Friday 28 May 2010

The 10 Foot Pole

I remember writing up my first D&D character (a Conan rip-off called Vulcan the Slayer) and kitting him out with all the essential equipment. I looked down the list of items I could buy and scratched my head bemused when I got to "10 Foot Pole"... It isn't even in the 4E equipment list so why was it dropped?

One obvious answer might be that lugging a 10' pole around isn't practical or, for that matter, realistic. It did strike me as somewhat incongruous when I first saw it all those years ago. "For an item with such a limited range of uses it was considered an essential piece of equipment for a long time. Not a lot of people realise this, but it was also an intensely magical item. It had the ability to disappear in combat or when running or when traversing narrow tunnels and only reappeared when you wanted to prod that pile of rags 10 feet away! " [The EvilGM]

The long lost 10’ Pole is not just a piece of equipment, it’s also a metaphor for the changes that D&D has gone through on its journey towards 4th edition. Once upon a time overcoming obstacles was more about description, storytelling and problem solving than dice rolls. In those games a 10' pole could be a useful adventuring tool. But it started to loose its universality as character specialisation introduced rules that defined the differences between the Classes and how they carried out their specific skills. The Rogues Find/Remove Trap skill introduced in 2nd Edition is an early example. By 3rd Edition the Search skill further reduced the need for players to describe the nature of their investigations by reducing it to a proactive (the player proposed it) dice roll. This has been taken even further in 4E because now its an unconscious (the GM suggests it) Passive Perception roll.

I do recall one edition having a ten foot pole that came in 2’ lengths that screwed together - a bit more practical then the original version – but even that seems to have gone by the wayside in current equipment lists. So in an attempt to encourage its reintroduction to the game here are ten suggested uses for a 10ft Pole.

  1. The obvious and classic use for a 10' pole is for springing traps such as floor tiles from a safe distance. Similarly it could be used to push open doors that you suspect of being magically trapped. I recall using a pole to open a door that had an Arcane Mark on it. Needless to say the 10ft pole wasn't 10ft long when I'd finished.
  2. Lash a knife to the end and you have a long spear. a long spear and use it as a pole.
  3. In an emergency, and where wood is scare, its a portable campfire.
  4. Use to 'lock' doors that have lost the original locking bar. Not as strong as the original but it might buy you a few seconds.
  5. Placed upright into the ground it becomes the centerpiece of a gentleman's nightclub (think about it).
  6. A makeshift washing line after falling into the river. It could also be used to hang metal equipment from in camp, rather than leaving it on the ground where the morning due would rust it.
  7. Combined with a suitably large piece of material it can be used as a tent pole to make a Tepee style shelter.
  8. In conjunction with a rock or other fulcrum it can be used as a lever to move heavy objects such a boulders.
  9. Checking the depth of muddy water such as when the PC's are making their way across a swamp. It's time consuming but better than stepping in a 6ft deep puddle.
  10. As a map making aide the Pole becomes a way to accurately measure the size of rooms.

The 10 Foot Pole may seem like a very archaic and impractical piece of equipment but I think it still has a role to play in D&D. My current 4th Edition PC, Uthek, will be shopping for a collapsible version as soon as he's back in a city.


  1. Nice post, Lee. If I was playing a PC at the moment you'd have just convinced me that I need such a pole and I would try and use it at every opportunity. But as I'm GMing at the moment I think I'll have to lever (sic!) it into an essential piece of kit to be carried by a party member to see what they do with it.

  2. Cool post. I will say that the rules didn't get rid of the descriptive play, the players and DMs did. In our games you can search, but you have to tell the dM how you are doing it and with what. People still carry 10' poles and irons spikes in my games.

    I guess it might be more accurate to say that the inclusion of more specialized skills gave people the excuse to be lazy in their role-playing.

  3. Eli, I get the point that things like passive perception, which Lee brought up, and other 4e concepts (skill challenges, for example) are replacing role-playing with roll-playing. But I'm not one who misses the 10-foot pole.

    Seems pretty obvious to me that the 10-foot pole is an example of a kind of metagaming that developed in the early game, along with things like iron spikes -- totally unrealistic items that only came about as players tried to outmaneuver the DM and his standard dungeon dressings. In return, the DM came back with rust monsters to foil all of those magical armors and weapons. Talk about a monster born of metagaming. And when players were just getting too powerful? Throw a level-draining creature at them! Didn't seem to bother anyone what level-draining would actually look like or what possible correlation it could have to the actual world of historical adventure.

    Of course, 4e has its own metagaming nonsense -- like healing surges, for example. And if the 10-foot pole was somewhat realistic, it's got nothing on 4e's ridiculous "residuum"!

  4. Tony, its funny you should mention Healing Surges... I'm working on a post about that very subject for Monday.

  5. Good. I look forward to what you have to say about them. I wince every time a player uses one, but they do keep the game flowing, which was clearly the 4e design.

  6. Ah, the 10' pole! Back in 1981 when I began my first AD&D campaign, someone always carried a 10' pole. Didn't everyone? In a world where dozens of creatures wander in a dungeon and where dragons live in dungeons with all doors 6' tall and 2' wide, who is to say porting a 10' pole is unrealistic? Brings back memories.


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