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Star(fall Damage) #40

Star(fall Damage) #40 published on 5 Comments on Star(fall Damage) #40

I want to add to this my “Three Step” rule, because I tend to have the environment have the occasionally lethal challenge in it. (I say “my,” but I’ve been playing this game for ages and consuming content on how to DM it for just as long; I almost certainly read or heard this somewhere else, but the original source is far receded into the fog of time for me.)

The three step rule is easy. In it, players fail three times to reach the really bad consequences, but succeed once to proceed. I don’t use it for everything – just where the stakes are much, much higher than normal. I do it for two reasons — it mitigates “save or suck” mechanics, like turning to stone, but it also ramps up the excitement of tense moments.

For example, suppose an ogre shoves a rogue over the edge of a cliff. Suddenly we’re making dex saving throws, but those dex saving throws are really death saves in disguise, because I know, as the DM, that the fall is too high to reasonably survive.

Our rogue fails the first dex save. He falls over the edge of the cliff and the ogre laughs. But! He was just quick enough and just wily enough to grab out to the cliff’s edge with one hand. (For the best effect, ask the player if they have a reaction. They tend to do their best thinking when their entire character sheet is on the line.)

He’s now prone, mechanically speaking, but the way we’re expressing in the game narrative is that he’s hanging onto the edge of the cliff by one hand. He can make a new dex save at the start of his turn. If he succeeds, he pulls himself up. If he fails, his hand slips and (for example) he lands painfully on a small outcropping of unstable rock. He’s one check away from getting himself out of the situation, but also one failed save away from taking all that gygaxian fall damage. In the meantime, the ogre and the rest of the party are doing stuff — possibly saving him or dropping rocks on his head.

However the next bit plays out, it’s far more memorable than simply vanishing over the edge of a cliff and splatting on the rocks below, and the death (if it happens) feels more fair, even though you actually stacked the deck in the players’ favor.

You can use this in a lot of places, and can use it to create consequences with more gradation in them than life or death. Failed stealth check that seems like the only outcome would be to wake up a dragon? The player’s character crunches the rocks and the dragon stirs to yawn — repeat the check. Fail again? The dragon starts looking around suspiciously. What do you do? Fail a third time? Initiative! Save? The dragon is awake and alert now, but doesn’t see you.

So next time you’re dealing with a save or suck mechanic, consider dividing it into three saves next time. Three saves to fail, one check to recover.


I like the idea of that ‘Save Gradation’ idea, it really emphasizes a problem that could be progressively growing, even though it works in favor of the players.

One aspect I’ve been pondering from time to time in a similar aspect, but more in terms of ‘Scaled Success’ involving the roll and character skill. In the PHB p.174, the table on ‘Typical Difficulty Classes’ a DC 30 is catergorized as a “Nearly Impossible”, but achieving this is something isn’t really ever touched on.

I’ve seen DMs and tips/advice ruling to add a +5/+10/+15 at DM discretion of diffculty, but degrees of success isn’t something considered well enough, that skill rolls is always about the ‘passing grade’ than the ‘extra mile’.

If I remember correctly, it takes about 1500ft of free falling for the average person to reach terminal velocity, so 150 d6. I had to look it up once because I was dumb and sent my monk off a 2000ft cliff. They only survived because the DM let them use their cape as a parachute so they didn’t splat. Nothing is as sobering as fall damage! We’re all goldfish in the end!

The one time my character was booted over a cliff had a pretty neat situation occur from it, honestly- Storm Giant, blizzard, icy river. Character fell into the river rather than onto something ‘hard’, and so the Drowning mechanics kicked in, due to them also being unconscious from the kick. Then it became a race against time for a flying party member to find me through the blizzard, or for me to get lucky enough to manage to wake up (nat 20 Death save) to be able to stop drowning and start holding my breath, which would give me a MUCH better chance of surviving.

It was actually pretty cinematic, as the failed Death saves were properly described as tumbles and such in the icy cold water.

Even better, because my character actually had a fear of water. Very appropriate death, that.

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