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In fantasy works like Lord of the Rings, the vertical dimension often helps the protagonists in gravity-enhanced combat (in other words, pushing foes off high walls or into chasms to kill them). I would like to incorporate such high places to push foes down from for my players to use in my upcoming D&D 5e campaign because I like both the imagery of tall towers and the tactics involved.

However, high places cut both ways — if there's a chasm deep enough to instantly kill a monster falling down it, it will also be equally dangerous to my players' characters using normal fall rules in the Player's Handbook. I could add a saving throw to grab the ledge, but I don't want high falls to become a save-or-die situation for my players. I don't want to make the threat of fighting in such places negligible either.

I'm looking for a way to handle very high fall hazards that keeps them dangerous but not too dangerous.

Currently I'm expecting that the solution will be either an official rule or a tested homebrew rule for really high falls that

  • is useful to the players when applied against monsters
  • can pose a serious threat to the player characters too, but is unlikely to be directly lethal unless the character has suffered moderate damage already (harmful is fine, single save vs. death is not)
  • apart from character death, doesn't remove PCs from the combat encounter for extended periods (I think that'd be boring for the players involved)
  • possibly asymmetric: I'm fine with monsters receiving worse treatment

Also note that the rule doesn't have to actually involve PCs falling when pushed off a ledge: "you stumble and grab the ledge, but the effort of keeping yourself from falling saps your endurance by 2d8 hit points" would be an appropriate, if boring, idea.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you considered Eagles and/or reincarnation? \$\endgroup\$ – Wesley Obenshain Jan 17 '17 at 14:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ (The above comment is a well-executed joke. So that we can have nice things like that, please don't take it as permission to post non-joke "Have you considered X" answer-comments. Thanks!) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 18 '17 at 15:39
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A method I used on my game a while back, I had several "steps" to it.

  1. Step one, the slip. DEX save against a DC relative to the terrain and weather.

  2. Step two, the edge. If they failed step one, they can roll another DEX save to catch the edge against another relative DC, but lower than the first. End of turn.

  3. Step three, last chance. If they miss the edge, they can try to catch a small branch. This I had everything pass except a crit fail on DEX save (the poor warrior, RIP).

The three steps mimicked a set of death saves, but with a bit more story to it. Steps 2 and 3 can be recovered from in a turn each using Athletics to climb back up, and the rest of the party can help. It takes the PC out of combat for a turn or two and only kills the incredibly unlucky. Plus, at all 3 steps, you can allow other PCs to help the falling party member.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Sounds cool. Two questions I'd like you to answer in your answer: 1) Do these saves happen in sequence immediately or during consecutive rounds? 2) Can other PCs help a player in middle of this process somehow, using the normal help rules or automatic success? \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jan 17 '17 at 10:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Each step lasts a round/turn. As for how much effectother PCs have, it's your call as GM. I had them roll athletics (to apply STR + bonuses), with the threat that if they crit failed they'd be going over the ledge too. \$\endgroup\$ – JohnHC Jan 17 '17 at 10:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 - This is a fantastic method. Has a consequence that incorporates the cliff, makes it a danger (albeit a small one), and utilizes existing mechanics. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Jan 17 '17 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this, though I can't help but wonder if the saves shouldn't be on different stats (or maybe offer alternates). Something like The Slip could be Dex (agility) or Wis (awareness of surroundings), for example. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Jan 17 '17 at 13:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Paul Good shout on that one. \$\endgroup\$ – JohnHC Jan 17 '17 at 14:18
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I would aim to populate the encounter with monsters who are unlikely to be able to successfully push the user but are themselves easily push-able. In addition, you're the DM, so a fudged save here and there won't hurt. A close call might even help the narrative.

I think the important thing to highlight here is that you don't want your players to know you're protecting them. Let them think they're in danger. Don't hand them a saving grace. Just make sure you keep them safe.

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Also, you can have a small, barely perceptible ledge down below that damages the character, but allows them to scurry to safety while clearly appearing to slip to death. Unless someone is specifically peering over the edge to see the fall, no one would know - not even the PC - until you come back to them at the end of a few rounds.

Builds the suspense, saves the character.

It also allows you to let a PC push a primary NPC over the edge with satisfaction, only to have them pop up a few campaigns later.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This might be fun as a special gimmick, but wouldn't it get old when several different encounters happen near perilous ledges? \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jan 17 '17 at 17:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hopefully the DM isn't re-using the same gimmick to save characters...:) \$\endgroup\$ – Antonio Ciolino Jan 17 '17 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well that's too bad, because I'm looking for a solution that works more than once. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jan 17 '17 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Understood. Making your campaign a dice-rolling session might be a bit stressful, but it might not. Definitely use separate stats though, and play to the character strength. Generally, falling is DEX as we know, and grabbing is DEX OR STR. As the DM, you can call the "moment" that the event happens and allow the player an advantage. Speaking of advantage - you are using that rule, right? Gift your players an advantage roll going into the battle - so that they get a second second second chance... \$\endgroup\$ – Antonio Ciolino Jan 17 '17 at 18:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ BTW: "Death" has become nerfed in 5e. Simply let the character go to zero HP, and stabilize. A "Lucky" fall means that people go save the character, drop in a healing potion and off you go without much more than a bruised ego. \$\endgroup\$ – Antonio Ciolino Jan 18 '17 at 14:15
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Check out the table on DMG p.121, Damage Severity By Level. It pertains to traps and hazards.

By way of example, an 11th level party falling into a chasm should take 4d10, 10d10, or 18d10 damage depending on how insta-deathy you want it to be. You say that you want danger, but not too much danger. Coincidentally, that is quite similar to the way this table is labeled (setback, dangerous, deadly). You probably want... dangerous traps and hazards!

Note that falling damage uses a different damage formula than generic trap/hazard damage; it is not level-balanced but is instead 1d6 for every 10' (not to exceed 20d6). So... maybe that bottomless pit is really just 40' deep but a clever monster cast darkness down there with permanency? Or perhaps there an impromptu landing cushion at the pit's bottom, such as overgrown fungi or even a large-sized plant monster!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I assume the cap at 20d6 is because of terminal velocity (and the obvious inconvenience of rolling that many dice). \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jan 17 '17 at 23:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Major Image is "duration: until dispelled" if cast from a 6th level slot. A 13th level caster can fill his dungeon with permanent illusions at no real cost per illusion other than time to prepare the spell slots. \$\endgroup\$ – TemporalWolf Jan 18 '17 at 22:36
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An additional idea,

Maybe the fall doesn't need to be dangerous. Maybe the bottom of the chasm is actually a cleverly disguised portal. Maybe they land in a pile of refuse left by the local gully dwarfs. Falling doesn't have to be deadly. It can be the start of a new adventure. Did your party become separated? Run a micro-adventure to meet back up. Its all about perception.

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