Flying without Magic in D&D, or, Your Favorite Non-Pass/Fail System

DMMike

Game Masticator
Having just finished the Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it occurred to me that there is a way to fly in D&D without using magic, wings, spells, a boarding pass, or any of that other nonsense. You just have to throw yourself at the ground. And miss. If you fail to hit the ground, the logical outcome is that you must be flying. As Douglas Adams notes, once flying, it's best not to pay too much attention to the fact, and definitely don't touch or concentrate on anything that's very heavy.

By regulation, it would go like this: declare your intent to hit the ground. This is a Very Easy task, with a DC of 5. You'll probably want to use your worst ability for the attempt, and it would help if you didn't keep re-rolling during character creation until all of your abilities were above 9. Next, you'll need Disadvantage. In the Guide, this is accomplished by having something nearby distract you from your goal. Or you could remember something important or odd as a distraction, just before hitting the ground. With a bit of luck, your total will be 4 or less, you'll fail to hit the ground, and technically be flying afterward. Try a swoop or two, but don't think too much about it.

Absurd, isn't it?

That's what can happen when you play with pass/fail systems. Rarely are things so black and white that pass/fail will describe a helpful outcome. A major application of this is dealing damage - not in-game, but in-rules. The rules say that you roll damage when you pass, and you don't when you fail. But that doesn't tell you much about what happens in-game (because what happens in-game isn't black and white).

For example, a Fail in Dungeon World isn't the end of a check. It's the GM's invitation to make a Move against you - something interesting that happens beyond simple failure. Or Genesys colors its pass/fails with advantages, threats, triumphs, and despairs, if you have a little patience.

Do you use a non-pass/fail system? Does it allow for spontaneous character flight?
 
I guess it depends on the system you use. For example, in 5E D&D it's explictly stated that the order of operation is as follows:

1) DM describes the situation.
2) Player decides a course of action
3) DM considers the probability of success and narrates results
3a) if the success of the action is considered impossible or automatic, no roll is made
3b) if the success of the action is in doubt, a roll is determined and a DC set

In the example of hitting the ground, you'd just hit the ground. Conversely, if you wanted to jump to the moon, you'd just hop around. I think 5E is the only game system I've seen explicitly state this, but most games indicate that the GM has final say on all things. Since most GMs aren't idiots, nonsense like this isn't allowed.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Agreed, or anything similar to OD&D :)
OD&D had a really mushy systems for "skills". It was, however, also binary, so that's in common.

I think you've missed what the OP was going for, which wasn't denigrating D&D games but instead trying to explore a different approach to skills. It's one I find most useful for my 5e game, as well, as I tend to use fail forward or success with cost on a failure rather than the 'no progress' baseline of the 'you fail' baseline often imported from 3e. Binary skill systems really put a lot of overhead load on a GM to avoid dead-ends due to dice rolls. Heck, the game goes ahead and puts the entirety of the skill system on the GM's back on page 6 of the PHB. If you're up for that, it's cool. Obviously, two years into my latest campaign and having run almost since release I don't have a huge problem with it, but it is one of those 'barriers' to new GMs.

On the other hand, there are a number of other skill systems that work to reduce GM overhead and they're worth talking about. I'm not a fan of the fiddly dice symbols ones -- they work just fine but I prefer clear stake setting and those require post hoc staking based on roll results. I'm very fond of systems that build in success with cost as the most common result and have failures involving the GM complicating the situation rather than blocking progress.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Do you use a non-pass/fail system? Does it allow for spontaneous character flight?
Occasionally. And not generally.

But, then, whe I use Pass/Fail systems, I remember that before engagintg the system there's a GM filter of, "Do we need to roll for this? Is the result somehow uncertain?" on all declared actions, preventing absurdity when I don't want absurdity.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
1) DM describes the situation.
2) Player decides a course of action
3) DM considers the probability of success and narrates results
3a) if the success of the action is considered impossible or automatic, no roll is made
3b) if the success of the action is in doubt, a roll is determined and a DC set

In the example of hitting the ground, you'd just hit the ground. Conversely, if you wanted to jump to the moon, you'd just hop around. I think 5E is the only game system I've seen explicitly state this, but most games indicate that the GM has final say on all things. Since most GMs aren't idiots, nonsense like this isn't allowed.
there's a GM filter of, "Do we need to roll for this? Is the result somehow uncertain?"
There is that. In theory. But given the number of times I've seen amateur and professional DMs answer "do I see/hear that" with "roll Perception," I'd say that a PC has a pretty good shot at getting to make the miss-the-ground roll.

Also, as I say: "absurd," but a D&D setting has magic. Deities that don't hide behind faith. Talking, flying, giant lizards. Bards. The Baldur's Gate 3 trailer. It's not outside the realm of possibility to miss the ground.

Come to think of it, that's not even a "dis," @LordEntrails. D&D is full to the parapets of absurdity. Shouldn't its Core Mechanic support such things? Half of the name of the game is absurd :geek:

Half of the title of the thread, though, is: your favorite non-pass/fail system.
 

LordEntrails

Adventurer
See I still don't see D&D as a pass/fail system. I know in a way it is, but it's also not in that way so many people run it. Sure, you might miss your DC, but does that mean you "fail"? Not necessarily. Climbing is the biggest example, miss your DC by 1 you just don't progress. Miss by more and more then different things happen. So many 'contests' and even many traps say things like miss your disarm DC by 5 then you set off their trap.

So it's not really pass/fail or binary. Their are degrees of success discussed right in the DMG and is supported with lots of examples in published content.

So, yea, 5E is my favorite non pass-fail system.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
There is that. In theory. But given the number of times I've seen amateur and professional DMs answer "do I see/hear that" with "roll Perception," I'd say that a PC has a pretty good shot at getting to make the miss-the-ground roll.
I don't really think a perception check and "can I spontaneously fly" really compare.

In any case, if a player suggests, "I'd like to throw myself at the ground and miss," and the GM says, "Okay, roll for it," then... that's fine. I don't actually see what that has to do with what resolution system you're working with.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
See I still don't see D&D as a pass/fail system. I know in a way it is, but it's also not in that way so many people run it. Sure, you might miss your DC, but does that mean you "fail"? Not necessarily. Climbing is the biggest example, miss your DC by 1 you just don't progress. Miss by more and more then different things happen. So many 'contests' and even many traps say things like miss your disarm DC by 5 then you set off their trap.

So it's not really pass/fail or binary. Their are degrees of success discussed right in the DMG and is supported with lots of examples in published content.

So, yea, 5E is my favorite non pass-fail system.
But, that's not how the rules of the game are presented. Your last sentence should be more, "5e, with my houserules, is my fav...."

The rules suggest that any failure is a lack of progress, but ultimately leave the disposition a failed check in the hands of the GM. That's still a pass/fail system, just compounded in execution by individual GM choices. It's muddy as heck as an actual system, but it does leave a lot of room (and work) to the GM for adjudication.

And, before the accusations fly, I still am running it (most) every weekend. My enjoyment of the game is no reason to soft pedal hiw it actually works. Understanding that 5e intentionally creates unique local iterations for it's skill system doesn't make it bad or me bad for playing it.
 

Saelorn

Hero
If hitting the ground was actually DC 5, then we would observe character non-magically flying on a routine basis. We don't observe that, therefore it's probably not the case.

If we wanted to take the premise seriously, then a reasonable DC for hitting the ground would be -20. It's something that could only happen with significant outside interference.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
I'm a fan of PF2's Crit Success/Success/Failure/Crit Failure system. I also like systems that "incentivize" failure by giving you more XP for failure, like Burning Wheel and Chronicles of Darkness 2e.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Having just finished the Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it occurred to me that there is a way to fly in D&D without using magic, wings, spells, a boarding pass, or any of that other nonsense. You just have to throw yourself at the ground. And miss. If you fail to hit the ground, the logical outcome is that you must be flying. As Douglas Adams notes, once flying, it's best not to pay too much attention to the fact, and definitely don't touch or concentrate on anything that's very heavy.

By regulation, it would go like this: declare your intent to hit the ground. This is a Very Easy task, with a DC of 5. You'll probably want to use your worst ability for the attempt, and it would help if you didn't keep re-rolling during character creation until all of your abilities were above 9. Next, you'll need Disadvantage. In the Guide, this is accomplished by having something nearby distract you from your goal. Or you could remember something important or odd as a distraction, just before hitting the ground. With a bit of luck, your total will be 4 or less, you'll fail to hit the ground, and technically be flying afterward. Try a swoop or two, but don't think too much about it.

Absurd, isn't it?

That's what can happen when you play with pass/fail systems. Rarely are things so black and white that pass/fail will describe a helpful outcome. A major application of this is dealing damage - not in-game, but in-rules. The rules say that you roll damage when you pass, and you don't when you fail. But that doesn't tell you much about what happens in-game (because what happens in-game isn't black and white).

For example, a Fail in Dungeon World isn't the end of a check. It's the GM's invitation to make a Move against you - something interesting that happens beyond simple failure. Or Genesys colors its pass/fails with advantages, threats, triumphs, and despairs, if you have a little patience.

Do you use a non-pass/fail system? Does it allow for spontaneous character flight?
Lol, I looked at the date, and it wasn't actually April 1... So I re-read with that in mind.

I'm actually going to make this a rule in my home game.

But, returning to your initial question.

I think that it is always good, regardless of the game, to make sure the stakes are understood whenever the dice get picked up. In D&D, the stakes are very clear in combat situations. Especially because as you note, it's a binary system, so a miss is just a miss (a sigh is just a sigh). The rules of D&D don't actually tell a DM what to do in the case of a miss narratively. It's just a miss. Of course a DM who wants to build more story around a particular combat may narrate briefly what happened. But that's just for the DM - there's no rule that states a DM must do that.

In DW, the rules say - if there's a miss, the DM must do X (a hard move). And if there's a 7-9 result, the DM must do something else. That's all defined. And it is very much benefited by setting the stakes in advance of the roll being made.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Personally, I think the OP is looking the question almost exactly backward (though amusingly). You're not trying to miss the ground, you're trying to hit the space around it, which is incredibly difficult (one might call it a recreational impossibility). I think the DC for it has to be at least 50 (yes, in 5E), which means it's really unlikely in the absence lots of outside help. I also think any DM who allows the player to roll for this deserves what he gets.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
You're not trying to miss the ground, you're trying to hit the space around it, which is incredibly difficult (one might call it a recreational impossibility). . .
I also think any DM who allows the player to roll for this deserves what he gets.
No, it's actually really important that you fail to hit the ground, instead of succeed at flying. Here's why:

Flying difficulty: Nearly Impossible, DC 30.
Hitting the ground: Very Easy, DC 5.

It is significantly more improbable that you'll succeed on DC 30 than fail a DC 5. At low level, anyway. Ability bonuses and skill proficiency will tilt those scales over time.

And yes, you're right about the DM deserving it :)

If hitting the ground was actually DC 5, then we would observe character non-magically flying on a routine basis. We don't observe that, therefore it's probably not the case.
The assumption being that characters regularly fling themselves at the ground, and statistically speaking, about 1 in 4 of them are failing at it miserably? Except characters don't regularly fling themselves at the ground.

Or you're assuming that a character who pulled it off would tell other characters, who would then go on to specifically attempt to fly. Or miss the ground. That wouldn't result in routine flying, because the act of telling other characters about it is a Help action, which grants Advantage, which negates the Disadvantage that is sorely needed for the endeavor.

In any case, if a player suggests, "I'd like to throw myself at the ground and miss," and the GM says, "Okay, roll for it," then... that's fine. I don't actually see what that has to do with what resolution system you're working with.
The resolution system tells the GM what to do after "okay roll for it."

In D&D, the character succeeds or fails/makes no progress/makes progress with a setback. The fail means 1) the character failed to hit the ground, 2) makes no progress toward the ground, or 3) hits the ground anyway and probably takes damage too. Two of those outcomes can be considered flying.

Eyes of Nine touched on this - you can fling yourself at the ground in Dungeon World. If you roll too low, the consequence is up to the GM, in her choice of what Move to make, which is significantly different from D&D's three basic choices.

Genesys's narrative dice allow a player to roll Advantages even while Failing, or Threats in the face of Success. So if the player says "I fling myself at the ground," and the GM says "roll for it," there's a phase of dice-interpretation that precludes (from what I can tell) the simple result of, "welp, you failed to hit the ground."

A degrees-of-success system, (maybe White Wolf's add-the-successes?) might not overcome the problem. Pathfinder 2 might fall into this. If you fling yourself at the ground and get a critical success, maybe you hit the ground without taking damage (you found an ergonomic rut to land on). A fail is still a fail, right? What about a critical fail? Does this mean something Extra Bad happens? That could be interesting...so you'd fail to hit the ground - be flying - buuuuut break your noggin in the process?
 

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