End on a high!

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!

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5 Responses

  1. Thunderforge says:

    Fantastic! I was trying to think of a climactic way to end my campaign and this is it!

    Speaking of battling on a high, the DMG has rules for aerial combat (and underwater combat) utilizing three dimensions. Do you think that they’re playable as is? Could it be possible to end a campaign defeating the BBEG while riding dragons, or do the rules just make it too difficult?

  2. CyberWere says:

    I a long ago while in college I ran a campaign that lasted two years. It was a modern day action adventure where the final battle was on the US Capitol Dome. As you say the major bad guy who had escaped so many times fell to his death with one of the heroes hanging by his fingernails from the edge at the climactic moment.

    It’s still remembered over 25 years later when I get together with some one from that group. Ah, good times.

  3. greywulf says:

    @Thunderforge If you’re using 4e D&D, the drowning rules are worse than useless, sorry to say. I wrote about them here. The aerial combat rules though look pretty fun though!

    @CyberWere Excellent! Now that’s what I’m talking about :D

  4. There’s nothing my players love more than shoving baddies out windows or off cliff faces – so I know what you mean!

    And my players have realized that falling damage can work both ways – i.e. no you shouldn’t shoot at that rampaging demon when perched 100 feet up on a tower :]

  5. This idea can work in city adventures as well.

    I ended one major D&D adventure in a 4 story oil & spirits warehouse. The PC finally cornered the villain on the top floor and then noticed the smell smoke coming from downstairs.

    Cue burning building, thick clouds of smoke and explosions.

    It is almost mandatory to use the Load Bearing Boss trope [ http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LoadBearingBoss ] in this situation as the villain falls into the inferno below and the party have to leap out of windows.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..D&D 4e Review: The Desire =-.

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