Ladders in the Dark

In a recent 5e game, the adventures followed an opening in mine shaft into a subterranean mushroom forest; an underground ravine filled with massive mushrooms and curious, gnome-sized, wide-eyed, cave-dwelling onlookers. The party set forth down a winding tunnel, deeper into the earth. After encountering a venerated myconid lordling and ingesting oodles of spores – the heroes came to a half-sized temple to the fungal hive. Oh yeah, on account of the spores, the party could now read one another’s thoughts and empathize with the surrounding fungi.

Exploring the pint-sized temple provided some additional opportunities for mushroom talk and sharing ugly truths between the group. Eventually, they found a tiny ladder that lead down, further still.

Hanging down into the dark void, the child-sized ladder bent back and forth on itself, like a fire escape. It was the only path to discover the answers to the questions they sought. Faced with the prospect of descending a wee-bitty ladder that hung suspended in the darkness thousands of feet above god-knows-what, it felt like the perfect opportunity to make a mini game mechanic.    G

Roll20 play space for The Descent
Left: cutaway view of the cavern. Right: ladder mini-game

 The Descent

The tiny stairs hand down and into stretch far into the darkness. The structure sways with a gentle rhythm and creeks in protest as you step on to the grate.

  • There are six ‘zones’ on the stairs, 1 at being the highest point and 6 being the lowest point.
  • Each zone is made up of 5 squares, roughly 50ft each.
  • The consequence of falling off the stairs at each zone is listed below.
ZONE(s)RESULTS
1 & 220d6 dmg when you hit the rocks.
3 & 4 DC10 acrobatics save to angle towards the water.
– on a save, 10d6 dmg and in the water.
– on a fail, 20d6 dmg and on the rocks.
5DC15 acrobatics save to angle towards the water.
– on a save, 10d6 dmg and in the water.
– on a fail, 20d6 dmg and on the rocks.
6It’s too short a fall to angle towards the water.
20d6 dmg, minus 5 dice for each square below the
highest square in zone 6. Reduced to a minimum
of 5d6.

Movement on the stairs is as followed:

Out of Combat

Spend roughly 1 minute traversing the stairs to move between zones.

In Combat

Spend a full Move action, advancing a square up or down.

If all you do on your turn is Move and Dash – move 2 squares. Then you may opt to make a DC12 Athletics/Acrobatics check to recklessly move down the stairs.

On a success, move 1 additional space. On a critical success, move 2 additional spaces.

If you fail by 5 or more, you stumble and fall prone on the stairs, reducing how much ground you can cover on a future turn. On a critical fail, you lose your footing and make a DC12 DEX save to avoid falling off the stairs.

The Fall

If you do fall from the ladder, see below.

While in free fall, you descend at a rage of 10 boxes per round. While falling, if you run out of boxes to advance before the end of your turn, you hit the ground. Consult the results of the previous table for damage.

While falling, on your turn, as a bonus action you must attempt a concentrate check , DC10 CON save, before attempting any action (spell, skill/ability check, etc.) that could stop your fall.

The base difficulty for stopping your fall is DC15, modified +/- by the situation.

Notes from Play

After our session, I made a little tweak that I hope will make this mechanic feel more crisp in future play. Originally each square was roughly 100ft of stairs – I reduced this to 50ft of stairs per square. The scale of the stairs did not affect the climb/fall mechanic because we were dealing with counting squares, not feet, but it did have an adverse effect when I layered in a combat on the stairs. This reduction has two primary purposes: reducing the number of rounds a falling character has before they hit the ground and improving ranged combat.

The party encountered a drider, who had been stalking them, on the stairs. It opened with dispelling the levitation the wizard was using to scale down the side of the ladder. The wizard began to fall. Not a bad dramatic opener.

From its inception, I had intended to treat each ‘rung’ on the ladder as a range of engagement for combat. If a character and an enemy shared the same rung (e.g. the 3rd square of zone 2), they were effectively close enough to one another on these twisting stairs to engage. I was OK with hand waving some of the combat movement details for the sake of pacing and excitement.

What ended up happening was the 100ft squares proved to be too much space for combat. Too few spells had ranges that could realistically cover the 200ft+ gap of 2 or squares. Aside from that dispel magic opener and a few long bow vollies, most of the actions taken between players and drider were movement.

At a point early on, the players decided this was a fight they did not want to undertake on such perilous grounds and they began their retreat. Because of the 100ft squares, it did not take long for the characters to be outpacing all ranged threats – and the drider broke off pursuit. Reducing the scale from 100ft to 50ft per should make future encounters feel more harrowing.

And the wizard, who chose to free fall until nearly the last moment, before concentrating and casting levitate (awesome) – would have had to resolve his fall in 3 turns instead of 6. And I’m all about reducing protracted combat.

What sorts of hyper-situational mechanics / moves have you been tinkering with?

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4 thoughts on “Ladders in the Dark

  1. I opened a 5e game with an Aladdin-inspired foot chase through a market with some custom rules I’d prepared. The guard captain was chasing the thief PC. The PC chooses a DC round to round, as they’re the ones fleeing, and everyone rolls:
    If the PC and pursuer both win, the higher of the totals gets advantage on the next roll.
    If everyone fails, they all take damage of some sort.
    If the PC fails and the pursuer wins, they catch up and have a round to grapple or melee, something at arm’s length.
    If the PC wins and the pursuer fails, the PC breaks line of sight but is still in the chase, which opens up more skill options like Stealth. If they win a second opposed roll they lose their pursuers completely.
    It worked well enough! The guard captain managed to get the PC in a grapple but she wriggled free before more guards could arrive, then after a couple close rolls she used advantage to break contact and hide. It felt fairly Assassin’s Creed-ish, which was good. I don’t know if it’s robust enough to stand on its own, or work if the PCs are chasing someone else. It also doesn’t have a concrete end, so you’d have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t endlessly go back and forth. It did its job, and the part I’d take from it in the future is having the fleeing party choose their DC.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. How long did this take in play?
    Second question: are the notes on the left hand side something you read or is it more for inspiration?

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    1. All told, with time to explain and clarify the mechanics to the players, we spend 40 minutes on it. Which is what I expected out of something like this.

      The notes to the left are on the GM layer and were primary for my reference. Just to the left of the ladder are mechanics notes. There lines around the diagram are prompts for my descriptions of the areas, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

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