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Worlds of Design: Death from Above

Introducing flight to your fantasy battles? There are serious consequences for how it will affect your world.

ship-of-dreams-2147058_1280.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Why It Matters​

When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” – Leonardo DaVinci
When you change something in your world from how it is in a “real” world, there ought to be consequences for how it affects play. Here I’m discussing the addition of the impact of flying on a medieval fantasy world such as I described in “Baseline Assumptions of Fantasy RPGs."

The importance is that we don't want to break immersion. Something that isn't believable breaks immersion. For example, the biggest “believability hole” in the Spelljammer setting (see “How Would You Design for Spelljammer?”), is that many a smart planet-dwelling captain obtaining a 'jammer will likely use his/her ship to influence land-based wars on his/her planet instead of going out into an unknown full of flying ships. There are two aspects here, which I'll mix in the following:
  1. Flying for individuals or small groups (as in spells, rings, brooms, carpets), and
  2. Flying ships or other large craft.

Intelligence/Reconnaissance​

Long before airplanes existed, armies used large balloons to see more of a battlefield, to collect useful information. This can be done on the small scale (carpets, flying spell, etc.) as well as the large scale (ships). Given that ordinary war in a melee age is chaos, most information isn't known to the participants, reconnaissance gives a significant edge in war.

Warfare is about maneuver, geospatial relationships, intelligence (gathering information), logistics, mobility (in the air), vulnerability, how you hold onto territory, range of effect. Improved intelligence helps in all of these.

Communication​

Even when flying isn't much faster than walking, you can fly in straight lines and over terrain obstacles. Any general would love to have flying messengers.

Bombardment​

When it comes to flight in warfare, the military advantage is not so much the speed it bestows as the ability to hover over an enemy. And the carrying capacity. It is really hard for an airplane to hit a ground target, because the airplane must keep moving or fall out of the sky. But spelljammers (and many other flying ships) can hover (see “Making Fixes for Spelljammer”).

Moreover, even if airplanes could stay stationary, they’re vulnerable to ground fire. Fantasy "ground fire" (spells, mechanical engines) is very short-ranged. There are nothing like “magic 88s,” anti-aircraft guns, at least not in any of the versions of D&D.

Spelljammers can fly quite low while remaining far out of range of ground-based spells and missiles. That’s only two tenths of a mile, not much more than three football fields. Imagine being at that height and able to drop rocks or bombs. If (when) the first try misses, you move the ship a little and do it again, ranging in while the poor saps on the ground can do little to stop you, unless they have aerial cavalry or powerful spellcasters who can fly. The ship can carry a virtually unlimited supply of smoothed (for aerodynamics) rock ammunition.

Only small moving targets will be hard to hit. The ground forces can move quickly (but won't otherwise be effective if constantly dodging), but their installations (forts, trebuchets, warehouses, etc.) and large units cannot.

The counterargument is: “targets can use their weapons and spells too." But the tyranny of gravity means range upwards is short, and ranges of spells in RPGs are typically quite short, as befits a skirmish situation amongst individuals. Nor will a typical army have air cavalry.

It’s true that bombing a target is no small feat, like tossing a coin off a bridge; yet a coin is a really shaky missile, aerodynamically. If you’re using magic, you’ll use it to hit what you aim at; if using some kind of bomb it’s likely to be much more aerodynamically stable than a coin, and it’ll have a blast radius. Aerial bombing is yet another reason for "castles" and other fortifications to go underground, which I'll talk about another time.

Individual Action​

What about individual flying on a small scale? I remember playing a campaign with several GMs working together. Once we got our hands on flight and invisibility, we used them for “cutting out expeditions” where a combination of characters who could fly and turn invisible would capture an enemy and “squeeze them till the pips squeak”; that is, use magic such as ESP to get as much information out of them as we could. This wouldn't have worked nearly as well or as often without the ability to fly.

If you have the equivalent of bombs or artillery that can be launched by an individual (such as a wand of lightning bolts or fireballs) then that will make a big difference to general adventuring outdoors and to small-scale battles. In larger scale battles it may make a big psychological difference. Of course the person launching the “bombs” makes themselves a target to opposing magic; yet with the advantage of height they aren’t going to be hit by arrows or javelins, owing to the tyranny of gravity.

Ubiquity​

If there's only one flying ship, or a few persons who can fly, then that's not likely to change the entire setting; but when it becomes common enough to supplement armies, it will change the very nature of warfare.

Your Turn: If you have many flying possibilities in your campaign, how does it change your game?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

grimslade

Doddering Old Git
The thing is that flight exists in most campaigns. It just is not equally distributed. Dragons are terrifying to any humanoid settlement. Cloud giants historically would have dominated huge swaths of territory with their cloud citadels. Smaller scale, aarakrokka, tiefling subraces, aasimar subraces, and now feywild folk in the UA all have flight without the need for magic. Flight and three dimensional combat are not really addressed well so far in 5E.
Cities and fortresses would be designed so differently from our real world counterparts. Not only from flight, but also from the threat of intelligent underground beasties. What Keep on the Borderlands would be able to survive an attack from the combined onslaught of dire bat riding goblins, a hobgoblin siege army, and umber hulk sappers? Neogi mind spiders on slaving raids to planets would be equally devastating.
The problem is not so much flight, as it is the low cost of flight. Magic impacts on the economy are a tricky business. The extreme cost of building a spelljammer or airship is offset by its negligible operation cost. There is no fuel requirement other than spell slots or a chained elemental. Fuel and physics limit the ability of real world floating cities or battle stations. Eberron tries to address some of this but still has the limited resource of dragon marks to limit the scale of magic economy.
 

jgsugden

Legend
We have flying ships. They are incredibly expensive, and they are considered very, very risky. A 5th level wizard with fly and dispel magic can send them crashing to the ground, as can a reasonable storm. Further, they do not travel that much faster than naval vessels, on the Prime, so they are primarily used for overland travel, and primarily in regions where land travel is very dangerous.

I also have a modified version of Spelljammers - they exist in the Astral Sea and are used to take things across the Astral Sea. As the primary world in my Prime Material Plane has roughly 12 times the surface area of Earth (and a 'Dyson Sphere' type underdark world with another surface area nearly as large, but largely devoid of water). People often find that fastest path between two places is to find a permanent gate to the Astral and chart a voyage to another gate back to the Prime in another location - it can shorten a trip by a year or more.
 

Stormonu

Legend
One protection against bombardment for ground structures is the spell Control Weather. Fantasy societies that are aware of such enemies as flying ships and whatnot would possibly develop lower-level versions that could protect the skies over areas with high winds, cloud cover (harder/impossible to bomb what you can’t see), hail and skyward lightning strikes that are either permanent, constant or dormant-until-approached protections.

Mundane ballistas have more distance and punch that bows or other “small arms” could be used - especially if the range of these weapons is upgraded via magical or mundane means (you don’t need the spell to reach the target, you just need to extend the range of the attacking weapon itself). Spells themselves in 5E tend to have shorter range than mundane ranged weapons, and since most bombardments would rely on actual sight, as long as your defensive weapon has a range of “sight”, it should be a good deterrent.

Sky mines, tethered dirigibles, gas spores, domesticated flying monsters or other concoctions could be floated over an area to endanger attackers. Some might be invisible or near ethereal, making them difficult to detect or avert.

Near ground level magic, such as Reverse Gravity, could be used to catch, avert, destroy or even reflect bombardments cast at them. Spells like Hallucinatory Terrain could disguise the location from above, making it impossible to target correctly.

Likewise, flying cavalry units could be available to some areas to alleviate the threat of arial attack. Even a nature cleric or Druid might be able to use bird, stirge or other flocks to harass attackers and possibly damage/destroy enemy attackers (say, with giant woodpecker flocks...).

These protections could be stationed at specific strategic points, patrol areas and/or be stationed for on-call duty as needed.

And, if you have a ship capable of flight, there’s a good chance the enemy does too...
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
If the ships are the only thing that can fly it is a problem. With dragons, griffon riders, space whales and whatever else it is less of a problem. The players also wont abuse it if they have a clear narrative goal. I only see flying as a problem in the classic sense of how you deal with it in gridded combat. Break out your math books everyone, time to calculate the hypotenuse.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
One protection against bombardment for ground structures is the spell Control Weather. Fantasy societies that are aware of such enemies as flying ships and whatnot would possibly develop lower-level versions that could protect the skies over areas with high winds, cloud cover (harder/impossible to bomb what you can’t see), hail and skyward lightning strikes that are either permanent, constant or dormant-until-approached protections.
The trick then becomes getting these kind of defenses to be able to distinguish between actual threats and innocent and-or friendly flyers, unless the defending society is completely ground-bound.
Mundane ballistas have more distance and punch that bows or other “small arms” could be used - especially if the range of these weapons is upgraded via magical or mundane means (you don’t need the spell to reach the target, you just need to extend the range of the attacking weapon itself). Spells themselves in 5E tend to have shorter range than mundane ranged weapons, and since most bombardments would rely on actual sight, as long as your defensive weapon has a range of “sight”, it should be a good deterrent.
Yep - here's your anti-aircraft ordnance. Bard the Bowman, step right up. :)

Not much good against an individual on a broom but ballistae will wreak merry hell on an airship and even moreso on a dirigible.
Sky mines, tethered dirigibles, gas spores, domesticated flying monsters or other concoctions could be floated over an area to endanger attackers. Some might be invisible or near ethereal, making them difficult to detect or avert.
Sky mines have the same problem noted above: they don't distinguish between threats and non-threats. But the rest are good, and if you've somehow managed to tame some Air Elementals you're all set. :)
 

Stormonu

Legend
Sometimes you don’t care about whether your defense can discriminate between friend or foe. You just might not like the idea of anyone overhead. :)
 


talien

Community Supporter
Not much good against an individual on a broom but ballistae will wreak merry hell on an airship and even moreso on a dirigible.
One of the points Lew made is that whoever is on the ground is fighting gravity. The aerial attacker doesn't have to be super far away, just slightly further than a ballista's range. The airship has gravity helping its attacks, the ground forces are hindered by it.

If this is an ambush with no pre-calculations, that's one thing. If significant pre-planning happens beforehand, ballista/catapult maximum heights would certainly be figured in, ensuring a very one-sided battle, barring any surprise flying forces.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
One of the points Lew made is that whoever is on the ground is fighting gravity. The aerial attacker doesn't have to be super far away, just slightly further than a ballista's range. The airship has gravity helping its attacks, the ground forces are hindered by it.

If this is an ambush with no pre-calculations, that's one thing. If significant pre-planning happens beforehand, ballista/catapult maximum heights would certainly be figured in, ensuring a very one-sided battle, barring any surprise flying forces.
Yes. However the (rather smart) suggestion made was that said ballistae would have their ranges greatly enhanced either via mechanics or magic.

If you've got ballistae with an effective vertical range of a mile (even if at that range the accuracy is kinda random) you're either forcing the fliers up high enough to greatly impede any accuracy they were hoping to achieve in their bombing or making them think twice before coming in any lower.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
We often see in fantasy (such as Game of Thrones) ground-based attacks hitting flying objects. Those are fantasies. It is in practice VERY HARD to hit a flying object, even with a gun, let alone with a torsion-based machine such as ballista or bow. I'd think a good use of magic would be to improve the chances of hitting so that they're not hopeless.
 

Stormonu

Legend
This article touches on an aspect that happens a lot in fantasy games.

If something is a one-off, no one is going to be prepared for it, and its effectiveness will be dominating. It’s a War of the Worlds scenario, without the common cold solution.

If, however, something is supposed to be a “regular” feature in a campaign world, take 5-15 minutes to think about not only it, but how someone would approach defending against it. If society has survived, its surely contemplated how to keep from being overwhelmed.
 

Stormonu

Legend
We often see in fantasy (such as Game of Thrones) ground-based attacks hitting flying objects. Those are fantasies. It is in practice VERY HARD to hit a flying object, even with a gun, let alone with a torsion-based machine such as ballista or bow. I'd think a good use of magic would be to improve the chances of hitting so that they're not hopeless.
Reverse is true as well. Bombing something from air whilst staying out of range of ground attackers takes a good bit of skill and luck. Doubly so if either combatant or target is moving.

Also, carrying capacity. How big is that rock you’re going to drop from 1,000 feet? Do you know how small your margin of error is? Got enough lift to pick up a sizeable stone?
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
It's easy to say "flying machines would be devastating" but it always feels lopsided. If there is an effective strategy, there will be an effective counter-strategy. If there are flying machines then defenders will develop their own flying machines or have some sort of griffin or wyvern battalion to counter it. Armaments that are ground based may be able to be much heavier and have more "kick" than anything that can be mounted on a flying ship. Maybe some variation of a trebuchet that launches a net with hooks and flasks of burning oil for example.

Will it change warfare? Of course and a lot of it depends on how ubiquitous it is. But an airship (depending on design) may be vulnerable to any number of attacks from the wizard on a broom casting dispel magic to levitation mines to a wall of force. It will vary widely by rarity of flying ships, style of ship, ubiquity of magic and any number of other things.

What it will not be is always and forever one-sided.
 

J-H

Adventurer
My current campaign's antagonists are Aaracokra. They use flying ships powered by sacrificed human hearts. I put some limitations on it to avoid things getting too crazy for either side:
-Ships "run out" of power after 120 days of flight and need to be recharged (divine/sacrificial evil ritual); the party has to steal new ones every so often.
-Ships are mass-produced and simple - controls are "ground" "100' altitude" plus forward/backwards and turn left/right. This fixes everyone at a reasonable altitude.
-Ships run only during the daytime (sun god), and are grounded at night. This gives the group an opportunity to catch them on the ground - and makes ocean crossings hazardous.

Travel time for the air-skiffs is still 72 miles per day, versus ~24 miles per day for the party on the ground. They are a major mobility advantage even with all the limitations.
 

cbwjm

Hero
I feel like flying would be problematic on in the initial assault where a force has figured out how to weaponise flight. After a while though, it will be countered by defenders figuring their own flight methods for defence. Maybe it's griffon riders that fly up and begin to assault the ships dropping bombs or maybe it is the fantasy equivalent if flak cannons. When it comes to weapons, it really is just a continuous advance of countermeasures against each new weapon.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
I've always found that illusion based spells / magic items have a significant impact on the application of flight to combat. When what your seeing is not real, or is disguised flight becomes less useful. Illusory terrain, armies, are a problem as is invisibility. And there are those pesky air elementals and such...

The use of magical protections / weapons "built in" to city walls and castles is pretty certain. If aerial bombardment is a problem upscaled protection vs. normal missile type spells seem a certainty. It certainly alters warfare and helps drive fortifications underground (despite tunneling monsters) but the best thing about it is giant underground ruins / fortress complexes! :D
 


AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
For flying vehicles, I’ve arbitrarily limited them to only flying at about 8,000 feet and the vehicles are unable to ascend or descend. So ports of call are established 8,000 feet up in the mountains and nations have another “coast” to defend.

Cloud and frost giants are major threats, as is the cold. The common Eberron feather tokens that slows falls are abundant, and sometimes used to drop “adventurers” into strange lands a teleport isn’t possible.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Field battles are of course flashy, but the more important effect on warfare would be sieges. The article has a very modern definition of warfare (maneuver, etc.) but in medieval/renaissance times sieges were much more common and important.

If the defender has (multiple) airships then besieging a fortress becomes much harder to siege as reinforcements and supplies can be brought in unopposed. The fortress can still fall, but it will require much more costly assaults as you can't simply wait.
On the other hand, if the attacker has airships sieges become a lot more easy as airships negate many advantages of walls. Now the attacker has a elevated position which allows him to outrange the defender and often negate some cover the defender has.
The attacker can also profit from small scale flight through spells and potions to send in commando teams to take important key points before an assault.

But the real change to a campaign world would be transportation. Large scale transport was a huge issue and only achievable on water. But when you have airships you can transport goods (including supplies for an army) everywhere which completely alters the patterns land is settled and used and how trade flows.

Thus I don't tend to have flying airships in my games as the effects on the setting are just too big in my opinion, making the setting unrecognisable and it being a huge headache to figure out all the ripple effects.
 

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