Well, here I am again, falling to my death. I should really stop fighting on top of air ships, too much of a chance someone will push you off. They should really put some railings up there, or at least a warning.
It’s a long way down, so I’ll take the time to tell you how exactly this is going to work in D&D 5e. That’s right, we’re talking about fall damage.
There’s a lot to cover, from calculating the damage, to protecting yourself on the way down. By the time I hit the ground, you’ll have everything you need to handle falling whenever it comes up at your table.
If you don’t want to get all of the fun explanations, opinions, and advice (along with a healthy amount of math) then STOP HERE!
These are the very basics of what you need to know for falling in 5e.
So, you’ve materialized 1000s of feet in the air! Here’s what you need to know.
- Falling deals 1d6 bludgeoning damage per 10 feet
- Damage maxes out at 20d6, or 200 feet
- Hitting the ground can:
- Knock you prone
- Knock you unconscious
- Instantly kill you from a high enough fall
- Characters fall 500 feet per round of combat
- Falling into water still deals damage in RAW
- Flying (mostly) protects you from falling damage
- There are plenty of ways to protect yourself
What is Fall Damage and How is it Calculated?
In D&D 5e, and in real life, when people fall, they take damage. For every 10 feet you fall, you take 1d6 of bludgeoning damage. This damage maxes out at 20d6, or 200 feet, which is pretty substantial.
The reason damage doesn’t just continue to stack likely has something to do with terminal velocity, a piece of physics I’m sure still applies in most worlds of D&D.
Once a character hits the ground they are knocked prone, unless they don’t take damage, which we’ll cover in the section about avoiding fall damage below. Prone and some damage isn’t all that bad, it’s too be expected. However, that’s not the worst possible result.
Due to the mechanics of damage, you can actually die from falling. If the damage you take drops you to 0 HP you’re knocked unconscious. Then you have to succeed on three death saving throws to regain consciousness, or be otherwise healed.
But, and here’s the big one, if you are dropped to 0 HP with damage still remaining, and that remaining damage equals your HP maximum, you will instantly die.
Let’s look at an example. Baelvan has 35 maximum HP, but he was fighting on top of a massive tower and is down to 15 HP at the moment. He’s then pushed backwards by an opponent’s Gust spell and sent flying straight off of the building. The tower is 150 feet tall, which is roughly equivalent to a 15 story building.
So that’s 15d6 of bludgeoning damage. I just went over to Dice Calculator, my favorite dice analytics site, and the average damage for 15d6 is 52.5. And just for fun, I rolled it with my own dice, 58 damage. What this means is that Baelvan will take enough damage to drop him below -40 hit points. Sorry bud.
This death is permanent, or as permanent as any other death is in D&D. Sure, you might end up on another plane of existence that your friends can try to save you from, if you’re lucky. More than likely though, you’ll be rolling up a new character sheet pretty soon.
Oftentimes people will joke about how often you have to roll dice in D&D. I guess there are people out there who think we should be throwing our shiny math rocks at tables a lot less and using our imagination a lot more.
And sure, I get that, to an extent. I won’t have my player’s roll perception to tell if it’s daytime or nighttime, or what phase the moon is in. You can rest assured though, that if you’re going to be falling, or in any way coming up against some unexpected peril, I’m going to throw a save in there.
I highly suggest making use of Dexterity or Strength saving throws whenever your players are about to fall, be pushed, or otherwise begin the descent process. It’s all very situational.
DM Pro Tip
We’ll be talking a lot about repeated saving throws and skill checks, or rounds of combat. Sometimes though, we’ll be in these situations when there is nothing you can actually attack, you’re merely combating the elements and your surroundings.
It’s helpful to have your players roll initiative (I call it hazard initiative instead of combat initiative) before you introduce game mechanics like falling hazards, slopes, etc.
It makes it very easy to deal with each player’s individual saves, checks, or actions. It also allows you to measure movement so much easier, since a player’s movement happens per round of combat, even if that movement is falling.
Finally, it lights a small fire underneath your player’s butts, alerting them to danger and giving them each their own time to shine and creatively react to the problems you throw their way.
Someone being merely shoved by an opponent already has mechanics that constitute rolls. When you attempt to shove someone it’s a contest between the shover’s athletics (strength) check and the target’s athletics or acrobatics (dexterity) checks. In this situation, the target gets to choose which ability they use, which will be highly dependent on their class and proficiencies.
A successful shove knocks the target prone or pushes them backwards 5 feet.
There are also situations like the casting of a gust spell. If you target a Medium or smaller creature with gust they have to succeed on their strength saving throw or be pushed back.
What about difficult terrain though? Typically in RAW, movement through difficult terrain only costs an extra foot per foot (or your movement speed is halved),but there are no saving throws to keep your footing unless you’re on a slope, more on that later.
If you’re walking around on any icy mountain top, even if it’s solid, flat ground, it should still be difficult to do. The same thing goes for passing over a rickety rope bridge where each step could be your last.
There are going to be certain types of difficult terrain that require players to successfully perform great feats of dexterity, strength, or even ingenuity.
I don’t often start with saving throws or ability checks in these scenarios. I wait to see if my players have creative solutions first, which in my experience keeps me from railroading them and really livens up the whole table.
Players might create a zipline to cross a chasm, melt the ice with a fire-based spell, or come up with any number of solutions to the problems you throw their way, giving them the chance to do so is the whole point of the game in my opinion.
One of the things that does frequently happen, is attempting to catch an ally. If you try to catch an ally that is within your reach you have to make a strength check against their AC, although they can choose not to add their dexterity bonus.
If you happen to be climbing as well, you must make a climb check as soon as you catch them (see inclines below). Failing by 4 or less means that you do not successfully catch them, but do not fall yourself, where failing by more than 4 will have you joining your friend in their plummet.
Falling from Great Heights
Sometimes, we aren’t falling from average heights, this is a fantasy role playing game after all. Sometimes, we’re falling for 1000’s of feet before we reach the ground. Hey, I’m doing it right now. And let me tell you, it gives you a lot of time to think.
If you fall more than 500 feet, there are some optional rules that most DMs have started to apply. The way it works is that you fall the first 500 feet instantaneously. Then, you have the ability to go take your turn, descending another 500 feet at the end of each turn until you finally make it to the ground.
All this makes sense because a turn in combat takes about 6 seconds, so it makes sense.
In real-life physics, you’d fall about 1300 feet, since terminal velocity for humans is about 216 feet per second. But don’t tell WotC, the reality is much worse for a player trying to save themselves from falling damage.
Different Types of Falling
- Spike Pits
- Creatures with flying speeds
Not every fall is so simple as plummeting through the air and going splat when you hit the ground. There are some things that might make the process a bit more complicated. But you know, only a bit.
The first, and perhaps more complicated, is inclines, or slopes. Sometimes we might want to climb up a steep hill, up in a tree, or maybe even scale a particularly craggy building.
Since D&D is a game where you can do basically anything that you can imagine, of course there are rules on how to make this go smoothly.
For the purposes of climbing, 5e defines a slope as any incline less than 60 degrees in incline, and a wall as anything greater than 60 degrees. In order to climb such things, we have to make skill checks.
Specifically, we have to make a strength check against the incline’s DC.
|DC (Difficulty Class)||Incline Description|
|0||A slope too steep to walk up, or a knotted rope with a wall to brace against.|
|5||A rope with a wall to brace against, or a knotted rope, or a rope affected by the rope trick spell.|
|10||A surface with ledges to hold on to and stand on, such as a very rough wall or a ship’s rigging.|
|15||Any surface with adequate handholds and footholds (natural or artificial), such as a very rough natural rock surface or a tree, or an unknotted rope, or pulling yourself up when dangling by your hands.|
|20||An uneven surface with some narrow handholds and footholds, such as a typical wall in a dungeon or ruins.|
|25||A rough surface, such as a natural rock wall or a brick wall.|
|25||An overhang or ceiling with handholds but no footholds.|
|–||A perfectly smooth, flat, vertical surface cannot be climbed.|
Some conditions, such as something to brace yourself against or the surface being slippery, can change the DC.
If you’re DMing make sure to account for external factors, racial bonuses like climbing speeds, and reward your players for inventiveness as always. A fun one is shooting crossbow bolts into a rock face to make your own footholds.
So, as we’re climbing, we may need to periodically make skill checks. Since climbing requires movement and is essentially difficult terrain, it makes sense to perform a climb check each time you travel half of your walking speed.
If you fail a climb check by 4 or less, you simply make no progress, but if you fail by more than 4, you fall the distance you have traveled. I think it makes sense to have players make a Dexterity saving throw to catch themselves on any footholds that may be present as they fall, or to regain their footing if they’re simply falling down a slope.
While this isn’t RAW, it’s an excellent way to give players a chance to not take massive damage if they succeed on something like 4 or 5 checks and then fail the last one that they needed to successfully scale the incline.
Setting the DC of the saving throw at or above the original climb check is a good idea, but I would only go as far as 5 greater. We don’t want to dangle false hope in front of our player’s, that’s just cruel.
All that being said, if you do fall the damage is the same as it would be for normal fall damage, 1d6 per 10 feet fallen. Suggestion inbound! While it does require a bit of math, I highly suggest that this damage reflect the vertical distance traveled.
On a wall that’s 90 degrees (straight up in the air) this is pretty straightforward. But if a character is climbing a 50 degree slope and then goes tumbling backwards 60 feet, I don’t think it makes much sense to penalize them with up to 36 damage.
Hopefully, we all remember the Pythagorean theorem, a2 + b2 = c2.
Unfortunately, unless you know the horizontal distance, you might have to do a little bit of trigonometry (I’m sorry if you hate math, you can just ignore me).
Just plug this into your calculator: SIN(Angle of your incline) x total distance traveled.
This will give you the height that they’re falling to get back to the original spot. For those of you who remember geometry class, that’s the SOH of SOH CAH TOA.
The sin of the incline is equal to the opposite side (height) divided by the hypotenuse (distance traveled up the incline).
Okay… is math class over? Just be glad you don’t have to calculate THACO like in the olden days of AD&D 2nd edition.
Otherwise known as pitfall traps, which tend to have spikes or some extra danger at the bottom. These hidden, or maybe not so hidden, pits are extremely dangerous for adventurers and one of the most common forms of traps you might come across.
The fall damage of these isn’t calculated any differently, but there is often extra damage at the bottom. There’s also a way to save yourself from the trap, either through being perceptive or very reactive.
If you’re interested in this bit of information for your players, check out this wonderful guide to traps and puzzles that Harry wrote:
I know, right? Why on earth would something, or someone, that can fly end up falling to their doom? Essentially, there’s only one real way this can happen, and that’s if they are knocked prone.
Plenty of spells, attacks, and other effects can knock someone prone, and if you’re on the ground that is very easy to deal with. But surely a flying creature doesn’t just suddenly appear on the ground right?
Well, until XGtE introduced some optional ‘falling while flying’ mechanics that was pretty much how people dealt with this situation. Luckily, enough people realized the irony of this situation, and there is a clever solution in two parts.
Before we get to those two parts though, it should be noted that creatures held in the air by magic, or creatures who hover (such as an air elemental) do not fall if they are knocked prone.
The first part of Xanathar’s solution is that if a creature who is flying by any means is knocked prone, you can subtract their distance fallen by their current flying speed, and then calculate the rest of the damage as normal.
An aarokacra that’s 60 feet in the air would still be able to furiously flap their wings as they fall to soften the impact.
The second part, which makes a lot of sense, has to do with falling from great heights of more than 500 ft. As per the normal rules, a creature with flying still falls that first 500 feet.
Then, at the start of their next turn they can use half of their flying speed to “stand up” or remove the prone condition. This is just like how we would normally recover from prone, except it’s a creature flapping their wings, or otherwise using their ability to fly to correct themselves in midair.
Diving (or Falling) into Water
That’s right folks, in D&D 5e RAW, you can’t simply dive into water.
Landing on water deals the same d6 per 10 feet of bludgeoning damage as solid ground.
We can’t be having that, so here is the physics backed fix. In the patented Mythbusters approach, I’m going to test this by throwing my friends from various heights into water. On second thought, I’ll just read up on it.
Alright I’m back sorry it took so long. Did you know that Olympic divers routinely dive from upwards of 250 feet? For those of you keeping track, that’s more than the maximum distance we calculate fall damage for.
On the smaller side, most high boards at swimming pools frequented by children are 10 or more feet in the air. That’s how far it would take So let’s use that as a reference.
Water isn’t hard, clearly, but the reason it hurts when we do something like a belly flop, is because of the resistance we feel. The entire surface area of our body hits the water, and we receive as much force as we hit with (not exactly but I’m simplifying the physics a bit if you want to read more, check out this article on why belly flops hurt).
This is why divers make their entry points as small as possible. If you can cut through the water without having your immediately decelerating you can simply swim on, although you might need a bit of training to do so from anything more than 20 or so feet.
For small falls, less than 500 feet, where you would fall instantly, it makes sense to me that a character with great dexterity would be capable of diving in properly, to avoid damage.
A character with 20 dexterity should be on par with an olympic athlete, in fact, that’s really pretty accurate if you run the numbers. So this lines up really nicely, a character should ignore 10 feet of falling for each point they have in their dexterity.
A creature with 10 dexterity is similar to your average human, and there are plenty of cliff diving destinations around the world with jumps of around 100 feet that often attract average humans.
Alternatively, you can have them make a dexterity saving throw, with the same logic applied. A roll of 5 would ignore 50 feet of fall damage, which is negligible as far as real world physics is concerned.
I’ve seen other solutions out there, but none of them are based in physics, and they mostly ignore the silliness of a 10 ft dive into water being able to easily kill a commoner with 4 hit points.
How to Protect Yourself from Fall Damage
- Magic Items
- Racial Abilities
- Four levels in monk
All of this info is great for a DM trying to orchestrate a TPK, but what about the players desperately trying to stay alive. Or me, still falling here by the way, in case you forgot. I’ve already spent 2000 feet writing this article, and I would really like to publish it before I hit the ground. Oh well, I guess I’ll try to help you first.
Magic is one of the best ways to combat fall damage, because there are plenty of magical effects that deal with it. One of the most famous spells to save a creature from falling is Feather Fall, the bane of evil DMs with a love of heights everywhere.
This 1st-level spell gives up to five falling creatures protection from fall damage for a whole minute, and reduces the speed of falling from 500 feet per round to a mere 60 feet, or 10 feet per second.
It is available to bards, sorcerers, wizards, and artificers, and should basically be in every party’s arsenal if you’re even considering aerial combat of any variety.
What makes Feather Fall one of the best solutions to fall damage is that you can cast it as a reaction. So you don’t have to wait 500 feet before you can cast it.
Hell, you could see an ally start to fall from a measly 10 foot fall and react by casting them to safety. Might not be worth the spell slot at that point, but 6 damage is 6 damage.
There’s also the Ring of Feather Falling, a magical item that gives the same effect to the wearer. This is an excellent find and something that DMs should consider giving to their less magically inclined players. At very least giving it to the clumsy barbarian is a nice gesture.
Levitate, Fly, Gaseous Form, Find Greater Steed, Wind Walk, and Polymorph are other spells that can work very well if you can cast them, but they’re going to take longer than a reaction and take more than a 1st level spell slot.
There are plenty of magic items that grant flying or hovering abilities, as well items that create things which can fly and be ridden as mounts, here’s a small list:
- Broom of Flying
- Carpet of Flying
- Cloak of the Bat
- Ebony Fly (Gives you a Giant Fly which can be ridden as a mount)
- Obsidian Steed
- Serpentine Owl
- Winged Boots
- Boots of Flying
There’s also plenty of races which can fly, or have access to flying spells or abilities. Tiefling, Aarakocra, Aven, Aasimar (Protector), and Air Genasi are great examples.
And of course, there are class abilities that protect us from fall damage. One of the most simple, and earliest, is the monk class’s 4th-level ability, slow fall. This ability allows you to, as a reaction, reduce any fall damage you would take by 5 times your monk level.
Starting off at 20 and swiftly rising close to the max fall damage, monks are pretty much safe as they head down.
Then there are class features that give a character flying speeds. These tend to come later on, but they are incredibly useful if you’re running into this situation a lot. These are all current classes listed by level:
- 3rd level Echo Knight Fighter
- 6th level Genie Warlock
- 7th level Swarmkeeper Ranger
- 7th level Psi Warrior Fighter
- 8th level Druids (via Wild Shape)
- 9th level Warlocks (Ascendant Step invocation)
- 10th level Circle of Stars Druid
- 14th level Totem Warrior Barbarians (Eagle Totem)
- 14th level Aberrant Mind, Draconic and Divine Sorcerers
- 17th level Tempest Cleric
- 18th level Storm Sorcerer
- 20th level Oath of Vengeance Paladin
I hope this information helps you to better run a falling encounter or to better react if you happen to be sitting behind a character sheet. Careful planning is always going to be the best bet, but there is plenty of reactionary work that will depend on the moment, and how you got to where you are.
As for myself, I don’t think I’m going to fare so well. After all, I am just a bowl of petunias, this kind of thing is bound to happen from time to time. Oh well, here we go again.
As always, happy adventuring.