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Last time you played D&D, the session ended just as you were thrown off of your airship by a griffon rider. Unfortunately, no one in the party can fly. It’s 1200 ft (365 meters) to the sea, the Dungeon Master (DM) said, so you have two turns to figure out what to do.
In the Player’s Handbook (PHB)(Pg 183), fall damage is 1d6 bludgeoning for every 10ft fallen, and 20d6 at 200ft is the cap (up to 120dmg). This may trigger the “massive damage” rule, insta-killing some, while tanks may walk away from it. You land prone unless you avoid taking damage.
For example, a 10th-level barbarian with a +5 Constitution modifier and slightly-above-average HP is almost guaranteed to survive the 20d6—and that’s before considering rage.
Still, the fall damage rabbit-hole goes deep, with another 5 official rules that apply:
- Rate of Falling
- Flying Creatures and Falling
- Massive Damage
- Falling into Water
- Falling on Another Creature
We’ll get to each in time, or you can jump to the bottom. Let’s dive in.
What are the Optional Rules for Fall Damage?
The Rules-as-Written (RAW) for fall damage imply that a 200 ft fall and a 1000 ft fall hurt the same. They are not mechanically identical, though.
In Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE) (pg 77), the rate of falling is set at 500 ft/turn, replacing the PHB’s instantaneous falls. Straight to ground, no chance to do anything.
The surprising takeaway is that, RAW, falling from a height above 500 ft is preferable to falling from 200 ft because at least you have more time to do something about it, and they hurt the same.
Still, assuming you do hit the ground, there’s an optional rule called Massive Damage in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG pg 273) that could spell trouble:
“When a creature takes damage from a single source equal to or greater than half its hit point maximum, it must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer a random effect determined by a roll on the System Shock table.”
Below are the contents of the table. A d10 roll determines the massive damage effect:
- 1: The creature drops to 0 hit points, dying.
- 2-3: The creature drops to 0 hit points but is stable.
- 4-5: The creature is stunned until the end of its next turn.
- 6-7: The creature can’t take reactions and has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks until the end of its next turn.
- 8-10: The creature can’t take reactions until the end of its next turn.
Using this rule can make falls more dangerous, but it doesn’t fix the immersion issue that comes with the damage cap and the rate of falling from XGE. In case you’re wondering, terminal velocity is reached around 15 seconds (50% at 3sec; 90% at 8sec; 99% at 15sec)
Another matter is flight. Being able to fly doesn’t make you immune to falling. XGE also has a rule for this (pg 77):
“A flying creature in flight falls if it is knocked prone, if its speed is reduced to 0 feet, or if it otherwise loses the ability to move, unless it can hover or it is being held aloft by magic […]
If you’d like a flying creature to have a better chance of surviving a fall […]: subtract the creature’s current flying speed from the distance it fell before calculating falling damage. […]
[…]if that [flying[ creature starts any of its later turns still falling and is prone, it can halt the fall on its turn by spending half its flying speed to counter the prone condition”.
Finally, to wrap up the RAW, there are the rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE) (pg 170). First: when falling into any liquid, you have to succeed on a DC 15 Athletics or Acrobatics check to dive—this halves the fall damage taken.
Second: if you fall on the space of another creature (hereby “the pillow”) and neither of you is tiny, the pillow must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw, or the fall damage is split evenly between both. The pillow is also knocked prone unless it’s two or more sizes bigger than you.
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What are some Homebrew Fall Damage Rules?
Fall damage is a contentious topic. The Rule of Cool is one defense of how unthreatening fall damage usually is, and keeping it so might be appropriate depending on the campaign’s tone. Still, many people want falling to be more punishing, even if it adds further complexity to the game.
Duncan from Hipsters & Dragons came up with a solution of his own, based on terminal velocity, which he detailed at length in this post.
The rundown is:
- Raise the damage cap to 50d6 from a 500 ft fall.
- Use “Hard Fall” saves for falls of 30 ft or higher: the character must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution, or DC 20 Dexterity saving throw, or take maximum damage. On a success, they take damage as normal.
- A character that survives such a fall but fails the save is stunned for a number of rounds equal to how much they failed the save by.
- Allow characters to perform Acrobatics checks to reduce the damage taken with a little fantasy parkour.
It is also common wisdom that falling on water or similarly liquid stuff should hurt less. Some people advocate reducing fall damage in those instances, regardless of diving attempts.
The water must, of course, not be too shallow—20 ft is a good rule of thumb.
How to Avoid Fall Damage
Regardless of what rule you use to calculate fall damage, it’s in the interest of the ones affected to somehow avoid or lessen it. 5E offers many ways to do so. Here’s a bunch of them (with no hope of exhausting all possibilities):
- Fly, you fools! Granted through Fly, Polymorph, Wildshape (at 8th level), Gaseous Form, the Protector Aasimar’s Radiant Soul feature, and many more.
- Acrobatics and Athletics can be used to avoid taking damage from lower falls and reduce the damage taken from others, within reason. For diving instead of bellyflopping on water, holding onto something mid-fall, rolling upon landing, etc.
- Resistance to (nonmagical) bludgeoning damage: There are many ways to get this resistance, halving all damage from falling, such as Rage and Stoneskin. Click here for more.
- Catch yourself before the ground does! Use Arcane (Bigby’s) Hand, Levitate, Telekinesis; No momentum will break past levitation or telekinesis, and you can grapple yourself with Bigby’s Hand.
- Sidestep it: through Blink, Dimension Door, Misty Step, or Thunder Step (from XGE), a fall can be interrupted by teleporting this way. There is no official rule determining whether inertia makes you emerge at 500 ft/turn on the other side, so it depends on the DM’s best judgment.
- Immovable Rod: if there’s nothing to make a skill check on to avoid the damage, you can activate this magic item to create a stable thing to hang onto or pirouette on top of.
- Stop believing in gravity: Slow Fall, Always land on your feet (homebrew), Feather Fall: Slow fall lets you reduce fall damage by five times your monk level. The Cat patron I wrote for warlocks allows you to take no damage from falls based on your current spell slot level. Feather Fall is all about timing and can avoid damage entirely.
You can keep getting weirder:
- Cast Thunderwave or Gust of Wind on the ground right before impact to counter the fall, assuming your DM allows them to slow your descent.
- Use the Sanctuary Vessel if you’re a Genie’s warlock (TCE, pg 73).
- Cast Etherealness to vanish into the Ethereal Plane and re-emerge unscathed.
- If you’re a gnome, halfling, goblin, or other small creature falling for two turns, you can become tiny, then Conjure Animals or Woodland Beings or even Mage Hand yourself to safety. Convoluted? Yes. Ridiculous and fun? Absolutely.
The beauty of the game is in moments of ridiculous creativity, after all.
How to Use Fall Damage Offensively
If it hurts PCs, it can hurt enemies.
Even a creature that’s immune to damage from nonmagical attacks would still suffer damage from falling, says Jeremy Crawford, the lead rules designer for 5E.
A fall is not, after all, an attack.
This can give rise to interesting combos. With how fast falling is, you can restrain enemies and chuck them off cliffs for a guaranteed effect.
Or maybe we should all be casting Fly on our barbarian friends. The barbarian could spend some time going up with movement + the dash action and drop the grappled enemy as a free action.
Boom, 20d6 instantaneous bludgeoning damage (RAW). More than two Fireballs, with no saving throw for half damage. Depending on what homebrew your group uses (if any), this could be even more devastating.
Of course, the barbarian could be brought down if the flying is disrupted—by dispelling it or breaking the caster’s concentration, for instance—but that’s what rage is for (resistance to bludgeoning damage—all sources).
What If You Fall in a Bottomless Pit?
Well, to start, you never take bludgeoning damage from sheer falling. It is also not true that on a long enough fall that you’d die from suffocation.
This leaves us with the threats of starvation, dehydration, madness, and hostile interference. We all know how to get dead from being attacked in D&D, so let’s talk about the other three.
In the PHB (pg 185), there are rules on food and water. You can live on a pound of food a day, or half that in extreme cases which require rationing—eating half-rations counts as going without food for half a day.
You can live without food for as many days as 3+ your Constitution modifier (minimum 1). At the end of each day after that, you automatically suffer a level of Exhaustion. Eating normally for a day resets the count but doesn’t get rid of the Exhaustion.
You also need to drink one gallon of water a day—two if the weather is hot.
If you drink only half as much water in a day, you must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution save or suffer a level of Exhaustion. If you don’t manage to drink even half the necessary amount, you automatically suffer the level of Exhaustion.
If you already have at least one level of Exhaustion or more, you suffer two additional levels of Exhaustion.
With these in mind, your available food and water when you begin falling play a role in determining how long you can survive. Auto-cannibalism (eating yourself) will not be discussed here but feel free to homebrew.
Feeding Yourself While Falling
If you can Create Food and Water, you may endure indefinitely. Other spells that might help are Goodberry and Create or Destroy Water.
Falling to Death
Assuming you have no food or water, can’t make more, and that you are currently not suffering any Exhaustion, the fastest you can die from the endless fall is 3 days:
- 1st day: 2 levels of Exhaustion—1 from food, 1 from water
- 2nd day: 5 levels of Exhaustion—2 from the previous day, 3 new (2 from water)
- 3rd day: 8 levels of Exhaustion, but you die on the 6th level—5 from the previous day, 3 new
Suppose you can survive indefinitely by magical means—it makes sense to consider how long you could maintain your sanity before help comes, or your character may become a bizarre NPC encounter for future campaigns.
The DMG (pg 258-260) rules that resisting madness requires successful Wisdom or Charisma saves. The difficulty of saves should increase over time as the character is deprived of most comforts that made up their former, non-falling life.
Michael Stevens from V-Sauce was already starting to crack on the 3rd day of his three-day isolation experiment. Michael had a bed, a toilet, the ground under his feet, and wasn’t buffeted by rushing winds.
He was also not failing an important quest by falling into a physical impossibility. Some even argue that isolation is a form of torture, so do with that what you will.
The third day is probably when you would start doing anti-madness saves. The DCs should increase quickly, and each failed save should lead to worse effects and should increase the chance of failing subsequent checks.
The Madness Effects tables from the DMG have many, and most don’t make sense in this situation. A more specific list should be made by cherry-picking from the existing options or making up entirely new ones.
But perhaps your unwavering faith and constant praying can keep you sane for weeks on end until your god or something else grants you a way out. Possibly at a cost. (Looking at you, Clerics and Warlocks)
For those who just want the straight facts:
- RAW fall damage 1d6 for every 10 ft fallen (PHB, pg 183).
- The rate of falling is 500 ft/round (XGE, Pg 77).
- Flying creatures can fall if their movement speed is brought to 0 or they get knocked prone. If there’s time, they can stop the fall by spending half their move speed (XGE).
- When falling into water or other liquids, you can half fall damage by succeeding on a DC 15 Athletics or Acrobatics check (TCE, pg 170).
- If someone falls on you and neither of you is tiny, you need to succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity save or take half their falling damage (TCE, pg 170).
- Massive Damage optional rule: when taking damage equal to or above your maximum HP, there’s an optional rule to suffer a random effect from the system shock table (DMG, pg 273).
- Duncan from Hipsters & Dragons homebrewed a fun rule to make falling more dangerous.
- Avoid or reduce fall damage, even at low levels; Rage, Slow Fall, Feather Fall, Fly—the list goes on.
- Use fall damage to cheese tough enemies, even if they’re resistant to nonmagical bludgeoning damage from attacks.