On Falling Damage

Often, I find that things I've known forever are quite unknown to other people.

What's the proper intended amount of damage from falling in D&D?

It's a difficult thing to model, because people have died from falling over, or they have survived falls of over 10,000 meters.

In Dragon magazine #69, Gary Gygax says,

The correct procedure for determining falling damage in the AD&D game system is to roll 1d6 per 10’ fallen, cumulative. Since a falling body accelerates quickly, the damage mounts geometrically: 2d6 for the second 10 feet fallen, 3d6 for the third 10 feet, etc. The maximum of 20d6 is therefore reached after a fall of approximately 60 feet for most characters. A thief-acrobat can often fall further distances, but the same 20d6 maximum should be applied. The rationale behind this system will be discussed in the next issue (#70) of DRAGON™ Magazine.
The follow up is written by Frank Mentzer, who says:

Gary has always used a geometrically increasing system for falling damage in AD&D games; the trouble arose because that system simply never made it into the rule books. When the AD&D Players Handbook was being assembled, a brief section on falling damage was included: a mere 7½ lines that offers more advice on broken bones and sprains than on falling damage. As we now understand the event, the section was not included in the first draft, and the editors requested a brief insert on this frequently referred-to topic. So Gary hastily wrote a sentence describing damage as “1d6 per 10’ for each 10’ fallen.” Someone removed the “per 10’” as being (so it was thought) redundant, and off we went. That section was later quoted in passing in the Aerial Adventures section of the Dungeon Masters Guide, thereby becoming further entrenched in our game procedures.
The main point of current controversy seems to be the simple fact that everyone has been using “1d6 for each 10’ fallen” for years, and the social inertia of Custom is still being cited as a reason to override common sense. 
 Which is a pretty accurate summation of the social factors at work.

I also use cumulative sum for falling damage, and the looks on my players faces are just worth it. The reason Gygax might have considered the thief-acrobat and monk more viable then most players found them, is that they completely eliminated a source of death in his campaigns. Being immune or protected from falling was a serious advantage.

Falling damage in my games, combined with my critical table, it almost always insures that a player character is alive but seriously injured from a fall, which I think is a pretty good outcome for creating dramatic tension. I am finding it difficult to have anyone actually fall into a pit trap sadly. . .
Gygax might have considered the thief-acrobat and monk more viable then most players found them

I'm not the only one to discuss falling damage recently, +Patrick has some great comments about a working system on his blog. The key factors for falling damage are the it's possible to survive and walk away unharmed, even from terminal velocities, but it's much more likely you will end up crushed to a pulp.

For early versions of D&D, cumulative sum works great. But for late edition D&D by mid level hit points really start to climb. Fighters with no constitution bonus have 55 hit points (on average) by level 11. The 70 average damage of terminal velocity seems fine for that (20d6).

But when you start getting into 4d6 drop the lowest, or the introduction of the barbarian, that same fighter with a constitution bonus of 16 has 85.5 hit points, with over 100 if their Constitution is 18.

Although I like the falling system introduced in Patricks post, I know during play that I would pretty much have to look the chart up every time. For more modern games with higher hit point totals, I would simply switch the cumulative sum dice to d10's or d12's, keeping the simple system, but putting falling damage back into the range of threat for characters of every level.


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8 comments:

  1. Still fiddly compared to save or die beyond some number of feet fallen (my number is 50 feet, but I do not think the exact cutoff matters all that much).

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  2. This is the type of crunch that separates classic D from 3.5 in my mind. 1d6 per 10' works fine because the math is so simple and it still makes falling something one would wish to avoid.

    It's not realistic. It captures some level of verisimilitude.

    If you want more "realistic," then by all means write a better rule and use it. I'm going to make some notes to use in my 3.5 game but I'm going to keep the Customary system for my basic game.

    50' save or die seems like a very strong rule because it adds a little verisimilitude without piling on the maths.

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    1. I'm not sure I understand.

      The original rule used in OD&D, and written for 1st Edition is the cumulative sum rule. 1d6 per 10' feet for each 10' fallen.

      1d6 for 10', then 3d6 for 20', then 6d6 for 30, etc. This was the rule used.

      When 1st edition was being written, an error was made in an early draft, copied, and not addressed until 1983. That's the text above; what Gygax and Mentzer wrote to address the error.

      The point is, for 1st edition onwards, 1d6 per 10' doesn't make falling something to be avoided.

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  3. Oh. I wasn't referring to the pedigree of these rules but rather that one is simple and the other more complex by degree. The linear fall damage is just easier to do for someone without strong arithmetic skills, like some of the folks at my table.

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  4. OD&D is pretty clearly 1d6 per scale inch fallen, not cumulative... or at least as clear as OD&D gets with falling damage being handled in two different ways in Aerial vs. Naval combat.

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  5. Oh wow, it was supposed to be cumulative? I always thought 1d6 per 10 feet was really weak.

    It's also interesting to note that the monk and rogue are frequently considered the worst core classes in Pathfinder. For all the complaints made about spells making skill-based characters obsolete, falling is one area that even magic does not counter very well unless you prepare ahead of time (few mages have feather fall prepared). I remember my character breaking her leg when she fell. Even though the GM let the leg heal quickly with magic, it was a scary enough instance where she bought a ring of feather fall as soon as possible. It's interesting to imagine how different the game would be with harsher falling rules.

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  6. I feel like the presumed weakness of 1d6/10' has more to do with HP totals that linearly scale up to whatever.

    Unwanted physics lesson: Force = mass * (velocity squared). That means that if you are going twice as fast, you'll hit twice as hard. And the way that gravity works is that you have to fall four times as far to go twice as fast. So, basically distance fallen is directly proportionate to the force of the impact. (Assuming Newtonian speeds and no air resistance. If you assume air resistance, the amount of impact force each 10' contributes decreases with speed, down to 0.)

    Of course, some of that is going to be absorbed by legs (if you land on your legs) and our wonderfully squishy bones. Maybe use 1d6 for the first 10' and 2d6 for all subsequent 10'?

    Or maybe just give some sort of injury effect based on how much damage you take. 5-10 damage = sprained ankle. 11-20 damage = broken leg. 21+ damage = broken legs and save or die.

    In my PF game, I've had to make rulings about surviving re-entry from low orbit. (You die.) I love DnD.

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    1. Actually, while surprising to most people, what the physics of falling velocity tells us is that the falling damage (force) one should suffer is proportional to the *square root* of the distance fallen. This is the *reverse* of the geometric falling damage originally proposed by Gary.

      Realistic falling damage would be based on something like the following, where BD is some base amount of falling damage that depends on how lethal you want falling to be:

      Fall 10 ft: BD
      Fall 40 ft: BD x 2
      Fall 90 ft: BD x 3
      Fall 160 ft: BD x 4
      Fall 250 ft: BD x 5
      etc.

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