Flying Through the Ages

Having discovered how very powerful dragons are in Book of War (largely due to their immense maneuverability), I started digging into the flying rules for classic D&D.

Partly the lesson here is that nothing is really a tabula rasa ur-source, not even Original D&D. On the contrary, one of the ways that OD&D is so commendable is precisely in how it makes its mechanical predecessors explicit, in a fashion that was mostly wiped out in later editions. For example:
  • In the OD&D "Recommended Equipment" section you're supposed to have a copy of the Outdoor Survival game by Avalon Hill (coming even before suggestions for dice and Chainmail [Vol-1, p. 5]), and it gets used & referenced as the basis for D&D's Wilderness movement and adventuring rules [Vol-3, p. 14-17].
  • The OD&D section on "Aerial Combat" begins with a reference to another work, as well -- "Many of the most interesting battles take place in the air, so we offer you 'Battle in the Skies' or 'BITS' (with no apologies to Mike Carr, creator of Fight in the Skies)" [Vol-3, p. 25]
  • In the OD&D section on Naval Combat, the situation is somewhat more obscured, but the suggested scale for action exactly matches Gygax & Arneson's earlier work, Don't Give Up the Ship! -- "For movement purposes 1:1200 scale models can be used, so a playing area about the size recommended for aerial combat will suffice." [Vol-3, p. 30]

Now, never once in all my years of playing D&D have I actually made use of the flying rules in any way. But one interesting thing -- In Gygax's works of OD&D and AD&D , the Aerial Combat section actually appears before Naval Combat. (As opposed to how you'd intuit the presentation would run, starting from the mundane and proceeding to the more-exotic: presumably standard wilderness, then land combat, naval combat, aerial combat, possibly extra-planar, etc.) So this, combined with the line above on the "most interesting battles", suggests that Gygax was more personally intrigued and invested in Aerial action rules than even something presumably more common like Ships. Therefore, it's a case especially worth considering.

Original D&D

OD&D has a very nice and fully-developed mini-game for aerial combat (presumably inspired in some way by the Mike Carr game, as we see above). It suggests either miniatures or paper counters on a hex-grid specifically at least 48×48 inches (or 6' square for miniatures), with written orders from each side per turn. There are specific move rules for Climbing, Diving, Crashing (including the 1-die-per-1" falling rule, "i.e., a crash from 12" means twelve dice"), Bombing, Melee, Air-to-Air, and Ground-to-Air Fire (specifying catapults with a load of small stones acting as a "shotgun effect"). Here's the table for turning (presumably with "moves" technically in rounds and "turns" [pivots] in number of hex-sides, i.e., 60-degrees each):

(Note that Dragons are in a separate category from "Giant Reptile" at the end of that table -- representing a flying dinosaur, I suppose?) And here's a specialized system for "Critical Hits" on flyers, by which a partly-damaged aerial combatant might be forced to crash or land:

One critique here: Note that the chance to critical-hit a flyer out of the game doesn't account for individual toughness in any way. A single sling-stone is just as likely to take down a dragon as a hawk!

Advanced D&D

As usual, the word-count in AD&D expands greatly, and here you get long passages on training, feeding, and resting different types of aerial mounts in the campaign; issues of thrust and balance on different types of creatures; seating and restraints for mounted fighters, etc. Each separate flyer type now gets a separate entry with a few lines on individual powers & tactics in the air. The specialized "Critical Hits" system is stripped out here, and replaced with a more abstract rule of "Any winged creature which sustains damage greater than 50% of its hit points will be unable to maintain flight and must land" [DMG, p. 53]. The Bombing system is missing, but we are introduced to new rules for diving attacks (double damage), and under the levitation/flying notes, a special accumulating penalty for firing missiles without a stable platform (OD&D just said: "Missile Fire, Air-to-Air: Treat as normal missile fire..." [Vol-3, p. 27]). But the core of changes is to systematize flyer maneuverability into new lettered classes A through E, which looks like this:

Class A: Creature can turn 180° per round, and requires 1 segment to reach full airspeed. Creature requires 1 segment to come to a full stop in the air, and can hover in place. Class A creatures have total and almost instantaneous control of their movements in the air. Examples: diinn, air elementals, aerial servants, couatl.

Class B: Creature can turn 120° per round, and requires 6 segments to reach full airspeed. Creature requires 5 segments to come to a full stop in the air, and can hover in place. Examples: fly spell, sprites, sylphs, giant wasps, ki-rin.

Class C: Creature can turn 90° per round, and requires 1 round to reach full airspeed. Examples: carpet or wings of flying, gargoyles, harpies, pegasi, lammasu, shedu.

Class D: Creature can turn 60° per round, and requires 2 rounds to reach full airspeed. Examples: pteranodons, sphinxes, mounted pegasi.

Class E: Creature can turn 30° per round, and requires 4 rounds to reach full airspeed. Examples: dragons, rocs, wyverns. [DMG, p. 50-51]

Holy smoke -- look at how much maneuverability was reduced between OD&D and AD&D! As one example: In OD&D, Dragons could make 3×60° = 180° turns each round (that is, wheel around in one half-circle). Here, reduced to a 30° pivot each round, it would now take 6 rounds to make the same turnabout (i.e., 6 minutes in AD&D alleged 1 round=1 minute time scale). The same can be said for all the rest -- the OD&D range was from 120° to 360° per round; in AD&D it's 30° to 180° (generally halved or quartered). However, the minimum-spaces-between-turns rule from OD&D is now gone.

To my eye, the OD&D system looks like a mini-game that was actually used in play at some point; the AD&D version looks like -- as can be said for many other parts of the advanced game -- an abstracted model that was never actually play-tested. Questions: (1) How many AD&D combats even last more than 6 rounds to allow a Dragon to turnabout in the air under this mechanic? (2) Can a Dragon just land on the ground, immediately turn around for free (bypassing these rules), and then take off again in a different direction?

Expert D&D

The next place that aerial combat shows up is in Dave Cook's D&D Expert Rulebook (in the 1980 B/X line, the follow-up to Moldvay D&D Basic). What you get here is a clearly cut-down version (24 lines total), emphasizing shortened versions of the new AD&D rules. You get mechanics for: Surprise (diving/swoop for double damage), Spell Casting (stable platform or no spells: a harsh new restriction!), Missile Fire (stable platform or -4 to hit), but we also reach back to OD&D for the delightful Bombing rules. What's been sliced out are any of the other rules, in particular all of the rules for maneuverability and critical hit-locations (as seen in the tables above). These considerations are, perhaps quite reasonably (again, I never used them, so arguably they're a waste of space), punted off to the DM:

The DM should feel free to add to these guidelines as needed; for example, rules for climbing, diving, turns, crashing, and so on can be added. [D&D Expert, p. X25]


The other place I thought to look (granted my particular interest in their use for a mass-combat game), was in Doug Niles' Battlesystem rules. In the first edition (Battlesystem Fantasy Combat Supplement, 1985), Niles explicitly refers back to the AD&D text, using the exact same Maneuverability Class ratings and rules as seen above (which is maybe a bit sketchy, since the mass time scale has converted to 1 turn=3 rounds):

Basic rules on flying movement and combat for the AD&D game are listed in the DMG, p. 49-53. Those rules apply in the BATTLESYSTEM game except as specifically noted below. For the D&D game, use the rules given below only. [Battlesystem FCS, p. 29]

One thing that Niles does here is to abstract altitude (in previous system, recorded as inches in paper, counters, or with a dowel) to simply 3 categories: Low, Medium, and High. Other than that, he hews pretty closely to AD&D, presenting conversions for the Aerial Fire (stable platform or penalty), Forced Landing (flying creature takes partial damage), and again the Bombing rules, as seen above.

In the later edition, however (Battlesystem Miniatures Rules, 1989), Niles allows his ruleset to evolve into something beyond the original basis. He keeps the same maneuverability classes (A to E), but wisely multiplies the turns allowed for his mass-combat game (A has no limit, B is 360 degrees/turn, etc., down to E at 60 degrees/turn). The abstracted height categories are gone, and altitude is recorded by a d20 placed next to a unit, showing height in actual inches. There are specialized rules for Changing Altitude, Ground Attack, Pass-By Attack, Vertical Envelopment, Dogfighting, Setting Spears/Pikes Against Flying Creatures, Falling Damage, Flying Units and Missile Combat (negate wall bonuses), Range Effects (shortcut rule for triangulating height & ground distance), and Morale and Flying Units (aerial units suffer morale penalties and are harder to rally). What's out are: the Dive bonus to attack, Hits forcing flyers to the ground, and the Bombing rule. Largely this puts this system in a different class than what has come before.

Here's a summary table of notable Aerial Combat mechanics throughout the different editions of classic D&D:

Which of these rules do you prefer in your own D&D games? Do you think it's preferable to let Dragons and similar creatures turnabout in the air within 1 round, after 6 rounds, or some number in between?


  1. This is a more common problem then you think. Many groups are playing pathfinder, which assumes a constantly invisible flying wizard during combat by 5th level.

    Many groups reach fifth level.

    Pathfinder gets around this with a fly skill, but as I've discussed on my blog this is a terribly annoying substitution for maneuverability class.

    As far as how to use it in practice? We used clear plastic discs OR the clear top of a dice cube. The first was used to track altitude if there were multiple flyers, the second if you only needed to represent one flying mini.

    As far as your questions, it really has to do what works best in play. Six round is way too long, so I'd go for something shorter. Honestly, in play I don't think we've ever bothered doing anything other than just moving about how you would move if you were on the ground (with a penalty for climbing and bonus for falling).

  2. Very interesting about the Pathfinder "fly" skill, I didn't know about that. Sounds a little bit like 3E's "scrying" and "use magic device" skills to represent things that were formerly core functions.

    I agree with wanting to go with the greater-maneuverability option, while maybe keeping a climb/dive movement rule for some mechanical interest.

    Especially with the supposed 1 round=1 minute rule, I'm wondering if AD&D dragons don't turn even more slowly than the Goodyear Blimp, say (not that I could find good data on that after a quick search).

  3. Flying rules, nautical rules - it's what I hoped the Old School Adventure Guide would become. Since it has barely 'got off the ground' I'm hoping you'll publish these things this year, to go with my other Delta purchases of 2011.

  4. That's excellent motivation, JP, thank you for that!

  5. I hadn't thought about it before, but I can see the multi-round turn being useful for the most devastating monsters. Less of a running combat, more of a 'By Tyr's hand, it's coming around again! Flee for your lives!' where the townsfolk have a round or two to run for the woods while the flying leviathan comes back around. For the majority of flying opponents, that would be ridiculous, but I can just about see it for, say, Smaug.

    It also means that there's a sensible reason for dragons to actually land in order to confront a threat; I couldn't ever understand why a dragon would stay on the ground and get hit with lances and swords when it could swoop around instead.

    So maybe there should be a set of 'human-scale' maneuverability ratings more like OD&D and a 'colossal monster' set of ratings that track more along AD&D lines?

  6. Hey Johnathon -- I could imagine that, but I think it would be an element outside the scope of classic O/AD&D. One of the core lessons I've taken from my wargame play is precisely that OD&D dragons, while very powerful, are not at all Smaug-like -- they can be hit by normal men, and so a large formation of men (archers, say) is actually their worst nemesis.

    So if the AD&D stuff is inspirational, that's great, but I must admit that I don't think it works well in that particular context at all.

    Now maybe if there's a whole flock of dragons flying in formation, then that's a different story! :-D

  7. In chainmail dragons are Impervious to normal men, did the LLB's change this?

  8. Delta: fair point. D&D dragons aren't unstoppable juggernauts capable of single-handedly razing cities. They can be plinked to death by massed archers or cut down by small gangs of skilled adventurers. And taking that as given, I'd say you're entirely on the right track by giving them the ability to maneuver freely.

    I'm reminded of the AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign setting. If I recall correctly, it used 'catlike' as one of the adjectives to describe Realms dragons and how they fight. Agility and maneuverability tie in nicely with that - pounce, bite and tear (or breathe fire,) then dash away again before assessing whether you killed the target or not. That book didn't treat flocks of dragons any differently, come to think of it; the massed dragonflight resulted in a lot of damage but also a lot of dead dragons wherever armies were on hand to fight them.

  9. UWS Guy -- That's right; in OD&D dragons have AC2, so they're hittable by normal men on a roll of 17+ (20%).

    Jonathon -- That's a great description; "catlike pounce" is almost exactly how they've gotten used in Book of War to date (with no restriction on flight maneuverability so far). Their super-fast move and ability to ignore terrain is nearly their greatest power.

  10. Yes, AC 2, but where does 0d&d contradict that dragons require heroes or at the very least magic weapons to harm?

  11. Okay, so in Chainmail both dragons and elementals are listed as "impervious to... normal combat", but in OD&D the latter get a conversion to needs-magic-to-hit and the former don't.

    Might be pretty interesting to think if dragons also got the same status, though.

  12. Dragons need +1 or better to hit. Now there's a challenge. +3 or better for an ancient dragon like Smaug? Dwarf killer! Glad it has that sweet spot for Bard's arrow.

  13. I've had a little bit of fun combining Wings of War (see Boardgamegeek.com) with DnD. Wings of War is a game of WWI aerial combat, and it uses small decks of cards. Every card provides movement types indicated by a line (straight, curving, etc). You lay down a card, and move your plane to the end of the line. Replace "plane" with "large flying creature" and you've got aerial combat for DnD. It's not the most elegant solution, but I've never had *that* much aerial combat take place in my games.

  14. JP -- Actually, there might be more tradition for that than I first expected. While it's not in Gygaxian OD&D or AD&D, 2E (which boosted dragons a lot) actually does make Old+ dragons immune to nonmagical missiles. 3E also has a magic-weapons requirement for bigger dragons. Hmmm.

    Mel -- That's sound really cool! Great suggestion.

  15. There is an interesting blog post by the blue bard, that demonstrates that the AD&D system is basically unplayable: https://www.thebluebard.com/post/ad-d-aerial-combat
    Most ways PCs have to gain flying are so much faster and maneuverable than all but the fastest flying monsters, that PCs can nearly always opt to eschew combat. And in the other case, they best should get out of the sky ASAP instead of risking their lifes.

    1. Thanks greatly for that link -- super nice write up with examples (and amusing to boot)! More recently, Griff from Secrets of Blackmoor got his hands on Dave Arneson's original flight wargame system for D&D which got massively cut down for OD&D Vol-3; and he's played some sessions at GaryCon, e.g. On the one hand Dave's written system is (as usual) fantastically complicated so even Griff cuts it down somewhat; on the other, Gary said multiple times he never used miniatures, so I assume never playtested the edits he made in O/AD&D.