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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Look! Up in the Sky!

Flying in old-school D&D

The power of flight is one those nigh-universal fantasies. Whether it's being a super-hero, or riding a magic carpet, or any of the other methods that can be found throughout mythology, folklore, and modern fiction; flying is something people find extraordinarily cool.

In classic D&D, flight is achieved by three basic means. 
  1. A spell
  2. A magic item
  3. A mount

Without going into the detailed specifics of each and every possible way to get airborne in-game, I thought I'd talk a little bit about the ways that flying characters and creatures can complicate –and enliven– a campaign.

Complication: The "Z"

Adding verticality to a combat means tracking in three dimensions instead of two. Everything from relative elevation to the hypotenuse of distance & elevation for ranged attacks is now a factor to keep track of. To me, this is one of those cases where less is more. Versions of the games that don't relay on a careful mapping/grid of a combat make it easier to run things like this. Instead of trying to precisely plot out everything visually (with minis), the players can simply ask the GM and he can describe it. Now, I do use minis as a rule, but I don't worry about representing changes in altitude on the battlement. I might put a mini on top of a plastic box to represent that it's airborne, but that's all. This means that PCs might not know exactly how far away that dive-bombing dragon is when they try to shoot it, but chalk it up to the fog of war and move on.

Once the PCs are flying around too, then it gets a little trickier. At that point, it's up to the players to be ready with the numbers when the GM asks. For the most part, how far off the ground only matters when you target something on the ground or when you fall. Otherwise it's just distance between you and everyone else.

This can make a fight really exciting or deadly dull, depending. Like I said, less is more. Players should concentrate on finding ways to use combat flying in useful and creative ways, not sweating complex rules. GMs need to provide a reality check, but likewise allow for things like dive bombing out of the sun, loop de loops, or even barrel rolls. Of course, things like fighting with weapons (ranged or otherwise) can be difficult, but it's certainly more exciting!

Fun: Look, Ma! I'm FLYING!

It's like dinosaurs, take any situation and add "And you're flying" to it, and it gets better. Give a PC some way to get airborne and you'll be amazed at how often the player will find a use for it, even out of combat. While GMs sometimes lament when their carefully thought out challenges are unexpectedly circumvented ("Well, heck! I just use my flying carpet to get us all up the cliff!") –and I am sometimes guilty of this as well– I think that anything that encourages players to problem solve creatively is an overall plus. 

Fun: Be vewy, vewy kwiet. I'm hunting hippogwiffs!

While any mage of a certain level is potentially able to cast Fly, other characters might like to get airborne too. Finding a magic item is a nice way for that to happen, but that's going to depend upon the GM placing or rolling up said loot. What the players can do is go looking for flying mounts. Can you say "Instant Player-Driven Adventure Hook"? I knew you could! Whether it's climbing rocky crags in search of a griffon nest, fighting off the mama as you steal her eggs, or tracking down rumors of pegasus herds, it's all great fun. Certainly not an easy task for beginning PCs, but a good way for those mid to high level characters to spend some time. Not to mention money on a trainer capable of making the beasts usable as a mount! Not to mention that some of these critters will be a problem if you try to stable them with horses (Does the term "fox in the henhouse" ring a bell?) You can also give up keeping -ahem- a "low" profile riding around on these kinds of beasts. The same holds true for a lot of the items like carpets, brooms, cloaks, etc.)

Complicated Fun: ZOOOOOM!!

While flying is not radically faster than riding in the game rules, it does have the added advantages of:
  1. Avoiding difficult/"slow" terrain
  2. Bypassing many possible encounters
Both of these tend to add up to quicker travel times. It also makes the party less isolated when you want them to be. "Oh no! the bridge is washed out!" doesn't mean diddly to them. Now, while I do not advocate trying to screw the PCs over because they've gotten a new toy, there are a couple of ways to make it a bit less of a universal remedy. 

First off, you can increase the chances of an aerial encounter slightly. Obviously if they never saw wyverns flying all over when they were on the ground, it wouldn't make sense for them to show up all the time just because the party is in the air. However, perhaps that pack of griffons that might have ignored a party on foot feels threatened by this challenge to their air space.

Secondly, and this shouldn't be limited to use when flying: weather. Throw a thunderstorm at them. Or a blizzard. Groups traveling overland should deal with weather too, but if you haven't been mixing it up meteorologically before, start now.

Third, visibility. Yes, being up on your pegasus lets you scan the horizon, but it also means everyone sees you, too! Whether it means you're making it dead easy for those bounty hunters to track you down ("Yep! I was working the fields yesterday and a whole group of fellas flew right over me heading north! On winged horses! Can you believe it?!") or just being a big target, it's something to keep in mind.

Fourth: Good for the (Flying) Goose. If you're party gains access to flight, who's to say the bad guys can't? 'Nuff said.

In conclusion, while I don't think it's necessary for all campaigns to end up with everyone whooshing around the sky, flight comes up often enough (even if it's only when the dragon strafes the village) that thinking about ways to make it work for your game is well worth the effort.


  1. I've always been kind of ambivalent about flight in D&D when I'm running the game, because of how easy it seems to make things at first glance. Your points on the down side (so to speak!) of flying are spot-on.

  2. Thanks, I appreciate the feedback.

    Yeah, I lot of my ramblings here are just offa toppa me haid, but with the luxury of being able to ponder an issue while not under the gun of being in the middle of running a session.