In terms of imagining the fiction in-game, how does a character survive being impaled by spikes in a spiked pit trap?

Spiked Pit Traps are a classic dungeon trap in fantasy. Like most traps in D&D, they simply do a set amount of damage that can be survived. It is assumed that if the character does survive the damage, they can simply climb back out (perhaps with the help of their allies and some rope) and continue on their way, making it a one-and-done kind of situation.

However, I find it difficult to imagine how someone would actually survive such an impaling regardless of damage rolls. The realism and believably fails for me. I see it as following a similar principle to The Chunky Salsa Rule - the character would be perforated so completely that there is no way to envision their survival.

In a spike trap with sufficiently dense amounts of spikes:

  • The character could not avoid being pierced in every major body part, including through the head. There'd be no way to "dodge" damage to certain body parts, as there's always more spikes.
  • Even if the character survived the initial impaling, they would be unable to pull themselves off the spikes afterward due to gravity (unless they could magically fly straight up the way they fell).
  • Even if the character someone dislodged themselves from the spikes, there would be no place to stand in order to prepare to get out of the pit, nor place for an ally to climb down to help them.

Gonna die

In real life, such a trap would almost certainly have a 100% fatality rate. It is simply not possible to survive beyond some quantum-mechanical miracle. Even then, actual miracles in D&D might still not save you - you couldn't plausibly be healed while you're still full of spikes.

How do I deal with characters surviving such spike traps in terms of the narrative? How do I describe such an event in the story? Is it even possible to make believable? Should the Chunky Salsa Rule be applied such that such traps simply insta-kill instead?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I am genuinely interested in an answer, but I can offer that making a pit trap immediately lethal will result in your players roundly unionizing and striking. (Whether in the form of a walkout or by approaching the DM with blunted objects in hand depends entirely on the union.) \$\endgroup\$ – NFeutz Nov 1 '17 at 15:06
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a discussion prompt or poll for ideas, and cannot be authoritatively answered. It’s unclear how voting or accepting answers will work beyond simply being a popularity contest, and a discussion forum would be a far better place for that. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 1 '17 at 15:14
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I'd like to find a way to make this viable if possible. This is a real problem insofar as I can't figure out how to describe such a situation when DMing. It causes me a full-stop in my storytelling, which is bad. \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Nov 1 '17 at 15:16
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I, too, love the question, but I think it's indicative of a larger problem of survival generally. For example, blind and sleeping creatures get Reflex saving throws (in Pathfinder and 3.5e), yet the game goes on. Lots of things that would (should? do?) instantaneously kill real-world folks don't kill fake-world folks so that it's a game of heroic adventure and exploration rather than Corpse: The Role-playing Game. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Nov 1 '17 at 15:43
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Keep in mind, I do not intend this as a "Why is it like this" kind of question. It's more of a "What do I do when it happens?" question. I'm not just pointing out how it's bizarre; I honestly want to know how to proceed. Is the answer, "just crank up your suspension of disbelief, ignore it, and move on?" \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Nov 1 '17 at 15:46

This is a bit of a tricky one, and one of the reasons why I (personally) dislike hit points. Regardless of my personal feelings, it's how things are. So how do people survive spiked pit traps?

The real-world truth is that unless the character hits these spikes directly, at the perfect angle, they will bend some. As the character drops, they are initially impaled, but the moment (or "torque") they exert on the spikes cause the spikes to bend and to potentially break. A non-symmetric point on the spikes will also contribute to bending one way or another.

Additionally, any armor they are wearing (this is especially true of plate, chain, and shields) will deflect the spikes further, causing them to snap sooner.

So the character falls, the armor deflects most spikes, so the character gets a little impaled, but then the spikes break, preventing further damage.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting! I hadn't really considered the durability of the spikes. I suppose as they deal damage to you, you also deal damage to them, making them less effective. \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Nov 1 '17 at 16:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SouthpawHare The unspoken problem here is that after the initial fall and break, you now have (very likely, anyways) new spikes. Either way, it's a point where the HP mechanics and the story don't really support each other. \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip Nov 1 '17 at 16:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ That really bugs me, considering Spiked Pit Traps are a classic thing that appears all the time. \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Nov 1 '17 at 16:13
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This answer also helps build verisimilitude— I tend to run mundane traps in my settings as being “old” and “used” unless being specifically subject to upkeep and maintenance by kobolds, or a diligent wizard, or something else actively repairing those traps. To that end, showing traps which have succeeded on an unfortunate party not only adds to the ambience of an old dungeon or jungle path, but also helps explain why a character might survive a deadly rock fall trap or pit trap: it’s already been used and so its efficacy has taken at least one significant reduction already. \$\endgroup\$ – NFeutz Nov 1 '17 at 16:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SouthpawHare You may want to consider alternative forms of health-tracking, such as this here: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/102000/combat-without-hp/… \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip Nov 1 '17 at 16:19

Hit points are an abstract way of telling you if your character is still able to act, it reflects your stamina, your ability to dodge attacks and what you might be searching for here is... the character's LUCK.

If a PC "fell" in a spiked pit, but wasn't reduced to 0 HP, it means he was able to grab a ledge and avoid falling for his death, but he might not get so lucky next time, hence his reduction to his Hit points.

But if he was reduced to 0 hitpoints, then he did fell on the spikes and I think it's reasonable to say that he was impalled to death.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Some systems are more or less abstract than others, though. D&D 3rd edition especially seems pretty consistent with "HP damage means you literally got injured" (and likewise, healing means literally healing your wounds). \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Nov 1 '17 at 15:26
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Catching yourself when falling is a real thing in 3.5e. A dude who did that wouldn't've been dealt damage. (However, narratively, the DM could describe the PC as having arrested his fall using a precarious, previously overlooked handhold inside the pit so that the PC only suffered minimal damage from those sharp sticks.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Nov 1 '17 at 15:30
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @SouthpawHare Actually, that much is decidedly untrue. There are, in fact, options available in 3.5 that heal hp as a result of Extraordinary inspiration, and that’s just the most extreme example. Unfortunately, hp is an extremely broad, vague, and frankly wonky abstraction where you have to basically treat the loss of hp as... fluid. So you get situations where you narratively describe hp loss as getting lucky, but then describe hp healing as magic healing wounds. Just an unfortunate fact of the system. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 1 '17 at 15:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ That said, I feel like this explanation has a whole host of side-effects that cause problems for it. What if there is something you can only see from the bottom of the pit—does the person who fell in, and paid hp for the privilege of reaching the bottom, not get to see that thing because he actually grabbed the edge? @HeyICanChan’s suggestion is an improvement, avoiding some of those problems, but possibly not all. And this kind of back-and-forth is exactly the issue I had in mind when casting a close vote. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 1 '17 at 15:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ The way that taking damage is described vary from DM to DM. The golden rule of D&D is that the DM decides what happened, he sees a situation that isn't described in details in the book and adjudicates it. His question isn't about RAW, it's about how telling his players that their characters survived seemingly impossible odds. Questions here go beyond RAW and that doesn't mean they should be closed because of that. \$\endgroup\$ – Manner Nov 1 '17 at 15:37

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.