Athletics 101 — 5E D&D Skills and Skill Checks
Skill proficiencies in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons can be confusing at times, especially for new Dungeon Masters. However, never fear! We’re here to help guide you on how to apply skill proficiencies and when to know if an ability check is a simple check using a certain Ability Score, or if a skill proficiency can be applied to make a skill check. 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’s featured skill proficiency is Athletics!
What is Athletics?
Before we get too far into this, let’s look at how the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook defines Athletics:
Your Strength (Athletics) check covers difficult situations you encounter while climbing, jumping, or swimming. Examples include the following activities:
You attempt to climb a sheer or slippery cliff, avoid hazards while scaling a wall, or cling to a surface while something is trying to knock you off.
You try to jump an unusually long distance or pull off a stunt mid-jump.
You struggle to swim or stay afloat in treacherous currents, storm-tossed waves, or areas of thick seaweed. Or another creature tried to push or pull you underwater or otherwise interfere with your swimming.
Because of the way 5E D&D is formatted, every skill check is considered an ability check. The way this reads would be something like, “Make a Strength (Athletics) check.” The focus of the language in this edition is on the ability score, followed by the applicable skill proficiency. The reason we’re bringing this up today is because we’re talking about Strength ability checks and the Athletics skill.
Are you strong enough?
Athletics is the only skill proficiency that modifies a Strength check. That’s both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it means if you’re making a check using your Strength, you really only have to worry about one potential skill to think if it applies. On the other hand this results in Athletics being misinterpreted or misapplied often.
Sports fans reading this will likely find an easy time identifying if this skill proficiency applies. That’s because an easy baseline for how to think of Athletics relates to sports. In sports the difference between a professional football player and a player in a community league could be one of several things, but a main difference is likely to be form and finesse.
This isn’t an issue of Dexterity, like we discussed with Acrobatics. Athletics is about knowing form and stances; techniques to perform at your peak physical ability. Anyone who works out or plays sports regularly can attest an athlete with proper form and less raw power can often outperform an athlete with raw talent and no real practice or finesse.
The way an athlete postures themselves and paces their performance impacts their potential for success. A weight lifter with proper form is always going to be able to lift more, pound for pound, than a musclebound novice who does a few reps on a bench press.
That’s the heart of the Athletics skill — your character’s ability to apply their Strength efficiently, with proper form and pacing. An easy baseline to know if Athletics would apply to a skill check is to ask if you could see this being done in a sport. Does this attempt resemble something one might do in a competition?
Brawn, not brain
There are definitely times a character would not apply Athletics to a Strength check. One example would be an attack roll. Whether using a weapon, relying on good ol’ fisticuffs or grappling an opponent, attacks may rely on Strength and form but they’re more about your ability to harm another creature. Conversely, the goal of Athletics is to avoid harm.
Another place I’ve seen Athletics proficiency misapplied is with escaping bonds or other such entanglement. Whether your character is stuck in a pit of mucky tar, trying to break through a tangle of vines or bound and gagged below deck of a pirate ship, Strength is your go-to ability score for escape.
That being said, Athletics doesn’t make sense to apply in any of these scenarios, because none of them allows for your character to have a proper stance in the first place. Can you imagine trying to re-adjust your footing while sinking into a tar pit? Those vines aren’t likely to grant you reprieve to get some leverage, and I’d be hard-pressed to believe you can somehow wriggle into a better, more athletically-conducive position while tied up.
Swimming through cold water? Athletics. Running a long distance? Athletics. Lifting something heavy? That’s Athletics, too.
I’ve heard people argue when presented with this, saying it sounds like Athletics is more of a mental skill when interpreted that way, but knowing posture and pacing isn’t very mental, really. It’s more of an intuitive understanding; muscle memory, if you will. It’s a skill (in the mechanical and literal senses) that can be mastered through proper application of Strength and leverage.
What do you think?
Are you an athlete with some insights I may have missed? How do you handle Athletics at your 5E D&D table? Do you have a funny story about an Athletics skill check attempt gone awry? Leave us a comment, and share with us. We’d love to see what you have to say!