Most battles in D&D take place on the ground. However, when you fight flying creatures, that pesky third dimension can add serious complications. The maxim of "those who control the skies control the battlefield" is just as true in a fantasy setting. This week, we look at ways to combat flying creatures effectively, often without having to leave the ground yourself.
Flying the Unfriendly Skies
For information on flying, be sure to consult the section called Moving in Three Dimensions in the Dungeon Master's Guide on page 20. Also check out the Rules of the Game article, All About Movement, regarding flying.
One of the easiest ways to keep a flying creature away from you is to make the skies around you dangerous for your foe. A number of spells have ranges that extend vertically in a cylinder. Some of the most effective include acid fog, blade barrier, solid fog, and wind wall. Most of these spells have medium or greater range, meaning you can cast them to appear in the air around or in front of a flying creature. Otherwise, cast it around you and your allies, keeping the creature at bay while you pelt it with ranged weapons or forcing it to plunge through a dangerous barrier.
When fighting a flyer, get your back against a tall barrier of some kind, such as a wall, cliff, or tree. This tactic not only protects your back from flanking, but makes it much harder for a flyer to attack and maneuver out of the way afterward. Creatures with average or worse maneuverability may have to land to attack you with this sort of protection. (If a flying creature fails to maintain its minimum forward speed, which is half-speed for creatures with average maneuverability, it must land at the end of its movement.)
As any pilot can attest, limited visibility can making flying hazardous. Hamper your flying opponent's vision by filling the area with smoke from smokesticks. Spells, such as fog cloud or obscuring mist, work even better by filling a relatively large area in mere moments.
Keep Them at a Distance
Obviously, ranged weapons are critical when combating flying creatures. Crossbows have the best range increment, followed by longbows, shortbows, and finally thrown weapons. Reach weapons are often overlooked as a way to keep flying creatures at bay. If you're fighting against a creature with worse than perfect maneuverability, a polearm can engage them at 10 feet away, forcing them to suffer an attack of opportunity when they dive in closer. Nets are fantastic for snaring flyers, but few groups carry them unless they know they're facing a specific threat. Tanglefoot bags are very effective, since the thrower needs to make a ranged touch attack and the creature must make a DC 15 Reflex save or lose the ability to fly until it can break out -- it doesn't affect Huge or larger creatures, however.
Using Magic Against Flyers
If no one in your group can fly naturally, then spells and magic items are your only methods of getting up in the air.
Fly (Player's Handbook, page 232) and Overland Flight (Player's Handbook, page 259): The most obvious spell to get you up in the air, fly (and its more powerful version, overland flight) grants excellent speed, maneuverability, and duration for such a relatively low-powered spell. Just remember, however, that you're facing your opponent on its own "turf" and it's probably better at flying than you are. If you're fighting the creature with melee weapons in this way, do your best to get over it to get a bonus to your attack for being on higher "ground" (see Player's Handbook, page 151).
Air Walk (Player's Handbook, page 196): Although not as effective as fly, air walk allows a character to "climb" into the air and fight as if they were on solid ground.
Magic Items: A number of magic items grant flying or can be used to bring flyers down from the skies. Potions of flying (750 gp) and scrolls of fly (375 gp) are cheap ways to ensure that everyone in your group can take to the air if they have to do so. A carpet of flying makes for a great mobile platform from which to attack flying creatures -- the two larger versions can carry more than one person. Of course, winged boots (at a hefty 16,000 gp) let you fly for up to 15 minutes a day, which is more than enough for most battles.
Summon Allies: If you have the means, use summon monster or summon nature's ally to conjure up your own flying allies to harry your opponent in the skies. One of the best choices is an air elemental. With its amazing speed score, perfect maneuverability, air mastery, and whirlwind abilities, even a small air elemental can cause all sorts of headaches for a flying creature.
Knock Them Out
Gravity is a harsh mistress. If you can find some way to simply knock out a flying creature, it may crash to the earth, allowing the ground to perform the killing stroke. Casting sleep or hold monster on a creature with natural flying is an effective way of stopping it cold. Casting slow on a creature with average or worse maneuverability forces it to spend all its movement to maintain its altitude or it begins to fall. Unfortunately, slow has a relatively short range (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels), so try to cast this spell at the absolute maximum of its range for the best results. Hold monster (or hold person) has a much longer range and prevents the creature from flapping its wings. Even daze or color spray can be effective -- if it fails its save, the creature takes no actions, including movement. Hello, ground!
If you're fighting creatures that fly thanks to spells, magic items, or spell-like abilities, using dispel magic (or, more potently, antimagic field) can deny them this advantage. Some creatures, such as beholders, appear to fly using magical methods, but use extraordinary methods to do so. Dispel magic and similar spells won't bring these sorts of creatures down to earth, but they obviously can make life much more difficult for them.
Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook.
About the Author
Eric Cagle cut his teeth at Wizards of the Coast, but now lives the extravagant freelancer lifestyle. Look for his name on D&D, d20 Modern, and Star Wars books. Recent credits include d20 Apocalypse, Races of Destiny, and Monster Manual III. He is also a contributor to the Game Mechanics, Green Ronin Publishing, Dragon Magazine, and this lovely website. Eric lives in Seattle where the coffee is dark and bitter like his goddesses.