Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Falling with impunity

"Falling down became second nature and it really didn't bother me." Nancy Kerrigan The rogue character climbs the tower with rope and grappling hook and achieves the top room before the horde of orcs and the large ogre can breach the door. Quickly he helps the princess climb into the rafters of the tower roof and hands her the invisibility potion. "Remain motionless and quiet," he commands her and then moves to the balcony just before the door is sundered in a shower of wooden splinters. "How far to the ground?" asks the player. "Fifty feet. The wall is smooth finished stone," answers the DM. "Hmmmmm, five times six is thirty, so I can survive maximum damage with my thirty-two hit points. Balazar steps off the balcony and waves good-bye to the charging orcs and their ogre pet. At the bottom I will drink my potion of cure serious wounds. Next round I will join the others fighting their way up the tower stairs." Balazar's player crosses his arms and look smug. The DM grinds his teeth. Sound familiar? Should a DM grind his teeth over this encounter? I have no qualms over players defeating my evil designs and feeling smug over it. I rather like that they feel smug when they are successful. I despise metagaming. I also despise the lack of verisimilitude. Should not falling be dangerous? Should players ever know EXACTLY what is the risk of failure? Where is the excitement is danger if you know exactly that you can defy common sense fear of falling and step off the tower ledge? The player did not even attempt to lessen the damage using tumble skill, or some other tool they may have been carrying. Your mileage may vary, but in my game this is just plain wrong. What do you do? I have cast about for possible alternate and house rules to achieve the feel or verisimilitude. Various gaming sites forums have discussions on the same topic, some old some new. A common solution is for falling to do ability point damage. That does give back some lethalness to the situation but induces two undesirable side effects. First, ability damage is a PITA to manage and causes more calculations. Calculations are not inherently fun for most people. Second, ability damage levels the playing field across character levels therefore a higher level character would not be more likely to survive a fall than a lower level character. This goes against the premise that characters get 'better' as they move up in level. I even spent some serious time with a spreadsheet comparing actual velocity to the falling damage. (notice I said that calculations are not inherently fun for MOST people). Surprisingly, the velocity to damage ratio is remarkably close to a straight line d6 damage per ten feet after you get by the initial twenty feet and before you achieve terminal velocity. However, this does not address my concern. During a long discuss on this topic with one of my players (who just also happens to be my grown son) he became thoughtful and asked, "what is the difference between falling damage and weapon damage?" Indeed, what? If you can subscribe to the notion of hit point abstraction, which is hard to avoid if you play D&D, you can easily rationalize an answer of, "nothing." So where does that leave us? It brought us back to looking at other rules, rather than 'solving' the falling problem. Maybe the problem was not falling. Maybe the problem was large amounts of damage. So instead I am instituting a house rule massive damage threshold, one that is variable with a character's hit point total and not an instant death rule. What does your game do to address this problem? Is this a problem for you? Are you interested in our 3.5E massive damage house rule? How is the weather where you are?


  1. I roll the falling damage as normal, apply it, and then call for a Petrification (Fortitude for the 3x+ crowd) save vs. death for any fall that might reasonably kill someone.

    Falling even 10 feet might kill someone, but we are looking for probabilities that fit into D&D's 5% increments. Since a 1d6 has a better than even chance of killing a normal man (1st level commoner) while a 20' fall has a 83% chance of killing one with maximum HP, I've ruled that a fall of 20' or more requires a saving throw.

    (Players are free to argue circumstances to commute death into permanent Constitution damage.)

    As you play 3x, you could also create a Feat:

    Catsfall [General]
    Benefit: You gain 10' of extra falling distance before a saving throw is required.

    Special: A character may gain this feat multiple times. Its effects stack.

  2. Hi rainswept - thanks for the visit and comment.

    Our massive damage house rule, stated simply, is if you take more than 1/2 your original HPs in damage in one instance you make a fort save or be reduce to negative HPs. A little more complicated and variable than yours, but at its heart a fort save.

    If someone wanted a feat like that, I would allow it. There are other ways to improve your fall survial - improve your fort save, tumble, etc. And I also give extra chances to a player who can tell me a good story on how they use their skills, smarts, luck etc to improve their chances of surviving a fall.

    Just curious, why the slightly more difficult petrification save vs. the slightly easier paralization/poison save? Does anyone comment that a magic user is more likely to survive a fall save than a fighter? Of course assuming the HP damage does not kill the magic user outright. Heh.

  3. why the slightly more difficult petrification save...?

    I play mainly Moldvay Basic, wherein "Turn to Stone" is the easiest of the saves for Thieves, the most frequent climbers by a stretch, the most likely to be leaping alley rooftops in the dark, and therefore, in my campaigns, the most frequent 'fallers' by a good margin :)

    Also the association between falling like a stone, crashing to the cold stones below, and saving vs turning to stone seems natural to me - sympathetic magic I guess.

    I will add though that if any of my players dared a metagame calculation such as you describe, their PC would likely wind up in a steampowered wheelchair for the next session at least. The shared 'reality' of the campaign trumps game mechanics at our table.

  4. I'm playing Castles & Crusades and added the Thief-Acrobat abilities to the rogue. This includes the Slow Fall ability. At 17th level, the rogue can fall 50' without incurring damage (the ceiling--or floor, if you will, for this ability). I used the Brave Halfling Thief supplement rather than the Gygax Unearthed Arcana and then did a bit of work to fit it with C&C's SIEGE Engine ability check.

    I don't recall seeing something like that in 3.5--at least not in the core books, but I am sure it could be added as a skill or feat.

    Otherwise, I typically do the old 1d6 per 10' with a save (in C&C it would be a Dexterity Save) allowing 1/2 damage. It's not realistic nor rational, but it works okay. I would probably do more to tweak it, if it came up a lot in my campaign.

  5. @rainswept - makes sense that thieves would have the best falling save, plus who can argue with sympathetic magic. I do exaggerate somewhat on the metagaming - it is mightily discouraged at my table as well. But I can see the wheels turning inside the players heads....

    @Rusty Battle Axe - there are 3.5E ways of improving your falling survival, and I have no issue with them. It is a fine line we walk trying to have a realistic fantasy game. Heh. I like falling to remain one of the battlefield dangers for character and monster alike without dragging down the game. Not that I overuse falling but when I do put it in there I want it to be meaningful without having to have monumental drops.

    Thanks for stopping by. Barad.


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