I continue to read up on Dungeons & Dragons and watch homebrew rule videos for D&D and other systems. I’ve been reading both the 4th Edition (which I never played) and 2nd Edition (which I played extensively) books, and I marvel at the fact that Wizards of the Coast has never solved the falling damage problem.
When D&D was first created, Gary Gygax set falling damage as 1d6 per 10 feet fallen, cumulative. By this he meant 1d6 for the first 10 feet, 2d6 for the second 10 feet on top of the first 1d6, etc. But it was universally played as merely 1d10 per 10 feet fallen. Bizarrely, this rule was codified, and–despite many editions and great expansion of hit points*–it remains.
* Fighters only had d8 hit dice in early editions, and characters were limited to 14th level.
They could have at least changed it to 1d6 per 5 feet. You can be pretty badly injured falling off a 5-foot platform (if you’re not deliberately jumping), and most platforms, pits, traps, ditches, and ravines are going to be 5-, 10-, or 15-feet, not 10, 20, or 30.
Some people have even made memes and videos lampooning it, such as one depicting a character deliberately jumping off a cliff, safe in the knowledge that he can survive a 50-foot fall. After all, that’s only 30 hp damage, at most, and just 18 on average.
Meanwhile, real-life people who work on roofs and ladders attest that falls that cause “life-changing injuries” start around 15 feet.
What Are Hit Points Anyway?
I solved the falling damage problem the same way I solved the overall hit point problem. Traditionally, hit points are thought of primarily as your body being physically injured. In older editions, you healed at a rate of just 1 hp per day; but in newer editions, you get all your hit points back overnight, which means they can’t represent real injury but just getting tired. But actually, that nicely explains why heroes can keep fighting all the way down to 1 hit point.
And since that mechanism has worked for decades, I say: let’s embrace it.
First, you need to know that, in my house rules, you start with more hit points at low level but have substantially fewer at high level. Also, most skill checks and saving throws are allowed a recovery roll. That is, you make the same roll again and maybe this time succeed, but only partially–my way of fixing so-called “save or suck” mechanics.
This creates a new definition of hit points.
Hit points up to 10 represent your physical durability and fortitude. Those above 10 represent your fighting prowess, stamina, and resilience.
Let’s see how this fits into the new injury rule….
Losing hit points down to 10 represents fatigue, cuts and bruises, and perhaps getting the wind knocked out of you.
When your hit points are reduced below 10, you are noticeably injured (“bloodied”). This injury doesn’t stop you, but you make attacks and skill checks at disadvantage.
If you are reduced to zero hit points, you are seriously injured and fall down. On your next turn, you must “dice with Death”. Check difficulty class 10 using your constitution modifier.
- If you succeed, you are seriously injured but conscious.
- If you fail but make a recovery roll, you are seriously injured and unconscious for 1d4 minutes.
- If you fail both rolls, you are fatally injured and die in… (1d4: 1=1d4 rounds; 2=1d4 minutes; 3=1d4 hours; 4=1d4 days) without help.
Now, getting reduced to less than 10 hit points means you got a flesh wound but can soldier on. Getting reduced to zero means you got a sword in the gut, an arrow in the shoulder, or an ax to the leg, wounds that, in real life, you might survive, but you’re pretty much done fighting for the day.
In fact, you can use a hit location table for it. Hit location tables were popular for awhile in the late 1980s, but it was soon evident they were too cumbersome to use on every successful attack. But since PCs don’t get reduced to zero hit points often, it works fine here and provides great flavor.
Roll 1d6: 1=head/face; 2=torso; 3=right arm; 4=left arm; 5=right leg; 6=left leg.
That’s it. Now you know where the scar is going to be. If you like, you can even use it for the flesh wounds you get when you go below 10 hp. If the attacker is using a dagger or other weapon unlikely to hit the legs, just roll 1d4 instead. There are a lot of more complex diagrams available online, if you really want to know if you were wounded in the shoulder vs hand or thigh vs foot, but I prefer to let the damage roll suggest if the wound is in a more vital vs less vital location.
Beasts and monsters can take real wounds and keep on coming, so just say low damage is to extremities and high damage is to the body.
Now let’s address what it means to be seriously injured.
When you are seriously injured, you fall down. You drop anything you are holding, and, even if conscious, are unable to attack or cast spells. You can get up but can only crawl, stagger, or limp at 1/4 speed. Attacks against you get advantage. If you take additional damage, you die immediately.
If you are not killed and do not get magical healing up to 10 hp and recover at 1 hp per week until your hit points equal 10; then resting allows you to get additional hit points normally. However, from the injury, you gain a permanent scar. Scarring is not repaired by natural or low-level magical healing but can be repaired by higher-level restorative spells.
It’s not necessary to dice with Death for monsters, but the same results are possible, so heroes might occasionally leave creatures for dead only to find they actually survived.
At last, this lets us solve falling damage, and we do it the same way.
When you fall more than 5 feet onto a hard surface, check difficulty class 5 using your dexterity modifier. At 15 feet, use DC 10. At 25 feet, use DC 15. At 35 feet, use DC 20.
- If you succeed, you take 1d6 hp damage per 5 feet fallen.
- If you fail but make a recovery roll, you are reduced to zero hit points and are seriously injured (a broken bone) but conscious.
- If you fail both rolls, you are fatally injured (cracked skull, internal bleeding, etc.), unconscious, and die in… (1d4: 1=1d4 rounds; 2=1d4 minutes; 3=1d4 hours; 4=1d4 days) without help.
Succeeding on this check represents landing flat or on something soft enough to break your fall or perhaps briefly catching hold of something on the way down.
The last piece of the puzzle is recovering your hit points. As stated above, the old-school rules allowed only 1 hp per day. 5th Edition allows short rests and long rests that return far more–too much, even when we think of it as mostly resting instead of healing from significant wounds.
My solution is to draw them back a bit.
If you spend 15 minutes resting (catching your breath, tending to wounds, getting a drink, fixing a broken strap), you regain 1 hit point per level, plus your flat (not per-level) constitution modifier. You can do this once each time you lose hit points. During a rest, you cannot search a room, travel, or otherwise adventure.
Good Night’s Rest
A good night’s rest means you stop to pitch camp with a tent or pavilion or at an inn, abbey, or similar place and get a decent meal and a bed for a good, sound sleep. If making camp, you may even take a turn at sentry duty, as long as you get at least 6 hours of sleep. (Typically, each person would stand sentry for two hours over an 8-hour night.)
A good night’s rest allows you to regain a maximum of half your full hit points. This represents recovering from most of your minor cuts and bruises and fatigue. You also recover any “once a day” abilities. If your sleep is interrupted by an alert or combat, or if you sleep in heavy armor, the night is counted as sleeping rough, at best.
Sleeping rough means you pitch camp or otherwise sleep in a dangerous or precarious situation—often without decent shelter—where it’s hard to let down your guard and fully rest. As long as you sleep at least 4 hours, all “once a day” features and abilities become available.
Sleeping rough allows you to regain a maximum of 2 hit points per level plus your flat (not per-level) constitution modifier. (However, most monsters and natural animals sleep rough as their natural state, and so get half their hit points each night, regardless.)
I like this kind of terminology, because they are terms people actually use. Everyone knows that “sleeping rough” means you don’t wake up fully refreshed but that a “good night’s rest” really helps you recover from a day of hard labor or hiking.