It’s a core feature of any action movie… the moment(s) when the hero has to jump across the river, rooftop, lava, chasm, pile of bad guys they just sent flying, viper pit, vat of acid, or whatever other obstacle stands in between them and their goal.
Often the consequence of failing these jumps would be death, making these scenes about as dramatic as they get.
Sadly, the drama of these scenes is not something that Dungeons & Dragons replicates well.
If we check p.182 of the Player’s Handbook it simply states: “When you make a long jump, you cover a number of feet up to your Strength score if you move at least 10 feet on foot immediately before the jump.”
Makes sense, but very unsexy. In fact you could say it’s rather weird, because such rigidly defined boundaries of success and failure are the exact opposite of what I have come to expect from 5th edition, where fun tends to take precedence over gritty realism.
Anyway, I am currently writing an adventure (which I will publish on the DMs Guild soon! Stay tuned…), which includes a jumping challenge, and I needed a mechanic that involved chance for the scene to work… otherwise it would boil down to players and NPCs comparing Strength scores to see who could jump furthest! 🤦
An Athletics check was of course the obvious solution, and is also mentioned in the Player’s Handbook under the High Jump rules (but not the Long Jump ones, for some reason): “In some circumstances, your DM might allow you to make a Strength (Athletics) check to jump higher than you normally can.”
Since the idea was, in my adventure, to jump as far as possible I took my cue from the above, and I decreed that anyone who wanted to attempt to jump further than the rules usually allowed could make a Strength (Athletics) check. If their total roll took them above their Strength score, they succeeded and that roll was how far they managed to jump in feet. If they rolled below their Strength, then they made their usual long jump instead.
As I wanted the challenge to rely less on luck, and for the odds to favour the PCs and NPCs with the best Athletics skills, I also offered anyone advantage on the check if they took a 30 feet run up (and were unencumbered). This boon also added some realism to jumping, where a big run up is key to making a big jump.
During the playtesting of my new adventure this “add on” to the existing rules slotted seamlessly into game play. It allowed more athletic PCs to make jumps of 15 to 25 feet (the exact length was important… that’s why I couldn’t just run a contest!), which fit nicely into the bounds of realism (Mike Powell’s 8.95m world record would be over 29 feet… a character with +10 Athletics could break it!), or at the very least ‘heroic realism’.
– When you have Athletics +9, and you roll a 20…
A couple of things to note. While this rules add on works well for athletic characters, it maybe stretches reality for weedy ones. A character with 8 Strength might end up clearing up to 19 feet, if they roll a 20, while in general the less Strength you have the more likely you are to be able to make an above average jump (by your own standards). You could probably set a top limit of double someone’s strength for a long jump, and I might consider doubling negative Strength modifiers when trying to jump beyond your usual limits. Then again how many times have we seen a barbarian ace an Arcana check? Maybe we can just leave it…
Rules in Action: Setting A Jump’s DC
So there we go… to reiterate those rules in a way you might want to include in your game, let’s give an example.
As your players flee a blood thirsty tribe of troglodytes, they turn the corner in the tunnel to be greeted by a yawning chasm some 50 feet in front of them. The chasm is 16 feet across. Anyone with Strength 16 or above is able to make the jump without rolling, as per the rules laid out on p.182 of the PH. Everyone else will have to make a DC 16 Strength (Athletics) check to safely clear the jump. Provided they have packed light (i.e. are unencumbered) they will get advantage as they have a decent run up (over 30 feet) on the leap.
This of course is a tough – potentially deadly – challenge for many PCs, and those that fail by 5 or less could be judged to have got close enough to the other side to make a saving throw to cling on to the edge, or be dragged to safety by a companion. Otherwise strategic use of bardic inspiration, guidance, and non-bardic inspiration might be required to get the whole party across!
– When you miss by 5 or less…
If you’re not playing encumbrance you could consider cancelling out the advantage of the run up with disadvantage for those in heavy armour. I would probably be very cruel and give small creatures some kind of penalty too… those short-legged gnomes and halflings are not natural chasm-crossers! A minus 2 seems fair, without causing too many tears.
And what happens if you do fail your leap and plunge into the abyss? Maybe check my thoughts on falling damage before you decide just how deep the chasm is!