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Based on this comment over on CRPG Addict:

No adventuring party is complete without a ten foot pole.

...

Jason, but WHY? In God's name, WHAT IS IT FOR?!

What is a 10 foot pole used for (its perceived affordances in a game) and why has it become such a persistent trope?

An additional comment notes:

Okay on 10-foot poles: I do get what they're ostensibly for. What I don't get is a) why they have to be 10 feet. Wouldn't that be awfully hard to carry? When I have to carry even 8-foot 2x4s through my house, I inevitably put holes in walls, hit the ceiling, knock over vases, etc. Are dungeons more spacious than my house? b) why you couldn't just use a sword or staff to accomplish the same things.

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Just for perspective: I had never heard of a 10' pole being particularly common equipment before seeing this question. But then, I live in Germany, where D&D is not the dominant RPG system. –  Michael Borgwardt May 10 '12 at 8:46
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Please direct complaining about question theory to meta. –  mxyzplk Apr 22 '13 at 17:57

15 Answers 15

up vote 82 down vote accepted

With ingenuity, a ten foot pole can be used for a nearly infinite number of tasks. A huge part of D&D back in the day was its exploration aspect, mainly in dungeons. There were no "skill checks" so plausible innovation was the primary game mechanic for those scenes. You had to use your mind and whatever gear or other things you could leverage to find pits, bypass deathtraps, cross chasms, climb ledges, prod corpses, etc. Furthermore, the ten foot pole (along with mirrors and stake & mallet) was one of the handful of noncombat equipment items listed in D&D gear lists all the way back to OD&D Volume 1: Men & Magic.

As a result, the ten foot pole more than any other piece of equipment captured players' imaginations as the universal multi-tool (like the Doctor's "sonic screwdriver") to use in exploration. Entire Dragon Magazine articles were dedicated to its merits. The trope spread to other systems quickly - I own a Rolemaster equipment book entitled "...and a ten foot pole" that is a universal gear book covering multiple historical ages (very useful), but takes its name from the pole because that so obviously brands it a gear book to gamers! Anyway, its ubiquity in early systems and its nearly infinite uses is what turned it into such a persistent trope.

D&D didn't invent the 'ten foot pole', it comes of course from the popular idiom "I wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole."

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I always thought it was so that people can make "I wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole" jokes in-game.... –  OddCore Jan 5 '12 at 9:31

D&D favorites

  • Opening chests and doors from a distance
  • Checking for and triggering traps: if you're opening a chest and springing a dart trap, you'd probably rather do that with your pole than with your body at point-blank range.
  • Testing depth, heat, acidity, etc. Since 10' poles are cheap, you don't lose much if it dissolves whilst you're busy checking for acid.

How effective they are at tasks like this depends on the cleverness of the player and the deviousness of the DM.

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D&Dish answers.

  1. Pole vaulting. I've never actually seen this used in a game (unless you count MERP's critical fumble tables when using a lance...), but some day it will happen. And it will be awesome.
  2. To add to okeefe's answer, opening doors and throwing levers from a distance matters when there's a portcullis between you and whatever you're trying to open.
  3. Roasting your enemies on a spit.
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Also useful for balancing pole (assuming it's weight correctly) when crossing those unstable bridges.

Helpful when improvising some shelter in the wilderness and you forgot your tent. Now your tarp/blanket/sheet has something straight you can toss it over!

From a historical (D&Dish) perspective I think it mostly got it's use at being a long, disposable trap detection system that doesn't require a rogue/thief, high reflexes, or a lot of luck.

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Many of the items on this list have been done in games I've been involved in...

  1. Using to carry the quarry back to camp. Even, no, especially when it's an uncooperative princess.
  2. replacing the pike's haft after the swordsman with the sweihander whacked the head off of it.
  3. pole-vaulting over certain obstacles and traps
  4. pushing the inept climbers from below to assist their climb.
  5. having the torch-boy help you carry your pack.
  6. It's the holy symbol of Thwump, patron of excessive force and water-fetchers¹
  7. it's half a litter for carrying the mostly dead cleric back to be healed²
  8. it's half a travois, too, for the dead cleric to be resurrected.
  9. poking the large beastie to see if it's really dead
  10. crossing a 5' pit, tho two are better than one.
  11. making hafts for both halbeards after the sweihander guy gets ticked at the halberdier.
  12. improvised yoke for carrying balanced weights; note that you'll need to either cut notches or lash the weights.
  13. treating the giant's family jewels as a piñata
  14. holding open a portcullis, drawbridge, or other large aperture closing doorway.
  15. levering that statue loose.
  16. levering the fat cleric loose.
  17. fishing PC's out of 10' pit traps
  18. triggering floor traps
  19. fishing pole for FISH.
  20. poling your raft, canoe, or rowboat across the river.
  21. rolling out the bread dough after the giant catches you in his kitchen³
  22. Giving to the giant's wife to punish him for dalliances with PC's... which said dalliances may or may not have happened...
  23. slicing into rounds when you discover a transmute wood to metal artifact, so your wood becomes coins. Steel coins are still more valuable than wood poles....⁴

Notes:
¹ This is what happens when drunk players write up new gods for the homegrown pantheons.
² Yes, the obligatory Princess Bride mis-reference. :)
³ If he thinks you're making him desert he might not eat you, yes?
⁴ Mea Culpa. The GM, however, much regretted turning it to lead... for my PC was a slinger with a +4 sling....

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I have heard of (but can't find a reference for) #20 being the primeval origin of the 10-foot pole and hence its inclusion in the game. 10 feet is a useful length for depth sounding and poling craft in the rivers and bayous of the American South. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 11 '11 at 21:31
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In original D&D everything was ten foot - or some multiple thereof. Corridors were ten foot wide and ten foot high, pits were ten foot deep, walls were ten foot high, gelatinous cubes were ten foot each side. I doubt the pole size is more significant than that. –  DJClayworth May 3 '12 at 21:06
    
A 10 feet wide per ten feet high dungeon corridor really don't spell dungeon crawl for me. I always thought I'd have to leave the damn thing outside the entrance to the dungeon because of tight spaces. –  Yianes the Sneak May 20 '12 at 14:19
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Most of the old modules used either 5' or 10' squares. Most corridors in old modules were 10' wide. It's a Gygaxism. –  aramis May 21 '12 at 5:54

The expression "I wouldn't touch that with a 10 foot pole!" has been around for who knows how long. I believe (don't have my books on me) that the 10 foot pole was included in the ADnD adventuring gear list as a tongue-in-cheek reference to this.

The pole quickly became useful in many ways. Personally, my companions and I have used it for:

  • Measuring depth of various bodies of water or other scary liquid
  • Testing said liquid for acidic or other nefarious properties
  • Getting the Halfling across pits (by tying him to the end)
  • Probing for traps

Subsequent editions of DnD picked up on the popularity of ten foot poles, and in 3.0/3.5 we even saw an increase in it's value. A 10 foot pole costs 2 silver. Compare to the 10 foot ladder which costs 5 copper.

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Ten foot poles were in original D&D, long before AD&D. –  DJClayworth May 3 '12 at 21:07
    
I've ruled that the rules actually were supposed to be 2 silver for the pole and 5 silver for the ladder, and this is how I would play if my PCs ever bought either of them. –  Garan Mar 13 '13 at 3:33
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As I understand, there were quite a lot of people who tried to buy a 10 foot ladder, chop it up into two 10 foot poles (discarding the rungs), and sell them for a profit. Every GM I know prevented that. –  Thunderforge Mar 13 '13 at 3:55

It would seem that in the old days of the hobby, traps were plentiful and very deadly, and a ten-foot pole was your best means of detecting said traps.

I deduce their popularity mostly from reading about traps that punish you for using one in Grimtooth's Traps. You know something is popular if they want to give devious DMs a way to twist it.

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The ten foot pole has been in the list of equipment available for purchase since day one of D&D. Since the original equipment lists had about ten items in, other than food and fighting gear (pole, rope, mirror, holy symbol, garlic), my party naturally picked up a ten foot pole on the off-chance that it might be useful.

I remember my characters trying to use it to cross a ten foot pit, until I pointed out the obvious. After that they tried to buy an eleven foot pole.

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In regards to your edit. The 10 foot pole is kept in a special place referred to as extra-dimensional plot space. This space can contain anything from an unwieldy object to a seldom referred to familiar. This could be a bag of holding, or just a convenient plot construct. Some properties of this space.

  1. Objects placed in this space exist only on the character sheet of the character possessing them.

  2. Objects may be removed from this space in or out of combat as a minor action.

  3. Objects are returned to this space when they have been stowed, or when the user simply forgets that they have them until the next convenient time to use them.

  4. Objects are assume to be in the extra-dimensional plot space unless the DM decides that in a specific moment they can no longer occupy that area.

In conclusion, this is just one of those we don't really worry about it kind of things until it becomes an issue or the DM pitches a fit. We have chatted about this lately in our 4e game, although no one currently has a 10ft pole (not standard issue 4e equipment) I am pretty sure someone will pick one up soon and it will be stored in extra-dimensional plot space.

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The GM called me out on this one once. I arranged for my 10' pole to be hinged into three equal sections. –  Tynam May 13 '12 at 21:55
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@Tynam: Beware of collapsible equipment. There are soooo many ways things could go wrong if it collapses when it shouldn't... ;) –  Mason Wheeler Dec 1 '12 at 0:18
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@MasonWheeler: That character was a dwarven engineer, and could do clever things with locking clasps. (Size was the main reason he needed to make it smaller... That GM didn't track weight limits, but did demand that we note down how and where all our junk was being carried.) –  Tynam Dec 1 '12 at 12:24

I have seen some ingenuity with regard to 10' pole designs such as; adjustable length poles (with screw on extensions and attachments such as hooks, settings for continual light (or continual darkness) beads, an eye for attaching eg fishing line to, etc. With all these add-ons + modifications asking a first ed dungeons and dragons character why they are carrying a 10' pole (albeit it may be a telescopic 10' pole fashioned from a magical wood such as mallorn or sapient pear wood), is like asking Bear Gryllis why he carries a swiss army knife. Incidentally, dont forget the adamantine crowbar and 25' length of steel wire!

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Many good reasons given by other people, my understanding was that the most common was checking for traps (and otherwise probing hazards). 10' is hopefully enough that you're out of range of the trap at the other end of the pole.

However, certain magical traps (in certain games) only trigger when they detect a life form. Hence the necessity (to advanced users) for a 10 foot pole with a live chicken on the end.

By the way, dungeons are more spacious than my house, since they're drawn on squared paper at a scale of 5' to the square. Hence (a) the high frequency of 10'x10' rooms, and (b) the near-certainty that I can manoeuvre my 10' pole through them, assuming a reasonable ceiling height, since no corridor corner will be less than 5' wide. By contrast my house has a room whose door faces a staircase less than 5' away -- an impossibility in a well-designed dungeon, and a nightmare to get furniture through.

For the purist, arguably one should have a pole of length sqrt(125), about 11' 2 1/4". That way you can reach from a door in centre of one edge of a 10'x10' room to the far corner, without entering the room (the presumed area effect of the trap).

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Actually, old-school standard is 10' to a square. Very spacious. –  SevenSidedDie May 9 '12 at 17:17

Surprised to not see mention of trappers, here. This question puzzled me as well, and they explained it as follows:

Know what a mimic is?

Carnivore disguised as a treasure chest. Yes.

Imagine one of those posing as the floor of the room of the dungeon.

Basically, the ten foot pole was used to probe the floor ahead as a kind of 'teaser,' just in case the cobblestone was really an animate (and cunning) natural human predator. Er, unnatural… (I believe they count as aberrations since 3e, which would make sense, since the mimic is).

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Aside from the expression "I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole," I believe part of the reason for the length of 10" was because in the early days of D&D, Arneson had implemented a 1" = 10 feet scale (src), thus a 10 foot pole was convenient for poking every part of the area in front of you for traps (especially if you are using graph paper and want to mark a square as clear). When scale eventually was changed to 1" = 5 feet, this became even more useful as you could poke around at squares two inches away in any direction.

This may not have been the original intention, but I'm sure the efficiency the length brought to checking for traps in old school dungeons helped with its popularity.

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Regarding the challenges of carrying 10 foot poles around:

  • Many classic modules have 10 foot wide corridors. That simplifies things.
  • Adventures probably don't care if they scuff the walls or ceiling with their pole. Further simplification.
  • People who move long objects as part of their job (for example, construction workers) tend to become very skilled at managing them, even in tight spaces. I expect that after a few days crawling dungeons with the pole, it will become second nature.
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Also, the 10 ft pole would have been assumed in the making of maps while exploring. Things have to be measured (which is one of the reasons exploratory movement in AD&D was so slow) and you need a standard by which those measurements are taken. If you know that your pole is 10 feet long, and the room is "two-poles by four-poles" then you know that's 20 ft x 40 ft. In the old days, AD&D was about exploring and treasure hunting. Not until 3rd edition did it become about combat, "tactical" or otherwise.

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