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Im making a small challenge for my party on the way to a Dwarven camp. While travelling they encounter a 20ft wide river that they must cross. I'm just gonna improvise the whole thing to give them some creativity in how to solve this problem.

My question is what happens if they fall in? The river has a strong current as it leads to a section of white-water rapids that is also being fed by an adjacent river making the current more deadly.

If they fall in I am giving the chance to make a Saving throw to try and swim across. What would make more sense: a dexterity or strength saving throw, or even maybe a check instead like athletics.

Also what DC for this check would you recommend for an 8th level party?

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Depending on what the players try to do, you could call for saving throws and/or ability checks.

Saving throws are generally made to resist some consequence, and success means avoiding or reducing that consequence. Dexterity saving throws usually imply trying to move away, and Strength saving throws usually imply trying to not move.

Either could come into play here; perhaps the bridge sways, and you tell PCs near the edge to make a Dexterity saving throw to avoid falling off. Or a PC falls in the water, and you call for a Strength saving throw to not be pulled by the river's current.

Ability checks (or skill checks) are generally made when someone tries to accomplish some goal, and success means making progress toward that goal. If you want to give the players some creativity here, then consider that they may want to jump into the water anyway and swim across. Strength (Athletics) would be appropriate, or perhaps a different ability such as Dexterity (Athletics) for more dexterous characters. You could give advantage on the check to PCs who already have swim speeds, to reflect their innate swimming ability.

The skill could also vary depending on what the PCs are trying to do. For example, Stealth may be appropriate if they intend to swim quietly, or Nature or Survival if they try to find some calm path through the rapids.

The DC of the saving throw or ability check should not depend on the party's level, but instead be based on the nature of the task. The Basic Rules provide a table of Typical Difficulty Classes, and most moderately challenging tasks could have a DC between 10-20.

The consequences of failure are up to you. Is there risk of drowning? Do PCs in the current take damage from sharp rocks? Are they pushed back harmlessly? Remember that if the DC is high (20+), failure is more likely, and you should consider the severity of the consequences appropriately.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Did you intend to suggest Dexterity (Athletics) or is it meant to be the more usual Dexterity (Acrobatics)? It might be useful to explicitly point out when suggesting non-standard ability-skill combinations, because there's a subtle thing often ignored (and IIRC technically a variant thing for a DM to call for). \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 24 at 15:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Going off what Someone_Evil said, if you wanted, you could explicitly mention the variant rule on Skills with Different Abilities. \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 May 24 at 15:38
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The athletics skill "covers difficult situations you encounter while climbing, jumping, or swimming" such as when you "struggle to swim or stay afloat in treacherous currents".

This suggests to me that you should ask your group for Athletics skill checks. If you definitely wanted to have them make saving throws instead, it should probably be in Strength. Either way, characters wearing heavy armor might receive a modifier -- advantage to resist being swept away, but disadvantage to resist going under the water.

The guidance for skill check difficulty is up to you, but the obvious choices would be 15 or 20. If you assign a 15, you should expect the group to generally get across the river; if you assign a 20, it's more likely that most or all of the group will be washed away, so you should think about what will happen next in the adventure if that happens.


If I asked a group of eighth-level players to cross a 20-foot river, I'd expect one of these outcomes:

DM: "There's a 20-foot river."
Wizard: "I cast fly on the barbarian and he carries everyone across."

or:

DM: "There's a 20-foot river."
Druid: "I wild shape into a Giant Eagle and I carry everyone across."

or:

DM: "There's a 20-foot river."
Cleric: "I cast water walk and we walk across."

By eighth level, most spellcasting classes will have (and will have prepared) some sort of spell that will let them cross small obstacles.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you wanted, you could also mention the variant rule on Skills with Different Abilities. \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 May 23 at 20:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the frame challenge concerning how an 8th level party would normally tackle this \$\endgroup\$ – DM_with_secrets May 24 at 15:56
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Dexterity above strength for swimming. You rather reduce swimming ability if too much strength.

As per swimming and coach legend, Gary Hall Sr.: FRONTAL DRAG FORCES ARE SO IMPORTANT IN SWIMMING, THAT THEY OVERSHADOW THE IMPORTANCE OF PROPULSIVE POWER. POWER IS STILL IMPORTANT, BUT IN THE WORLD OF SWIMMING, FRONTAL DRAG TRUMPS POWER. https://swimswam.com/why-the-fundamental-law-of-drag-matters-in-swimming/

If you need more convincing, the following book talks about a study that was done on this topic: Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance: Muscle Building, Endurance, and Strength Authors: Debasis Bagchi, Sreejayan Nair, Chandan K. Sen

"A recreational swimmer can spend as much as twice the energy a good swimmer uses for proceeding in water at the same speed, and the latter consumes about 20-30% more energy than an elite swimmer at comparable speeds." They attribute this to technique (in your case dexterity).

Futher, when body size increases too much due to strength, it slows down the swimmer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As this question is about a role-playing game, you should first address the game's rules and explain why real world considerations and science is relevant. I recommend editing this answer to fully address that. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 24 at 15:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh, and Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 24 at 15:42

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