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In the setting that I've created, the party will be spending time around a world tree. The tree is extremely large and has a large number of town sized bird cages (flowers of the tree that never detach and buildings within are primarily made from tree parts), inhabited solely by flying races and as a result very difficult to traverse without flying. Whilst possible through lifts/towed vehicles used for transporting items, expecting this of non-flying races (or those that are no longer capable) is unrealistic so the locals designed and give out "Prosthetic Wings" that are powered from the magic of the tree.

Later on the party will have a chance to get an airship made of part of the tree, similar in stats to a standard Sailing Ship from Ghosts of Saltmarsh, which these will also be expected to work with. In this context they're to be expected to allow melee combatants to fight flying threats which will be run into travelling and allow safe repairs without landing.

Prosthetic Wings

Wonderous Item, Common

This item appears to be a small wooden seal that magically attaches to anything it's pressed against. The seals magic only works when it has been within 200 feet of at least 500 lb of World Tree Wood within the last 30 seconds.

You gain transparent wings on your back and claws formed over your feet similar in appearance to those of the crafter, granting 60 feet flying speed (unusable with medium or heavy armour), 1d4 unarmed damage and the ability to grip and manipulate with your feet as if they are your hands.

This item isn't attuned as I don't want melee fighters to be disadvantaged by the requirements, though they will be given before players have enough items requiring attunement to fill their slots. Along with this, races that start with flying are not allowed for player characters.

Is this an understandable description, useful for the intended purpose, and un-abusable? I'm open to frame challenges about both of its intended uses.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What's a World Tree Wood and how popular is it on your world? Also, why do you think attunement would hurt melee characters more? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 12:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ The World Tree Wood is extremely common near the world tree due to its size, but generally isn't available outside the nearby region. I believe melee characters would need these attuned to fight things with ranged attacks near the ship, whilst mages wouldn't and as a result would have an extra slot to play with. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cassie
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 12:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cassie: Is there any reason not to just restricted it to within X feet of living, rooted World Tree Wood? Establishing specific weights of wood required just seems like an invitation to lop bits off the World Tree and cart them around for infinite localized flying. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 21:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ShadowRanger that is partially the intent, as in the question the wings were designed gameplay wise to work around airships or totems made of parts of the tree. This would also be roleplay wise a synergistic living thing of trimming the tree so it stays healthiest. I had considered large inedibjle fruit type things to fit the purpose to make the intent clearer to players, but felt the chosen way to be cleaner. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cassie
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 21:56

4 Answers 4

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There are some loopholes

I think the intention is clear enough - you want the players to have free fly speed while they are on the tree (once gifted those wings), but not forever.

The nearest comparable item is the broom of flying, which is both (1) uncommon, (2) has only 50 fly speed and (3) needs to be ridden. In addition to being better on each of these aspects, you get free claws with these prosthetic wings. (There is also the wings of flying, which is rare, requires attunement, and only works once every 1d12 hours -- obviously closer in flavor but a lot worse).

Your item as a balancing point can only be used when not wearing medium or heavy armor, and when you are near the tree.

Here are some issues I see

  • You say you want this to not disadvantage melee characters. Asking for only light or no armor will be a major disadvantage to fighters that rely on heavy armor and will miss your stated objectives.

  • The method with 500 lbs. of World Tree wood nearby is somewhat exploitable. All your characters need is a bag of holding, fill it up with wood they chopped of the tree, and voilá, flight for everyone for at least 5 rounds whenever the party wants to, by taking out the wood and getting started.

  • As it is described the seal attaches when pressed against something, only if within 500 feet of the tree wood. You should clarify what happens afterwards, or when the character who already has wings moves out of range form more than 30 seconds -- will the wings vanish? I think the idea is yes, but being a bit more wordy with homebrew items to make it eminently clear how they work, while not being as elegant, rarely hurts.

  • If the point is to just give them a fly speed, 60 feet has the added effect to make the characters very fast. We often use fly simply for the speed up it brings. For comparison, a potion of flying just grants you a fly speed equal to your walking speed (It is also very rare, and again, only works for one hour).

If you just want them to be able to fly while exploring the tree, you could make this simpler and less technical by saying that the wings only work when your are within a given distance of the tree, and vanish when you move away from it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I hadn't considered the bag of holding method, my goal for that section was "working around tree, vehicle or some sort of totem carried by multiple people/ship" The flying speed was generally to keep speed with the ship and things like drakes, which have similar speeds, though I agree that it's probably to fast. Good points overall though! \$\endgroup\$
    – Cassie
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why pick wings of flying which is an absolutely awful item in 'balance' terms. The broom of flying, which just happens to be uncommon, is far better. Using rarity to talk about flyig items is really a bad idea. The potion is also awfully balanced, as are pretty much all potions. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri: you are right, the broom is a better comparator. I will update it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Honestly flying items in the DMG are the most broken of the lot, but the whole section is deeply unbalanced, and then the newer items just make the DMG even more of a joke. Relly hoping 6e fixes some of it! And provides a sane ecomony lol... \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 15:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri Couldn't agree more -- the wings at rare should be better, not a lot worse than the broom, for example. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 15:54
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Frame challenge: The tree is magic, not the items

Handing out free magic items just adds complexity. If you want player characters to be able to fly around the tree, just add a magic field that the tree (or those who tend the tree) have created which allows non-flying races to fly in that area.

Maybe one race of ground dwellers has some symbiotic relationship with the tree, so it creates this field to allow them to perform their job and as a result they never developed wings of their own.

Maybe the tree even has a will of it's own so can choose not to extend the benefit to anything that is harmful to it, or enemies. Mage casts a fireball in the wrong place, bye-bye.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a clever and flavorful idea of how to handle it +1 \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 15:43
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Giving the characters extra free hands can be a recipe for shenanigans.

The flying speed probably won't cause issues, it generally only works when you, the DM, say it works (though Groody's answer explores some potential workarounds). And while the same can be said for the rest of the effects, extra free hands can lead to shenanigans. This question explores some of those shenanigans introduced by an Unearthed Arcana race with four arms. So when your feature gives "the ability to grip and manipulate with your feet as if they are your hands", you risk enabling any of the shenanigans discussed on that question, the main ones dealing with Two-Weapon Fighting, use of a shield, spell components, and throwing things. Read through the answers there, see which of them might apply to your party, and decide if you're okay with that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point, too! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 12:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point, I hadn't considered the impact of weapons in them, which looking back does seem an obvious thing to consider. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cassie
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 13:02
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TL;DR: don't sweat it, but change the speed to be equal to twice the land speed and get around the armor restriction. Also, I'd drop the useless claws for simplicity.

First, balance is not really an issue. This item will only be useable in this adventure and all PCs are getting one, so the only thing to be worried about is that some character abilities become redundant or unusable. Those are:

  • extra speed,
  • unarmed attacks
  • flight,
  • armor.

Extra speed is a concern, both intra-party and in balancing encounters. Luckily it is easy to fix: just grant a flight speed equal to land speed rather than a fixed amount and it will be transparent. Many in game abilities do that. Make it double the land speed if you want it to be closer to your original idea.

Unarmed attacks are even easier. An 1d4 weapon will never see any use unless you capture and disarm the party, which comes up rarely. Outside of that, it's mostly a cosmetic thing that it's likely not worth the space it takes in a character sheet. I'd drop them for simplicity but you can keep them, they're harmless.

Flight is very rare as a racial ability but not that uncommon in class features (including the Flight spell), which are usually limited or costly or both. Either warn your players they will all get free flight in session 0 (before they build their character) or compensate those who can fly on their own in some other way (have the party find a class-specific item).

I assume you're giving out those wings to everybody. Please do not have the caster pay a spell slot (or even worse a spell known) just to get where the story is, while giving the fighter free flight.

Armor is a sore point. I understand that flying knights strain credibility but several monsters do that, as well as some higher-level flight-granting abilities. The issue is made worse because heavy armor tooks forever to don and doff, so a character whose adventuring day might involve flying around has to give up a powerful class feature at all times.

You could:

  • just let them fly in armor. It's magic! Some armored monsters do fly. This also works great if you set the speed to twice the land speed: the armored characters will be noticeably slower that way.
  • provide special (world-tree-based?) medium and heavy armor that you can fly in.
  • compensate the characters. Medium and armor costs a feat if you don't have it and heavvy armor another one on top of it, so you have a baseline. Don't be stingy.

Warning your players in session 0 that classes that rely on heavy or medium armor should be avoided could work if none of your players is in love with STR builds. In my opinion it cuts out a bit too much choice space for PCs.

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