This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Twenty Four on 7th September 2022.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Falling in D&D is something that’s often overlooked. For it to do a significant amount of damage the fall has to be from a rather high starting point, and unfortunately a lot of scenarios don’t have a great deal of verticality to them. Part of that is often practical; if you play in a game that uses minis on a tabletop or if you’re playing in a Virtual environment that’s top down rather than isometric, conveying height can be difficult.
Also, many locations follow the Star Wars school of architecture and interior design; either there are small drops or minor changes in the landscape that are barely noticeable, or it’s a bottomless pit. There is rarely anything in between. Unless there’s lava. Then you can probably see the bottom of the pit, but it doesn’t make the fall any more survivable.
Whenever you find yourself in a location that has dropoffs, pits, or significant changes in the height of things, you should take that into account, however. Even if a fall off a ledge won’t necessarily kill you, it can drastically change what’s happening during a chase scene or combat.
For example, let’s say you’re in an urban location and you’re fighting on rooftops. Multi-story buildings are a thing, so it’s not unreasonable to have a rooftop that’s 30 feet off the ground. Falling damage is 1d6 per 10 feet. So if you manage to shove someone off the roof, that’s an average of 12 damage they’re taking, and they end up prone. On top of that, if they want to rejoin their friends who are still on the roof, they have to find a way back up. Unless they’re an expert climber that’s probably going to take a turn or two.
The rules for falling and the damage from it were expanded in Tasha’s Cauldron of everything. Probably because Tasha spent so much of her time falling for Graz’zt. Anyway, with the new rules from Tasha’s, falling has some more elements to it. First of all, as my robes can attest, falling into water is different from falling onto the ground. If a creature is falling into water they can make an Athletics or Acrobatics check to take half damage on impact.
And if anyone questions how you can take damage at all falling into liquid, I challenge you to find a high-dive platform and do a belly flop. Go ahead, we’ll wait. And call a cleric.
The other thing that’s now officially got rules is falling onto another creature. As long as the falling creature is not tiny, the one already on the ground makes a Dexterity save, DC 15 by default. If they fail, the falling damage the falling creature would have taken is split between both creatures. Also, if the creature on the ground is smaller or less than two size categories larger, they end up prone too. So Lennon falling on Ostron means both are prone. Lennon falling on Peaches just results in an angry dinosaur.
So that’s all great if you have the fighter and barbarian on top of Nagatomi tower tossing the enemies around like baseballs but what happens when the enemy minotaur suddenly realizes the party’s wizard wandered a little too close to the edge and starts a charge.
Fortunately there are a number of ways to avoid a fall, or at least avoid the damage from it.
First, just be something that can fly. At the moment, the options there are Aarakocra, Fairy, and Owlin, with an asterisk on Tieflings because some of them can get wings in certain circumstances. However, you have to make sure whatever knocked you into the open air didn’t also make you prone. So if it *was* a minotaur that knocked you off the roof you’re in trouble because if you got pushed it also means you got knocked prone, and a creature with a fly speed can’t fly while it’s prone.
“But I’ve got the whole fall to recover, right?” you ask. Well…maybe but probably not.
There is no official ruling on how fast creatures fall, and even the spelljammer resources haven’t yet given us details on what the gravity of Toril or Oerth are. However, if you assume things work like the real world, most medium sized creatures have what would be called a terminal velocity of 32 feet per second. The rules say one turn of combat is 6 seconds, so your average ballistic warlock is falling about 200 feet a turn. Interestingly, 200 feet is also where the amount of falling damage you can take maxes out. That’s 20d6 in case you forgot the calculation, with an average value of 70.
Anyway, point being if you’re falling more than 200 feet and you can fly, you have a chance to recover from being prone before you turn into goo on the ground.
Option number two is be a monk, and get to level 4 as fast as possible. At that level monks acquire the ability “slow fall”, which lets them use their reaction to reduce falling damage by five times their monk level. That means starting at level 4 they can swan dive off 30 foot high buildings and still not have to worry about getting hurt when they land.
A slightly more reliable method is having a magic user around. Feather fall is the most obvious spell that most people recall when preventing fall damage comes up in discussion, but levitate is also viable. The spell states that when the spell ends, the target “floats gently to the ground”, and that’s apparently regardless of height.
The other magical solutions are riskier. Gaseous form and Fly both give the target a fly speed, which would let them recover from falling. However, both spells require touch casting, so unless the caster is a sorcerer with metamagic they’d have to dive off the ledge with you to cast it, and then they’re in the same predicament.
Tenser’s Floating Disk would break their fall, but it’s still a hard surface and you have to catch them before they fall more than 30 feet. Telekinesis at least has some better range to it, but you have to make sure you can get them to a ledge before the spell wears off; unlike Levitate, Telekinesis has no “soft landing” feature built in. Investiture of Wind would work, but apart from being a 6th level spell it only works on the caster and, again, you’d have to cast it before you hit the ground. Finally you have Wind Walk, another 6th leveler that grabs up to 10 creatures and turns them into floating gas, but, again, timing is everything.
It’s not stated officially in any rules, but it’s generally assumed that any form of teleporting ignores momentum. Note I did not say they conserve or negate momentum; they ignore it. This is mostly done for DM sanity.
The problem is that if you assume teleportation cancels out all momentum, you have to deal with the players I like to set on fire. They’ll point out, usually after your star villain makes a crafty escape, that someone who is made completely motionless while teleporting will have their feet and legs sanded off when they land on a planet whose surface spins at 18 miles per second.
On the other hand if you say the teleport spells *conserve* momentum, then all the amateur or professional engineers in your player group will start giggling like schoolgirls and start setting up teleportation runes at the bottoms of high cliffs with the other end pointed at the impregnable castle. Then they start asking you if dwarves know how to mine tungsten and hand you a sheet of calculations with “Kinetic bombardment” written on the top and you have to find a new player group after you hide the bodies. For everyone’s sake, there’s a sort of universal truce where everyone assumes that teleportation just places you wherever the spell says, and nobody worries about how you were moving before that happened. That leaves a loophole where teleportation can cancel out falling damage, but most DMs would rather deal with that than everything about conservation of momentum.
Or, you know, just play in Eberron. Before every adventure that isn’t taking place on flat plains, hop on the lightning rail and take a trip to Sharn, where they hand out feather-fall tokens like commemorative T-shirts. You’re welcome.