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The core question

What is a way for a 16th level character to avoid potentially fatal falling damage - but are not Feather Fall, Levitate, magic items that grant the properties of these spells, or the Monk's and Barbarian's class features (Slow Fall and Rage)?

The context

I am planning a short campaign in D&D 5e that starts out with my players imprisoned upon an airship. The airship gets attacked, and all passengers are hurled towards the ground from a substantial height (more than 3000 feet).

The details

  • These are 16th-level characters (because we want to do a high-level adventure). I won't tell my players that they "should" or "might take" magical starting equipment or spells that give them flying speed, etc.
  • They are stripped of their equipment (because they were imprisoned, by even stronger characters).
  • The fall should be lethal, if they do not intervene. I'm considering moving the damage cap for falling up for this very reason (I plan to use the "a creature falls 500 ft at the start of a round" rule). I want to avoid the "raging barbarian just fell out of the sky and just tanks the impact" scenario, if possible.
  • I've modified the fall damage as follows: terminal velocity is about 150 ft/s IRL, about 80 in 5e under the "500ft per round or 6 seconds" rule, so I was thinking maybe 40d6 (a quarter of the max velocity in feet). Enough to potentially kill/make high-level players unconscious.

My current ideas are as follows:

  • The cargo from the ship - that contains their equipment, which they can recover later in the campaign - also includes Scrolls of Feather Fall. The scrolls are scattered in the air around them and can be grabbed and used. This has the caveat that Feather Fall is only on the Bard's, Sorcerer's, and Wizard's spell list, so if we don't have one player with this class, RAW they cannot read this scroll.
  • A player could grab a sail from the airship and use it as a improvised parachute - this is probably far out of the rules, but I might rule this as a DC 20 Acrobatics or Athletics check?
  • The players can attempt to fall into water, a lake or something similar. This will reduce their damage, but might still kill them.

I am looking for a solution that

  • works for (almost) all classes or
  • lets one player save the whole party or
  • somehow negates the fall damage otherwise
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I won't tell my players that they "should" or "might take" magical starting equipment or spells that give them flying speed etc." Why not? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Nov 25 '19 at 21:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells: Do you generally suggest your players what they are going to need in a given playing session? \$\endgroup\$ – DaG Nov 27 '19 at 8:45
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In short: Don't do this.

I would suggest that starting your game with a challenge or scenario that has the potential to immediately kill one or more characters is setting a poor tone for the game.

I'm not saying "go easy on your players"; but I am saying that you need to have a non-fatal outcome planned for what happens when the dice just decide they'd rather all roll low single digits today. What're you going to do if everything the PCs try just fails through no fault of their own? Stand up twenty minutes into your game and say, "Well, you're all dead, guess the game is off, let's go play Mario Kart"? And it's arguably even worse if only one player dies in the first scene, because now you have to struggle to get them back into the game or they're left out. Believe me, if you exclude somebody from the game because of a random die roll in the first scene, that person is going to be rightfully upset, and they're likely to never come back to your game. And as for me, if you do that to another player, I may well just walk out of your game, because I can see how you treat people who have set aside time for this activity.

A big epic start with a crashing airship is wonderful, but the die rolls involved should determine things like "How badly are the characters are hurt when they reach the ground alive?" or "How much starting gear are they able to salvage?", not whether they actually survive long enough to get out of the prologue and play the game.

For example, instead of having the ship destroyed in mid-air and throwing everyone clear at thousands of feet, consider having the players running around the ship's deck as it starts to fail and shed pieces on the way down, and when the final breakup happens, they're only a couple hundred feet over a lake. Use your DM fiat to declare that any of the PCs reduced to zero hit points wash up on the beach a few hours later, barely alive, possibly with injuries that will cause some long-term problems until they're dealt with appropriately.

Should the players' actions really even matter?

As an aspect of the above, you could do something like what they do in video game prologues a lot, where the opening has a sort of fake threat -- set it up so it feels like the players' actions are having an impact, but in reality the whole thing is an "interactive cutscene", where their choices change the dialogue and details, but make no particular difference to the overall outcome.

For example, the players might try to stabilize the airship's elemental ring to keep the ship aloft, or try to help steer for a crash-landing in a nearby lake:

If they succeed, great job! You describe how the ship is threatening to come apart at the seams, but thanks to their heroic actions, they manage to just barely hold it together long enough to make it over water before the ship loses its integrity and crumbles, dropping everyone the last hundred feet into the drink.

If they fail, that's too bad. You describe how they work hard to try to keep the ship together long enough to reach the surface, but they just can't manage it, and the ship breaks up completely while they're still a hundred feet above the water.

Or, depending on their actions, you describe how they don't do anything to help and instead rob the ship's vault. That was a poor choice! Because they do absolutely nothing to help, the ship breaks up in mid-air, and they have pockets full of heavy gold as they plummet a hundred feet into the water, where they are forced to dump all their ill-gotten loot to survive.

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    \$\begingroup\$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equivocation_(magic) \$\endgroup\$ – ptyx Nov 25 '19 at 20:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wouldn't a single goblin also have the potential to kill one or more of the players if the players built badly enough and played dumb enough and rolled badly enough? What makes the fall different? Or do you mean fixing the odds of success so the players have to roll rather than letting them just trivialize the danger using features that don't involve rolling is a bad idea? \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Nov 25 '19 at 22:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pleasestopbeingevil First, those odds are different. Your goblin scenario is low-risk ("if the player does all the wrong things, they might die"). Falling several hundred feet is high-risk ("if the player doesn't do exactly the right things, they will die"). Second, it's a question of what's appropriate at the very start of a campaign. A high-risk battle against your major villain is appropriate or even desirable, as a character death there will be meaningful and dramatic. A character death 20 minutes into the first session, when nothing is at stake, is just annoying. \$\endgroup\$ – MJ713 Nov 25 '19 at 23:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pleasestopbeingevil Even in the goblin scenario, the DM can still intervene and prevent it as the DM sees fit. The takeaway is don't kill your PCs off right away, regardless of how it came about. \$\endgroup\$ – Nelson Nov 26 '19 at 3:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Szega Of course I can describe what's at risk. The risk is that you're on a crashing airship, what do you do? The DM is not required to tell the players in detail what the possible outcomes of the situation are. The truth is that the outcome was preordained, but the players won't know that, and the way you phrase your description of the breakup can make it feel like a victory or a failure. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Nov 26 '19 at 15:01
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Use a skill challenge

The skill challenge lets a party of 16th level characters fall in a successful manner without the need for the DM to know the means of success.

Moreover, prompting the party with a skill challenge lets them know "now is the time to get creative", you might even take this opportunity to tell them outright.

Start the skill challenge before the party starts falling so that it represent both preparation before the fall and action during the fall.

The fall should not be lethal

Starting a session with a single point of failure, like a TPK-inducing fall, carries the risk of a very short and unsatisfying session. If you really want to do this, then you need to tell your players to bring a backup characters.

Moreover, killing a party of level 16 character with fall damage is a ridiculous proposition even if you ignore the cap on fall damage. To reliably kill a level 16 character you may need upwards of 100d6[1]. That's a ridiculous amount of dice that only takes into account raw HP, not class features and spells.

If the party where damaged enough before the fall, then you could reasonably make them fall unconscious with falling damage and then some would probably die from failing death saving throws, but that would still be lame.

The fall should have stakes

Even if the fall can't kill the party, it can still have a significant role to play. Find something that is important to the party or to the campaign (time, resources, money, allies, enemies, etc.) and put that thing at stake. Then you can use the skill challenge to determine whether the party still 'has' that thing after the fall for better or for worse.


  1. If you want to reliably kill a character with falling damage you have deal enough damage to kill them outright. It wouldn't weird for a 16th level barbarian or fighter to have 165 HP, and a 100d6 'only' has a 88% chance of killing outright such a character. For characters that specializes in HP even further, you would need more than 100d6 to kill them reliably.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this. If they are unconscious for x hours, bandits loot the downed airship of their belongings. Depending on how long they are out, distance to the crash site, how many they have to drag along, the battle against a few pirates or a group of lucky villagers, or treasure hungry ruffians awaits with all or some of their equipment in jeopardy. \$\endgroup\$ – Jammin4CO Nov 25 '19 at 22:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ So, reduce their current HP first and then reward them with reduced fall damage if they do well? I like the idea. \$\endgroup\$ – John W. Nov 26 '19 at 0:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Assuming they have a d8 hit die and take the average health each level the PCs would have 8 + (15 * 5) -> 83 HP. The expected roll of a d6 is a 3.5, and 83 / 3.5 = 23.7 dice. I have absolutely no idea where you get this 100d6's idea, but on average 24 d6s will kill these characters... \$\endgroup\$ – Reedinationer Nov 26 '19 at 22:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Reedinationer The key word is "reliably". 24d6 has a less than 60% chance of making a character with 83 HP unconscious, and then they have to fail their death saving throws too. If you want to reliably kill a character with falling damage you have deal enough damage to kill them outright. I would assume at least one of the PCs has better hit die and constitution. It wouldn't be especially weird for a 16th level barbarian or fighter to have 165 HP, which means 100d6 has a 88% chance of killing it outright. For a character that specializes in HP, 100d6 might not be enough. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruse Nov 26 '19 at 23:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Somewhat off topic but "The fall should have stakes" is a potential way to get closer to killing them or severely hurting them at least. Dropping a party into water from 3,000 foot is pretty nasty by itself but falling on to pointy stakes from 3,000 foot is pretty much Shishke Bob, Sheshke Joe and Shishke Larry. \$\endgroup\$ – Nicholas Adams Nov 27 '19 at 13:26
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Destiny, AKA however the players describe the outcome

Given that, if they don't survive, there is no campaign, the right way to handle this is to cut to after the fall and let each player describe, in flashback, how they survived. They don't have to roll skill checks or anything because you already know they succeeded, by whatever powers or cleverness or sheer dumb luck the player thinks makes sense. If everyone makes a character who has flight or levitation spells of some kind, then congratulations, that's why you guys aren't dead like the rest of the passengers.

If you're running a Harry Potter game, you don't start with Baby Harry rolling a DC 20 save against finger of death to see if the campaign ends right then. You start with him at a point where he already has some agency and gets to make an interesting decision.

Since you've also mentioned that you have relationships and plot hooks to set up aboard the airship: Nothing stops you from doing the entire airship sequence in flashback. Start with the party on the ground, picking themselves up out of their impact craters--this establishes the known fact that these people fell out of an airship and survived. Then play through the "How we got here" story. This can include introducing characters (the Harry Potter backstory is how we meet Voldemort!) or establishing why these people were on the airship in the first place.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the general idea of starting to play after the fateful event has happened, but I also want to introduce some important NPCs and plot hooks in this introduction before the airship crashes, so this might be difficult to pull off right. Still, the Harry Potter situation is a nice example. \$\endgroup\$ – John W. Nov 25 '19 at 23:58
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Actually it's Not That Big a Deal

5e fall damage explicitly caps out at 20d6. That's, on average, 70 damage (p. 183 PHB).

A character falls 500 feet/round (XGTE, p. 77). Falling 3000 feet would take 6 turns.

A level 16 Wizard or Sorcerer will have, at minimum, 6+Con + 15d6 + 15*Con HP. With a 14 Con, that's 90.5 HP average (more using fixed values). 20d6 fall damage is not even close to killing most level 16 characters (and frankly, neither is 40d6). A level 16 Wizard/Sorcerer should have half-a-dozen ways to resolve this kind of problem within the 4 rounds that they're falling. Really, any caster should.

If you're reduced to 0 HP, you're unconscious. You only die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.

Any Warrior class is very unlikely to be knocked unconscious by the fall damage.

Level 16 characters are epic. They bend the laws of reality over and make reality their bitch.

Your level 16 Fighter can tank a 3000 foot fall and proceed to wrestle a young dragon into the ground. A level 16 Barbarian isn't a shirtless guy with a sword, he's the goddamned Hulk.

Your level 16 Wizard can pop into his pocket plane, or Plane Shift, or Reverse Gravity, or Fly, or Polymorph into a bird, or Otiluke's Resilient Sphere. Or maybe he doesn't even need to because his Contingency kicks in.

Your Cleric might cast Regeneration, take 200 damage, and just shrug it off as his shattered body regenerates itself over a minute or two.

Your Bard might pop his Griffin Greater Steed into existence and have it dive to save the whole party.

Make this an opportunity to make your party feel epic.

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So many ways

So, first, the ways that involve people not actually dying:

  • Be a half-orc or (Amonkhetian) minotaur, have enough hp. In order to die from a fall as a 16th-level half-orc or minotaur, you need to take twice your max hp in damage. Your max hp as a wizard with a measly d6 HD and probable +1 CON mod is probably 80. 20d6 (terminal velocity) averages 70 damage, which isn't enough to knock you out anyways, but assuming you change the maximum to double as much it still won't insta-kill our wizard so Relentless Endurance means they can just ignore the damage anyways and not even be dropped.
  • Plane Shift or Teleport or Rope Trick any other single or mass relocation spell which moves the party and/or whoever else the party wants moved somewhere else.
  • Cast Stone Skin or otherwise benefit from resistance to bludgeoning damage, which turns the expected damage from 70 to 35 or 140 to 70 if the damage is doubled.
  • Fly. You can do this via magic directly, like the fly spell, or magic indirectly, like the Conjure Elemental spell, or not-magic directly, like being an Aarakocra, or not-magic indirectly, like mounting your Wild Shaped Druid.
  • Have enough hp. I know you want to design a fall that will kill them regardless of hp, but 16th level characters can have a lot of hp. A 16th level Barbarian, for example, might reasonably have 240 hp and take 1/2 damage from the fall. Even without using Relentless Rage that means the fall needs to be doing 137d6 to probably K.O. them and 274d6 damage to have a good chance of killing them outright. There's no way that Slow Fall saves you here and having that many HP doesn't. Plus, if the fall is that long, people have time to phone in a rescue team or emergency teleportation or whatever via Sending.
  • Have Death Ward on. 16th level adventuring parties usually have this on all the time anyways, so probably the fall isn't even worth mitigating unless they are expecting a tough fight afterwards.

Now, the ways that involve not caring when people die:

  • Revivify is in play at this level. If the party puts the Cleric or Druid on top and they ready the spell for when a party member under them dies, they can cast the spell after that member dies but before they themselves die. If there are two people who can raise the dead this solves the problem, if not the survivor needs to cart everyone back to town.
  • Clone is in play at this level. When the party dies, they wake up in their clones they had prepared beforehand.

A 16th level adventuring party should have a way of dealing with this. If I were making a Same Game Test for 5e, an arbitrary long fall with XGE rules would probably show up at level 5. A long fall without XGE rules (or a short fall with 20d6 damage) is a bit more dangerous but not enough that I'd have multiple entries on a test like that. The only part of this that's dangerous is that your players might not understand that the fall will kill them, since normally at 16th level that's impossible no matter how far one falls.

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Let the players figure out a solution

When this event occurs, be open to their solutions. Do not dismiss them, but don't let them automatically work either. You need to facilitate both the problem and the solution.

Let the party figure out their own creative solutions. Don't just give them scrolls of featherfall.

For example, Foo the Rogue immediately gets naked and ties their clothes together into a parachute. They aren't safe yet though, it slows their falling speed a little at best. Now they want to look for a soft place to land. You give them a lake, but it's a bit far away, Foo will need to try and maneuver towards it. Will their parachute hold up? Will they be able to repair it if it breaks? Can they get to the lake in time?

Zero HP isn't death, and death isn't the end

Assuming most of the players plans fail, if one or 2 of them can survive then they can heal the others. If any of them die from instant death or failing their death saves then the party can work to revive them, either with their own abilities or hiring a local cleric.

If all else fails, all party members are killed by failed ideas, instant death, or failing death saves, then have someone else revive them. Perhaps the party crash land in the middle of a town. Perhaps they do so in the country side. Perhaps over the ocean. Townspeople, local villagers, the royal navy, fishermen, etc, rescue them and revive them. Of course, they don't do this for free. Maybe they have a grudge against the big bad too, and offer a discount. Maybe they expect a reward or a favor.

Having lvl 16 adventurers owe you something is massively valuable in a world where the average person is far weaker than lvl 1.

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You have control over where they fall--make sure they land on something soft enough to make the fall survivable. This isn't that hard a task--back in WWII Russia actually conducted experiments with paratroopers jumping without a chute. The landing was deep snow--still dangerous but the question was whether it was safer than hanging under a chute while enemy forces in the ground were shooting at you.

Injuries aren't going to matter to a 15th level party, you only need to keep it below lethal, deep snow should do it.

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Narrative, not gameplay

Since you are starting the campaing that way, whatever happens should not relate to your characters capabilities: their survival should be part of the narrative, not of the gameplay.

There are various real examples of dramatic freefalls, almost always involving deep snow and hitting a slope with some angle. This way physics alone can provide a safe landing.

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Feather Tokens

Rather than using Scrolls of Featherfall which, as you mentioned, would only work for Wizards, Bards and Sorcerers, instead consider using Feather Tokens:

This small metal disk is inscribed with the image of a feather. When you fall at least 20 feet while the token is on your person, you descend 60 feet per round and take no damage from falling. The token's magic is ex­pended after you land, whereupon the disk becomes nonmagical.

Feather Tokens are a new common magic item to D&D 5e, found on page 277 of Eberron: Rising from the Last War. These would allow for all classes to survive the fall, regardless of wether they can cast spells or not. The presence of these tokens could be explained as being akin to carrying parachutes on a plane. Many planes have them but they are rarely, if ever, used in an emergency situation.

You could also have your “one player saves the rest of the party” scenario by having that player retrieve the tokens from the bolted-down chest full of them on the main deck.

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