So in my last session, which you’ll probably hear more of when the game gets through a satisfying “beat” or “adventure,” I encountered some issues with flying player characters. Much of what I had to handle last session refined some thinking I’ve had — and certainly not my thinking alone, I’m sure — on PCs who are capable of flight, whether the flight is through their own volition or through the possession of flying mounts.
Two members of my players’ party are capable of flight — Fonkin, through his own volition as a Syrinx; and Dromar, because of his Dire Bat mount. Luckily Fonkin tends to keep close to the earth, mostly because of the type of player he is, but also because of his earth-bound animal companion allosaurus named Allie (Fonkin is a Goliath Druid). Dromar, however, vacillating between Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Evil, with an overly developed sense of self-confidence, routinely “scouts” ahead of the party.
During “Winterwall Glacier” this stole some of Rahjin’s thunder when Dromar rushed ahead after that dragon. When he first got into our current region–a jungle underneath Winterwall Glacier inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar that I am calling Erucidar or, more affectionately, “Dinoland”–he initially scouted ahead. This time I anticipated him: I prevented a full story spoiler or “solo adventure” by allowing him to sight a number of pteranodons that certainly would have given chase had he got too close. Dromar rose higher, and I obscured the rest of his vision with a pall of black smoke rising from a mountainous landscape–evidence of volcanic activity.
This is the first time that another Drow monstrous ability generated some discussion and another trip to the boards. To counter his light sensitivity in full daylight Dromar proposed casting deeper darkness upon himself. He reasoned that this functioned like sunglasses, allowing him to behave and see normally.
It was within this penumbra of darkness that Dromar scouted again, the next day, searching for ruins. Now, a character certainly doesn’t need flight in order to scout ahead, and this is a feature of roleplaying games that sometimes carries the approbation of the rest of the party. But a flying scout is able to move much farther and see much more. What both kinds of scouts are able to do is perceive upcoming obstacles and potential encounters presumably with a mind to direct the rest of the party away from them.
This leads to the first great difficulty flying characters create for GMs: airborne PCs make it difficult for GMs to design little surprise encounters and maintain pace in a satisfying story.
The way I design my adventures I believe is not all that different from the styles of many other “homebrew” GMs: I typically envision major plot structures that entail a heavy amount of roleplaying or epic conflict. In between these structures I scatter a generous number of lower stakes apparently inconsequential encounters. I say “apparently inconsequential” because, even though the encounters might not have much to do with the macro structures of the story, and even though I might not use all the possible encounters or allow my players to bypass a few, they are essential for two reasons: 1. They provide opportunities for the kinds of randomness that occurs through player responses to obstacles that truly does shape the story down the line, altering possibilities and diverting narrative channels so that (unlike published adventures) the story moves truly outside of the purposed domination of the GM (to borrow and reapply Tolkien’s language about allegory). 2. Avoidance or interruption of these smaller encounters disrupts the pace of the game. A party of flying characters, unrestrained and presented with few aerial obstacles, need only drift from destination to destination, keeping the GM on a strict deadline of epic level encounters, the large set pieces. Of course, a creative GM may develop smaller encounters at these locations–surface obstacles, perhaps, like layers of onion skin proceeding downward rather than encounters found cross country. But in time this might appear artificial and contrived, just as a numerous amount of aerial encounters or obstacles might be. And these lesser encounters serve a very particular purpose in game terms outside of story considerations: they provide the xp necessary to climb levels and be prepared for the physical threats that often accompany the big set pieces.
For the first time I was ready for Dromar’s scouting. During his foray, I did give him a little more information about one feature, and this will allow the PCs to prepare a little for what comes next, but after that… I was ready. Flying near the forest canopy — or high above it, as he explained to me later, attempting to get clear of the ballistae-hurled nets whistling towards the center of his sphere of darkness — well, this last is what happened. Then he saw nine pteranodons separate from the leaf cover and wing his way. One of the nets (50% miss chance) entangled him. He rolled a 20 on his fairly weak Strength check to bust the bonds, so I let him free his hands, which allowed access to his magic and his slashing Black Blade and soon had him fleeing both nets and pteranodons.
But this episode was not the last issue I had with flying this session. Later, in a conflict with Dream Spiders, who had woven their iridescent threads across multiple levels of forest branches, and a Shambling Mound that rose up out of the swamp at the roots of the jungle trees, it became unclear at what height the flyers were flying and just really what was going on tactically. To make it even worse, Dromar had taken Tabi, another PC, into his lap in his saddle astride his Dire Bat mount, and the two decided that, not only could they fight unhampered in this way but that, when they realized that the passenger on Bat had a higher Ride skill, she could take control of the Bat to avoid attacks from the Shambling Mound 10-15 feet below. This of course led to a lot of groaning and bickering. At length, I allowed my players to talk me into allowing the actions (with some ballpark penalties) with the promise of a more analytical post on our campaign site later:
Analysis: Since Tabi wasn’t in a saddle while Riding Dromar’s bat, she should have had -5 on her Ride check to avoid an attack (for a total of -9 since I also penalized her -4 for not having control of the bat at the time of the Ride check). This probably would have resulted in the second Mound hit striking as well, and poor Batty would indeed have been reduced to 1 hp – ha ha ha ha!
There appears to be no good ruling on Tabi and Dromar both sitting a Bat AND fighting AND Riding. As a Large creature, the Bat possesses enough squares for both to occupy different squares and therefore legally fight while mounted (but a Horse is large, too, and typically seats only one rider), but the Ride check on Tabi’s part was argued because she effectually inhabited the same square as Dromar, sitting right in front of him or in his lap or in his saddle. There are rules for firing ranged weapons into a melee (-4), but not striking out with melee weapons while someone sits in your lap. What do you rules-crunchers think? -4 penalty, or should it be determined that whoever is in the saddle has control of the mount, the other Riding bareback, but both characters can attack normally.
Also, Flying became a consideration last encounter (and has been one), and, as long as we continue this mode of travel, we should pay greater attention to heights and distances. My mind located the fliers at 15-20 feet in the air simply because they hovered to have a bit of a discussion with the other PCs aback Rex. In future sessions, I’m going to try to ask the fliers, and I would appreciate it if the players would try to remember to tell me, precisely how high and how far away from the rest of the party they are flying.
In this quotation is a context clue for one response I’ve had towards flying characters — kill their flying mounts! Indeed, this is a way to hurt all PCs who have too-high defenses but who also have mounts or animal companions. It’s just gravy to get them out of the sky as well!