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RAF Tactics against Alphatia's Skynavyby James Ruhland
Thanks to such things as the Voyage of the Princess Ark and Champions of Mystara, people have a pretty good idea of how Alphatia's skynavy fights. Or at least its elite elements (remember, the Princess Arc is meant to be an exceptional ship and even the Man of War on the ship cards represents the top of the line, not the typical, Alphatian warship. Some folks mistakenly extrapolate that to represent the norm of Alphatia's sky fleet, but a careful reading of the Designer's Manual (pp. 5-6) will show that is far from the case).
Because such detail was not developed for Thyatis' "air cavalry" (the Retebius Air Fleet) or similar forces, some people apply the details from those sources to a rather bland vision of the RAF and imagine the latter to be inferior (or simply a "propaganda device"). This in spite of, for example, statements in DotE that would imply the reverse (such as the comment in DotE's DMSB that Alphatia might beat Thyatis if Eriadna "created her own elite air force to combat the Retebius Air Fleet and Knights of the Air" - which rather directly refutes the belief that Alphatia's existing sky fleet is superior and sufficient. A better force would have to be created to compete with the RAF).
Thinking creatively and applying some of the concepts from Champions of Mystara to the RAF shows why they are a match for Alphatia's sky navy. This includes relatively abundant magic. Yes, Thyatis has fewer mages than Alphatia - but not an insignificant number. And many of their mages are quite skilled. Plus, Thyatis has highly developed clerical magic, and given the national characters of both nations, Thyatis undoubtedly uses its resources (magical and otherwise) more efficiently, especially when it comes to military matters (given not only "Thyatian efficiency" but the stronger sense of duty within Thyatis vs. Alphatian Wizard's typical indifference to military matters). Plus, Thyatis can afford at least as much enchantment as Alphatia can because it is more economical for the Thyatian government (which probably pays spellcaster wages in line with Glantrian spellcaster wages, which is a quarter what Alphatia must pay for the same thing).
So where Alphatia's skynavy includes many Boltmen and highly expensive enchantments (to get the ships to fly, among other things), the Retebius Air Fleet is likely to be equipped to counter and battle it's millennial foe. Yes, the Alphatians have existed for a long time, but the Thyatians have battled them for over a thousand years as well, and no doubt have used their craftiness to develop means to counter them (indeed, the description of Thyatis' Ministry of War on p.14 of the Player's Guide to Thyatis is almost entirely devoted to describing the research efforts of Thyatis. So much for the image of the uncreative Thyatians who only march in formation without trying new tactics, battle spells, and the like).
What are the RAF and Knights of the Air like? This article won't go too much into specific numbers, but will describe things in relation to a similarly unspecified Sky Navy (thus making it compatible with various different campaigns' visions - some folks envision a larger skynavy than other folks do). We do know a rough composition of the RAF.
Its personnel consist of Thyatian Citizens of 5th level or greater (p.26, Player's Guide to Thyatis), with Riding and Animal Trainer skills. Half of them are mounted on pegasi, another quarter on Hippogriffs, with the rest split between Griffons (10%), Sphinxes (10%), and larger flying creatures (p.28, Player's Guide to Thyatis). Roughly 4% of the force are mounted on dragons, the "long-distance fliers" and "bringers of terror" (so these aren't weak, nor are they relatively immobile). With that many, there are probably as many Dragons in Thyatis' RAF as there are skyships in Alphatia's skynavy. Certainly this would be true, even if one uses a large skynavy in one's campaign, when the Knights of the Air are included (remember, Demetrion, for example, is a Knight of the Air who rides a Gold Dragon, his friend Hytiliaph - and this still in the post-Wrath era - see Joshuan's Almanac, p.154). This may seem like a lot of dragons but remember the Shattenalfen, per Poor Wizard's Almanac II (p.113) supposedly have 1,650 flapsails (unintelligent small red dragons), with only 20% of the population Thyatis has, and Thyatis' RAF is more renowned than their aerial forces (note also, though, that those who think the Hollow Worlders are effectively at the mercy of the Alphatians should consider how the tactics described in this article applies to the Shattenalfen and others Hollow Worlders as well. Certainly the highly-magical Shattenalfen can equip their mounts and riders well, as can other nations with flying forces. Note that the number of flapsails in the Shattenalfen army also gives a baseline for the numbers that should be in Thyatis' RAF - Thyatis, with five times as many people, should probably have at least twice as many troops in it's RAF, and the Knights of the Air (a reserve force) would probably be of similar strength to the RAF. This fits within the concept of DotE, which describes the 125-man RAF force in Fort Zendrolion (p.21 of the DMSB) as a "small force". But again, things will vary from campaign to campaign (especially in campaigns where folks like the Shattenalfen aren't assumed to have over a thousand dragon-like flying mounts).
Knights of the Air probably vary in level more than the RAF. There are probably some lower level (3rd and 4th) but wealthy Knights of the Air (who can afford flying mounts and items), but also powerful, high-level adventurer and retired adventurer type heroes. The mounts would vary considerably, too, with a wider variety than found in the RAF, and some "auxiliaries" using magic items that provide flight.
Dragons vary by size (and in AD&D and 3E, age). (That's the "duh" sentence of this article). A plausible breakdown would be that there are roughly as many huge dragons in the RAF as there are Alphatian Men of War, roughly as many Large dragons as there are Brigantines, and the remainder would be small dragons. This is also a difference between the Thyatian dragons and the flapsails of the Shattenalfen (Thyatian dragons are real dragons and can be large or huge rather than just small, and can be spellcasters. But there probably aren't 1,650 of them). They would also vary in power as much as skyships do. For every really powerful skyship (like the Man of War on the ship card) with lots of enchantments, there will be a really powerful dragon (such as one could imagine Hytaliaph being) with a lot of magic items and protections. Ditto for riders, some of whom (like Demetrion) would be very powerful as well, and well protected.
The following gives some idea what equipment and tactics the "Air Cavalry" would use in a high-magic environment (such as the one depicted in VotPA and CoM, where there are Boltmen and the like). Lower-magic campaigns will find it easy to tone things down where needed.
Forces would be equipped with Bumber Shoots (and mounts intelligent enough to use them would have one as well). Dragons and their riders would be equipped with Rings of Spell Storing containing Invulnerability (or Globe of Invulnerability in AD&D and 3E D&D), Travel, Displacement, and Spell Turning (or Spell Resistance in 3E D&D). They would have the 4th level Cleric spell Spell Immunity (easily adapted to OD&D and can be considered the product of the Thyatian Ministry of War's research efforts) cast on them, making them immune to Disintegrate and Confusion (another Ring of Spell Storing would be worn. It would contain Spell Immunity, Travel, Heal and Word of Recall). They could thus move very rapidly with their riders in gaseous form or across planes, and could, for example, fly on the ethereal until close to the enemy and shift back to the prime materiel plane when they were atop enemy ships, allowing them to attack with ease. This is an advantage not available to the Alphatians because it is prohibitively expensive to enchant most skyships with the same ability, especially at the pay rates of high-level Alphatian wizards. OD&D also allows a free and easy use of the spell Permanence. Spells like Displacement and Protection from Evil could be cast on mounts and riders by a high-level caster and made Permanent. Detect Invisibility would also be common, especially among those making use of the Travel spell. These could possibly be Dispelled by an enemy, but only a high level caster would be able to succeed. Dragons and their mounts would, with these effects, be able to prepare themselves for battle on another plane (the Ethereal or Astral) when the enemy has been spotted, then shift into the battle virtually atop enemy ships, using breath weapon and melee to clear the decks. If one is using 3E D&D, a dragon with the Great Cleave feat, especially if combined with the Power Attack feat ,would wreak havoc among enemy boltmen packed together in a closed area, like the deck of a ship. With the spells from their ring they would be protected against virtually all the magic wielded by Boltmen (from wands or their own spells). Given that the Travel spell will have a duration of three hours, those affected by it can also use it to escape (by turning Ethereal or changing planes) if the fight goes against them, so dragons, especially larger (and thus tougher) ones, will suffer fewer deaths, proportionally, than other members of the RAF (this applies to Rocs as well, and likely Sphinxes). Huge gold and blue dragons can also cast Teleport to get to safety, if they are on the deck of a ship at the time (or another surface). (This is an important note. Remember, ships themselves, like some Alphatian Men of War, that are enchanted with the ability to Teleport, cannot do so when they are flying, because Teleportation is only from one surface to another, and cannot be done from mid-air). Tactics when attacking ground troops (usually in support of Thyatian ground forces) are mostly obvious, but again Travel, using Gaseous Form for speed and the ability to cross planes to allow them to appear suddenly over the battlefield, use their breath weapon against enemy forces, and then disappear (and repeat the process) allows for quick, hit and run strikes. Invisibility would also be useful in such strikes.
Depending on the size of the RAF there would be anywhere from a score to a few dozen Rocs (one could fudge things a bit and increase the number of Rocs somewhat and decrease the number of Sphinxes by the same amount if one wanted. Spellcasting Sphinxes and giant Rocs are roughly equally powerful, and Rocs are arguably more Thyatian in flavour. But this is just an option). Rocs are the "bomber command" of the RAF. They would be equipped with Rings of Spell Storing containing the same spells above, or containing several Anti-Magic Shell spells instead of Displacement, Spell Turning, and Invulnerability. They would wear harnesses holding numerous ceramic spheres containing either flammable liquid (Liquid Fire aka Greek Fire) that ignites on impact or various Puddings, Slimes, and the like which splash all over a ship deck on impact. The Rocs would dive-bomb enemy ships, allowing the rider to unleash the "bombs". Rocs (and dragons), with their large carrying capacities, can also be used to carry additional troops to battlefields, where they can dismount in key locations, or to assist troops in withdrawing from beleaguered positions.
The griffons and sphinxes are the elite cavalry, able to absorb a lot of damage and dish it out likewise (and with the sphinxes able to cast spells). They would operate in the midst of the pegasus and hippogriff mounted troops, and as scouts. Sphinxes would be especially good at the later because they would be able to use magical communication to report the location of enemy forces immediately, but griffon mounted troopers could be equipped with magic items allowing them to do the same. The "air cavalry" force would be mixed (with griffons, sphinxes, hippogriffs, and pegasi intermingled) and would fly towards the enemy in loose formation (so few would be hit by any one area effect spell), converging at the last second on enemy ships. Selected troopers (about 20% - 25%) would be equipped with enchanted missile weapons of Flying (Distance in AD&D and 3E D&D), allowing them to strike the enemy at far ranges (where they themselves are out of range of most attacks), used to pick off enemy forces while the other forces flew to the target as fast as possible and engaged them in melee. They would probably have a missile weapon they could fire once or twice at the enemy while their mount flies into melee range. Again in OD&D most if not all of the troops and their mounts could have spells cast on them and made Permanent. Displacement and Protection from Evil are, again, good choices. This force (the mixed griffon, sphinx, hippogriff, and pegasus mounted troops) would be seen by the enemy skyship force before the dragons and rocs would be detected. Those would then appear in their midst almost out of nowhere (flying rapidly in gaseous form on the ethereal, then shifting to the prime as described above). They would concentrate their efforts on taking out selected enemy ships rather than spreading themselves evenly among them, using their superior mobility to great advantage.
Most of the RAF & Knights of the Air troopers would be fighters, but there would be significant numbers of spellcasters ( Clerics, Wizards, and Foresters) using spells to protect, enhance, assist and heal members of the force, in addition to casting spells at enemy forces. Magic items would likewise be used, including wands (not in the same number as found on Boltmen but with greater variety), staffs, and rods and other magic items. Most RAF fighters, being 5th level or higher, would likewise have a magic item or two to help them in battle, probably magic weapons and armour. Except on mounts able to carry a lot of weight, armour will likely be no heavier than chain (or lorica segmenta armour), and the troopers will have bucklers they can strap to an arm and still use missile weapons with if need be. Troops on more robust mounts might have heavier armour. Troops will also have lances and either long or bastard swords (or sabres) as melee weapons, and usually short composite bows or crossbows. These are especially significant against when the RAF is in a ground support role, because then they usually use missile weapons in preference to melee (though there are exceptions, based on the tactical situation).
This shows why the RAF and Knights of the Air were not only able to hold their own, and more, against the Alphatian skyships in the "Imperial Navies Clash" event during Wrath, but for the previous millennium. The listed magic items no doubt seem powerful, but they are not as expensive in either time or money to create as even one fully-loaded Man of War of the type described on the ship card (with the hundreds of wands and very extensive, very expensive enchantments, including spell caster wages). Thus the RAF is much more economically and militarily efficient than the Alphatian sky navy. These are just some ideas, as well, and no doubt creative people will be able to imagine others.
What about the post-Wrath era? Well, no doubt the RAF & Knights of the Air took significant casualties during Wrath. And due to the nature of their force (creatures, which have to be born and grow, or be recruited) the Thyatians would be a couple years behind the Alphatians in reconstituting their elite forces at first (but over time would find it easier and more economical to do so). Again, though, it's a fair rule of thumb to say that for every skyship the Alphatians build, the Thyatians recruit or recover a dragon or roc. Spells can also be used to enhance the growth rates of other creatures (such as pegasi, hippogriffs, griffons, and rocs). Sphinxes would be harder to replace in numbers approaching 10% of the force, but the Thyatians would close the gap in two ways. One, by 1014 they are building some skyships of their own (Joshuan's Almanac), and two they could supplement with other flying creatures (giant eagles would be appropriate for Thyatis, wyverns, were suggested by Bruce Heard as a creature the Thyatians would resort to in the post-Wrath era to rebuild its aerial forces. But other dragon-types in addition to the ones previously used could also be recruited over time - including ruby, sapphire, and crystal dragons, and the Knights of the Air would probably officially open their membership to people using items instead of creatures to provide flight). Many tougher, smarter creatures will have survived in any case (since they will have been able to turn gaseous, or shift out of the prime materiel plane, or Teleport if badly injured). Others will have been Cloned (something that cannot be done to a destroyed skyship but can be done to a living creature) (they could also be Resurrected in campaigns where that spell is available). The skyships that Thyatis builds will most likely be constructed to allow them to transport RAF units, extending the range of the later by providing it with a mobile air base. Creatures restored using the OD&D version of Clone will have some limitations compared with the original, but it's still better than nothing, at least until regulars can be recruited or otherwise restored. It is also theoretically possible that the Thyatian Ministry of War's research efforts have produced a version called Clone Creature able to produce a Clone of an intelligent creature in the same way the normal Clone spell does for humans or demihumans (but this alternate version would not work for humans or demi-humans, thus balancing the spell's effects). Dragons and Sphinxes (at minimum) would leave a pound of flesh before going into battle, from which a Clone could be grown if the creature dies. It's probably as hard to get rid of a powerful dragon permanently as it is to get rid of a powerful spellcaster permanently, especially when that dragon has the support of an entire Empire in insuring its recovery. Pegasai probably breed and grow at rates similar to horses. Hippogriffs a bit less, and Griffons likewise. Even moreso for Rocs. But again magic could be used to speed the process.