In this series of articles in which we’ve looked at running Dungeons & Dragons adventures to great effect in different types of environments, we’ve covered bustling towns and arid deserts, stormy seas and towering mountains, dense forests and dim dungeons. It’s time to turn our attention to places that are more spectacular and especially suited for tier 4-level campaigns! We’ll kick off by taking a look at a classic yet fairly rare environment in D&D: the air!

In D&D, there’s no reason not to take your next adventure off the ground and into the skies!
In D&D, there’s no reason not to take your next adventure off the ground and into the skies! (Photo credits: Photoholgic, Unsplash)

Adventures set in the air are nothing new in D&D: over the game’s history, there have been several official quests that have (at least to some extent) taken place high above the ground. And DMs have obviously homebrewed countless adventures which have played out in the clouds. They are rooted in the almost unfettered freedom of Dungeons & Dragons’ rules, as well as in myriad fairy tales in which the characters journey through skies or even between the stars (think Peter Pan, for example).

Adventures of this kind can be set in dissimilar environments with varying degrees of removal from the ground, so to speak. For example, the adventurers might need to spend a small part of their quest travelling in an airship that’s sailing only a few yards above the ground (perhaps to cross a vast poisonous swap or a lake of lava. Alternatively, the group could have to travel to the Plane of Air, in which they need to move around with the aid of magic, special devices, or mammoth vessels unbound by gravity. Nevertheless, these adventures often automatically prompt a specific set of questions and conditions.

But that’s not to say that running an adventure that takes place in thin air is the same as being the DM for a quest set in dungeons or forests! On the contrary, a ground-less adventure comes with its own challenges and quirks – and, of course, opportunities! So climb into your airship or don your magic gear as we take to the sky and examine what makes battles and escapades in the air so excellently thrilling!

They’re epic

The idea of adventurers trekking through rough terrain, thick woods and stinking marshlands is closely associated with fantasy and D&D. That’s to be expected, given that even the pretty formidable heroes in the fellowship in Lord of the Rings do a whole lot of wandering across fields and mountains (until the eagles come swooping in at the very end, of course). And there’s something wonderfully immersive about the idea of packing bedrolls, filling up lanterns and donning heavy boots. It’s an aspect of roleplaying that works well even for high-level adventures.

However, if you want to instil an epic sense in a quest, or make the players feel that their characters really have progressed to become truly notable figures in the realm, simply make them airborne. Just being able to fly, be it on a ship of some kind, through magic powers or with the aid of wings, grants the events an aura of heroism. Typically, this kind of mobility is reserved for enemies or powerful NPCs while the characters level up, so it’s usually a great step when the party can soar up and away. I’m not counting the spell fly, as it’s temporary and targets only one creature unless it’s cast on higher levels.

Also, the grander the means and the environment, the greater the sense of splendour. For a slight sheen of “you are now proper heroes and no longer a ragtag band of rookies,” allow the characters to sail above the ground for part of an adventure on a vessel crewed by other people. Ramp it up by letting the characters have their own flying ship or fight actual battles in the air. Dial up the magnificence even further by having the party enter the Plane of Air and take on winged opponents as part of a large-scale battle between half-deities.

They might need preparation (by the players’ characters)

A campaign in which adventuring in the air plays a huge role – maybe the villains and their cultish lackeys have their headquarters on a mountain peak so inaccessible that it can be reached only by flying, or perhaps the monster that awaits the characters at the end is a gargantuan dragon that’s so old and mighty that it defies gravity and simply drifts through the skies – can benefit from making the airborne characters work to improve their chances of success.

For example, the heroes might start on the ground as regular budding adventurers, but learn early on that their arch-enemy (whom they can fight only when they’ve obtained a special key and when they’re at least mighty enough to defeat a hydra) lives in a palace situated on a floating island among the clouds. To reach their enemy, they need to build an airship, which in turn requires them to complete a string of quests. Perhaps there are rare arcane components that are required, a special spell that they need to research, or maybe they have to find an actual mage who possesses the powers to make the ship rise – and convince said spellcaster to join them on a dangerous mission. You can also consider allowing the characters’ ship to “level up” by making upgrades available (tougher hull, better ranged weapons, improved sails), or hiring more crew (which could bring new perks when the ship is in battle).

They might need a crew or two

Speaking of crews, how are your players’ characters’ people management skills? Are they good at negotiating salaries or convincing NPCs to join them on a quest that might be lethal? Great! Because if the heroes are planning to sail away on an airship with multiple enchanted sails and a few arcane devices that suppress gravity, it makes sense to say that such ships need to be manned by lots of people who run around and stay busy making sure the vessel stays on course and doesn’t crash to the ground.

This is a brilliant opportunity for a DM to have some great fun by introducing a selection of interesting NPCs as the available crew. Rather than a handful of faceless sailors who just become an administrative detail, create a bunch of curious non-player characters that will make the players’ characters’ quest more eventful, fun, and complicated. They don’t have to be evil or hopelessly rowdy, just colourful and motivated by their own specific goals (although if any of the characters is hunted by an assassin, it’d sure be fun if the showdown takes place on the deck of a ship ten thousand feet off the ground).

A crew of this kind might serve as hooks for side quests, provide support at the end of the journey when the adventurers go up against their main opponent, or maybe they’ll even stick to the adventurers and join them in future escapades. Besides, a motley crew with oddballs and misfits is usually a terrific recipe for laughs and hilarious side adventures – just think Firefly or Our Flag Means Death.

They can get (truly) lost

When journeying through an ancient forest or crossing a moor at night, wise characters make sure that they know where they’re going. Typically, this is done by having a good ranger in your party, or by securing a reliable map before they even set foot outside the town. But even if the characters do end up lost, this might result only in that they get slightly off track and lost a few days while they’re searching for the way back. Hence, losing one’s way when travelling by conventional means is commonly not a severe setback.

This is dramatically different when the party is racing through the air on a frigate that’s racing over the landscape at breakneck speed. A storm might force adventurers who travel on the ground to seek shelter, while it can snatch an airship and send it a hundred miles off its intended course! It could even drive the ship up into a mountain range and leave the vessel “beached” on a plateau so far up the ground is out of sight.

Now, simply being lost is rarely a useful consequence on its on when running an adventure: you’ll want to make sure that there are further consequences that spark some excitement. Maybe the characters discover a not-so-abandoned castle that’s located in a gorge way up on a cliff, or perhaps they’re stranded near the base of a band of hostile pirates who have a menacing and fast airship of their own. Suddenly, the mishap of losing the way has become a mystery that warrants further investigation or a problematic fix that they must get out of before they’re attacked.

They make battles between ships more fun (and deadlier)

While merely travelling on an airborne ship or flying through the heavens is fascinating enough and does a lot to boost the feeling that the characters are on an epic quest, it’s when a battle breaks out that things get really interesting – and hazardous!
A clash between two forces going toe to toe on the ground is the most common type of D&D battlefield – an open field, a grassy meadow, a slanting hill, or the floor of the dining room in a crowded tavern – and it can often be tense as well as entertaining without any added dangers. If the groups are on two (or more) ships at sea, there are a lot of other things to consider: how the vessels move around each other, if they’re damaged and become unmanageable or sink, if a wizard fireballs a ship’s sails and torches its hull, and what becomes of combatants who happen to fall overboard.

Much of the above is radically changed when there are ships involved. With no water under them, their speed might be much greater, which can lead them to move and manoeuvre around each other very quickly. A sudden gust of wind might have immensely different consequences than it would on a seabound vessel, and fling a ship in any unwanted direction. Also, a ship that’s damaged by the battle may or may not keep flying! We all know what to expect from a wooden vessel that’s blown apart by a spell: the pieces will keep bobbing away on the waves, and so will those who fall into the water. If the same happens to a ship that’s held aloft by arcane means a thousand feet up, the ship might shatter and fall to the ground. Likewise, the unfortunate creatures who are thrown over the railing because their ship is wrecked have no water to dive into, so it’s reasonable to assume that Potions of Flying or Rings of Featherfall are exceedingly popular among all who travel on these ships.

I should note that it’s usually better not to let a “destroyed” ship result in that the whole thing cracks and plummets to the ground with all its crew, tempting as that might be to raise the stakes. Instead, I’d suggest that when a ship loses all its hit points, it becomes unfit for travel and sinks to the ground, where it lands with a mildly dramatic crash that still allows it to be repaired (or at least doesn’t mean that all the creatures on its deck are pulverised!).

If there are no ships involved – in other words, if all the creatures that are in combat can fly and sip around like armed and armoured bees – the situation is a bit different: in this case, it becomes more akin to a game of three-dimensional chess that will need some careful planning ahead indeed. Primarily, taking the different altitudes of the creatures engaged in battle is devilishly tricky. I’ve seen a few streams in which this is handled by the DM who mounts miniatures on transparent columns of different heights, but as you can imagine, you’ll need a seriously stable table and plenty of equipment, miniatures, and patience to represent this sort of fight with props. For this reason, I’d advise that you make sure that at least one side is stationary (in other words, doesn’t fly up or down all the time).

Midnight Tower consists of Tove and Erik, who have been players and DMs of roleplaying games for more than 25 years. At present, Midnight Tower has released several D&D adventures, six printed books,...

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