What’s the old phrase? On a wing and a prayer? Flying can be dangerous business, even in fantasy adventures. But adventures set in the skies can be rewarding.
Soaring into cloud cities. Reaching the mountain roosts of the most ancient creatures. Daring to step onto the hallowed ground of Mount Olympus. Brushing shoulders with titans and demigods. Dogfights against dragons and others who consider the sky their domain.
For many GMs, the skies are uncharted territory. Setting adventures, or even a portion of an adventure there, can raise the storytelling stakes. Even if you strip away the monsters and have the PCs defend a flying platform, such as an airship or huge flying carpet, from the fantasy equivalent of hijackers (skypirates or deranged wizards armed with magical explosives), you’ve elevated the gaming experience.
When you think about flying adventures, it boils down to providing two things: a) conveyances and b) adversaries.
How do you get the PCs in the air? Lots of ways in a fantasy world.
Consider single-person fliers (magic items that cause flight, such as magic wings, magic rings, winged boots, witch’s brooms or the like). The advantage of these is it allows PCs to each act independently of each other in the air. But, it also makes them more vulnerable. When the magic gives out, they will fall, and there’s not likely to be anyone near who can help them.
Multiperson platforms (magic carpets and magic carriages and hot air balloons). These are good for getting whole groups into the air. The drawback, of course, is PC movement on the platform itself is limited. These work for moving groups of people without a lot of gear, and for providing a defendable space.
Ships of the air (airships, sky transports, magical aircraft carriers). Everything that a ship of the ocean grants the PCs for a voyage comes into play, plus the added dimension of flight. Usually slow moving vehicles, but excellent when goods and gear have to be transported to and from sky destinations.
Most GMs should be familiar with the fantasy staples of flying monsters, such as dragons, griffins and harpies. Here’s a chance to fully utilize them — and any others from the sourcebook of your choice — in their element rather than shoehorning them into traditional dungeon formats.
One resource rich in flying monsters that is worth looking into is Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition Monster Manual 2. Even if 4E isn’t your cup of tea, the evocative descriptions of these dangerous fliers might be worth incorporating into your game. Here are several from that resource that are worth considering:
1. Storm archons, residents of floating storm cities. A special type of storm archon are the lightning walkers, who teleport in flashes of lightning and recharge their powers with each thunder boom.
2. Storm shards, intelligent and malevolent creatures of living crystal that deliver shocking and deafening bolts. Until I’d recently read “The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson, I didn’t have much use for this type of monster. But after reading that novel, I see the thematic and gaming possibilities of including these components of evil.
3. Cloud serpents, single minded celestials known for their hatred of demons and the forces of chaos. The radiance of their colorful wings makes them fierce adversaries, as does the twisting serpentine bodies, which makes them difficult to target.
4. Fallen Star Deva, the descendants of angels, now corrupted by their ties to the mortal world, whose manipulation of fate and chance and their necrotic rays make them unpredictable.
5. Djinn. This reimagining of the of air djinn makes them interesting threats. The thunderers use a jeweled scepter to create thundering bursts. The windbows fire arrows of whirlwinds. The stormswords are defenders impervious to lightning attacks. And the skylords are commanders whose whirlwinds can conceal allied troops, such as griffons and gorgons.
6. Genasi Elemental Dervish. Master of a double sword, this attacker moves swiftly through the air.
7. Phoelarch. In humanoid form this is a mage imbued with the power of the phoenix, such as bursts of fire. In its phooera form, a flaming phoenix, it makes claw attacks of fire and whose flames prevent the approach of anyone not immune to fire.