Pathfinder can be an extremely complex game, and even the most experienced Gamemaster can learn something new. “Skilled” aims to clarify some of the more complex aspects of Pathfinder to help Gamemasters adjudicate their games more accurately and players learn the nuances of the rules.
In reality, flight relies on generating lift, creating horizontal momentum, and maintaining this motion with as little effort as possible. In a perfect world, an object in motion stays in motion, though things like gravity, air resistance, and friction tend to nullify all acceleration an object may have to the point of motionlessness.
Pathfinder is a roleplaying game that predominantly takes place on a two-dimensional plane, though no fantasy game is complete without flight. Pathfinder’s ruleset simulates flight as though characters are high-performance Harrier jets, though almost every table I have played at (or even ran!) usually handle flight as though characters are gravity-defying UFOs, zipping about with the greatest of ease. In this edition of Skilled, we look toward the wild blue yonder.
(Dex; Armor Check Penalty)
You are skilled at flying, through either the use of wings or magic, and can perform daring or complex maneuvers while airborne. Note that this skill does not give you the ability to fly.
–Paizo PRD, Fly (Skill)
There are two different types of flight in Pathfinder you need to be aware of: mundane (a creature that is naturally able to fly using its wings) and magical. Mundane flight is available to creatures almost all of the time, though the wings can sometimes be a liability. Magical flight gives a creature more options, though usually at the expense of magical reserves and resources.
One of the first buzz-kills a player might experience when building a brand-new character is seeing Fly on their character sheet and thinking to themselves, “heck yes.” Regretfully, the notion of loosing oneself from the bounds of gravity are dashed with the last sentence of the skill description: you need to be able to fly in order to use the skill. Furthermore:
You cannot take ranks in [Fly] without a natural means of flight or gliding. Creatures can also take ranks in Fly if they possess a reliable means of flying every day (either through a spell or other special ability).
–Paizo PRD, Fly (Skill)
Without some serious gold or some other type of windfall, many classes will not receive the ability to fly until level 5, and per the rules, unless you have a racial ability like Tengus which allows you to glide using your feathered arms, you can’t really put ranks into Fly until then. Long story short, you’re going to be spending a lot of your early adventuring career grounded.
So, you finally hit level 5 or bought that Potion of Fly with your hard-earned gold; congratulations! Once imbued with the power of magical flight, you can perform several simple flight maneuvers.
Without making a check, a flying creature can remain flying at the end of its turn so long as it moves a distance greater than half its speed. It can also turn up to 45 degrees by sacrificing 5 feet of movement, can rise at half speed at an angle of 45 degrees, and can descend at any angle at normal speed. Note that these restrictions only apply to movement taken during your current turn. At the beginning of the next turn, you can move in a different direction than you did the previous turn without making a check. Taking any action that violates these rules requires a Fly check.
–Paizo PRD, Fly (Skill)
Note: Pathfinder simplifies three-dimension motion by making movement that increases altitude use twice as much of your movement allotment. That being said, put down your calculator: there’s no need to cite the Pythagorean Theorem just yet.
Even a novice pilot under the effects of Fly (and let’s assume the full 60-foot movement speed the spell grants) could 1) move straight ahead a distance of 35 to 60 feet, 2) perform the same movement with a single, gradual course correction, 3) move straight ahead 30′ while gaining 30′ of altitude, or 4) make a safe 60′ descent at any angle. Fly (the spell) offers several additional maneuvers not available to mundane fliers:
[The subject] can ascend at half speed and descend at double speed[…]
–Paizo PRD, Fly (Spell)
This allows our pilot to 5) make a straight 30′ ascent and 6) descend 120′ straight down safely. If our pilot wanted to do something a bit more extreme, there is a table of maneuvers they can attempt:
It’s Newton’s First Law in action: a body in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon. In this case, a flying creature wants to continue in a straight line, and it will require a great deal of effort to change course. Flying slowly or even stopping in place requires some effort, while more aggressive flight maneuvers, such as hard turns, Immelmanns, and sharp ascents can be risky.
What happens if you fail? Well, you just can’t do that maneuver. The consequence for a winged creature is made clear: “fail[ing] a Fly check by 5 or more [caused a winged creature to] plummet to the ground, taking the appropriate falling damage.” What if the don’t fail by that margin, or if it’s magical flight? As a GM, I would rule that you must perform the basic maneuver most closely related to the advanced maneuver you were trying: slowed flight becomes at least half your move speed, hovering becomes some form of ascent/descent (depending on which is available to the creature via basic check), a sharp turn and 180s are limited to 45 degrees, and elevation increases are limited to 45 degrees.
Fly, a dexterity-based skill, and one that technically can’t be “learned” until level 5 for most classes and races, might be at severely deficient levels for most characters at this point in your career. It’s not nearly as bad as you might think, though. Most creatures and spells that grant flight have a maneuverability which gives bonuses (or penalties) to a subject’s Fly skill. Also, smaller creatures are inherently better at flight:
A creature with a natural fly speed receives a bonus (or penalty) on Fly skill checks depending on its maneuverability: Clumsy –8, Poor –4, Average +0, Good +4, Perfect +8. Creatures without a listed maneuverability rating are assumed to have average maneuverability.
A creature larger or smaller than Medium takes a size bonus or penalty on Fly checks depending on its size category: Fine +8, Diminutive +6, Tiny +4, Small +2, Large –2, Huge –4, Gargantuan –6, Colossal –8.
–Paizo PRD, Fly (Skill)
The Fly spell doesn’t just give the user the ability to fly:
[The subject’s] maneuverability is good. […] The subject gains a bonus on Fly skill checks equal to 1/2 your caster level.
–Paizo PRD, Fly (Spell)
So, a level 5 Wizard with no Dexterity bonus, a single rank in Fly (a class skill) who casts Fly would have a +10 to Fly skill checks with very minimal investment (0 [Dexterity Bonus] + 1 [Skill Rank] + 3 [Class Skill] + 4 [Good Maneuverability] + 2 [1/2 Caster Level] = 10).
At first glance, it seems there’s a pretty low threshold for the amount of Fly skill a character might need, but much like real flight, conditions are not always perfect. Chances are good that if you’re flying, it’s to avoid a hazard or meet it head-on.
If you rely on wings for your flight, anytime you take damage, “you must make a DC 10 Fly check to avoid losing 10 feet of altitude. This descent does not provoke an attack of opportunity and does not count against a creature’s movement.” This is important to remember, because many low-level adventures require PCs without a means of magical flight to deal with flying creatures, and even small amounts of damage from sling bullets, arrows, or spells like magic missile could potentially drop the creature to an altitude where your melee party members can make it pay. Also, creatures that have wings that “collide with an object equal to [its] size or larger […] must immediately make a DC 25 Fly check to avoid plummeting to the ground, taking the appropriate falling damage.” This is also important to remember, because a magically-flying fighter not subject to this penalty that can do 2d6+20 damage on a successful hit might consider ramming a winged creature instead, doing up to 20d6 falling damage on it instead.
Anyone with the ability to fly can make a DC 10 check to negate falling damage, as long as it isn’t due to a previously-failed Fly skill check.
Strong winds and harsh weather conditions can also make even the simplest maneuvers tricky.
What does this mean for our level 5 Wizard? Assuming he’s a medium creature, he would be okay performing his basic maneuvers all the way up to severe winds, taking the appropriate Fly penalties for the more maneuvers that require checks. Once he begins flying in a windstorm, he becomes “checked”, which means he “must succeed on a DC 20 Fly check to move at all so long as the wind persists,” in addition to the penalty he already takes from the wind speed (a DC 28 just to make basic maneuvers). If he decides to fly in hurricane-force winds, he becomes “blown away”, which means that he “must make a DC 25 Fly check or be blown back 2d6 × 10 feet and take 2d6 points of nonlethal damage.” Being blown away also means being “checked”, so every round you decide to stay airborne means a DC 37 Fly check followed by a DC 32 Fly check to move and avoid damage. As you can see, wind makes flight very difficult, very quickly.
Pretend you are an airplane. Imagine that any maneuver that could either stall your airplane or cause the pilot to pass out requires some degree of Fly skill check to perform. Most of these are easy to make with minimal investment in the skill, but severe weather makes flight almost impossible without considerable investment.
Winged flight can be a liability in combat, as cool as it might be to actually possess functioning wings. Magical flight means protection from damage-induced altitude shifts, mitigating the risk of midair collisions, and being able to perform pure altitude-altering maneuvers without checks. Consult the charts in the PRD or your Core Rule Book for difficulty ranges.
How Much Do I Need?
Outside of combat, a flying creature could Take 10 with an absolute minimal investment in the skill and be able to perform whatever maneuver they want in calm weather. Our wizard from the above examples, with only one point in the Fly skill, could do whatever he wanted by taking 10. In combat however, you’re looking at 20% chance of failure at hovering or sharp turns, and a 45% chance of failure for making U-turns or steep climbs. At level 8, if a Wizard with no dexterity bonus were to max out their skill ranks in Fly and use the Fly spell, they would have a +18 and could ace any advanced maneuver with anything but a 1 on the die (0 [Dexterity Bonus] + 8 [Skill Ranks] + 3 [Class Skill] + 4 [Good Maneuverability] + 4 [1/2 Caster Level] = 18).
Those relying on a Potion of Fly would ultimately get a +6 to their Fly skill checks; the more expensive but always useful Winged Boots would grant a +8. Because Fly is typically a class skill only for those inclined toward arcane classes, you may have to get a little creative to get your Fly skill checks higher, including your dexterity modifier, traits that grant Fly as a class skill, feats which grant bonuses to Fly, class/racial features, and even special armor materials. If you intend to pursue enemies in aerial combat, try to keep in mind the absolute easiest manuever/s necessary to accomplish your goal.
Quotes and images taken from the Paizo PRD.