Few objects on the Dungeons and Dragons equipment list can boast the storied history of the grappling hook. From ancient Greek triremes, to feudal Japanese warriors, to Caribbean pirates, to modern military forces worldwide, the grappling hook has seen continuous use on the front lines of conflict since the ancient world. In most Dungeons and Dragons games, the grappling hook is a staple, gracing the equipment lists of rogues everywhere since the original white box.It stands to reason, however, that rogues should not be the only ones carrying grappling hooks. Monks are an easy second choice, but it pays to think more creatively. An inquisitive dwarven fighter may carry several to help secure ropes as he explores ever deeper into the Underdark. A lazy wizard could use a hook combined with the Mage Hand cantrip to make climbing an easier task. A pragmatic paladin might always keep a grapple on his belt simply out of the utility it bears in a dungeon. The grappling hook has a place in most adventuring parties, but justifying why a specific PC or NPC carries one can give several clues as to his or her personality.
What uses does a grappling hook have besides climbing? We can look to the real world for many, many examples of the versatility of this tool. In naval combat, a grapple is the primary tool used in boarding actions. A quick throw into the rigging of the enemy vessel, and you can swing into battle with style. Smaller ships can also be bound with several grapples, making escape impossible. Pirates and other seafaring characters might want to carry a grapple to reflect their tie to a life at sea. Besides its use to sailors, the grappling hook is also a necessary tool for foresters, mountaineers, and outdoorsmen of all types. A ranger can use a grapple to climb to an otherwise inaccessible cliff and lie ready to ambush his foe. Stonemasons might even set hooks and lower themselves down from the battlements of a castle to touch up the brickwork (or secretly lay an explosive charge for a late-night break-in). For any character who relies on climbing, a grappling hook is an indispensible tool.
Warriors at all levels of feudal Japanese society carried kaginawa – literally translating as “hook-rope” – for use as both a means of infiltration and as an improvised weapon. Noble samurai, common soldiers, and the mythic ninja all made use of the tool. In a pinch, it could even be used to hang one’s armor during a night’s rest.
In today’s modern military, the grappling hook is used for climbing some obstacles and pulling down others, but of special note is its use in mine detection. A soldier can throw the grapple ahead of him and drag it back to safely check for tripwires. While this can slow down a march, it dramatically decreases the odds of getting caught in an unexpected explosion.
All bad puns aside, as a dungeon master you can use grappling hooks to put a unique spin on some classic adventure ideas. Use the suggestions below, or come up with you own inspiration, for designing unique encounters that go beyond the standard “kill all the bad guys in a room” encounter.
Bound with Ropes and Chains
A local wizard has accidently summoned a Chain Devil (see Monster Vault) through a botched ritual. Rather than simply kill the creature, he views this as a rare opportunity to study a soldier of the Hells. Now all he needs it for the heroes to sneak back into his tower, where the devil has taken up residence, and bind it with a set of five magical grapples (Thievery vs. Reflex for each hook). Once each hero is holding a rope attached to the devil, it will be powerless and must follow their commands.
Enemy on High
The heroes confront their nemesis, who stands high above them on a floating dais. Many more floating platforms hover at different heights between them and their enemy. Using grappling hooks, the heroes can climb onto higher platforms and pull far away platforms closer. As the heroes climb, they are attacked by the flying minions of their nemesis. If running a battle in three dimensions feels like too much of a challenge, turn the action on its side and portray your battle map like an old video game platformer from the 80’s.
Tarzan of the Elves
Stage a fight in an elven city high above the forest floor. Walkways between platforms are rare and indirect, but there are plenty of branches onto which they could easily attach a grapple. Remind the players of this as their primary foe tries to avoid them, and enjoy the look of glee on the faces of the players who have taken the time to flesh out their equipment lists.
Good fantasy heroes frequently use specialized equipment that go far beyond the “standard” items listed in the Players Handbook. Rather than focusing magic items, the following variant grappling hooks could be found in most cities, and they are simple enough an adventurer could commission on in even the smallest of villages. The Dungeon master may require a streetwise check in order to successfully find someone willing to sell breakaway hooks and concealed grapples, or at least to do so without alerting the local authorities.
Concealed Grapple – Expert thieves wealth reallocation specialists frequently do not want to be seen with the tools of their trade. A concealed grapple is disguised as part of another object, most often a cane or a staff. It is generally undetectable through casual observation (Perception DC 20). With just a minute of work, the pieces of the grappling hook can be removed from hiding and assembled into a fully functional form. Concealed grapples are illegal in most cities, and an adventurer found with one is likely to face legal penalties.
Breakaway Hook – These specialty hooks are forged out of bronze, a softer metal that the iron used in most hooks, and they are a favorite of halflings who have a habit of being followed. The breakaway hook can support the weight of creatures of small size or smaller, but creatures of large size or bigger will cause the hook to bend and fall before they get off the ground. Medium-sized creatures must make a saving throw when climbing a rope anchored by a breakaway hook. If the creature succeeds, it can climb without problem. If the creature fails, then the hook bends, the rope gives way, and the creature falls when it is 10’ (2 squares) off the ground.
Hooked Arrow – Using a hooked arrow is identical in most ways to using a normal grappling hook, but the hooked arrow can be fired from a bow. The hooked arrow has a range equal to the range for the bow from which it is fired, rather than the usual range of 5/10 for thrown objects. Since it is streamlined and weighted for use with a bow, anyone throwing a hooked arrow like a traditional grappling hook receives a -2 penalty to their skill check.
Improvised Hook – The improvised hook is not one specific object, but instead any of a wide variety of objects used as a spur-of-the-moment grappling hook. Throwing axes make for an easy choice when a real grapple is not available, but most other sturdy objects can be used in a pinch. An improvised hook provides a penalty on the skill check to use the grappling hook, anywhere from -2 (a hand axe) to -6 (a flat board that might catch on something). As always, the Dungeon Master may declare that a specific item simply cannot be used as an improvised grapple.
While they are no more “special” than any other piece of mundane equipment, grappling hooks have a great deal to offer both creative players and Dungeon Masters. Try out some the new ideas above in your home game and see how they work for you.
What new ideas do you have for using grappling hooks in your game? Could any of your characters make creative use of this tool? What objects do you want to receive the “New Game for the Mundane” treatment in future articles?
Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Matt Brenner is a lifetime gamer with twenty years of experience at the table. When he is not plotting the doom of the players in his Dungeons and Dragons 4e game, he is plotting the doom of the players in The Realms, an ongoing LARP he has been active in since 1995. Matt also writes for his own tabletop RPG blog, Blood, Sweat and Dice.