Thursday, November 14, 2013

Skill Checks: Climb

Climb (Str; Armor Check Penalty)

Check: With a successful Climb check, you can advance up, down, or across a slope, a wall, or some other steep incline (or even a ceiling with handholds) at one-quarter your normal speed. A slope is considered to be any incline at an angle measuring less than 60 degrees; a wall is any incline at an angle measuring 60 degrees or more.

A Climb check that fails by 4 or less means that you make no progress, and one that fails by 5 or more means that you fall from whatever height you have already attained.

A climber’s kit gives you a +2 circumstance bonus on Climb checks.

The DC of the check depends on the conditions of the climb . . .  (SRD, Skills I, Climb)
Using the Climb Skill is one of those happy little checks that just makes me excited. As a Dungeon Master it means that I have a player who is putting himself at risk which is fun beyond measure for me; and as a Player it means that I’ve got something important going on. Both situations mean that the game is moving forward.

When to Use this Skill

Now I don’t like the delineation marker between a wall and an incline being 60 degrees, so for my games I’ve always used the delineation as a wall being 90 degrees from the horizontal. It works better for the conceptualization of a wall. That demarcation might not sound like much since both an incline and a wall might require a Climb check, but it is important for determining a player character’s bonuses and penalties to the check.

Determining when to use the Climb check for a wall is pretty straightforward: do you want to climb the wall, then roll. So let’s talk about when to call for the check on the incline. According to OSHA guidelines (see Stairways and Ladders page 13) a stairwell has to be used at 30 degrees from the horizontal and can be used up to 50 degrees from horizontal. By using that as our guideline we can determine that things become difficult for our players’ characters starting at the 30 degree line. But do we call for a Check then?


While the stairwell guideline is good for determining where things get difficult it does not indicate a point at which a check must be made. Steep Hills are well within the stairwell guidelines, and while the going is tough it would be foolish to call such a hike a climb. For our purposes it is best to use the danger zone as our indicator for when to call for a Climb check. This means that for an incline of 51 degrees to 90 degrees we can safely call for a Climb check without worrying that we’re needlessly wasting time.

In the description of the Climb Skill we’re given a chart that’s supposed to provide us with the appropriate difficulty class (DC) for the check. Here’s the original chart:

I don’t like that chart. Anything that is below a DC of ten should not have a check attached to it – because when you ascribe a value to that activity some asshole is going to make his players roll to beat it. Instead the example chart should look like this:

How to Use this Skill When Being Attacked

. . . You need both hands free to climb, but you may cling to a wall with one hand while you cast a spell or take some other action that requires only one hand. While climbing, you can’t move to avoid a blow, so you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC (if any). You also can’t use a shield while climbing . . . (SRD, Skills I, Climb)
I’ve never been a fan of the idea that you need to have two hands to climb as I’ve done it with only one hand and I’ve seen enough one armed folk climb to know that it can be done. Now is it more difficult? Absolutely, but it can be done.

Now let’s talk about fighting in this situation.

While it’s reasonable to assume that a character who has a one handed weapon can use it to fend off an aggressor. It’s also very hard to imagine that the character will have an easy time of hanging onto the incline or plane – unless he’s throwing something at an enemy. It is not only possible, but surprisingly easy to hang from a tree, a rocky outcropping, or even your neighbor’s roof and chuck rocks at your friends to get their attention without falling.

Modifying the Check

Unlike the Appraise Skill there isn’t a lot that other players can do to help your character in their climb attempts. Sure they can tie knots at one foot intervals on the rope providing your character with a circumstance bonus of 2 or you can use climbing which adds a circumstance bonus of 2; but other than those two actions there isn’t a lot that other characters can do to help you out as climbing is a one man activity.

By contrast, however, there is a lot that can be done that will negatively impact your character’s ability to climb; greasing the walls, heavy rain, loose rocks, ice, snow, fire, tar, moss, and the like all provide negative modifiers, and they all stack. So if you’re foolish enough to climb a frozen mountain side that’s on fire you have no one but yourself to blame for rolling at a - 6 modifier.

. . . Any time you take damage while climbing, make a Climb check against the DC of the slope or wall. Failure means you fall from your current height and sustain the appropriate falling damage . . . (SRD, Skills I, Climb)
I really cannot adequately express how much I dislike this rule.  Instead of wasting my time with remembering all the fucking modifiers that I’ve set up I handle this situation in the simplest fashion I know: 10 + damage = DC. This speeds up play and I’m all about that.

. . . Making Your Own Handholds and Footholds: You can make your own handholds and footholds by pounding pitons into a wall. Doing so takes 1 minute per piton, and one piton is needed per 3 feet of distance. As with any surface that offers handholds and footholds, a wall with pitons in it has a DC of 15. In the same way, a climber with a handaxe or similar implement can cut handholds in an ice wall . . . (SRD, Skills I, Climb)
From what I’ve been able to understand if you’re using pitons the distance isn’t really the main point because you can go 10, 20, or even 30 feet in between each use – cause they’re not really helping you climb as much as they are preventing you from hitting the ground when you fall. So realistically using a piton doesn’t help you climb, but it does help you aid another player in climbing as they’re used in aid climbing.

When Things Go Wrong

. . . Catching Yourself When Falling: It’s practically impossible to catch yourself on a wall while falling. Make a Climb check (DC = wall’s DC + 20) to do so. It’s much easier to catch yourself on a slope (DC = slope’s DC + 10).

Catching a Falling Character While Climbing: If someone climbing above you or adjacent to you falls, you can attempt to catch the falling character if he or she is within your reach. Doing so requires a successful melee touch attack against the falling character (though he or she can voluntarily forego any Dexterity bonus to AC if desired). If you hit, you must immediately attempt a Climb check (DC = wall’s DC + 10). Success indicates that you catch the falling character, but his or her total weight, including equipment, cannot exceed your heavy load limit or you automatically fall. If you fail your Climb check by 4 or less, you fail to stop the character’s fall but don’t lose your grip on the wall. If you fail by 5 or more, you fail to stop the character’s fall and begin falling as well . . . (SRD, Skills I, Climb)
When someone falls near me, and we’ve not used pitons and rope, his ass is hitting the ground. There is no reason for anyone to attempt to catch another player because you’re only going to get both of you killed. I know that sounds cruel, but if you’re climbing in the game you have to make the determination of survival over foolish acts of bravery.

Remember: discretion is the better part of valor. Besides, you can always loot the body on your way out.

. . . Action: Climbing is part of movement, so it’s generally part of a move action (and may be combined with other types of movement in a move action). Each move action that includes any climbing requires a separate Climb check. Catching yourself or another falling character doesn’t take an action.

Special: You can use a rope to haul a character upward (or lower a character) through sheer strength. You can lift double your maximum load in this manner . . . (SRD, Skills I, Climb)
The bad thing about that Special descriptor there is that it adds a greater emphasis to maintaining your character’s weight, including all their gear. And it never fails that when I call for that, that someone hasn’t been keeping up with it. My solution: I add – 2 to the check for each minute that we have to wait. 

If you’ve enjoyed this article you can find similar ones on the Skill Checks Page and can catch up with all my past thoughts on Third Edition Game Mechanics. As always, thank you for reading, Google pluses, commenting, sharing and linking to my articles. Hope to see you again when the next one comes out!


  1. You'll find that a 30° slope with steps is much easier to scale than one with no steps. Being a rock climber I think it's a fair distinction that a climb is something 60+° from flat. I also wouldn't stop my definition of a wall at 90° as over-hanging walls are definitely climbable depending on the structure of the rock. As far as the slope goes, load yourself down with 70 pounds of gear and start hiking up a hill, you'll quickly find it's not the same as hiking on a flat surface and also harder than hiking up stairs. Increase that to 45° and you'll find it near impossible without cutting steps.

    As regards pitons. Every 3 feet is, indeed, ludicrous. As is the 1 minute to pound one in. They do nothing to help bring a partner up, their only purpose is to stop a fall. Today we have dynamic (stretching) ropes which absorb some of the impact of a fall. Going back even 60 years dynamic ropes were unheard of for climbing, so it's probably safe to say your characters will be using static ropes. Anything more than a short fall on a static rope will result in an injury. Your characters will either be tying themselves together with something like 20-40 feet of rope between themselves or on climbs up and another provides a hip belay. They won't have harnesses, but will just tie the rope around their waists. A fall more than 10 feet will result in some internal injuries and over 20 feet would result in a broken back or death.

    You're right about catching while climbing, don't do it, you'll both end up on the ground 100% of the time. Catching on a slope would be doable. Stopping yourself from falling on a climb would be impossible without a large limb (tree) to stop you, and agsin you'll have the injuries. Stopping yourself from falling on a slope is possible, mountaineers and ice climbers do so using their ice axe and it's called a "self arrest". I would give that a skill check, as knowing how to self arrest and being able to self arrest are different.

    If your characters hit a difficult wall, they might be wise to strip off all their gear, tie it in a bundle and haul it up after they get to the top (or the next ledge). If they're smart...

    1. I had no idea that the old ropes were that damaging in a fall.

      Thanks for commenting, by the way, this was really great!


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