When I wrote Bench-Pressing, I only paid lip-service to skills. To get into more detail was just beyond the scope of that article. Every skill works differently, has different character options that help, there’s a huge variety in the magnitude of the DCs we’d typically face, etc. I have decided to write fairly detailed analyses of the more complex and important skills in Pathfinder as stand-alone articles. I will skip Appraise (which is too simple to merit an article) and begin at the top with Acrobatics.
The most important thing to remember when bench-marking skills is simply this; your benchmarks are set by your goals. What you want to do with a skill dictates how high you should get your modifier through character resource investment.
Acrobatics is a great example of this principle. The DCs for Acrobatics can vary wildly. For example, if you simply like to use the Fighting Defensively action, your total modifier may not be important to you. All you want is to have 3 ranks so that your AC bonus when doing so goes from +2 to +3. Even if your total modifier is negative after Armor Check Penalty, you’ll still get the benefit you wanted out of your rank investment. On the other hand, being able to jump up 5′ with 100% consistency in combat would require a +19 total modifier.
Avoiding Attacks of Opportunity (AoOs)
For many characters, I suspect the DCs for moving through threatened squares without provoking attacks of opportunity will be their important benchmark. For the purposes of this exercise, I will assume that you do not care to move through the enemy’s square, nor at full speed. You simply want to move through the threatened range without provoking.
In order to benchmark, I need to know what the average CMD is for an average monster who’s challenge rating is equal to our level (AMCREL). Unfortunately, the Average Monster Statistics by CR table does not provide CMD. Fortunately, this google document does.
I will benchmark a level 8 character’s ability to tumble past AoOs as an example. The average CR 8 monster’s CMD is 28. I’m going to say the Purple rated is 100% chance to avoid an AoO, Blue is 75%, Green is making the DC when taking 10, and Orange is a 35% chance to dodge the AoO. In order to reach my Purple benchmark, I therefore need a whopping +27, +22 for Blue, a green rating requires only a +18, and Orange is at +14.
To recap the bench-marking process, we use the linked google spreadsheet to find the CMD of monsters at a CR equal to our evaluated character’s level, find the percentage chance of success to avoid an AoO with an Acrobatics check, and determine if that is sufficient to fulfill the goals we are setting for the character.
Any PC actually attempting to keep a Purple benchmark in Acrobatics will need to be Dex focused, and have an armor that isn’t penalizing them. Even so, full ranks, a (pretty optimized) Dex of 24, and a Class skill bonus only gets us to +18. A character with a high AC might only buy a MW tool for tumbling (why not, it’s only 50 gp) and be content with their 65% chance of evading the AoO. After all, even if the enemy attempts an attack, they probably won’t hit. If the character is fairly reliant on avoiding AoOs for damage mitigation, we may want to get our modifier even higher. A considerable (+5 competence) bonus could come from the Daredevil Boots for a mere 1,400 gp. That takes us from 65% success all the way to 90%, in the upper range of Blue. I’m sure some more bonuses could be found and stacked on top, but that’s a good stopping point for resource investment. Even when facing a tough CR 10 monster with a higher than average CMD (say, 38 or so), the character will have a 40% chance of avoiding an AoO. In other words, the character will expect a very high success rate during typical challenges, and a meaningful success rate in very challenging circumstances.
Balance, Long Jumps, and High Jumps
These are the other uses for Acrobatics. Jump DCs are easy to remember: every 5 on a long jump moves you one square. In other words, your check result (rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5) is the distance you travel on the jump. High jumps are much more difficult; you jump up 1′ for every 4 of your DC. So, an Acrobatics result of 20 moves you 20’horizontally, or 5′ upwards. Balance check DCs are determined by circumstance modifiers, basically. Crossing a 7″ wide balance beam is a DC 10, but if you want to move at full speed up a steep, ice-slicked, 7″ railing during a storm it will be DC 30 to do so. It’s difficult to benchmark these uses as ‘character goals’, but I generally think that a modifier of 5+LVL is Orange, 10+LVL is Green, 15+LVL is Blue, and 20+LVL is Purple.
One class with a great Acrobatics class feature is the Monk (unchained or otherwise), and it is for jumping. Monks with the High Jump ki power always get their level as a bonus to Acrobatics checks to jump, and can get a +20 if they spend a ki. If our level 8 character above were a Monk (with another MW tool for high jumps), they would have a +28 modifier. This means they would never fail to jump lower than 7′ vertically, and can jump up to 30′ horizontally with a 95% success rate. By spending a ki, these distances go up to 12′ vertically or 50′ horizontally. That can be useful when facing low-flying opponents or leaping wide chasms. The Winding Path Renegade archetype of Brawler also has access to this ability.
Ninjas can take the High Jumper ninja trick to halve the DCs for high jumps. Our level 8 character (+20 modifier) from before would then be able to jump 10′ vertically without failure, and up to 15′ when taking 10.
The Kineticist has the Air’s Leap Wild Talent. This will allow jumping Acrobatics checks to take you twice as high or far on jumps, or four times normal for a point of burn.
The Acrobatics Skill Unlock is okay. The penalty to tumble through threatened squares at full speed is halved (from -10 to -5) when you get it at level 5. When you hit 10 ranks, you can use an Acrobatics roll with a -10 penalty to replace your CMD vs. trip maneuvers or on Reflex saves to avoid falling. You can also use Acrobatics to reduce falling damage more than usual. At level 15, you can stand up from prone without provoking. None of these are necessarily bad things to have, but I also don’t think they’re anything to write home about.
I’m sure there are other class features that bear mentioning, but that’s all I know off the top of my head. I’ll incorporate input if others can think of more.
Notable Mundane Items
A collapsible trampoline and balancing pole are a nice set of cheap items to help with common non-combat Acrobatics challenges. Ice Skates can be handy on occasion, allowing full-speed movement on icy surfaces with a mere DC 5 check. Masterwork Tools, as always, are worthwhile for just about any check you are likely to attempt with much frequency. I think elbow and knee pads make sense as a MW Tool for tumbling.
Notable Magic Items
Balanced Armor (+1 effective armor enhancement) – This isn’t too shabby at providing bonuses to acrobatics, and the cost isn’t terrible. The problem is the limitations on the bonuses. You get +4, but only for resisting bull-rush/overrun maneuvers and on checks made to maintain your balance. If you’re investing much in Acrobatics already, you probably don’t have an issue with balance DCs. Bonuses to CMD are nice, but bull-rush and overrun maneuvers aren’t usually much of a threat (as opposed to grapple and trip), and don’t come up all that often.
Ring of Jumping (2,500 gp) – This is a fairly low cost item for a +5 competence bonus, and a ring slot is a nice place to shove a situational bonus like this one. Unfortunately, the bonus only applies to high/long jumps, not balance or tumbling checks. Still, it’s none too shabby, especially if we have some kind of class feature that lowers our high jump DCs. For characters that place a lot of importance on their jump DCs, this is Blue rated. For those using Acrobatics more for tumbling, it falls to Orange.
Improved Ring of Jumping (10,000 gp) – This is the same as the normal ring of jumping, but the bonus is +10. I still think this is green for those that prioritize jumping, but it falls to Red for those that don’t. The higher price tag just makes this a silly purchase unless there is a strong motivation to have a high jump modifier.
Ring of Unquenchable Passions (6,500 gp) – This ring is pretty awesome. The competence bonus to Acrobatics is +5, but is not specified to any types of checks. It works for tumbling, jumping, balancing, everything. It also gives a +1 deflection bonus to AC (so we don’t have to occupy our other ring slot with a ring of protection), and the +2 to saves vs. disease is a nice cherry on top. It’s a bit more expensive than the Daredevil boots, but the slot is less important and the other benefits are nice.
Rod of Balance (15,000 gp) – This item does a lot for us, but is fairly pricey and occupies a hand. While in use, it gives the same +10 bonus for jumps as the Improved Ring of Jumping, but also doubles the distance covered by the jump. Our level 8 character from before, for example, would go from never failing to jump 5′ vertically to 14′ and from 20′ horizontally to 60′. It also halves our damage from falling, makes the wielder immune to the prone condition, and makes fighting defensively a bit better. All in all, it is much better than the Improved Ring, other than the fact that it occupies a hand. That really is a strong mark against it.
Quarterstaff of Vaulting (19,100) – This one is a mixed bag. It’s only a +1/+1 quarterstaff, so if you don’t intend to use a quarterstaff, this purchase isn’t for you. It’s also very expensive for the +5 competence bonus it gives to Acrobatics, or for a +1 weapon generally. It has a few other small benefits, but the one that can make this a truly great investment for a few characters is its final ability. You can vault over an opponent’s head with a DC 25 Acrobatics check in place of a 5′ step. You land on the opposite side of them, and this doesn’t provoke. The ability to 5′ step into flanking can be amazing. For example, I have a Vanara Hunter that wields a quarterstaff, and he uses Outflank with his animal companion. By the time I could afford this item, the DC 25 check would be an auto-success, and it would allow me to flank with my Lion buddy a lot more consistently. That said, I doubt very many people will get that kind of mileage out of it. For most, the Ring of Unquenchable Passions is a much more sensible purchase.
Belt of Tumbling (800 gp) – It gives a +4 to Acrobatics checks to tumble at a very, very low price. The only thing that prevents this from being Blue or Purple rated is its slot: belt. This is an item that will probably last from levels 2-4 or so, and then get sold back for half price to free your waist up for a stat belt. Still, it bore mentioning.
Boots of Vaulting (3,500 gp) – These are sort of an upgrade to the Daredevil boots. They’re around double the cost, and provide double the bonus at a +10. Usually doubling a +5 skill bonus quadruples cost, so we’ve got a good deal there. We even get to count ourselves as having a running start even when we don’t.
There are, however, some issues. We only get the bonus 1/round at maximum. Also, we can only use the +10 to avoid AoOs if we are jumping through their threatened area. Finally, if we do this more than 1/minute, we get our movement speed halved. That last penalty is easily addressed with any kind of healing, including a DC 15 Heal check. Still, it could be annoying to deal with mid-combat.
Daredevil Boots/Softpaws (1,400/1,800 gp) – The Daredevil boots are pretty phenomenal for their price. If you use Acrobatics primarily to avoid AoOs, these are for you (at least until you can afford the Ring of Unquenchable Passions) as they grant a +5 competence bonus to tumble checks, and if you successfully avoid the AoO, you get a +1 on attack rolls against the enemy for the remainder of the round. You get to do this 10 rounds/day. The softpaws cost 400 more and work exactly the same way, except the bonus on attacks is +2 instead. I think it is worth the extra 400 gp, but only Catfolk can benefit from the softpaws.
Elixir of Tumbling (250 gp) – This is one of those items that is fantastic for non-specialists, and occasionally useful for those that invest in Acrobatics heavily. It grants a +10 competence bonus for a very low price, but only for one hour ever. For those who haven’t invested in Acrobatics (especially those in heavy armor) this can make obviate certain nightmare scenarios, like a dungeon covered in DC 15 balance check ice. I have a 12 Dex character that wears full-plate, and this item takes him from a -4 Acrobatics mod to +6, allowing him to make routine checks when he needs to. Specialists probably already have a (non-stacking) competence bonus to Acrobatics, and will rarely require whatever additional boost this grants them. Still, someone with a +5 competence item could quaff this for an additional +5 during a particularly tough situation.
Vermilion Rhomboid Ioun Stone (10,000 gp) – Gives +5 competence on all Acrobatics and Swim checks. While this is a very expensive way to get a +5 competence, it is slot-less, and the Swim bonus is nice. Acrobatics specialists usually don’t have a great strength modifier, so the Swim bonus could really help on occasion.
I’ll get the obvious two out of the way first. Acrobatic gives a +2 bonus to Acrobatics (and Fly) that increases to +4 at level 10. Skill Focus (Acrobatics) grants a +3 that increases to +6 at level 10. I rate both of these as Orange, because I think that feats whose only benefit is granting bonuses on skill checks to be supremely lackluster in virtually all circumstances.
Branch Pounce – I don’t really know how to rate this one, but I think some cheese is probably attainable. Basically, you can add your falling damage on a downward vertical charge attack. If you hit on the attack, you take a bit less falling damage yourself. I think that this could be combined with the boots of the cat and potentially some kind teleportation or flight magic for some weird hijinks. I leave it to better minds to figure out the best way to leverage this silliness.
Canny Tumble – If you are a character that gets strong advantage from opponents being flat-footed (rogues), this feat might be for you. Essentially, if you avoid an AoO from an opponent, you get a +2 and they’re flat-footed against your next attack this round. This can be nice if you don’t have a flanking partner and want that single attack for Debilitating Strike and some sneak attack die, or if you’re moving into flank for the additional +2 and lower opposing AC for your single attack. This feat probably turns Blue if you are also using Shatter Defenses and the Intimidate Rogue’s Edge. You can get your sneak attack and shatter their defenses such that they count as flat-footed next round as well. Between the two feats, one no longer truly needs a flanking partner.
Circling Mongoose – This feat would be blue if it weren’t for the pre-reqs. You can 5′ step between each attack of a full-attack, but you have to roll Acrobatics as normal to avoid AoOs. If you hit on an attack, you can flank with yourself on the rest of your attacks. Needing to go through the Spring Attack line is pretty painful, particularly because the class that benefits most from this feat is the rogue again, which isn’t rich in feats. It would synergize nicely with TWF, but that is another lengthy feat line we’re unlikely to have room for. Still, the ability to maneuver yourself around and count as flanking without a partner is quite nice. This doesn’t make you better at Acrobatics, but gives you something nice to do with the skill if you’re already invested.
Disorienting Maneuver – This is basically Canny Tumble, but instead of the opponent counting as flat-footed, you get a +4 on trip attempts. The only pre-req feat is Dodge. This feat obviously isn’t for everyone, but for trip builds leveraging greater trip, vicious stomp, brute stomp, etc. it can be very useful. You are much more likely to trip successfully, and then get off your barrage of attacks of opportunity. That said, it doesn’t really make you capable of anything new, it’s just a numerical bonus on a maneuver that was already probably going to succeed (at least, if you’ve built for your trip CMB properly). Still, I imagine some will get decent mileage out of it. It could be very useful on something like a Master of Many Styles monk, whose 3/4 BAB, multiple attribute dependency, and lack of other attack roll bonuses can make consistently succeeding combat maneuvers difficult.
Slayer’s Feint – You can use Acrobatics instead of Bluff to feint. Look, I’ve never seen a feint build that actually worked well, but I know some folks love them. Acrobatics tends to be an easier skill to scale (especially for Dex based martials), so this could be worthwhile for some. Unfortunately, you have to dip a level of Slayer or take the Acrobatic feat, which isn’t great. Oh, and Combat Expertise. Hmm. Those are issues.
Adding other Attributes or Replacing Dexterity
Monkey Style adds your Wisdom to Acrobatics checks. Some other benefits, including a swift action Kip Up (stand from prone without provoking) as a DC 20 Acrobatics check.
Wisdom in the Flesh (religious trait) – use Wisdom instead of Dex for Acrobatics, and makes it a class skill.
Bards can use their versatile performance to replace Acrobatics with Perform. This will render many of the character options I have outlined moot, but could still be a good idea for them, as there are plenty of ways to boost your Perform skill.
Acrobatics has some great items to benefit it, but not so many great feats. It can help you trip enemies or sneak attack them, and of course avoid attacks of opportunity and fight defensively. This is more combat utility than we see from most skills, and the ability to navigate some dungeon difficulties shouldn’t be underestimated.