Articles & News >> Mastering Dungeons: When Races Attack


Mastering Dungeons: When Races Attack

I am delaying my planned post on pacing a game to talk about an issue that popped up recently with the release of the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion PDF for 5e D&D. This document, offered by Wizards of the Coast as a free download, supplies some new options for players about to take part in the Elemental Evil storyline, driven by the hardcover adventure Princes of the Apocalypse and the steady stream of D&D Adventurers League Expedition adventures.

One of the playable races in the Player’s Companion is the aarakocra (which I can now sadly spell without reference after writing an adventure that highlighted them – that’s many brain cells I will never get back). The aarakocra is an avian race that has a fly speed. And not just any fly speed, but a fly speed of 50 feet.

I love the aarakocra’s story and ecology. Their ties to the D&D mythology of the Wind Dukes of Aqaa, the war against the forces of Chaos, and the Rod of Seven Parts hold a fond place in my gaming memory. However, a playable race with a sustainable fly speed can be enough to give DMs fits. For that reason, while the aarakocra are statted up nicely in the PDF, they are not deemed legal for use as a player-race in the D&D Adventurers League (D&D AL).

If you’ve been around Organized Play (or really any sort of D&D players) for even a couple of years, you know where this is going: “What’s wrong with flying PCs?” “Why would Wizards of the Coast put out a race and then turn around and ban it?” “Why does Wizards of the Coast hate fun?”

First and foremost, the D&D AL administrators were the ones who banned the aarakocra as a playable race, not the WotC staff. And I applaud them for that decision. I applaud them as a DM of D&D AL adventure content, and as a writer of that same content. But even as a player, I have to thank them. I get that players love toys, and they get grumpy when toys are put in the window but they’re not allowed to touch them.

But for the overall health and welfare of the D&D AL campaign, the administrators have to be ever-vigilant about these issues. “What’s wrong with flying PCs?” is easily answered, even though grumpy people being denied toys might not like the answers.

Flying in D&D is a resource, and at low levels it is an almost non-existent resources. Even at middle levels, it is generally a very limited resource that is extremely valuable in getting past certain hazards (flying over a chasm) or otherwise making a situation easier on the party without having to use other valuable resources. After all, if a wizard uses a fly spell, especially to affect more than one creature, that is one less fireball she can throw. And a fly spell requires concentration and even then only lasts 10 minutes.

More than what flight does in terms of game balance, its effect on adventure design is even more dramatic and problematic for DMs and adventure designers. If you are DMing a home campaign, you can take steps to make sure the players with aarakocra characters don’t completely throw out of whack the narrative you and the players are creating together. In an OP environment, this can easily make writing certain kinds of adventures impossible.

Traps that rely on contact with the ground become moot. Castle walls? Inconsequential. Encounters while the group travels? Be sure they don’t just fly past them. Outdoor encounters? The aarakocra can simply fly above the melee. I get a little woozy just thinking of a whole party of aarakocra…

Before I am hit with the barrage of arguments that they cannot fly wearing medium or heavy armor, of their walking speed is 25, or to just set all adventures underground in cramped quarters, let me just say this: yes. All of those things are true and might alleviate or skirt the issue in some way, but they do not make up for the benefits that having a fly speed of 50 gives a character.

I will end with this: designing good rules for D&D is hard. It is not a full-time job I could do, and I’m sure I would be bad at it if I did. Providing players with cool abilities without pushing into the realm of unbalancing is nigh impossible, since some players don’t think an ability is cool until it is unbalancing.

So the next time you are playing a D&D Adventurers League adventure, and it is fun and challenging and takes place where there are not constantly 10-feet high, 5-feet wide corridors, you can thank the AL administrators for opening up the skies.

What are some of the most unbalancing racial abilities you have found in your games, and what have you done to deal with them in a fair manner?

Shawn Merwin

Shawn Merwin

Shawn's professional design and editing work in the roleplaying game industry has spanned 20 years and over 4 million words of content. His Dungeons & Dragons work has ranged from 3rd to 5th edition, showing up in sourcebooks, adventures, articles, and Organized Play administration. He has been a driving force in several Organized Play programs, and has written material for Wizards of the Coast (Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, Halls of Undermountain), Pelgrane Press (Dracula Dossier), Modiphius Entertainment (Star Trek Adventures), Baldman Games (as Content Manager), Kobold Press (Creature Codex, Book of Lairs), and countless others. Find his adventures here: https://www.dmsguild.com/browse.php?keywords=Shawn+Merwin&affiliate_id=465726

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Comments
  • Avatar
    DaddyDM12 March 2015
    Reply

    You know if a player came to me and said they had their heart set on playing an Aarakocra, I’d work with them. I’d tell them that they were born with malformed wings as a result flight is off the table for them, healing won’t fix it because it isn’t a wound or damage it was how they were born. High enough level and they could find a way to make themselves like out Aarakocra, but it would be part of their story then that they had to adventure to prove themselves worthy of the gift so many others of their race enjoy from a young age.

    • Avatar
      Steven Strife12 March 2015
      Reply

      You know… I like you… you are awesome…

    • Avatar
      Tia Nadiezja12 March 2015
      Reply

      You’ve just created a PC race with no actual, useful racial ability. Congratulations!

    • Shawn Merwin
      Shawn Merwin12 March 2015
      Reply

      I like this solution, and I have seen it used. In an Ashes of Athas (Dark Sun) adventure I wrote, one of the rewards for players who had characters die was the chance to play an aarakocra PC. That PC had restrictions like you mention here. I believe their flight was limited to something like an encounter power. That makes the flight a limited resource and more reasonable as a character ability.

  • Avatar
    Edward M Erdelac12 March 2015
    Reply

    I was thinking the same thing. I would say they were captured and pinioned at some point in their backstory, and part of their life’s quest is to regain the ability to fly.

  • Avatar
    Tia Nadiezja12 March 2015
    Reply

    *sigh*

    D&D isn’t a game about a character overcoming problems. It’s a game about a group of characters overcoming problems. Flight on a single PC gives you a single PC who has overcome some of the problems you lay out here – but not all of them, and not for the whole group.

    Yes, in a space where they have access to vertical motion, an eagle person is immune to pit traps. Unless the whole party consists of eagle people (in which case you have a whole concept for your campaign and can have them fight urds and archers and do a pile of development on their race; yay!), the pit trap is still a challenge for the party. They can use the eagle person’s flight as a tool to help overcome it, like any other tool they have access to, but the eagle person’s presence does not move the pit trap from threatening to negligible.

    The Fly spell is different, because once you reach a level where you can afford the slots (or you have a wand), it allows the whole party to bypass the trap. Since the eagle person can’t give flight to allies, the eagle person is not able to render threats meaningless.

    This is less true in Adventurer’s League, where both players and characters are less bound to one another than in a home game, but every AL game I’ve played still has people treat one another as companions who they help solve problems.

    • Shawn Merwin
      Shawn Merwin12 March 2015
      Reply

      No sigh necessary, and I appreciate the feedback. D&D is a game about overcoming obstacles, and sometimes one character can overcome a problem for the entire group. If the challenge to a level 1 party is to scale a wall, only 1 PC has to get up that wall with a rope. The rest of the PCs can then more easily overcome that challenge. That is OK.

      I think you and I will both make good points, and in the end will have to agree to disagree. I expect that people who DM (and DM in Organized Play) will tend to be more hesitant about this, whereas people who play more than DM will see it as less of an issue. The AL admins, as the DMs for the campaign, made the choice I would expect reasonable DMs to make.

      • Avatar
        Ashley12 March 2015
        Reply

        Speaking as one of Tia’s players in both her home game and organized play (as well as her sometimes GM), I think her points are pretty dead on, and I would tend to lean toward thinking that a ‘reasonable’ DM would allow and make good use of the game material provided if it suits their campaign. But I do think that DMs running in AL will (as a rule) be more skeptical than home game DMs, because AL is less flexible and more pre-prepped – less likely to take a flying character into account, especially in the sort of infinitely-transferable status that AL characters have as long as they fit the level of the module.

        I think a more likely divider between people who view this as not a big deal and people who are going to view it with more alarm is the extent to which a person sees not just a D&D party but a session/campaign holistically vs seeing it in terms of discreet elements. If an aarakocra is part of your player group or something that you’re planning for the possibility of from the start, even to the minor extent of keeping some stuff in an ‘in case of aarakocra’ folder, then it probably doesn’t seem like a big deal. But if you see it as this disruptive, added element that throws off all the previous design work you’ve done – or the way you’re used to doing things – or as a cool new thing that some other player gets that you don’t and now want, then viewing it as a problem makes a lot of sense.

        Just my thoughts, anyway.

        • Shawn Merwin
          Shawn Merwin12 March 2015
          Reply

          I completely agree. In a home campaign, I would absolutely allow an aarakocra character. Even if I used published adventures, I would have the time to (and actually enjoy) taking into account that characters unlimited flight. I would sow into adventure times when the ability would be totally useful and important to the story, and then I would also all in challenges that would make the character’s life difficult.

          But that is as a home-game DM. That is when I have full control of the content, and I have the understanding of the players that we are building a story together, and that we can all take liberties with the rules and the expectations of our own game. That freedom is just not there in an OP campaign like DDAL.

          Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Avatar
    Caoimhe Ora Snow12 March 2015
    Reply

    I’d gladly allow an aarakocra PC in one of my home games (if they fit the setting), but I fully agree with the reasoning behind not allowing them in Adventurers League play.

  • Avatar
    Imaginaryfriend12 March 2015
    Reply

    An AL related issue that I have not seen mentioned yetis one of the DM attention economy.
    Lets assume a DM is perfectly comfortable adjusting an AL adventure to the presence of a flying aarakocra. Because flying is an ability with a sizable impact on an adventure it will take quite a lot of attention, time and energy. All spent on that one character, which is not entirely fair to the other players at the table.
    In a home campaign that should all wash out in the end. Some days the flying will be an awesome asset, some days it will be a hindrance and likely most days it will just be. As a DM I can and will make sure to do the same for all other characters and attention comes out equal.
    In AL, where the combination of players and DM can have a life expectancy of say.. 4 hours..that works out very differently. It is already hard to balance attention and energy between the players, some people are just naturally more spotlight oriented as is (to anyone that has played with me, yes.I see the irony..). So from that perspective, not having flying characters show up at level 1, makes my AL DMing life a little easier.

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