I’ve previously calculated long-distance movement and flight, but sometimes flying interaction is more immediate. An issue I’ve bumped into over the years is grounded PCs interacting with flying creatures. PCs have used the Fly spell rarely for combat. The DMG defines most aerial combat as, “a swoop and slash, hit-and-run affair.” The DMG then defines maneuverability without detailing melee combat for creatures in flight. It’s been obvious that flying creatures could attack while flying, but clearly combat doesn’t happen at Initiative (because the creatures locations would rarely line up). How complicated is it?
Each 3” of speed equals one hex of movement. Creatures can divide their maneuvering across hexes in 60 degree increments (minimum 30 degrees). How far and fast do creatures go? The DMG defines maneuverability by class, which (mostly) defines movement rate and turn radius:
- Class A (180°) creatures reach full movement in one segment. Effectively, they have full movement each round in any direction, and can immediately stop in the air and hover.
- Class B (120°) creatures require six segments to reach full speed. That translates to roughly three-quarters normal movement in the first round. Class B also require 5 segments to come to a full stop in the air—half movement in a round before a hover. Class B creatures can remain airborne at less than half-speed. The Fly spell is class B, but specifically permits up to full vertical as half normal rate.
- Class C (90°) creatures require a full round to reach full airspeed, translating to half-movement in the first round. For Class C, half-speed is also the minimum to maintain flight, with no ability to hover. Exception: The magic carpet is class C as pertaining to maneuverability, but can hover or move at any desired speed.
- Class D (60°) creatures require two full rounds to reach full airspeed, or a quarter movement in the first round, and half movement in the second round.
- Class E (30°) creatures require four rounds to reach full speed: 1” the first round, a quarter movement in the second round, half movement the third round, and three-quarters movement in the fourth round.
Flying creatures of less than Class A clearly need to plan their movement in advance!
All movement modifiers are cumulative. Creatures maneuvering worse than Class E still function as Class E. Creatures maneuvering better than their base class change their turn radius, but do not gain other benefits (e.g., a Class C creature moving at half speed providing Class B cannot hover). Much like the Fly spell, spell-casting is possible from a magic carpet if hovering or moving slowly (3” or less). Spell casting while riding a flying mount or Broom at any speed is impossible.
- Winged creatures cannot move less than one-half potential movement and remain airborne (except Class A/B). The Broom of Flying is explicitly included in this category.
- A creature’s base movement rate while flying (but not class) decreases when burdened with more than a normal encumbrance—typically 50%, see WSG, p. 47.
- Exception: the Broom of Flying can carry 182 pounds at 30″; every additional 14 pounds slows by 1″.
- Flying creatures climb at one-half, and dive at twice their stated movement. Climbing is one foot for every three feet forward (~18%) for Class B-E, but dive at 1:1 (45%).
- The Broom of Flying climbs (and dives) at 30%, or about two feet for every three feet forward.
- As mentioned previously, the Fly spell permits a full vertical climb at half movement.
Note: Speed modifiers are cumulative. A flying creature with its movement reduced twice—50% by encumbrance, and 50% by climbing—moves 25% of its standard movement, climbing one foot for every three feet of the reduced movement (two feet for every three in the case of the Broom). The alternative is an inability to take off when encumbered!
- Flying creatures moving at half-speed [when capable of moving full speed] turn as one class better.
- Flying creatures are considered one maneuverability class worse when carrying equipment and/or mounted (even by a halfling!).
While the DMG describes aerial combat as a hit-and-run affair, standard melee and Initiative rules don’t work. PCs can normally move, or attack, or charge (where charge has implications for AC, To Hit, and Movement Rate). In the BtB combat sequence, actions are, in order:
- discharge missiles or magical attacks
- close to striking range or charge
- strike blows with weapons
How does that translate to aerial combat?
As all creatures are in motion, when applicable range attacks occur prior to any melee attack. Dragons can choose to breathe on an approach and then pass and slash with fang or claw. Given the movement of dragons when considering the range of their breath weapon, this implies dragons can both breathe and melee attack in the same round! Manticores similarly can employ their front claws as well as flinging tail spikes.
Dragons and similar creatures with breath weapons (such as chimerae) have a slightly harder time hitting other flying creatures. For this reason, moving aerial targets of flying dragons add +2 to their saving throws.
For all missiles fired while flying, treat short range as medium (-2 to hit) and medium range as long (-5 to hit) as pertains to chance to hit. Firing at long range will always miss.
As per dragons, the number of attacks per round allowed flying creatures is typically less than their default. The chimera can use claws or attack with one of its heads. Type 1 Demons can only slash with their rear talons. Giant eagles attack with their talons but not beak. Gargoyles spear with their horn or slash with their claws, but never both. Harpies either use their talons or a weapon. Griffons and hippogriffs attack with their talons or beak. The examples continue, but that’s enough to demonstrate the basic principles.
And what of the Fly spell? Well, the Fly spell specifically takes as much concentration as walking. Combat therefore would be much like that of a walking character. Two creatures using Fly can be treated as normal (grounded) movement.
Melee combat occurs between two creatures within melee range. As flying creatures can close yet attack in the same round, melee combat should work similarly to charge—creatures move on Initiative, yet strike in order of weapons length. Creatures with multiple attacks (claw/claw) would occur at the same time. Creatures with a multiple attacks per round with the same weapon (such as fighters with more than once attack per round) are likely far from their opponent by the time of their second attack, similar to flying creatures only using one attack form. When making a melee pass, flying creatures wouldn’t expose themselves to a “free” attack, as the attack is part of their standard movement.
In summary, if a creature has a separate ranged attack, the range attack can be used on the way in. Creatures with multiple different forms of melee attack (claw & bite, for example) can use only one attack type when making a melee pass.
When a diving creature makes an attack, it is considered to be charging, with the normal charge adjustments, including inflicting double damage against targets that are not diving themselves. This includes attacks on earthbound creatures from a height of greater than 30 feet. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, dive attacks against creatures on the ground end with the flying creature on the ground.
The DMG defines calculating damage on flying creatures to determine when they fall out of the sky: 50% damage is forced to land, and 75% damage is plummeting from the sky. For feathered creatures that math is different, and can be calculated as 75% damage forces them to land, and 90% damage causes them to plummet.
For purposes of melee, a creature’s Stamina is unlikely to be relevant, although a few creatures have a Stamina less than or equal to three turns (the boobrie, pteranadon, giant pterosaur, and giant vulture).
Planes in WWII making head-on attacks sometimes died in head-on collisions. If both opponents are flying, either opponent fumbling could represent a head-on collision. Both opponents would stop moving, and plummet to the ground.
For every 10 mph of wind speed, the movement rate for fliers change by 1” (direction-dependent). Crosswinds blow fliers sideways at a speed of 1” for every 20 mph of wind speed. Additionally, the rider must save vs. maneuverability* (at a -1 / 10 mph of wind speed) or lose control, falling for d4 seconds (falling 3″, 6″, 10″, or 13″).
*A save vs. maneuverability is based on the movement class of the creature, rolling a d6. If the number rolled is equal to or less than the creature’s maneuverability (where Class A is a 1, and Class E is a 5), the fall continues.
Characters inside a cloud can see only 40’ and are penalized an additional -2 on all missile “to hit” rolls. Every time a character changes direction in a cloud there is a 70% chance that they become lost and proceed in a random direction. All unwrapped items become wet; exposed parchments and papers must save on a roll of 5 or better each turn or become warped and smeared. Invisible creatures are outlined, and can be attacked at -2 instead of the usual -4, and make saving throws with but a +2 bonus.
The time it takes gas-related spells to dissipate is doubled in a cloud. Magical fire-based attacks do 1 hp less per hit die. There is a 20% chance that any electricity-based spell is negated.
Cumulus clouds are created by thermals, and updrafts are always beneath them. Hills create updrafts as well; a 60% chance exists that a given hill produces a thermal. In such a draft, flying creatures may climb at 75% of their normal movement rate (instead of the normal 50% rate).
Clearly defined in the WSG, the details are included here for completeness. A character’s chance of falling while riding an airborne mount is checked at least once every three turns while he and the mount are airborne, beginning the count anew each time the mount lands and takes off. Again, this assumes that the flight is smooth and normal in all respects. If the weather is bad, or the mount is very uncooperative, or if it is abruptly changing direction and speed (such as in a combat or evasion situation), a check may be called for much more frequently—perhaps as often as once per round while the unusual conditions persist.
The base chance of a character falling from his mount is 0%. This assumes that the mount is giving its rider(s) a smooth and level flight at its full normal movement rate. The base chance is modified by any of the following factors:
- -200% Rider’s entire body (upper and lower) securely strapped
- -150% Rider’s lower body only securely strapped onto mount.
- -50% Rider has proficiency in Airborne Riding (in the appropriate category).
- +50% Rider not strapped onto mount and not holding on (hands are free or carrying something).
- -10% Rider using saddle.
- -10% Saddle equipped with stirrups.
- -02% per each point of rider’s dexterity above 12, and rider’s strength above 12 (considering 18 as maximum).
- +02% per each point of rider’s dexterity below 12, and rider’s strength below 12.
- +20% Mount is carrying more than its normal load limit.
- +20% Mount is moving faster than full normal movement rate (diving, dodging, performing combat maneuvers, etc.)
- + 10% Mount is not flying level (making sharp turns, loops, etc. Turns greater than 45°).
- +20% Mount’s demeanor is unwilling, and the creature is not charmed, subdued, or similarly influenced.
- +20% Inclement weather (sandstorm, heavy precipitation, etc.).
- +01% per mph of wind velocity greater than 30.
That which can be calculated in advance (Dexterity, mount load, etc.) should be.
TSR 2011, Dungeon Masters Guide [1e], 1979.
Dragon #50, The Ups and Downs of Flying High, 1981. [Includes traits for flying mounts]
TSR 2020, Wilderness Survival Guide, 1986.
Dragon #124, Flying the Friendly(?) Skies, 1987. [WSG prequel]