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According to RAW, should forcing stuck/locked/barred doors open be a Strength check, or a Strength (Athletics) check?

As I read the description of the Strength ability and the Athletics skill in the rules, it seems that brute force checks, such as pushing/shoving/kicking or pulling open a stuck, heavy or locked door should be a simple Strength check, with the Athletics skill applying only to things that involve more coordination such as jumping, climbing, or swimming.

However, in the published Dungeons & Dragons adventures, examples are inconsistent. Other than the Starter Set, where all door checks are just Strength and all Athletics checks involve climbing or other more complicated activity, other supplements seem to contain a mix of Strength or Strength (Athletics) to force open doors, seemingly at random within the same adventure.

For example, in Curse of Strahd area K74, opening the 5-foot-submerged iron gate to a row of cells requires a DC 10 Strength (Athletics) check, but opening the 5-foot submerged locked/barred gate to any particular cell is a DC 25 Strength check. The only difference is the latter is locked. But then in K78 opening the locked door is a DC 25 Strength (Athletics) check, so being locked/barred isn't the determinant.

What do the rules specify should be the standard check to force open a door, gate, portcullis, etc.? When do they say Athletics skill should apply, if ever? I'm not asking about DM preference (because I realize any DM can vary any rule any time they feel the need), but what the RAW and RAI state, and if there is any rules-based explanation for the noted exceptions.

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RAW Forcing open a door is a Strength Check

Comparing Strength with Strength (Athletics) as described in the PHB, we can conclude that forcing open a door should be a Strength check.

Let's start with Strength checks. The PHB says (175/176 - emphasis mine) says

A Strength check can model any attempt to lift, push, pull, or break something, to force your body through a space, or to otherwise apply brute force to a situation... The DM might also call for a Strength check when you try to accomplish tasks like the following:
Force open a stuck, locked, or barred door
• Break free of bonds
• Push through a tunnel that is too small
• Hang on to a wagon while being dragged behind it
• Tip over a statue
• Keep a boulder from rolling

We note first that Strength checks are explicitly called out as being used for forcing doors open, as well as breaking things in general. On a more subtle note, we can see that they reflect short bursts of 'brute force', single events that either succeed or fail immediately.

On Strength (Athletics) checks, however, the PHB (175 - emphasis mine) says:

The Athletics skill reflects aptitude in certain kinds of Strength checks...Your Strength (Athletics) check covers difficult situations you encounter while climbing, jumping, or swimming. Examples include the following activities:
• You attempt to climb a sheer or slippery cliff, avoid hazards while scaling a wall, or cling to a surface while something is trying to knock you off.
• You try to jump an unusually long distance or pull off a stunt midjump.
• You struggle to swim or stay afloat in treacherous currents, storm-tossed waves, or areas of thick seaweed. Or another creature tries to push or pull you underwater or otherwise interfere with your swimming.

By their nature, Athletics checks are not used for events, but rather for situations. There is some complex process that you are attempting over a period of time, and the DM calls for a check to see if you can pass the most difficult or dangerous part of the process. [Grammarians should note the shift from the simple tense descriptions of Strength checks to the progressive tenses of the Strength (Athletics) checks.]

Two people with equal Strengths might be equally good at the "burst strength" required to tip over a statue. But, by virtue of their Athletic training, a person with the Athletics skill would have the stamina, focus, balance, and determination needed for a long climb up a sheer cliff that someone with untrained raw strength would lack.

Applying this background understanding to the specific question of opening doors, we can assume that most doors would be subject to a single instance of burst strength, a single event of applying enough force to break through their structural integrity (lock, latch, bar, hinges, or what have you). A portcullis has a certain weight - if the character can lift the weight in a single burst (Strength), the portcullis can be lifted.

But there are situations in which Athletics could rightly be considered

A Strength (Athletics) check might be properly called for when opening the door or lifting the portcullis is no longer an event but has become a prolonged and difficult situation. For example - the gate of the palisade is thick and barred from the other side, and no simple burst of strength will sunder it. You can eventually chop through it with your axe, but can you do that before the orcs arrive?

You can lift the portcullis; you are strong enough for that, but can you hold it open for several rounds while the rest of the party makes it under and you are being subjected to missile and spell fire?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "My special guard training taught me how to break down doors. We practised" - Athletics check \$\endgroup\$
    – Nacht
    May 31 at 3:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ I definitely agree that opening a door should be a Strength check (the rules you cited are convincing and clear), but I'm hearing in your answer that the important distinction between when Athletics and straight Strength checks are called for is the duration of the attempt (given your use of "short events" and "prolonged and difficult situation"). Is that your intent? Because I have trouble reconciling this with the fact that some Athletics checks are for things that must happen in a single round (e.g. PHB. p. 175 "Athletics... examples include... try[ing] to jump an unusually long distance.") \$\endgroup\$ Aug 6 at 17:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme Not the duration in and of itself, but rather how complicated is the process. A Strength check is for 'one thing' whereas an Athletics check is for the most difficult part of a complex series of things. A jump, for example, might take less than your full movement on a single turn - but 'pulling off a stunt midjump' is the hardest part of a series of events and merits an Athletics check. The longer the duration of the activity, the higher the likelihood it is complicated enough to call for an Athletics check rather than simply Strength. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Aug 6 at 23:09
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The Angry GM brings up this particular example in his article on Ability Checks. https://theangrygm.com/being-in-flex-able/

Since you’re asking this question, I highly recommend reading the full overview of ability checks, skills, and a seasoned review of the rules and some recommendations.

The short version is that he recommends asking for just the strength check first. But if the player has a reasoning for how Athletics (or any other skill) would apply in the particular circumstance, he would let the player add that.

Additionally, for reference, in The Angry GM’s free 5e module The Fall of Silverpine Watch he does not call out Athletics as a likely skill to work with forcing doors open.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's how I would play it, and when my player says they'd like to apply Athletics to the roll, as DM I'd say "okay, no." \$\endgroup\$ May 29 at 18:08
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I would (and do) apply the Athletics skill. Characters don't get a lot of skills, so it's an investment to choose Athletics as one of the (about) 4 you get. So it should be of some use.

The entire point of the Athletics skill is that you are better at physical tasks, Opening (stuck, locked, etc.) doors is a physical task. So if a character has invested in the skill, he should get the benefit of that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That approach treats the Athletics skill as nothing more than a +2 on all Strength ability checks, regardless of what you're actually trying to do, making Athletics merely a generic Strength boost. No other skill works like this. \$\endgroup\$ May 29 at 17:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ <shrug> And ... ? No other skill is the only one for that stat. Strength is already one of the less important stats, and the only one that I ever use as a dump stat when building characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – PhilB
    May 29 at 17:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PhilB and Erich: You're welcome to disagree with one another, but there's no need to be rude. Comments are for asking for clarification or suggesting an improvement to the answer, not for arguing or attacking one another. If you disagree with the answer and have a competing perspective, you're welcome to post that as your own answer. Beyond that, you can judge the answer by voting on it accordingly. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 29 at 22:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PhilB: The first 2 or 3 comments are useful debate, IMO, that bring up interesting points to consider about whether someone might want to use this ruling or not. Presumably the deleted comment wasn't as useful, or if you think it was, then try again without being rude. I don't see any hostility in Erïch's comments, not that I'd describe as an "attack", just normal criticism. Would you rather people downvoted without explaining what they thought was a problem in your answer, so you didn't have the chance to modify your answer to include more justification? \$\endgroup\$ May 30 at 8:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ dexterity can also be used to escape a grapple (oh and the acrobatics skill applies there). Dex applies to way more skills than strength. Allow strong people trained in athletics the chance to bust down doors easily. There is no other skill for this. Sure you could attack the door, but even a strong charcter would need several rounds to bust through that way. In my opinion that's one of the benefits of athletics, being able to more reliably break the door down much more quickly. \$\endgroup\$ May 30 at 11:05
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I would allow either, on physical (real-world) grounds.

If you have the brute strength, then fine, use it, smash down the door on a plain Strength check.

If you have specific training for using and controlling your strength, then use that—a Strength (Athletics) check—to break down the door. Take advantage of the proficiency bonus you get from your training. Physically (in the real world) this would correspond to developing your core strength, not just arm or leg strength.

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Personally I always let people add their applicable skills. It makes more sense that someone who trains in lifting things (which is part of athletics) would be better at lifting a portcullis than someone who isn't. They would probably also have an easier time opening a stuck door. If someone puts one of their limited number of trained skills into something, I'm going to give them the benefit of using it if it makes sense to do so. That is just my personal GM style though.

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