It’s a common trope of film and TV to set the final climactic battle hundreds (or thousands) of feet above the ground. This is the set-piece scene where Our Heroes can finally confront the Big Evil Villain, and setting it in a location where a fall means Certain Splatty Death sends a clear message to the viewer that This Is It. Everything from Star Wars to North by Northwest follow this iconic trope to the letter, yet when it comes to our gaming, well…. we don’t.
Which is a shame, as one of the coolest ways to improve any conflict is to set it in a location where there’s a hint of environmental danger. And let’s face it – a fall from thousands of feet is pretty damned scary. Especially when it comes to D&D though, the highest your (non-flying) heroes are likely get is if they jump onto a table. In this respect, all too often D&D is distinctly two-dimensional. Falling damage is for pit traps.
“Ah,” but you say, “we’re playing in a dungeon. There aren’t many high places there!” And you’re right – unless you put ’em there. Have a cave open to a 10,000 foot drop into lava and your work is done. The battle against Corpsewight the Necromancer becomes a tactical shoving contest (something 4e D&D is very good at) with our heroes and the villains alike all trying to out-manoeuvre the other. Then there’s Menzebor… Meringue Zebra…. Menza…. that drow city where there’s a multitude of towers, pinnacles and high-rise drow buildings, all begging to be the site of your final battle against the Spider Priestess. Set a battle inside an impossibly tall hollow stalagmite and… well, you get the idea.
One of the joys of this trope is that at some point, The Villain Will Fall. This gives you, as GM, the perfect chance to yell your bestest “NOOOOOOOOooooooooooo…………!” and there’s no body for the heroes to plunder. That’s a twofold win: 1) your heroes don’t get their grubby mits on the villain’s kewl magic items, and 2) it leave things open for The Villain to return at some point in the future – possibly in a mangled or magically altered form.
So next time you’re planning your game, don’t just think sideways – think up!