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Caltrops reads:

As an Action, you can spread a single bag of caltrops to cover a 5-foot-square area. Any creature that enters the area must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or stop moving and take 1 piercing damage. Until the creature regains at least 1 hit point, its walking speed is reduced by 10 feet. A creature moving through the area at half speed doesn't need to make the saving throw.

D&D Beyond suggests that the aforementioned "bag" is 20 caltrops, which cover a five-foot square. But, what if I put 100 caltrops in a basket and had my imp familiar drop it from 100 ft in the air? Would the impact spread them over an area lager than a five-foot square without any expenditure of action economy?

If so, how would this play out? A relevant scenario might include a 15ft pinchpoint (cave entrance, portal, etc) that enemies are pouring through.


Edit for additional consideration: The idea is, PC purchases 5 bags of caltrops in town and dumps them into a basket. PC gives the basket to a flying creature, whom carries it until the encounter takes place, then ascends to Xft to drop the basket.

This is mechanically similar to spreading 5 bags of caltrops across an area, outside of initiative. However, it is more powerful because it allows players to make decisions with more information.


Do caltrop penalties stack? does not answer this question, which concerns action economy and item usage rules—not stacking penalties.

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3 Answers 3

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You likely need an action per square

It has been established that the damage of caltrops is unlikely to stack if you drop more caltrops on the same 5-foot-square area.

I think by a strict rules mechanic reading, the only bag on the equipment list is the bag of 20, and the only action offered by it is:

As an Action, you can spread a single bag of caltrops to cover a 5-foot-square area.

There is no bag of 100 on the equipment list, so how that would be handled will be up for your DM to decide. See Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, page 4, on situations not covered by the rules:

The rules of D&D cover many of the twists and turns that come up in play, but the possibilities are so vast that the rules can't cover everything. When you encounter something that the rules don't cover or if you're unsure how to interpret a rule, the DM decides how to proceed

While you can make a real world analogy based case that a larger bag shaken out from higher up should scatter to a larger area, D&D is not a physics simulation, it offers a game system with mechanics designed for speed of play and balance.

The action cost to spike a five foot square serves to create a balancing point that keeps you from spamming the effect -- for example, you could argue that turning over a bag of caltrops could be considered an object interaction, so you should be able to use your free object interaction to empty one, too, and the action cost blocks this.

If I were to adjudicate it, I therefore would rule that if you dumped a bag of 100 in one action, they would end up in the same 5-foot square. Only if you took care to shake it out over five different squares using five actions, you could cover 5 squares. But talk with your DM - they might decide differently.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Thanks for explaining the downvote (if it was yours). I do agree, and I think this is close to the line where it becomes "Nah, they need an action", but I don't feel it is quite there. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 17:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is a good point that D&D is not a physics simulation. However, there is a nuance to the question that might have been lost in the response. I'm not asking if the [flying creature] could dump them from a bag; I am asking if they could simply drop an open container. A statistically savvy DM might rule that the contents explode in a bell-curve distribution from the impact point. But, the real-world physics engine might just be game-breaking here. \$\endgroup\$
    – nonymous
    Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nonymous You should wait a day or two before accepting, it is well possible that someone else will write another answer. Sundays are typically a bit slower around here, with not so many people contributing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 17:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of note, a "bag of 100 caltops" is not on the equipment list, agreed. However, a basket is. The idea would be, one could purchase 5 bags of caltrops, dump them into a basket (outside any encounters), and hand the basket to a flying creature (including oneself under the effects of the Fly spell, for example). The flying creature waits until the encounter and then ascends to Xft to drop the basket. \$\endgroup\$
    – nonymous
    Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 17:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nonymous You can also self answer your question , and see how the community scores the answer. Shenanigans are a longstanding tradition in D&D :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 17:47
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It depends what your GM rules in the particular context where you used them.

My gut instinct is that if you dropped 100 caltrops from 100' in the air, you're not very likely to get 5 neat squares with dense and well-scattered caltrops, and none of the caltrops outside those squares (which is what you would get if you spent the 5 actions scattering caltrops from 5 bags into 5 squares).

My guess is that you'd be far more likely to get one or two "overdense" squares and maybe 10 squares where there are some caltrops, but not densely enough to make it likely that someone just passing through the square would step on one unless they're careful. Or maybe they all bounce too much and you end up with a very wide area of caltrops insufficiently dense to demand a save. Especially if the ground is hard (like rock), I'd think they would bounce a lot more. And if the ground is too soft and they're falling too fast when they hit, some of them might stick into the ground point-down, becoming near useless.

There are plenty of ways to rule that this doesn't work based entirely on the logic of the situation, without even considering whether a GM thinks this tactic is an "exploit" that shouldn't be allowed.

This is not a rules question.

The rules provide one way you can apply caltrops and get a specific mechanical effect (requiring a save if anyone enters a specific square). If you do anything else with them, you're asking your GM to describe what would happen (and how much time/effort it would take, translated into actions), just as if you do anything else with any other object for which there are no specific rules. The rules simply don't say what happens if you tip out a bucket of caltrops 100' above the ground, but it's an action that can physically/logically be performed, so it's up to the GM what actually happens in the world.

As such there is no "right" answer here. What happens at your table when you try this depends on the GM at the table, not on what people on rpg.stackexchange.com say. You could get a clear answer saying "Yes this would work" with thousands of upvotes, lots of anecdotes of people saying "yeah, I do this with caltrops all the time in my games", and your GM would still be perfectly within their rights to rule that it doesn't.

If this is the first time you've tried this and your GM wants to reward clever thinking, it's probably more likely to work. If you try this a lot and/or your GM doesn't like giving items that have specific rules for using them any more flexibility/power than is conveyed by those specific rules, then it's probably less likely to work.

If you want this trick to work as an ordinary combat tactic that you intend to rely on, you should have a chat with your GM between sessions and make sure they're on board with it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "There are plenty of ways to rule that this doesn't work based entirely on the logic of the situation" - exactly. D&D isn't chess; the rules are there to help you resolve situations and make those resolutions fairly consistent. They don't cover everything, nor should they. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nelviticus
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 8:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ "some of them might stick into the ground point-down" - that can't happen. Caltrops have four points arranged pointing to the corners of a regular tetrahedron. Unless they are dropped from such a height they completely bury themselves, there must be at least one point pointing upwards. (Admittedly, if one point is vertically down, the other three are pointing up at an angle, so might do less damage - but I'd still rather not tread on them.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 13:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I understand the GM makes the call. What I want to discuss is, how to define a working model for how to adjudicate a technique like this. Does it create balance issues or "pull on threads" with respect to other parts of the game. (For example, can I do this with Alchemist's Fire? Acid? Holy Water? Bombs? If not, is it because the game isn't capable of incorporating it? And, how might it be incorporated in a balanced way?) I could imagine capping damage amounts or defining an appropriate radius for "functionally dense caltrops". But, maybe a 5ft radius from the impact point is too powerful. \$\endgroup\$
    – nonymous
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 13:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MartinBonnersupportsMonica One point downwards and 3 pointing up at an angle is exactly what I was thinking of. The 3 angled points would have a lot less force on them when you step, and would have to penetrate much further through the sole of your boot to make it to your foot (since they're penetrating it at an angle rather than straight up). I certainly wouldn't want to step on them barefoot, but I can see escaping injury in boots. Mechanics-wise caltrops only do 1 point of damage; there isn't a lot of room between "the effect of a properly deployed caltrop" and "nothing at all". \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 0:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ben Exactly. I've never actually encountered a caltrop but I have encountered natural things that are similar--cactus thorns. I would be quite surprised at a thorn at a 60 degree angle from my boot doing anything but being deflected by it. Even in running shoes it would be an unexpected result (and I've been poked through a running shoe by something sticking up--one of the reasons I wear boots these days.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 2:53
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Allowing this creates a number of issues

To address your question which you have clarified in the comments

What I want to discuss is, how to define a working model for how to adjudicate a technique like this. Does it create balance issues or "pull on threads" with respect to other parts of the game. (For example, can I do this with Alchemist's Fire? Acid? Holy Water? Bombs?

Yes, this pulls threads and creates untenable issues. For example:

  • Filling a large net with flasks of Alchemist's fire logically allows you to firebomb an entire area
  • Filling a large bottle with poison, instead of a small flask, should let you cover a large amount of ammunition with poison in a single turn
  • By braiding three pieces of rope together, you should be able to increase the strength save DC to break out of it.
  • Filling a bucket with oil should let you splash it over a much larger area than a 1 pint clay flask

etc.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good points, all. \$\endgroup\$
    – nonymous
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 2:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your third point is reality--look at thick ropes--they're thin ropes braided together. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 2:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DanielB, after some consideration, I'm leaning towards the conclusion that the "number of issues" here arise from time pressure and distorting the action economy, rather than from stretching the limits of the game system. Consider all of your points from the perspective of being outside initiative order. All of them are reasonable without the time limitations of initiative. So, perhaps capping the damage or limiting the radius of e.g. an Alchemist's FireBomb might be a reasonable way to adjudicate this sort of situation. Obviously up to the DM, but not necessarily problematic. Thoughts? \$\endgroup\$
    – nonymous
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 14:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nonymous "a chain is only strong as its weakest link" refers to objects linked in a series, while in a braided cord the objects are in parallel and their strength compounds. You can't effectively pull on a string without pulling on the others, thus dividing the energy applied to each rope by the number of ropes in the braid. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lud
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 16:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ If we try to braid the Chains, then my hackneyed aphorism actually does apply. \$\endgroup\$
    – nonymous
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 18:43

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