Nov 10 2019

Acrobatics vs Athletics in 5E, Plus Shady Shenanigans

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Shade-Of-the-Candle, tabaxi rogue

So my tabaxi swashbuckler Shade-Of-the-Candle (whom I like to describe as “If Catra and Jack Sparrow had a love child…”) recently hit 3rd level in Inkblitz’s game and finally came into her full being… but not without some rough going. One of her earliest rough spots came from a failed check to jump a 10′ gap. Now Shady has a 10 Str and had proficiency and expertise with Athletics (giving her a +4). To clear the distance all Shady needed was a running start, but the DM called for a DC 10 Athletics check due to treacherous conditions. With her +4, all I needed was a 6+ on a d20.

Anybody who knows the history of me and dice should know that I would automatically fail that check, and I did. Some nights I don’t roll higher than 3 on any die of any kind, which is fine for d4’s, but sucks for everything else. Shady went splat down into the water below. 😛

This led to a discussion between the DM and myself after the game, because being able to easily jump a 10′ gap is something I felt like my tabaxi swashbuckler should be able to do, and wanted to figure out a way to make that happen. He eventually said that in the future he would allow Shady to use Acrobatics to make jump checks, and suggested I move her expertise over to that, giving her a +7 acrobatics check from there forward.

Well, I mean, yes please. ^.^’ But this points at a thing in 5E: sometimes the rules act like Acrobatics and Athletics are two very different things, and sometimes they’re treated as more or less interchangeably, being “do physical things using Str or Dex, whichever works for you, man.” Both of these approaches are workable, with different positives and negatives, but honestly I’d kinda prefer the game picked one. My DM went with the latter method, and because we game in a shared world and try to keep our rulings consistent, I’ve pretty much adopted the same.

If you assume that they’re different skills, the best quick distinction I’ve heard is “Athletics is for going up, and Acrobatics is for coming down.” You use Athletics to jump, climb, swim, etc., while you use Acrobatics to keep your balance, avoid damage from a fall, walk a tightrope or swing from a chandelier, etc. The Angry GM suggests to dispense with all the foofaraw by completely decoupling proficiencies from ability checks. A jump across a gap is a Strength check, and if you can convince the DM that your Acrobatics bonus applies, you get to add it. Of course in Shady’s case that wouldn’t have helped—she was already proficient in the skill check she couldn’t make, it was the ability check underneath that screwed her over. But it does at least keep Acrobatics and Athletics in their own lanes.

I’m still not sure the approach I like the best. I want my Dex-based monks and rogues to be able to parkour their way up corners like Jackie Chan and double-flip their way across wide open gaps, but I can also see how “Acrobatics for Dex peeps, Athletics for Str peeps” parallels nicely with Str-based melee weapons vs. finesse weapons. We’ve got an approach for now, we’ll see how it goes in play.

20th Level Pirate Cat

While I was mucking around with levelling her up, I decided to play with theoretical future iterations of Shady. Simplest version was straight Rogue 20, swashbuckler all the way down. Then I did a version each of Rogue 17/Fighter 3 and Rogue 15/Fighter 5, because as the rogue class starts to get up into the double digits, it tends to lose a little luster (at least in combat) compared to its mid-tier amazingness. Working from the baseline of where she is now, not upgrading up her gear at all, assuming average rolls for hit points and the availability of the Mariner fighting style from UA, I got…

Shade-Of-the-Candle, L20 Rogue
Str 10, Dex 20, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 16
AC 17, hp 186, Initiative +8
Cutlass MH: +11, 1d6+5, sneak attack +10d6; OH: +11, 1d6; DPR 12d6+5 = 45)
Acrobatics +17, Athletics +12, Perception +13, Persuasion +15, Sleight of Hand +11, Stealth +11
Blindsense
Climbing 20′ (tabaxi)
Dungeon Delver feat (adv. to spot traps, resistant to trap damage)
Elegant Maneuver (bonus action to get advantage on next Acrobatics/Athletics check)
Elusive (no attacker has advantage)
Evasion (no damage on successful Dex save)
Fancy Footwork (no AoO from target you melee)
Lucky feat (3 luck points)
Master Duelist (miss with one attack, roll again w/ advantage)
Panache (swashbuckler taunt/charm)
Rakish Audacity (+Cha to initiative, sneak attack isolated target)
Reliable Talent (any proficient check below 10 becomes 10)
Slippery Mind (proficient w/ Wisdom saves)
Stroke of Luck (turn one failed check/attack into auto success)
Tough (+40 hp)
Uncanny Dodge (reaction to halve damage from incoming attack)

…a nice solid build. Her capstone features (Master Duelist and Stroke of Luck) are nice “when you think you blew it, you didn’t” features, but are also made a bit redundant by Lucky.

Shade-Of-the-Candle, L17 Rogue, L3 Fighter
GAINS
AC 18, hp 189
Action Surge (one extra action per short rest)
Climbing 30′ (tabaxi + mariner)
Improved Critical (crit on 19 or 20)
Second Wind (bonus action to recover 1d10+3 hp once per short rest)
Swimming 30′ (mariner)

LOSES
Dungeon Delver
Elusive
Sneak Attack becomes +9d6 (DPR 11d6+5 = 42)
Stroke of Luck

Assuming there aren’t a whole lot of traps all the time, the only thing I really miss here is 1d6 of sneak attack, which reduces her DPR by 3 points, negligible at 20th. In exchange she gets +1 AC, more climbing, a swim speed, second wind, and improved critical (which makes for a 10% chance per round of a 20d6+5 critical hit, baybee). So, a net win. 🙂 Unless I had a pressing reason I probably wouldn’t take the first level of fighter until 11th level, as Panache and that 10th level stat bump/feat are too valuable. I might even wait for 12th to get Reliable Talent and the 11th level sneak attack die.

Shade-Of-the-Candle, L15 Rogue, L5 fighter
GAINS
AC 18, hp 191
Action Surge
Climbing 30′
Extra Attack (with reduced sneak attack DPR 11d6+5 = 42)
Improved Critical
Second Wind (1d10+5)

LOSES
Dungeon Delver
Elusive
Master Duelist
Sneak Attack becomes +8d6
Stroke of Luck

Here we lose 2d6 sneak attack which hurts a little more, but trade it for an extra attack, which keeps the DPR the same and also creates more chances for critical sneak attacks; she also ends up with a whopping 191 hit points. Totally worth it.

Of course, this is all academic… it’s a very rare campaign that reaches 20th level, although I’d love to play in one.

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