Can your character take a fall from an airplane in flight? Or how about from a cliff? Did you know that if you hit a body of water from a great height that your clothes are “blown off”?
According to Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach, that’s just what happens to an average human that hits a body of water from a great height (just 250 feet will do). But before we get into that, can your character take the hit, and how much damage is done on impact from a fall?
First of all, there are only 2 kinds of falls according to the CDC: Same-Level Falls, and Elevated Falls. It’s all based on the severity of the injuries you’ll incur if you do fall. If you simply trip and fall on the same level you were on, expect Low Severity injuries. If you fall from any sort of elevation, you’ll likely have High Severity injuries.  However their article does not include falls from planes or other interesting heights, which is where the interesting character-defining moments really come into play – when was the last time you played a heroic character who fell down the stairs in an empty house (i.e. not in a fight) and was proud they’d lived to tell about it?
Falls from the same level are not really worth detailing here. The old adage “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” may best sum up how dangerous it is to trip over the rug and fall. And for game purposes, you really don’t need to know the realism of falling on your face while walking. We're not talking comedy damage here. What’s really interesting, and will really be important, are those falls from a 2nd story or higher – oh say from an airplane.
So what would cause your plane to spill it’s contents and drop you off over rough terrain? Who knows - it could be anything from explosive decompression to metal-eating bacteria? That’s the GM’s job to figure out and this page is dedicated to what happens at the end of the long trip down.
No matter what the distance is, the body will hit with multiple impacts: Outside impact (face up or face down, the outside of the body hits first) and then the internal impacts (all those organs have to land too, and they all hit a split second later). What’s truly important to note here is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That means that when the outside of the body touches down, it’s smacked back and does a kind of bounce. But the inside of the body has not hit yet when the outside starts its bounce back up. At a short distance, this does not hurt much and most character's will survive easily, unless you are like Samuel L Jackson's character in Unbreakable. What really hurts and kills are the high falls, from elevations. We're talking ladders, roofs, construction machinery, cliffs, sky scrapers, and higher!
Of course the sudden stop at the end of a fall is often gotten wrong on TV or in writing. Or the "hero" saves the day by catching the victim before they hit - but the victim never decelerated! No matter how badly you'd be damaged if you actually hit the ground, if you don't slow down before you get to the end of the "ride" you will take damage. One common occurrence of a victim getting scooped up and never needing the deceleration, would be Lois Lane. We all know that she's not a superhuman, and she does not have superhero powers that save her organs from terminal velocity falls. 
If you're falling from an airplane, is water safer to hit than dry land? Not if you’re falling too far a distance, as explained in Stiff. Terminal velocity for a falling body is 120 mph and the maximum speed at which a human being has a respectable shot at surviving a feet-first fall into water is only 70 mph. This means that if you’re way up there at cruising altitude and you find that you have exited the plane and now are falling, it will not matter if you hit water or land.
So how do you survive a fall from a great height? Like a cat – feet first. In 2008, a New York window washer fell 47 stories from his platform and lived to tell about it. His brother, who was on the platform with him, did not survive. And while the surviving window washer could not walk for a very long time after, he lived through the ordeal with just 10 broken bones, including 2 broken legs. Just when you thought defenestration was a good way to “off” your character’s enemies, beware – they might just survive!
Oh, and it helps to be young and in shape instead of old and frail when you do have your catastrophic fall! According to the 1995 study by The Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection and Critical Care, senior citizens accounted for about 14% of all the fall accidents in the study but then made up half of the fall-related deaths; conclusion: an 85 year old is 100 times more likely to die from a fall than a 5 year old.   But then, none of these people fell 47 stories!
The Naked Yardstick
And what was this thing with being a naked falling body, you might be asking… Well, in Stiff, Mary Roach found out an awful lot on how the human cadaver is used in research. When an airplane goes down over water and the black box can't be recovered, the police, or investigating body, will sometimes turn to forensics teams or research teams. As it turns out, the forces that can rip your body up when you hit the water can also rip your clothes up too! Who would have guessed… Anyways, you can tell where the plane was ripped open/apart by looking at how much clothing the dead folk have on them. First, you take all the bodies you can identify well enough to know where their seating assignments were. Then you simply look at who's got clothes and who doesn't! The ones that are still clothed were inside the plane cabin when they hit the water, and the nudists were jettisoned when the plane was ripped out from under them!
This same reckless, clothes-abandoning principle holds true for falls of a lesser caliber too. Mary Roach spoke with the Marin County coroner who autopsies the bodies of Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Gary Erickson, the coroner, said that those who fell the 250 feet to their death suffered some ordinary clothing losses and some unusual, or rather risque wardrobe malfunctions as well - while you expect to lose a shoe or two, you never expect your crotch to get "blown out of the pants" or "one or both of the rear pockets" to be missing when you finally were pulled out of the water. Don't even consider wearing a skirt, ladies!
This page is not finished yet, but feel free to add information any time!
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
Game and Story Use
- If the PCs have enough hit points to survive a huge fall, the question remains: Will their clothing and equipment survive? They could be walking out of the dungeon wearing figleafs.