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I was running my game today and came across a situation which got the group into a heated debate. What happened was the witch was flying along using their fly hex 20 feet up in the air and got knocked out due to damage.

The players were arguing that the spell was no longer active and thus the feather fall aspect of fly would kick in and no fall damage. They even argued that it would behave similar to air walk and they would be resting in the air. Despite the spell/hex having a duration, and not a concentration. I ruled that since flying requires concentration similar to walking, and you fall down when you are knocked out, and thus you fall. The fly is still in effect however.

Please confirm or deny that my interpretation of the rules is correct. I like having 3rd party confirmation when making rulings on things.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ From memory, it's the Manoeuvrability category of flight that determines whether the flying creature must keep moving in order to remain airbourne. Since it's hard to keep moving while unconscious, presumably creatures with the lower fly manoeuvrabilities would fall if they fell unconscious - but since I don't know what manoeuvrability is grated by the Fly hex, I can't provide that as an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Sep 8 '15 at 0:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Its the same as the fly spell, so maneuverability is average at least. Regardless of how good their flying is, if their not awake to control it they should fall or fly head first into a wall. Hovering is a DC 15. \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Sep 8 '15 at 3:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ According to the PRD, the fly spell grants Good manoeuvrability. That said, I have the sneaking suspicion that Pathfinder doesn't specify a minimum flight speed for some manoeuverabilities the way that 3.5e did... But it's a bit hard to prove a negative. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Sep 8 '15 at 4:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would just like to point out that 20ft in the air is only 1d6 falling damage, unlikely to be lethal unless you were knocked heavily into the negatives. \$\endgroup\$ – GreySage Sep 8 '15 at 16:38
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The player would be correct if the spell ended. But in the case of this spell he is wrong. If you take a look at the spell it has no concentration required to have the spell active. Instead the spell has a fixed duration after which you float downwards (even if the spell is dispelled instead of it ending normally).

Thus in that case he is correct he would float down safely.

BUT as it has a fixed duration and no concentration is required to uphold it the spell does NOT end if you are knocked unconscious. In that case you have the same problem as a dragon or a bird that gets knocked unconscious in mid air.......or in other words you drop like a stone. In this case the last paragraph of the fly spell comes into effect:

See Falling Damage if something bad happens!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Dragons, and Birds aren't under the effect of magic specifically designed to keep you in the air and deliver you to the ground safely. Do you have anything to uphold your assertion that the Fly spell would cause you to fall if unconscious? \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Sep 6 '15 at 22:15
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The rules certainly imply that the ruling was incorrect, but nothing says for sure. A preponderance of circumstantial evidence weighs heavily against you, however.

To begin, Thomas is correct that the spell hasn't ended, so the feather fall aspect of the spell does not officially come into play. Instead, we are left with dealing with the “realities” of magical flight, which are largely left undefined. But we do have some hints.

For one, nothing in fly says that the spell requires conscious effort to stay aloft. In fact, it explicitly says that it “requires only as much concentration as walking.” Crucially, unlike the bird out dragon Thomas compares this too, the spellcaster is flying with magic, not by flapping wings.

This is critical, because the Fly skill talks about wings a lot:

If you are using wings and you fail a Fly check by 5 or more, you plummet to the ground, taking the appropriate falling damage.

If you are flying using wings and you take damage while flying, you must make a DC 10 Fly check to avoid losing 10 feet of altitude.

If you are using wings to fly and you collide with an object equal to your size or larger, you must immediately make a DC 25 Fly check to avoid plummeting to the ground, taking the appropriate falling damage.

(emphasis mine)

The Fly skill lists no circumstance under which you fall if you are flying without wings. The fly spell, itself, suggests that only getting caught in an antimagic field or similar would do it. Moreover,

You generally need only make a Fly check when you are attempting a complex maneuver.

An unconscious character is not attempting anything. What happens when you are unconscious, and cannot actively dictate what happens with your flying, is unclear, but it definitely does not seem to be that you fall.

Personally, I would have expected that, once unconscious, the target of fly would float, in place, until the spell ended, and then the feather fall effect would trigger. That appears to be most in line with the way the spell works in general: the spell has done serious protections against falling.

However, it is true that Hover is a DC 15 Fly check to perform. So what does the Fly skill say about default behavior?

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.

This suggests that you just continue moving in the last direction you were going in. Take the distance and direction of the last straight-line segment of movement the creature had, and replicate it on each turn, moving at least half their speed. A downward trajectory might involve a collision with the ground, but at nothing like falling speeds. The spell is obviously counteracting the effects of gravity so no acceleration would happen.

Actually, considering that the spell automatically protects you from falling even when the magic rubs it out is forcibly ended, it's also just as reasonable to say that magical flight defaults to drifting downward safely if the user is unconscious. This is not the same as the explicit provision in the fly spell for the spell running out or being dispelled; this is a conjecture about the nature of magical flight. Definitely possible.

But nothing actually says how magical flight works in this case – it just all seems to be very strongly suggesting that magical flight is quite safe and it’s rather difficult to actually fall and hurt yourself while using it. Ruling that magical flight requires conscious effort to stay aloft is possible. I just don’t consider it a particularly likely one, and would be annoyed at a DM who sprung it on me, since I’d consider any of the above more in keeping with how we know the spell works in other situations. That goes double if the falling damage risked the character’s death: that would mean that you, as DM, specifically choose to try to subject my character to random death, in a situation where many other possibilities exist and this one seems least likely.

That said, if it is established ahead of time that this is how magical flight works and this is a risk, then I'd have no issue. Consider: this spellcaster knows magic. They know this spell. I would expect them to know how it works. The player certainly thought he or she knew how it worked: they assumed the feather fall effect protected them. If that was not the case, their character would know that. Thus, there is also a reverse-metagame issue here, and that's the kind of thing that a DM should give warnings about.

So, in conclusion,

  • the ruling was conceivably possible, but ran counter to numerous statements about the nature of magical flight in general

  • several other rulings, including both suggested by the players, were much more in keeping with the various statements about magical flight

  • springing an unexpected ruling on a player in a situation where it risks getting their character killed is poor form, and players may leave the game if they perceive the game as being full of “gotchas,” as many players do not like that style of play

  • the character would have known about this problem, even if the player did not. As DM, you should have done something to warn the player in that case.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You must use the fly skill while flying even with magical means. To hover requires a skill check DC 15, so they could not just hover. \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Sep 6 '15 at 16:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Fering Unfortunately, Pathfinder is a little vague on what happens if a wingless creature fails a Fly skill check: "If you are using wings and you fail a Fly check by 5 or more, you plummet to the ground, taking the appropriate falling damage." \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Sep 6 '15 at 17:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe I'm overlooking something but can someone explain to me why this answer got downvoted? (KRyan has a different take and oppinion than I have but still reading through the answer I don't see anything why it would be downvoted?) \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas E. Sep 6 '15 at 19:07
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The ruling is likely incorrect. The witch using the Fly hex uses the Hex in one minute increments which determine its duration, and it functions as the spell Fly in all regards. The problem lies in the ambiguous text that the spell wording uses, but I think I can summarize it succinctly for you, it states:

Using a fly spell requires only as much concentration as walking, so the subject can attack or cast spells normally.

So the spell states that it doesn't require any additional action to sustain movement in the air as opposed to a spell with a Concentration duration that requires consistent focus to maintain the spell.

It also states:

Should the spell duration expire while the subject is still aloft, the magic fails slowly. The subject floats downward 60 feet per round for 1d6 rounds. If it reaches the ground in that amount of time, it lands safely.

So since the witches hex lasts 1 minute up to a maximum of her witch level and she can choose how many minutes she wants to use up, it can last as little as 1 minute or as many as whatever the witches level in your game was. When this time that the witch chooses expires (and not before) the magic will fail slowly, causing her to float to the ground when it ends if she falls unconscious before the spell durates.

The only listed way to completely cancel the fly spell so that the Feather Fall effect doesn't kick in is by Antimagic field, according to the CRB. If that was the case (though it doesnt seem so) she'd drop like a rock. In all other occurrences she would remain aloft until the hex expires, and then when it does she'd slowly fall to the ground.

Furthermore, A witches Flight Hex is a Supernatural ability, and the text for supernatural abilities states:

These can't be disrupted in combat and generally don't provoke attacks of opportunity. They aren't subject to spell resistance, counterspells, or dispel magic, and don't function in antimagic areas.

Which could imply that the spell can't be disrupted in any combat circumstance, including disables, sleeps, etc. I know in 3.5 Supernatural abilities never required a concentration check for any reason, and it would seem like Pathfinder does follow that note.

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