diana acrobat 5E D&D acrobatics

Acrobatics 101 — 5E D&D Skills and Skill Checks

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What You Do and How You Do It Are Two Different Things in RPGs

Skills are a staple of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, but many Dungeon Masters find themselves unsure of when to call for a player to roll Investigation vs. Perception, or Deception vs. Performance. In this new series we’ll explore each skill in depth, and hopefully by the end of it all you’ll answer instinctively when asked to differentiate Sleight of Hand from Stealth from Performance. As a quick disclaimer, every 5E D&D DM has their own right to call for any skill check in any situation; this is just meant as a general reference. Today, we’re looking at the first skill you’ll see at the top of a skills list on your character sheet: Acrobatics.

diana acrobat 5E D&D acrobatics
Illustrator Robson Michel describes this as a redesign of the Diana character from the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.
As Diana became older, she learned how to achieve inner balance and confidence, and also how to kick some ass with martial arts. Click the image to see more of this artist’s fantastic work. [Art by Robson Michel]

What is Acrobatics?

According to the rules, Acrobatics is defined as follows:

“Your Dexterity (Acrobatics) check covers your attempt to stay on your feet in a tricky situation, such as when you’re trying to run across a sheet of ice, balance on a tightrope, or stay upright on a rocking ships’ deck. The DM might also call for a Dexterity (Acrobatics) check to see if you can perform acrobatic stunts, including dives, rolls, somersaults, and flips.”

What this definition doesn’t tell you is this isn’t a comprehensive list. There are more situations in which you might use your Acrobatics skill. For example, the DM might ask you to make a Dexterity (Acrobatics) skill check to contest a grapple check, or you might make one to mitigate damage from falling. So, how do we know if Acrobatics is the skill to use? At its core, Acrobatics is about your ability to manipulate your body and balance, without hurting yourself.

But what about…

Let’s explore some edge cases to get a better grasp of the spirit of this skill. Suppose your druid is under the effects of the spider climb spell, or maybe your rogue has some slippers of spider climbing. This allows your character to walk along vertical surfaces, and even upside down, as though it were normal ground. That being said, this doesn’t account for a surface that would be difficult to walk on.

I’ve seen some DMs assert that a smooth surface is too difficult to walk on, or else they require some sort of skill check to traverse these surfaces. I disagree with this on a fundamental level for this reason: in my opinion, the spirit of a spider climb spell (or similar effect) enables you to pseudo-ignore the effects of gravity. Essentially, a character with this effect should be able to walk up a perfectly smooth wall normally, because the spirit of the effect enables them to ignore gravity in a limited capacity.

However, that’s not to say there can’t be other circumstances that allow for a roll to be imposed. Maybe a wall is made of ice or it’s covered in some sort of slippery ichor. This would make a surface difficult to traverse, even if spider climb weren’t in effect. This would be a perfectly viable reason for a DM to call for a Dexterity (Acrobatics) skill check. The reason is because this circumstance doesn’t ignore the spirit of the effect or cheapen a player’s efforts.

Let’s look at another. Say a character is trapped in a pit of sticky tar or webbing. Could a character maneuver their way out of this situation with Acrobatics?
How about we reframe the question to find the answer. Would contorting your body enable you to escape the webs? It might help, but it wouldn’t facilitate it on its own, as Strength would still be required. Is balance a way to escape this situation? No.

Obviously, there will always be silver-tongued players who aim to argue why this edge case or that should allow their character to do something that doesn’t make sense. Generally speaking, if you think about Acrobatics as a combination of balance and moving your body in unusual ways, it really helps differentiate whether or not it applies.

A side-note

You will notice throughout these articles I’ll be referencing a skill check as [Ability Score name] ([Skill name]) check. The reason for this format is because I reference skill checks in this way in my own games. When I call for an ability check, I’ll say something like, “Give me an Intelligence check, and if you’re proficient, you can use Arcana.” Or I might say, “Anyone who’s proficient can attempt an Intelligence check for History or Arcana.”

This helps me remember every skill check is actually an ability check. Without delving into that explanation, even if a character isn’t proficient in a certain skill but a DM allows a check, the player simply adds their Ability Score modifier to their d20 roll.

What do you think?

Do you have some ideas for edge cases that might require a Dexterity (Acrobatics) check? Have you got a story about a time a player experienced an epic success or failure? Let us know your thoughts in the comments! Keep checking back through the following weeks as we add posts exploring each of the ability check skill proficiencies in depth!

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Follow Steven Partridge:
Steven Partridge is an aspiring author and experienced tabletop gamer. As a child, he dreamed of growing up to be a dinosaur, but as with many children, his childhood dreams were dashed when the rules of reality set in. However, our valiant Steven never allowed this to sway his ambition. He simply... adjusted it to fit more realistic aspirations. Thus, he blossomed into a full-fledged nerd with a passion for the fantasy genre. When he's not writing or working on videos for his YouTube channel, Steven can be found lap swimming or playing D&D with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.

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