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?