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Say a creature with a flight speed starts their turn 500 feet above the ground. They then stop flying and plummet towards the ground. 5 feet before impact they use 5 feet of their flight movement to reach the ground.

From what I can see they take no falling damage because they were not falling when they reached the ground. Is there any problem with doing this by Rules as Written (RAW)?

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No. RAW they fall instantly with no chance to fly again

PHB rules are unclear: entirely up to your DM

The rules on falling in the PHB/basic rules state:

A fall from a great height is one of the most common hazards facing an adventurer. At the end of a fall, a creature takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage for every 10 feet it fell, to a maximum of 20d6. The creature lands prone, unless it avoids taking damage from the fall. (PHB, p. 183)

If you go strictly by PHB rules only, then there is no answer and the DM must decide. See below for why allowing it to be used your way is a bad idea though.

No, according to XGE clarifications.

However, using the clarification from the preface to the optional rules on falling in Xanathar's Guide to Everything makes this default rule much clearer.

The [PHB] rule for falling assumes that a creature immediately drops the entire distance when it falls. (XGE, p. 77)

So, using the default rules as clarified by XGE, a creature has no opportunity to do anything once they start falling. They immediately fall the entire distance and take however much damage or other effects they have triggered. Having a fly speed doesn't matter here because it doesn't change the rate at which falling occurs.

Do note, that while possibly a bit counter-intuitive, it makes a lot of mechanical sense. Allowing flying creatures to be able to use falling in the way you suggest would essentially give them a huge amount of free, OA-free, movement in the air. Given that flight is already a powerful boon, it makes sense to prevent this additional advantage.

Do note that, RAW, flying creatures only start falling under very specific circumstances:

A flying creature in flight falls if it is knocked prone, if its speed is reduced to 0 feet, or if it otherwise loses the ability to move, unless it can hover or it is being held aloft by magic, such as the fly spell. (XGE, p. 77)

So, RAW, you cannot use your fly speed to avoid fall damage in the way you propose.

In your case, your flying creature would fall 500 feet and take the appropriate amount of fall damage. After which they could take whatever actions or moment they have available to them.

Optional rules for falling flying creatures helps them a bit more

XGE even has a very specific optional rule to help flying creatures survive falls. This also is great support for the above RAW ruling, because if they could just avoid all damage simply by having a fly speed, the rule wouldn't be needed. Note specifically also that these rules are supposed to give a better chance of surviving a fall for flying creatures. If they could avoid it by using their fly speed, then this would actually be giving them a downgrade.

If you’d like a flying creature to have a better chance of surviving a fall than a non-flying creature does, use this rule: subtract the creature’s current flying speed from the distance it fell before calculating falling damage. This rule is helpful to a flier that is knocked prone but is still conscious and has a current flying speed that is greater than 0 feet. The rule is designed to simulate the creature flapping its wings furiously or taking similar measures to slow the velocity of its fall.

If you use the rule for rate of falling in the previous section, a flying creature descends 500 feet on the turn when it falls, just as other creatures do. But if that creature starts any of its later turns still falling and is prone, it can halt the fall on its turn by spending half its flying speed to counter the prone condition (as if it were standing up in midair). (XGE, p. 77)

Using this rule, a flying creature can survive falls better, but they still aren't able to use their fly speed to completely avoid all penalties unless they are falling from very high altitudes and the fall takes more than one turn to complete. However, in that specific case, they can use their fly speed to help prevent damage.

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Use the Ready action

This is what you would use the Ready action for:

First, you decide what perceivable circumstance will trigger your reaction. Then, you choose the action you will take in response to that trigger, or you choose to move up to your speed in response to it.

For example: "When I'm 5ft away from the ground I'm going to spread my wings to stop the fall then land gracefully"

We already have site consensus that falling is perceivable;

In real life it would probably be harder to pull off

RAW this is correct, but it feels a little unsatisfying because 5e does not have rules for conservation of momentum. When faced with these situations where 5e does not completely match our expectations, I make a ruling. In this case I would ask for an appropriate check depending on how the monster is going to slow their fall (spreading wings and brute forcing like a parachute might call for a str check, gracefully twisting might be dex, and the fly spell could use the spellcasting attribute).

Doesn't XGtE say you instantly fall to the floor?

No, XGtE says:

The [PHB] rule for falling assumes that a creature immediately drops the entire distance when it falls.

This means you drop right away with no delay. And even if the intention was for you to "instantly" appear on the floor, that doesn't stop other characters seeing you fall and reacting to it. Ready interrupts the normal flow of the game, that's the entire point of it - whether you are reacting to someone walking or attacking, it always interrupts.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this with or without the falling rules from XGtE? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15 at 2:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Going strictly by the XGtE rules, being 5ft away from the ground is not a perceivable circumstance because the fall is instantaneous. Your answer makes fine sense narratively, because the rule does not. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15 at 2:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ The rules are unambiguous: “immediately drops the entire distance” and “ instantly descend up to 500 feet”. You can narrate this however you want, I don’t narrate it as teleportation, but for the purposes of mechanical rulings, I use the rules as written, which again, isn’t really ambiguous. “Immediately” and “instantly” are pretty clear. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15 at 3:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Non-humanPerson It's about how things are resolved in combat order. Narratively you may describe that they visibly fall, but mechanically the fall is "instant" meaning it generally can't be interrupted. Like an attack: Strinking an opponent with a sword doesn't teleport the sword to the opponent, but mechanically you can't break up the attack and do other stuff while the sword is mid swing Exceltions apply, of course (feather fall) \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Feb 15 at 5:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RHS Thanks, that is exactly right. Sometimes mechanics and narrative don’t tell the exact same story, indeed, sometimes we should expect this. It’s a game with rules, and we cannot expect those rules to provide a coherent simulation of the real world at all times. D&D is not a physics simulator. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15 at 12:10

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