Thanks to a post by Shortymonster I stumbled over to the Large Polyhedron Collider (A+ on the blog name), where he’s got a post about the Realities of Falling. He sets out a few milestones: serious injuries occur from falling 25-30ft onto a hard surface, and death is very likely from a fall of 50-60 feet (onto a hard surface). He goes on to talk about falling into soft surfaces (like deep water, or snow), and the differences landing orientation makes, and the kind of damage you can expect to do if you land on crates or a car or another person.
Because of this, I think we need to change the way falling damage is handled in D&D: as it is, it’s just too lethal to be realistic.That last line probably sounds like blasphemy to a lot of you, and it should. In all the discussions I’ve seen about hit points and D&D, falling damage is probably the most-cited case for why D&D hit points don’t make sense. “PCs can fall off a tower and, at worst, be mildly inconvenienced.” The issue of falling damage not meaning anything comes from the fact that people measure the game from the perspective of PCs, and expect to calibrate the world based on what a PC is capable of, but this fails to recognize (1) that PCs aren’t regular people, and (2) regular people rarely make 2nd Level, let alone 8th or 12th. A 12th Level PC can be expected to have on the order of 54hp (depending on class, etc) and so could walk away from a 200ft fall — but a 12th Level PC is also on par with Hercules, killing Hydra and Dragons.
The typical person in 3.5 is a 1st Level Commoner, giving them an average of 3hp, 6hp on the high end. A battle-trained warrior will have 5hp, 10hp on the high end. A person will have plus or minus 1hp if they’re particularly tough or fragile. An exceptionally tough, battle-trained guy might have as much as 15hp. By 3.5 rules, a creature takes 1d6 damage per 10 feet fallen, to a maximum of 20d6 at 200ft or above. Minimum damage is 1 (up to 20 at 200ft), average or expected damage is 3 (up to 70 at 200 ft), and maximum damage is 6 (up to 120 at 200ft). A typical (3hp) person is expected to be at 0 hp after a 10ft fall; a creature at 0 hit points is considered dieing and probably only has a few minutes to live, unaided. Even if you assume a roll of 6 indicates landing on your head, this feels extreme.
A creature can reach a negative score equal to their CON score (10 for regular people) before they are simply dead (no chance for medical aid). For a regular person, that means that 13 damage is absolutely fatal; that’s almost possible on a 20ft fall (12 max), is expected at about a 40ft fall (14 expected), and is guaranteed at a 130ft fall (13 minimum).
If we demote falling damage to d4s, the numbers become: Minimum damage 1 to 20, expected damage 2 to 50, and maximum damage 4 to 80. A regular person is expected to take severe injury from a 10ft fall but probably won’t die; they could die absolutely from about a 30ft fall (12 max), will likely die from a 60ft fall (15 expected), and will die from a 130ft fall (13 minimum).
Because a 10ft fall is still likely to cause a lot of injury to a regular person, and is about 50% likely to leave them dieing at 0hp, I still feel like this is a bit harsh, but we quickly run out of smaller die sizes to use. The ever-popular d3 might be a better fit (min 1-20, expected 2-40, max 3-60; possible death at 50ft, expected death at 70ft, assured death at 130ft), but I’m not really a fan of it myself. A 33% chance of 0hp from 10ft fall at least feels more realistic.