with ice, and spans between two windy peaks on a mountain? What if a character is struck by an arrow while crossing?

    Characters could make a dexterity check, but why deny them the ability to improve their acrobatic abilities beyond their largely static dexterity bonus?

    -I'm always a fan of auto-success for easy stuff. But what about high jumps?

    -Turning something which anyone can learn into something unique to a class never sits well with me. Learning to fall is a basic part of many different kinds of training. Horse riding and combat training both come to mind.

    A very good post! Now excuse me while I try to come up with a new post for the evening.

  2. @LS, These posts will be coming relatively quickly, so you shouldn't have long to wait.

    I suggest you write your posts out ahead of time so that you aren't influenced by my thoughts and then go back after my posts and see if your thinking has changed.

    My responses to your comments.

    Other Balance Applications
    My process regarding skills works like this.

    Will this come up more than twice every time we play?

    Is there a fun mechanical purpose behind this activity in our game?

    'other uses for balance' fail on both counts.

    Let's look at your question - what if they do that? They are heroes! They are already taking the penalty for being on the lousy surface - what makes the game more fun by having them fall?

    What if they are struck by an arrow? Isn't the penalty for taking too much damage being made to sit out? We need to add on a penalty because they are trying to do something heroic?

    I don't really see the need for 'design by limitation' regarding balance (i.e. there are all these new penalties which you can now avoid if you buff or put ranks in acrobatics), so I don't feel like I'm denying anyone any ability to improve anything.

    The most important thing to remember is you are sitting in a room with friends for fun. Do the suggestions you are making make things more fun for the people or less?

    High Jumps
    I would handle it the same as long jumps.

    Design by Class
    The specific implementation is to taste, whether it's ACKS proficiencies, Hackmaster skills, 2e Non-weapon proficiencies, LotFP pips, Castles & Crusades SEIGE, or 3e skill points, they all have drawbacks and advantages. I've discussed my preferences. It is a fairly universal trait of all these systems that what you can learn is tied to class in some way. I should point out that 3e/PF is one of the most restrictive of the above in terms of limiting skill growth (both due to tying it to level and 'class skills').

  3. Well if you're capping things at real world Olympian level that makes the case for hacking away at a lot of skills a lot stronger. But still, I think that a lot of the stuff you're talking about is good common sense, but I'd still like there to be some mechanics for the more difficult stunts like sword fighting while running around on a tight rope. That sort of thing doesn't come up much, but I'd like there to be some kind of niche for a more acrobatic character.

    Also, if you're capping things as Olympian level instead of Hercules level then at high levels of any edition things will feel a bit weird since you have characters who can do some things (like kill large numbers of armed soldiers) vastly vastly better than real people but do other things no better than they were at first level, which feels strange to me.

  4. @David: It's interesting that you say that.

    If someone were going to play an acrobatic character, then that would be the mechanic for attempting difficult stunts.

    Also: I disagree with your second statement.


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