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If I understand the RAW on climbing correctly, climbing up a cliff means making a Strength (Athletics) check every round and moving half your movement speed. Which means a character with 30' movement speed would need 7 checks for a 100' cliff, and 28 checks for a 400' cliff. Not sure if you can "dash" and move twice per round, and whether that would need one or two rolls. Anyway, that is a lot of rolls to do. It takes forever and even at low difficulty somebody sooner or later rolls a 1 and falls. While that might not be deadly if the character has a climber's kit, they would need to do even more rolls, taking even more time.

In the adventure I am playing, depending on the decisions the players make, they might end up at the foot of a cliff (adventure says it's 400', but I could change that). I would like the players to be able to climb up if they want. I would like the climb to be some sort of challenge, but I don't want it to take forever, nor be potentially deadly. How can I design an interesting climbing challenge, without completely breaking the written rules?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are accounts of what we've tried in the past acceptable? Or are you looking for a RAW/RAI answer \$\endgroup\$ – B. S. Morganstein Jul 19 '17 at 16:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: How can I figure trials to success? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 19 '17 at 16:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure, past experience is valuable. The rules part is mostly about not giving players the ability to climb any obstacle in the future as consequence of messing up climbing house rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Tobold Jul 20 '17 at 5:30
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When deciding whether to use a roll, ask yourself two questions: Is a task so easy and so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure? Is a task so inappropriate or impossible- such as hitting the moon with an arrow-that it can't work? If the answer to both of these questions is no, some kind of roll is appropriate. (DMG 237)

Thus asking for a roll or not is left up to the DM. If you rule that getting up a cliff using appropriate gear can be done if given time and care, you can skip the dice and this is RAW.

For it to be a challange, something needs to be at stake. You made it clear that getting to the top is assured, and falling to their death is also not on the table. I recommend two alternatives:

  • Time: Can you get to the top before the vile cultists finish their ritual? Call for a group check or one check from all the PC-s with 3 possible results:

    • big fail: you arrive with 2 rounds left until the end
    • fail: 4 rounds left
    • success: 10 rounds left
  • Resources: There are Rocs/Harpies/(insert flying monster here) near the cliff and they pick off their gear and/or HP if they take too long climbing (similiar check as above) or not fend them off fighting while hanging onto the cliff for dear life.

Be sure to communicate the risk of the climb before they make their decision. Otherwise their decision will lose all meaning.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would add to the DMG blurb - is failure interesting? \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Jul 19 '17 at 19:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ As the climb is up to the base of a tower (Feathergale Spire in the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure), I will use the level of success / failure to determine how lightly / heavily defended this "back entrance" is. \$\endgroup\$ – Tobold Jul 21 '17 at 13:23
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I would suggest designing it as a chase to add to the challenge.

But whatever you do, you need to give them some sort of motivation to get up the cliff. Having them roll just to climb the cliff is boring. I think you have realized that though.

Chases are described on page 252 of the DMG.

Notice that it doesn't have to be a literal "chase". It could be a fire that is coming towards the base of the cliff - the higher they go the less damage they take. Or maybe there is a strange mold or kudzu vine that is chasing them up the cliff. Perhaps there is a teetering cart at the top that a family of dwarves is trying to hold back from the edge.

Alternatively, turn it into a combat encounter.

The cliff dwelling halflings of Dark Sun were always terrifying to fight. Their cliff side mobility made them super scary.

Finally if you want to make it about skill checks I would make it boil down to just one or two checks, and give everyone a way to contribute.

For this to work you will have to know your players skills in order to set reasonable DCs. Also you will want to review the section Working Together on page 175 of the PHB.

Some personal ideas on making this work:

  • Communicate to the players the difficulty with in-game and out of game terms so that the characters and they players know what they are up against.

  • Set it up so anyone with any competency in Athletics, Nature or Survival can see at a glance that this is an extremely difficult climb. (Anyone with a Passive Wis or Int (Athletics), INT (Nature), ot INT or WIS (Survival) of 10 ). Basically a gimme to anyone who has invested in skills.

  • Decide if you want to do a group check or have everyone help a single player. Both have pros and cons and will affect their chances at success.

  • I would suggest making the skill to roll a Mental Stat (Survival) for this reason: It will be an experienced mountaineer leading a team of relative newbies up a dangerous cliff face.

  • Don't forget tool proficiencies.

  • I do not recommend combining it with combat or a chase. This should have a completely different feel - one of cautious careful planning.

  • Expect them to find a way around it. And if they do let them do it, and congratulate them on it!

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How can I design an interesting climbing challenge, without completely breaking the written rules?

A couple of ideas come to mind:

Variation in the climb: There's no reason the climb needs to be one continuous surface. Different areas, textures, or perhaps points of interest could be added along the climb to break the monotony. Depending on what you could come up with, certain areas could offer a critical thinking challenge. (How to move horizontally past a crevace), or a distraction, such as a cliffside cave that contains a bear! A dungeon isn't just a hallway, its usually a series of rooms, with different paths through. Think of your cliff the same way.

Risk v Reward: Hinted at by Szega with the mention of time. The details would could vary based on the context of the cliff, but allowing the players to choose between various different degrees of safety gives them the agency to shape the encounter, and to succeed or fail by their own choices.
Ex: Something shiny is spotted, but its in a particularly treacherous looking area. (Higher DC v chance for loot)

In either case, I would definitely reduce the number of rolls needed, likely down to each discrete section or area of the cliff, it would streamline the encounter without compromising the spirit of the rules

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