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DM Dispatches #4: Adjudicating Acrobatics

Written by Darkwarren - Published on March 25, 2013

AcrobaticsDM Dispatches is a weekly column that shares stories and relfections from Darkwarren’s experience dungeon mastering his weekly group’s Rise of the Runelords campaign that started in January 2013. The intention is that other DM’s and players can learn from his experiences as well as enter into discussion and add their two coppers as well.

So the party has gathered in the town of Sandpoint for the Sandpoint festival. A day of feasting, games, and revelry is about to reach its climax as the town’s priest is about to bless the new cathedral. But wait, a blood curdling scream followed by a disturbing song from over 30 goblin throats sends the square into chaos. Our heroes step up to defend the innocent from a force of bloodthirsty goblins.

The scene is set, initiative is rolled, battle is joined… The first battle: one of the watershed moments in any roleplaying campaign. And in the first round something happens that can throw off the momentum of the whole combat… a player asks to do something complicated.

Mythic Party wishes to use his action to have his Halfling monk, Lem, make an acrobatic leap over a stump and still keep moving in order to do a charge against a goblin in front of him in a monkish parkour attack. I scan the map, judge the distance, flip through some rules and DC’s in my head and tell him that if he wants to do all of that its an Acrobatics check with a DC of 25.
He checks out the skill modifier on his character sheet, frowns, and says that the DC is too high. He’s not offensive or rude, just disappointed. I explain to him why I think my DC is fair. He sucks it up and rolls his d20. Failure.

This scene didn’t sit well with me. I know that it didn’t with him. But to his credit he continued to play with good spirits. I didn’t want this disappointment to taint the first session of a new campaign. The party’s ultimate success and Lem’s ability to show his stuff by dropping more than his fair share of goblins helped to assuage some of the bitterness I’m sure. If I recall correctly, he rolled pretty low so the high DC didn’t matter as much but it’s the principle of the thing.

At the end of the session he brought up my ruling on the Acrobatics DC and explained again that he thought that it was too high, that there was no way that a first level character could reach that DC. I responded that I thought that it was fair and that such a complicated move should not be easy for a first level character to perform. He respected my decision but I could tell he was still frustrated.

Before the next session I discovered two things: the first is that he had miscalculated his skill modifiers and should have had an additional +3 (class skill bonus). That error is fixed and the DC 25 is not as unattainable for a first level character with a high dexterity, a skill rank, and a class bonus. It’s difficult, but not impossible.

The second, and I believe more important, is the realization that even though I’ve been playing 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder I still need to read up on the rules. I still stand by my decision. But if I had been more confident and could point to any number of rules or factors specifically there would be less disappointment and frustration focused on me. As the DM I want my players to trust that my rulings and decisions will be reasonable and fair. Sure, I might have traps and surprises in store for them but the mechanics and the rulings should be no surprise.

We have a saying at our gaming table, “You can try anything.” It actually came about as another DM’s response to a different crazy and complicated action put forth by a player. But while it was said with a tone that pretty much set the player up for failure, the actual words themselves are important. I want my players to be creative. I want them to try dramatic actions in combat. I don’t want them to automatically succeed all the time and there should always be the possibility of failure, but I want them to try anything – especially if they think it will lead to their success and to an overall better game experience.

As a DM or a player, how do you handle similar ruling questions?

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Written by Darkwarren

Matt W., aka Darkwarren, has been roleplaying ever since his older brother introduced him to the red box set when he was 7 years old. Since then he has game-mastered SSDC’s Battleords of the Twenty-third Century, WEG’s Shadowrun and Star Wars, and of course Dungeons & Dragons in a variety of forms. At thirty-four years old he takes turns on both sides of the screen with the group that he helped found in 2000 when 3.0 hit the stands and has met every week fairly regularly ever since. Currently they have been running a variety of the Paizo Adventure Path scenarios, so that’s his wheelhouse. He was almost famous when two of his adventures were green-lighted for possible publication right before Paizo relinquished the rights to publish Dungeon magazine.

Matt also has years if experience in improvisational comedy, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is currently working and studying to attain a master’s degree in theology, to enhance his career as a religious studies teacher. Lastly, his greatest passion is his family, especially the three sons and dog that he shares with his wife in upstate New York.

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10 Responses to “DM Dispatches #4: Adjudicating Acrobatics”
  1. Garrett says:

    Don’t let rules ruin cool moments. If you want to allow such cinematic stunts and encourage this throughput your campaign give at least a fifty fifty shot or players will resort to boring actions.

  2. I think it’s worth considering the “Fail Forward” rule that the upcoming 13th Age system has, that could be applied to many other systems. The principle is that instead of failing the task when you fail the roll, the DM allows the task to be achieved but with unexpected (and usually external) repercussions. It allows players to achieve cool things and feel more awesome, but still having a consequence for failing the roll.

    It requires more on-the-spot creativity from the DM, and could be easily overused, but it would improve the players experience.

    In the case of Lem the Monk, you could have some important quest item he was carrying fall to the ground during the stunt, potentially allowing the bad guys to scoop it up, or you could have it that there was a rare magical fungus covering the stump and that when jumping over it he got a noseful of spores which could cause all manner of havoc.

    The idea is that the DM can potentially create a new little sidequests to resolve off the back of failed rolls to make things interesting.

  3. Hermeticgamer says:

    I can’t argue with your ruling, but I think one of my biggest frustrations with low level play (which generally I prefer) is that characters who are inexperienced at combat at low levels (the part I like) often can’t do anything particularly iconic to the style of the character. My last character was a dual weilding (short sword, short sword) ranger who’s backstory had him surviving the battle pits as a slave to the goblin nations through sheer ferocity and acrobatic skill garnered from his mother a dancer/acrobat. Nearly every time I tried to do a cool move at those first few sessions, I’d roll aweful (the story of that character in general) and come off as a bumbling 3 stooges skit.

    Looking at 3.5 tumbling skill a DC 25 lets you tumble through enemy occupied space without provoking AoE. What this character wanted to do was use the stump as a spring off point for a charge. I would have had a basic standard difficult tumble check unless he was flipping over other enemies or something.

    These rules are some of the toughest to adjudicate especially at low levels.

    I like the idea of fail forward and not letting the rules get in the way…I think those are good ways for characters to have some style and cool without getting constantly disappointed by their character.

  4. Darkwarren says:

    All good food for thought.

    I like the “Fail Forward” mechanic. It will definitely be considered for future use.

    But I must disagree in part. I stand by the idea that first level PC’s are green. They’re rookies who have little experience. They have an opportunity to succeed but complex actions at first level should be harder than 50/50.

    Hermeticgamer, we use Pathfinder rules, and not only did he want to continue his charge (+2 to hit) he also wanted to move his full movement (instead of half movement for tumbling). In the book 101 New Uses by Rite Publishing, it has a parkour move that pretty much encapsulates what Lem wanted to do. The DC was 25.

    If it’s the cinematic atmosphere you’re looking for that can be done by both the players and the DM in describing normal actions. They don’t always always have to be mundane and boring. “I hit him with my sword” can become “I slash at his neck.” If there is damage done, but not a killing blow, the enemy got his guard up and took a slash across his forearm. The killing blow? You cut his head off, or at least a nasty gash that sprays blood.

    This happens often enough and soon your character becomes “The Headsman” or “Deadeye” because the character earned it.

    But that’s just my two coppers.

  5. Darkwarren says:

    Any other similar “ruling at the table” questions that have come up in your campaigns? How do you deal with them?

  6. I think a key rule to follow is to not waste too much of a session looking through books and tables for an accurate answer, everyone’s time is valuable, and using as much of a session for actual gameplay is important to ensure everyone has fun.

    If rulings need to be made and you can’t find the answer quickly, it’s always better to have a close-enough answer to keep the game going, and then researching and determining a truly accurate ruling after the session is over. I’ll usually tell my players that I’m giving them a quick estimated ruling at the time, and then would update them either by email or at the start of the next session how the same scenario will be ruled in the future.

  7. Darkwarren says:


    I try to keep my laptop open at the table to peruse the Pathfinder rules for quick rulings. I find it easier than thumbing through a book because it’s quicker to search.

  8. Liselle says:

    I have a great story related to this! Early in our first 4e campaign, several years ago, one of the group was a goliath fighter. One of their racial features is that they get to roll twice on Athletics checks to jump or climb. The party was fighting a group of Small-sized enemies on the battlements of a tower. The goliath told me he was going to climb over the side and cling to the outer wall. He succeeded in that. Next, he wanted to grab an opponent and throw him off the tower. He rolled a grapple to make the grab, a strength check to make the throw, and another climbing check to hold on so that he didn’t fall. He passed everything with flying colors, throwing the enemy to its death while maintaining his grip on the tower. It was an awesome moment, proving why adventurers are more than just your average soldier.

    Of course, the rest of the monsters were smart enough to stay away from the edge, so he couldn’t use the trick again.

  9. Fullovstars says:

    I agree with Garrett. The story and the social factor is far more important then the rules in the game. If the Hin’s acrobatics give him no more advantage than a flashy entrance then why roll a dice at all. Let it happen and enjoy the happiness it brings to the player. If a fighter wants to do a flash move that incapacitates a hand ful of goblins rather than his usual attack which might kill just one – allow it (as DM you can always have more goblins turn up). Flash moves, imagination and showmanship can make great post adventure stories – while stories about dice rolls can be left for Arnold Rimmer.


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