So, my Tuesday night Pathfinder game ended up running two and a half hours over, due to various misadventures which will likely be fodder for a video this week, but it got me to thinking about a certain thing that always seems to crop up in adventures I run, whether I have written it myself or have selected a published module. And this thing, this event that always seems to plague my players, regardless of where I draw my material, is a long fall with a sudden stop at the end.
My players (whatever group I happen to be running at the time), their companions, and various NPCs they may have hired seem to just love throwing themselves (or being thrown) from high places. Now I will admit to a love of negative space. When my players are in a mountainous terrain, I love having steep slopes, cliffs, rope bridges over gorges. I love rickety catwalks over black pits, multi-tiered caverns, vertical mine shafts, narrow ledges, and bridges with no railings. I love balconies, terraced gardens, and soaring towers with rooftop overlooks. I love designs which feel three dimensional.
And three dimensional designs seem to love falling damage.
In my most recent game, no less than three characters (well, two PCs and a samurai's mount) fell victim to falling damage, and all during critical times. At first, the samurai's mount (a tiger, due to various reasons) attempted to charge an opponent who was on the other side of a stone bridge across a deep gorge (while the samurai was dismounted). Due to a few obstacles in the way, the only 'unbroken' path had a gap of approximately fifteen feet to jump and land safely. I generally allow all types of movement during a charge, even jumping, so I simply called for an acrobatics check. A check which said tiger failed miserably at. After exhausting all options to try to keep the tiger from falling, it fell into the gorge. The tiger then attempted to climb out of the gorge for the remainder of the combat, falling on at least three separate occasions, thus incurring more falling damage each time. The exchange of spells and the crashing of debris down into the gorge from the battle distracted it enough to keep it from taking 10 to climb.
During the same combat, a flying sorceress was knocked unconscious, could no longer maintain forward movement (being unconscious) nor succeed at a fly check to hover, and thus fell. It was not enough to kill her, but nearly so. A few rounds later, a second samurai in the party attempted to leap down from a second floor balcony to engage the enemy, only to roll extremely low and fall flat on her face. Hilariously, she fell into the same square occupied by the unconscious sorceress from the prior example.
Now, setting aside all amusing tales of failed tactics and daring deeds gone awry, the real question should be: 'Just how much challenge did the terrain itself add?' Now, I can understand factoring in fortifications into the difficulty of an encounter, or even cliffs and gaps when they are part of the defenses of the encounter. But just how far should you consider incidental terrain elements in a map's design. What do you do if the characters engage in a moving battle, and as a result end up running into falls or mixed-level rooms that were not originally part of the encounter?
Negative space, gaps, cliffs, steep slopes, can be used to define and bound an encounter area as readily as stone walls, but they are not equal from a design standpoint. They are both supposed to limit character movement, but walls (usually) do so in a much more effective way. Walls block line of sight, they can be used as cover, and unless your party is exceptionally destructive, they generally do a better job of requiring characters to go another way.
Open space, on the other hand, presents a hazard that can be avoided. Characters with fly speeds or exceptional acrobatics can attempt to leap over a gap. Open space doesn't block line of sight, an archer can easily fire over a chasm to a target on the other side. A character who chooses to ignore the danger and fails to bypass the hazard, or one who is pushed off of a cliff or otherwise forced into the falling hazard, doesn't have their movement merely blocked as a wall might. Rather, they are saddled with some damage if they fall far enough, potentially quite lethal damage. Furthermore, if they survive, it's entirely possible that they may now be out of the encounter for a while, until they can find some way to extract themselves from the bottom of whatever pit they have fallen into.
Even for a relatively high level character, a fall into a 20' pit can effectively remove them from combat entirely. An encounter where the main warrior, for instance, gets bull rushed off the side of a keep's walls, could end up going very bad very quickly. While the warrior's trying to climb back up the walls or running around back to the stairs, their opponent has free rein to wreak havoc upon the rest of the party.
After considering these factors, on the balance I would tend to give more weight, in terms of the challenge of a particular area, to designs incorporating falling hazards as bounding spaces. They remain a surprisingly dangerous addition to the terrain until the entire party can fly or climb easily. This applies not only to Pathfinder, but to most Dungeons and Dragons derivative systems. A wall is usually just a wall, but even a relatively shallow pit can be a party killer.
Does this mean that I'm going to be more careful about putting high places, narrow ledges, and treacherous precipices in my future adventures? Am I going to ditch them in favor of simple walls or barricades?
Hell no. That's what they make acrobatics checks and feather fall for.