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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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Airships, however, are both shootable-downable* and stealable**. (and by airship I always mean earth-style dirigibles, as opposed to flying boats with sails etc. which are even more vulnerable due to their open decks)

* - a single wizard with the right spell loadout can almost certainly bring an airship down, or at least ruin the pilots' day, and this assumes decent external defenses on the ship itself vs. fire, lightning, etc. Invisibility, Flight, some sort of Teleport or Dimension Door to blip yourself inside the pilot's cockpit (and out again before the thing crashes!), some sort of immunity to fire or lightning, and then just let off a fireball or lightning bolt (whichever you're immune to, natch) in the cockpit. Chances are the pilots will die, and even without that the controls etc. are likely to be blown to hell. Yes I've given this some serious thought; as I play a few wizard-types in a game where being attacked by airships is very much an ongoing, if remote, threat...

** - says he, who plays in a party that stole and now owns one of the fastest airships on the planet. :) (the DM has since told me he expected us to simply scuttle or destroy it when we found it; instead we took it intact, figured out how to run it, and spent months flying it halfway around the world to our home base)
 

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Ixal

Adventurer
Airships, however, are both shootable-downable* and stealable**. (and by airship I always mean earth-style dirigibles, as opposed to flying boats with sails etc. which are even more vulnerable due to their open decks)

* - a single wizard with the right spell loadout can almost certainly bring an airship down, or at least ruin the pilots' day, and this assumes decent external defenses on the ship itself vs. fire, lightning, etc. Invisibility, Flight, some sort of Teleport or Dimension Door to blip yourself inside the pilot's cockpit (and out again before the thing crashes!), some sort of immunity to fire or lightning, and then just let off a fireball or lightning bolt (whichever you're immune to, natch) in the cockpit. Chances are the pilots will die, and even without that the controls etc. are likely to be blown to hell. Yes I've given this some serious thought; as I play a few wizard-types in a game where being attacked by airships is very much an ongoing, if remote, threat...

** - says he, who plays in a party that stole and now owns one of the fastest airships on the planet. :) (the DM has since told me he expected us to simply scuttle or destroy it when we found it; instead we took it intact, figured out how to run it, and spent months flying it halfway around the world to our home base)
If an airship (as we are talking about fantasy that means actual flying ships/spelljammer/etc. and not real life zeppelins) can be shot down from the ground depends on its altitude. Go high enough and nothing from the ground can touch you. And in a typical D&D game that "enough" is actually quite low as most ranged weapons have rather low ranges to fit them into the usual combat grid. Not to mention that unless you somehow break the flying enchantment, the airship stays in the air no matter how many holes you shoot into it. Same problem with actual sailing ships which were impossible to sink with solid shot cannons.

And just by attacking the pilot you usually do not crash such ships as they depend on floating (by magic) to stay in the air instead of aerodynamics. So you would have a temporarily uncontrolled floating ship, but unless there happens to be a mountain in front of it, it wouldn't crash.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Think of the devastation a 20 pound rock from 2000 feet would do. And, it's not like you just drop one rock. You drop 20 of them. 400 pounds of rocks isn't taking up much space on a ship. And, 2000 feet isn't exactly a long way to be able to hit static targets like buildings. Carpet bombing was done for a very good reason - they were dropping from MUCH higher altitude.

Never minding oil barrels.
 

Pauper

That guy, who does that thing.
The ship can carry a virtually unlimited supply of smoothed (for aerodynamics) rock ammunition.
Right here is where this article breaks my sense of immersion.

Why would a spelljamming ship be able to carry a virtually unlimited supply of rocks? No real-world analogue of a flying machine can carry unlimited amounts of anything, much less ammunition -- the trade-offs required to engineer a machine that can fly preclude anything like this.

Oh, comes the response, spelljammers aren't planes, they're ships that fly, so they have massive cargo holds like sailing ships do. Except that if a spelljamming ship is going to war, the equivalent isn't a real-world merchant ship, but a real-world warship, which doesn't have massive cargo holds, because it has to house and feed the hundreds of men that crew it, along with the supplies to keep the ship operational. It has some room for weapons and ammunition, but some portion of that storage is going to be spent on weapons and ammunition to fight other spelljamming warships, leaving even less room for 'dumb bombs', assuming that's even seen as an option, because the more room you spend on carrying rocks, the less room you have for the ammo you'd use to fight an enemy spelljammer.

Oh, comes yet another response, spelljammers don't require massive crews, because magic. And that's the crux of it, isn't it? The spelljamming side gets to hand-wave away all their potential issues 'because magic', but the defenders are still stuck with sticking to real-world (or in-world) problems like gravity and physics 'because immersion'. If one side can have a spelljammer bomber but the other side can't have, say, commandos riding hippogriffs with anti-magic grenades to wreak havoc with the jammer's magic systems, then you're not making changes to maintain verisimilitude, but simply choosing which side you want to win.

--
Pauper
 



Hussar

Legend
@Pauper - I wouldn't take the point of "unlimited ammunition" too seriously. Unlimited in the sense that they can probably carry more bombs than they would ever need to use.

Think about it - a decent sized sailing ship can carry 30-40 tons of cargo. Say we're dropping 20 pound rocks - from 3000 feet that's a pretty nasty weapon and will punch holes through pretty much any building. That's 100 bombs/tonx20 tons. 2000 bombs and I've still got lots of cargo room left.

That's a single, quite small, sailing ship. Once you get into the really big ships, we're talking hundred ton plus cargo areas. In other words, more or less unlimited ammunition. And that's without any magic. Once you add in something like extra dimesional holding spaces, then the sky is truly the limit.

As to your second point about defenders and attackers both having flight capabilities, that's true. But, it also radically alters your setting if it's true. In the same way that flight completely changed our own world, if you have readily available flight in your game world, it's going to completely alter how your world works.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Right here is where this article breaks my sense of immersion.

Why would a spelljamming ship be able to carry a virtually unlimited supply of rocks? No real-world analogue of a flying machine can carry unlimited amounts of anything, much less ammunition -- the trade-offs required to engineer a machine that can fly preclude anything like this.

Oh, comes the response, spelljammers aren't planes, they're ships that fly, so they have massive cargo holds like sailing ships do. Except that if a spelljamming ship is going to war, the equivalent isn't a real-world merchant ship, but a real-world warship, which doesn't have massive cargo holds, because it has to house and feed the hundreds of men that crew it, along with the supplies to keep the ship operational. It has some room for weapons and ammunition, but some portion of that storage is going to be spent on weapons and ammunition to fight other spelljamming warships, leaving even less room for 'dumb bombs', assuming that's even seen as an option, because the more room you spend on carrying rocks, the less room you have for the ammo you'd use to fight an enemy spelljammer.

Oh, comes yet another response, spelljammers don't require massive crews, because magic. And that's the crux of it, isn't it? The spelljamming side gets to hand-wave away all their potential issues 'because magic', but the defenders are still stuck with sticking to real-world (or in-world) problems like gravity and physics 'because immersion'. If one side can have a spelljammer bomber but the other side can't have, say, commandos riding hippogriffs with anti-magic grenades to wreak havoc with the jammer's magic systems, then you're not making changes to maintain verisimilitude, but simply choosing which side you want to win.
Can't speak to spelljammer ships but real-world zeppelins in fact have immense, almost incredible, payload capacity. Not unlimited, but kinda close enough for many purposes. Add a bit of magic to this and the only real limit could become volume, not weight.

And they don't need big crews in order to get/stay aloft.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
@Pauper - I wouldn't take the point of "unlimited ammunition" too seriously. Unlimited in the sense that they can probably carry more bombs than they would ever need to use.

Think about it - a decent sized sailing ship can carry 30-40 tons of cargo. Say we're dropping 20 pound rocks - from 3000 feet that's a pretty nasty weapon and will punch holes through pretty much any building. That's 100 bombs/tonx20 tons. 2000 bombs and I've still got lots of cargo room left.

That's a single, quite small, sailing ship. Once you get into the really big ships, we're talking hundred ton plus cargo areas. In other words, more or less unlimited ammunition.
All true. However, one thing to keep in mind is that the ships you're referring to are operating on water, which provides much better support under the hull than does empty air and thus allows for a higher cargo capacity per unit of structural reinforcement.

Good point below about extradimensional spaces, though.
And that's without any magic. Once you add in something like extra dimesional holding spaces, then the sky is truly the limit.
 

Coroc

Hero
It is not so much the big flying ships which could make your campaign planning a bit complicated. It works out quite well if designed like in Eberron.

It is more the individual capability of flight, which is unfortunately hard coded into the PHB, so if you would love to play without housrules you are condemned to that. (Flying player races, mage spell fly, dragon sorcerer getting wings at 14th and such)

The same goes for teleport abilities and to a lesser extent things like featherfall, levitate, jump or passwall like stuff or polymorphing to soem form which can ignore all the standard limitations you want to set up.

If a campaign features the exploration pillar as a prominent element, then i highly recommend to houserule the heck to omit all those goodies.
That requires you to ban aaracocra, tieflings as playable races, limit free spell selection on some arcane classes and nerf sorcerers 14th level wings somehow.

If you run on unedited RAW then expect your players to be flying and teleporting around at some point. I do not say that this is a bad thing per se, but it simply does not fit every style of campaign.
 

Pauper

That guy, who does that thing.
@Pauper

As to your second point about defenders and attackers both having flight capabilities, that's true. But, it also radically alters your setting if it's true. In the same way that flight completely changed our own world, if you have readily available flight in your game world, it's going to completely alter how your world works.
Absolutely. That's what 'worldbuilding' is.

If your world has spelljamming ships, or giant flying monsters that can attack cities or fortified castles, then honestly you should already know what effect that has on the design of fortifications, potential counter-measures, etc., in your world, even if the PCs never get their hands on a spelljammer or learn to polymorph into a flying T-Rex.

I mean, there's nothing explicitly wrong with throwing a bunch of cool things into a mundane world willy-nilly like a toy box and running your game like that. I just have a hard time calling that 'worldbuilding'.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to find a resource that explains where wizards in the Harry Potter universe go to do post-graduate magical studies....

--
Pauper
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Why is it the artwork of most airships, are SHHIIPPPS IN SPACE. I think I have seen only 2 airships which could land on land.

Would keelhauling be a problem if you 1,000 feet in the air. Well except for Evil Jasper cutting the rope?

… It is in practice VERY HARD to hit a flying object, ….Have you heard about the rule of thumb lewpuls?

Most of the others have mention counter measures to bring your airships down.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Absolutely. That's what 'worldbuilding' is.

If your world has spelljamming ships, or giant flying monsters that can attack cities or fortified castles, then honestly you should already know what effect that has on the design of fortifications, potential counter-measures, etc., in your world, even if the PCs never get their hands on a spelljammer or learn to polymorph into a flying T-Rex.

I mean, there's nothing explicitly wrong with throwing a bunch of cool things into a mundane world willy-nilly like a toy box and running your game like that. I just have a hard time calling that 'worldbuilding'.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to find a resource that explains where wizards in the Harry Potter universe go to do post-graduate magical studies....

--
Pauper
"Giant flying monsters" are basically default in D&D (dragons and stuff). And while dragons usually only strafe with their breath weapon and then land, that is for the benefits of the player.
A much smarter move for them would be to bombard their victims from just outside the range they can defend from with rocks and other things (which was even more effective some editions back when dragons were spellcaster).

But you do not need single giant monsters or airships to alter the warfare (and economy, I want to stress again that the biggest change flying anything would cause are in transportation and economics and not warfare). 40-50 pegasus rider can have the same effect as an airship.
Such things always get ignored to keep the setting recognicable, which is why its always dangerous to have flying enemies behave in a smart way as it endangers this illusion.
Why is it the artwork of most airships, are SHHIIPPPS IN SPACE. I think I have seen only 2 airships which could land on land.

Would keelhauling be a problem if you 1,000 feet in the air. Well except for Evil Jasper cutting the rope?

… It is in practice VERY HARD to hit a flying object, ….Have you heard about the rule of thumb lewpuls?

Most of the others have mention counter measures to bring your airships down.
The main danger of keelhauling was getting flayed by all the barnacles on the hull. So unless the spelljammer spends a significant time in the water or there are space barnacles keelhauling is a lot less dangerous (assuming the air bubble extends around the spelljammer)
 

Xeviat

Hero
Thank you for writing this article. It's giving me a lot to think about. My own setting has 1 common race with flight, and griffins, drakes, and their relatives are common animals (there's house griffins!), so hippogriff mounts are a common sight in towns and cities. But, I do enforce variant carrying capacity so carrying things to drop is an issue. But, a bag of 1 lb polished rocks would still mess up an encampment if dropped en mass onto an encampment.

The flying race lives on a high plateau (think Tibet), which keeps them safe from most of the other races conflicts. Their warriors end up serving as mercenaries in others' wars, so which side they end up on often tips the scales. It also explains why the dwarves are largely protected against the flyers' influence.

I'll definitely make sure there are ground-based weapons, extended spells, and flying defenders to deal with stuff like this.

I probably won't have flying ships.

I do also have a common race with fast swimming and had already decided that they have a lot of control of ocean shipping since it's easy for them to scuttle a ship. It's hard to defend against amphibious attackers cutting holes into your ship.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Also remember that you do not have to use rocks. They are cheap and readily available, but for high value targets or make-or-break situations use alchemist fire.
 

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