Fly away home – Dealing with winged PCs

There’s no getting around that fact that flying is awesome. Humans have been dreaming of flight for millennia and we’re more than happy to expend huge amounts of time and money to get up in the air.

This means that when we find ourselves messing round in the fantasy world of RPGs, it should come as no surprise that so many people end up looking for ways to make their character fly.

However, for many DMs this wish-fulfilment can quickly become the bane of their campaign, especially when adventurers find a way to reliably fly at low levels.

So how should you deal with flying in your games, and should you place any restrictions on it?

Plenty of options

When it comes to setting up a campaign, plenty of DMs choose ban certain races, classes or feats.

This is well-established part of gaming, and the reasons for it can stem from the setting (Elves have gone extinct in this world), concerns over balance – (no, you can’t all take the ‘Lucky’ feat), or unabashed DM-prejudice (no Kender, except as ammunition).

Fortunately there are very few things in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition that provoke this kind of reaction, either in terms of setting or mechanics. Despite being out for some time now, nobody seems to have found a combination of skills that warrants so severe a response.

However, if there’s one part of the official rules that consistently gets erased by DM fiat it’s the handful of racial options that give adventurers wings – namely the Aarakocra from the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion and the Variant Tiefling from the Sword Coast Adventurers’ Guide.

It’s worth noting that both of these are entirely optional rules that explicitly state that they can be disallowed by the DM, but I’ve never heard anybody object to the Goliath, the Arcana Domain or any of the other titbits harvested from these books.

What is it about flying that DMs find so distasteful?

And you thought normal adventurers looked weird…

We don’t need no roads

Well, for one thing it’s a great way to easily subvert or trivialise many encounters and even entire adventures.

The bridge is being guarded by a riddle-obsessed troll? Just pop your wings out and wave at him as you fly on by.

A Wizard needs you to go and turn of a haywire experiment in the very top of his tower? No need to mess with the elaborate traps and riddles, just smash the window in with a brick and turn it off.

Children are being lured to a Hag’s cottage in the woods? Aren’t you lucky that she hadn’t thought to outfit her minions with anti-aircraft guns.

Now, in many other circumstances a good DM would be pleased to have their players use the resources on hand (or wing) to solve the problem in an inventive, unexpected way rather than simply slog through endless combat encounters.

However, unless you specifically shape your campaign around minimising the impact of flying adventurers, it can become rather tedious to have every problem overcome by a single member of the party taking to the air and firing Eldritch Blasts until everything is dead or hiding.

Now, there are plenty of ways to fly that aren’t anywhere near so controversial as the Aaracokra and Variant Tiefling. This is because for many DMs the issue isn’t with adventurers being able to fly, so much as it is with them being able to do so in a way that is a) resourceless, and b) available at low levels.

The Fly spell, for example, is available at 5th level, but it consumes a valuable spell-slot, lasts a limited time and relies on concentration – heaven help the Wizard who takes fails their CON save while gliding a half-mile above the ground.

Both Draconic Sorcerers and Tempest Domain Clerics eventually get more permanent flying abilities, but these come in at fairly late levels. By then flight is often taking a back seat to teleportation in the ‘screw this encounter’ stakes.

I asked the DMs of Twitter about this issue and several of them personally dealt with flying races by modifying their abilities rather than banning them outright. For example, by making their flight limited to ten minutes until they take a short rest, or preventing them from attacking while in the air.

Clipping Their Wings?

It’s pretty clear that placing restrictions on flying races is fairly commonplace and far from controversial – but is is necessary?

This is obviously a decision that every DM will have to make for themselves. While many don’t want to deal with the headaches that come from a Winged Tiefling Warlock being able to attack from 600ft. above the battlefield, others may well decide to keep the options open simply because they’re undeniably cool.

I’m not a big fan of having enemies that somehow happen to perfectly counter troublesome party members, but there are plenty of ways to deal with flyers that don’t involve every villain in the realm suddenly outfitting all their henchmen with longbows and binoculars. In many cases the DM won’t have to modify their plans at all, so long as they remember to include reasonable, natural consequences.

For example, unless every single party member decides to play as part-bird, the characters that are able to smash their way into the tower are going to be severely outnumbered and outmatched, especially as they skipped the valuable loot that was being stored in the lower levels.

Similarly, while the Tieflings and Aarakocra may be partying it up on the far side of the troll bridge, the 400lb Goliath is still going to have to puzzle a way across somehow (with the most natural solution coming in the form of a battleaxe).

There are so many ways for clever and resourceful players to completely subvert adventures that there’s no way to block the mall without ruining their fun. You can construct an elaborate death fortress with all the traps, guards and riddles in the world, but the Wizard is still going to force you to improvise by casting Passwall while the Druid scuttles through the gates as a spider and the Bard dresses up as a captain of the guard and somehow rolls a 38 on her Deception Check. Compared to this, being able to fly seems really rather tame.

And remember, if all else fails and flying characters are hogging the limelight, you can simply take to the players controlling them and ask them to tone it down for everyone’s sake – maybe work out a way to modify their powers that makes everyone happy.

It’s easy to see why so many DMs ban the flying races, especially in more serious campaigns where the easy scouting, problem-solving and safety offered by wings can reduce the tension. However, if you’re experienced at dealing with the problems thrown up by inventive players it may be worth reigning in the restrictions for a while.

After all, flying is awesome.

Are you going to tell this guy he isn’t allowed to fly?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Cool article. Just some additional thoughts:

    Are sentient winged creatures commonplace in the campaign setting or world? If so, there will probably be just as many precautions against winged characters as there are for land bound ones. Barred windows, crossbow wielding sentries and the like.

    If winged humanoids are particularly rare, word is going to spread very quickly in densely populated areas, perhaps bringing attention, unwanted or otherwise. Groups of adventurers could be commonplace, but a pair of wings is far from innocuous. Most communities won’t take kindly to a winged interloper having the run of the place, unless they’re stealthy about it.

    In more isolated, uncivilised areas, perhaps the winged character is an object of worship or revulsion. In a superstitious village or town, a feathery winged individual could be mistaken for a messenger from the gods, while a bat winged character could be thought to be a servant of demons or devils.

    If there is only one winged character in the party, they may isolate themselves from the rest of the party in combat encounters by taking to the air, leaving them vulnerable to ambush from canny opponents.

    While the campaign world shouldn’t immediately shift to throw roadblocks at winged characters, I believe it should react to it, over the short and long term.


  2. Kind of disappointed by this article. It doesn’t address how to deal with winged PCs as much as it details how much of a problem they can be.


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