Sunday, October 27, 2013

Skill Checks: Balance

Welcome back to my series of articles focused on the Skill System from Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons presenting alternative uses, methods, and readings of the skills as presented in the d20 System Reference Document – because it’s free, editable, and I can provide my own flavor text. Today we’re going to be talking about the use of the Balance skill which is often ignored by everyone at my table but the player playing the thief.


Check: You can walk on a precarious surface. A successful check lets you move at half your speed along the surface for 1 round. A failure by 4 or less means you can’t move for 1 round. A failure by 5 or more means you fall. The difficulty varies with the surface . . . (SRD, Skills I, Balance)
When thinking about alternative uses to the Balance Skill as a player you have to consider three questions: (1.) is using this variation sufficiently exciting enough that my Dungeon Master will allow its attempt; (2.) in making this attempt am I weakening the game for my own empowerment; (3.) am I willing to accept the use of this skill variation when used against me.

One of the things that I encourage in my games is awe inspiring moments. If you want to attempt to catch hold of a Hill Giant’s club and perch on top so that you can run down its length and smack that bad boy in the face, I’ll let you try it. Because having that opportunity to do something exceptional is far more enjoyable and rewarding then rolling a d20 and asking, “Did a 14 hit?” every time we play together.

I’ve read some Dungeon Masters who believe that allowing for this sort of creative play is a form of breaking the game. There is some truth in that view; but only when you allow for the unbridled creativity of the player to be given dominance over the game. It is the responsibility of each party to make sure that the use of this skill will not adversely affect the game and the greater responsibility falls to the player, because the Dungeon Master will make him pay if the variation breaks the game.

So as a player, how do you make sure that the variation you’re proposing isn’t game breaking?

Ask this question: am I willing to have the same action used against me without feeling like the Dungeon Master is taking liberties. If you cannot honestly say that you’re fine with the comeback then the variation should not be attempted.

A Word on Variable Difficulty Classes

I have touched on the subject in the articles Skill Check: Ability Checks and Skill Check: Appraise but it should be stated again, I don’t like the inflation rate on skills. If you’re building your character correctly then there will come a time when your character is unable to fail on a Balance Skill Check that does not involve some bizarrely difficult task like crossing a molten lake of fire on a tightrope while being shot at by hobgoblins and dive-bombed by gargoyles.

One of the ways that I have begun to deal with this inflation problem is to simply stop asking characters with a skill bonus of 15 or better for rolls on all but the most difficult of tasks. This speeds up play, allows for characters who should not fail a check to move on, and in general makes play a lot more fun.

This is not a method that everyone enjoys as I have had a player complain about not getting to make the checks. I put the measure to a vote for everyone and he was the only one who voted against my normal policy; so for him, I make him roll for anything above a DC 10.

He fails more than you would ever imagine possible.

Balancing While Being Attacked

Being Attacked while Balancing: You are considered flat-footed while balancing, since you can’t move to avoid a blow, and thus you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC (if any). If you have 5 or more ranks in Balance, you aren’t considered flat-footed while balancing. If you take damage while balancing, you must make another Balance check against the same DC to remain standing. (SRD, Skills I, Balance)
One of my favorite times to adjudicate the Balance Skill is during combat. If you rule the skill exactly as worded than there are lots of occasions when your players will be despirately rolling d2os in an effort to catch that tightrope they were walking on when the guard shot them in the back.

I like that.

The Burt Lancaster Rule for Being Attacked While Balancing

I created this rule late one night after watching a Burt Lancaster marathon on Turner Classic Movies. He was so fluid in his movements that it occurred to me that someone trained in tumbling as he was would trust that movement more than would they simply trust to luck.

The rule I created would be used by characters that also have 5 ranks in the Tumble Skill. Instead of having the player use their static Armor Class the player may elect to use their Tumble Skill to avoid the attack. With this variable rule the player and the attacking creature each roll opposing d20s plus their appropriate modifiers. The higher roll wins.

After the attack, whether it succeed or fails, the player will have to make a DC 15 Balance Check to avoid falling off the surface they’re balancing on. If the attack succeeded add the damage dealt to the player character to the DC. Thus, if the player received 12 points of damage the Balance Check will now be a DC 27 (15 + 12 = 27).

On a side note, Burt Lancaster is the bomb.

Accelerated Movement

Accelerated Movement: You can try to walk across a precarious surface more quickly than normal. If you accept a –5 penalty, you can move your full speed as a move action. (Moving twice your speed in a round requires two Balance checks, one for each move action used.) You may also accept this penalty in order to charge across a precarious surface; charging requires one Balance check for each multiple of your speed (or fraction thereof) that you charge. (SRD, Skill I, Balance)
I really like this rule – except I don’t like the charging option. So I never use it.

To my mind if you’re charging your whole body has to be occupied with building up speed and momentum. Wasting the efforts of your body on balancing limits your ability to charge so I never allow charging when balancing.

One More Really Important Thing

Action: None. A Balance check doesn’t require an action; it is made as part of another action or as a reaction to a situation. (SRD, Skill I, Balance)
It’s really important to remember that the Balance check doesn’t require an action and that it is part of a move. This means that you can allow a Balance Check as a free check during Tumbles and the like.

That’s good to know.

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