The history of human flight begins more than a million years ago when it was discovered - by accident, naturally - that by flexing the knee in a similar-to-walking manner, an individual could redistribute their center of gravity over a distinct lack of land - known to us as a 'drop' - that was, by happenstance, conveniently nearby. The result was not encouraging, and so further developments in flight were delayed by some years.
With the discovery of the wheel and the domestication of animals, some humans would learn – through incidental observation – that a greater arc of travel could be created with added speed prior to actually moving past the ‘flight horizon’ of the landscape. It was conceived that by flattening out this arc, perhaps with even greater speed, flight could somehow be maintained ... but alas, greater speed proved elusive.
Many would-be aeronauticists, who simply tried hurling themselves from the ground into the air, were driven to despair. Indeed, all attempts to fly by pure muscle power were frustrated by the apparent inability to separate oneself from the earth. This led humans to construct platforms over the earth's surface - but sadly, these platforms only produced the same drop that had previously existed. Nothing was meaningfully gained by these ventures.
Eventually, the mysterious force that kept humans bound to the ground would be identified and researched ... but unfortunately, flight pioneers continued to achieve short and – presumably – unsatisfying conquest of the air.
Then, as the injection system of the modern internal combustion engine was conceived, sustained human flight became - when viewed against the span of human existence - instantly commonplace.
The primary limitation upon 'successful' human flight was the necessary power needed to produce speeds which would allow the natural lift of the wing to support the weight of a human being - and all the shit human beings tend to bring along with them, since naked like a bird is not an viable option. The most important shit humans were to bring along, once flight was made consistent enough to apply it to acts of war, were means to bomb the populace below. 'Conquest of the Air,' as it has been called, was really more of a conquest of the ground, in that we were able to blow the shit out of people who could not in turn blow the shit out of us.
Therefore, the importance of flight in terms of its operational power is not the flight itself - it is in its ability to deliver a payload of destruction.
Now, I recognize that flight has other marvelous benefits. The little bowl of pineapple I'm eating for lunch is testament to that, as well as the incessant flipping back and forth across the country that encourages business and tourism. Both increase exponentially the effects I described in my last technological post on Railroads ... so there's little need for me to reprocess that argument here.
Instead, I'd like to talk about air power, the other benefit of flight - and the one that makes all the difference in Civilization, where these technologies all come from.
There are numerous means of flight in D&D: spells, magical items and flying mounts accounting for most of them. The game conceives, mostly, that these techniques would usually be applied to methods of direct combat: the mage floating above the battle, tossing down spells; the opponents with wings of flying or mounted upon hippogriffs and griffons participating in world war I duels in the sky. I don't deny that these things would be commonplace ... but bigger and more important would be the simple act of bombing.
Presuming that gun powder isn't available, and that the ordinary methods of D&D flight do not incorporate a culture with the technology necessary to deliver an explosive payload - given the lack of explosives - how is it that one bombs a populace, if one is so inclined?
Consider, first of all, the fire trap spell. I have always liked this, but rarely do players take advantage of the advantages. Basically, the spell is cast upon something that is closed - and reacts once the thing is opened, causing a small explosion that produces fire and burns off hit points.
Let's presume the thing that is closed is a bottle, with a cork. Let's presume that the bottle is made of ceramic, and that it is thrown in a manner so that when it hits the ground, the pressure of the hit causes the cork to pop out, thus initiating the fire trap spell.
This allows us to fill the bottle with whatever we'd like. Oil is a nice option, but the firewater spell is even nicer. Sadly, as I'm thinking of this, I'm not certain of the spell's duration and I don't have the book in front of me. Is it permanent? If not, we may want to stick with oil ... though I think fire trap would be sufficient to ignite the oil upon it's hitting the ground.
If not, we can always incorporate a glyph ... that gives us even more fire, if fire is what we need, and that is certain to set our dropped molotov alight. Glyphs are definitely permanent until set off, and I feel certain that something dropped from the sky would be enough to initiate a glyph. Of course, we could also add explosive runes for good measure. We can even coat the interior of our ceramic flask with a grease spell, just to be sure the oil gets a good distribution upon striking.
Now, two kilograms of oil is equal to two litres, or about half a gallon ... which would weigh five pounds and be the equivalent of sixteen flasks of oil. The ceramic could be made quite thin, and would perhaps add another three to four pounds. Such an item, with the spells described above, hitting the roof of a house would make quite a show.
What is very interesting is, however, that hundreds of such bombs could be made in advance, since all of the elements described are not time sensitive. A fair-sized city could produce the necessary number of spellcasters to create such an arsenal, particularly if they had a few weeks to prepare. Once produced, twenty such bombs could easily be carried aboard one ordinary hippogriff, or even by a moderately stripped-down flying mage. Mage, hippogriff and rider could all be made invisible, which is a spell not broken until some kind of aggressive action is taken. Invisibility is a second level spell, and is therefore quite common.
Thus, the entire air squadron, filled to the brim with hundreds of bombs, could approach a city under a clear blue sky, in full daylight, without having to give their position away until the actual time violence began to occur.
A DM could argue that the act of letting go of the bomb was itself sufficient to end the invisibility. A good lawyer could argue in response if the act of actually taking off with the intention of dropping the bombs was sufficient to render the recipient visible. Was the 'thought' of dropping the bomb sufficient? When, precisely, does an act of aggression begin?
Well, let's not worry about that. Let's presume the worst - that letting go of the bomb makes the invisible bomber visible. The only thing is, by that time, the bombs are already falling.
Let us consider that you are a resident of a city, and that you happen to be looking up. All around you, people are going about their business, working, talking to each other, counting their steps on the way to the grocer's or the candlestick maker's ... and are definitely not looking up.
Suddenly, hundreds of feet above you. some fifty figures appear in the sky. Just blip! and they are there.
You now have six seconds - one half a round in my world, a mere segment in terms of ordinary AD&D - to take some sort of reprisal against the attackers before literally a thousand bombs set your city ablaze.
It would be quite a crack team of first responders who had the wherewithal to see the appearance of the bombers, have their animals mounted and ready to fly, and do so while their wooden city exploded in fire, in time to catch the perpetrators before they simply dispersed to the four winds. Remember, we're looking for bombers small enough to hide under a tree ... not a B-29 Flying Fortress.
How, pray tell, would you stop them from getting back, collecting another load of pre-made bombs, and hitting you again?
Obviously, every city would have to have a considerable supply of bombs - it would be a whole industry, to create them, to store them safely (a magazine of explosive runes plus burning oil would make a hell of a mess if someone accidentally dropped a bomb they were adding to the pile) and have them ready at hand to use against another city in time of war.
But which other city, hm? A host of clerics would have to get on the phone to 'god' and get answers, wouldn't they? Not only that, they'd have to be asking, regularly, if such and such a city were making preparations for war, if they were loading bombs aboard birds right now, and so on and so forth. Pre-destructive intelligence would be of great importance - and so that would largely soak up a city's supply of augury and divination spells.
Does it ever seem like D&D just isn't the game you thought it was?