The Climb skill. My old nemesis. At last, we meet again.

Back when I was first getting into GMing Pathfinder, my players ran afoul of an especially nasty pit trap. They climbed down into a forest of spikes, looked nervously up at the identical set of spikes on the ceiling, then swore loudly when the room rotated 180°. “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” they cried, shaking their puny 1st level fists at the ceiling. And then the room rotated again. Thoroughly damaged but still alive, they healed themselves up a bit before limping toward the far exit, now a paltry 20′ above the chamber’s spiky floor.

What followed was a statistical anomaly. I have never seen so many failed climb checks in my life. It was like watching a chubby kid in gym class (read: my 7th grade self) struggling to do a pull-up. It was funny at first, but with each progressive sub-10 roll of the die, the situation became more pathetic and un-fun. Eventually I relented and said, “You struggle for some time, but eventually you’re all able to haul yourselves out.” I remain proud of that call, simple as it was. It was my moment as a fledgling GM where I recognized something important: My players were not having fun, and I had the power to change that. 

Like all die rolls, the Climb skill is only as interesting as you make it. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but the principle of “don’t ask for a roll if there are no consequences” was very much in play for my encounter.

In a more recent campaign, I had a player who explicitly wanted to play an Assassin’s Creed style PC. This character was all about creeping along ledges, making death-defying leaps, and performing over-the-top parkour stunts. With this guy in mind, I wound up designing an encounter with a canyon-spanning mine bucket. When a hapless PC inevitably fell into the bucket and began to wheel across the canyon, our pal Ezio attempted a daredevil climb followed by a heroic leap. Like my players in that long-ago pit, he failed his check. What followed was more than a frustrating series of failures though. Rather than falling to his doom, Ezio wound up dangling from a chain beneath the bucket. The pair of desperate PCs careened across the canyon, and Mr. Assassin’s Creed had to shinny up his chain tout de suite or else slam into the far canyon wall on the next round. It was exciting. It was interesting. It made the player feel like those ranks in Climb were well-spent.

When it comes to skills, you want to do more than allow your PCs not to suck. Performing mundane tasks competently is the opposite of adventure. Your players are big damn heroes, and even when they fail they should fail with style. Give your skill checks panache, I say! Chances are it will make for a more interesting encounter.

Question of the day then: What’s your best climbing encounter? Did you plummet to ignominious doom, or cling to that cliff edge through sheer willpower and one intrepid fingernail?