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Phoenixes are sentient - willing allies, rather than beasts to be used. The size of a mature phoenix is comparable to a teratorn. They can do the usual resurrection thing, but a phoenix fresh out of the egg would be very small and vulnerable: as vulnerable as a campfire - you can stomp it out, you can pour a bucket of water over it, etc., killing the phoenix permanently. Putting out the fire of a full-grown phoenix by magic is not within the power scope of humans. Growing from baby phoenix to full size takes some time - days, if sufficient fuel is provided, longer if fuel is limited.

Technology available to men is cold weapons (swords, longbows) + limited magic. By limited, I mean a building can be enchanted to be fireproof, but that would be expensive, and the enchantment would need to be maintained - like weatherproofing a house in RL.

One side has about 20 phoenixes, the other side has none. Google says the size of an army would be 7000-15000 soldiers. Letting a phoenix actually die (clarification: I mean, die permanently) is out of the question for the side using them - they are sort of holy. However, that's the side that is going to win the war, and I don't want the presence of the phoenixes to be underwhelming. If possible, I want them to be the gamebreaker that allows victory.

So where can the phoenixes be useful?

I had some thoughts of my own:

  • Reconnaissance. Anything the phoenixes can see from the air, they can report back.
  • Psychological warfare. Good luck keeping your horses and your peasants from bolting, when a formation of 20 phoenixes (350 square meters of flame) is flying at you. (Estimate taken from teratorn's estimated wing area.)
  • Scorched earth. Wheat fields should burn rather well. And phoenixes can burn a lot of them, quite far from the marching army.

All of this, however, feels a little underwhelming. What am I missing? What else can the phoenixes do? How can they be a game-breaker?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by sphennings, Renan, EveryBitHelps, SPavel, HopelessN00b Apr 11 '18 at 2:38

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps their best use is less as tools to outright win battles, but as propaganda. Once your army has secured victory, use a phoenix to annihilate the survivors (do they explode violently if you dive-bomb them into an enemy formation, to resurrect later?). Ensure some survivors see the carnage and escape to report back on the terrifying capabilities of these fearsome beasts. The other side need never know that you'd never risk one in open battle. The fear that you might use all 20 could be enough to ensure a surrender. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Apr 9 '18 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ What can the Phoenixes do offensively? Can they spit/rain fire from a distance or do they require direct contact to ignite something? How strong (hot, long-lasting) is the fire, does it just burn for a bit or can a Phoenix set fire to a large area by itself? How easy is it to communicate tasks to them, i.e. how smart are they? $\endgroup$ – Infrisios Apr 9 '18 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ I know you would rather not kill a pheonix so I'm not making this an answer, but... how about Trojan Phoenix's? Sell them as cute little novelties to the enemy (children), while they are still "young". They grow into fierce being overnight, destroying half the enemy city before any one realizes what happened $\endgroup$ – Dhara Apr 9 '18 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ Best is entirely dependent upon context. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Apr 9 '18 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ You don't want them to die? Then you can't send them into battle. So now they are a support unit and only way how to make them a game breaker is using them in a clever or surprising way. Tanks in Ardens or Elephants in Alpines. Can they survive a rain of arrows? How do they attack naturally? The only thing I can think of is forcing the other side to enter a forest and then burn it down with them. Or forcing them to stay in the open because they could burn the forest. $\endgroup$ – Nuloen The Seeker Apr 10 '18 at 8:30

14 Answers 14

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Logistics - cut off the enemies supply lines

Your front fighters might very well be able to hold off a phoenix or two and you don't want to send it all of them at once - if the enemy has a secret weapon that you know nothing about your army would completely lose their will to fight if their holy symbols are killed all at once - but the enemy supply lines might not be that secure.

You already mentioned that fields can be burned, but you could also use them to attack carts that are supposed to bring food, medicine, weapons, ... Use your phoenixes as a way to lay waste to the supply lines from afar, or to simply keep the guards in check while your normal fighters try to attack them.

Suppress easily reachable locations with a constant rain of fire

You can also use them to suppress the enemy. Sure, your house might be fireproof. But if there is a near-constant rain of fire puring down from the sky every couple hours because the enemy has sent one or two of them, it will be hard to leave your house without getting grilled.

Boost the morale further than you imagined

Other than that you could use them to boost your troops morale by simply letting them create fire in the air while the tropps are marching. Knowing that there are a couple large, (somewhat) friendly and holy birds above you that can rain down fire on the enemy will give your soldiers a stronger will to fight - while your enemies see not only a wall of spears/swords/shields coming towards them, but also an agile aerial squad that can grill you the moment you don't look at them because those spears/swords distract you.

That these beasts can resurrect makes it even more of a psychological factor. Allow your phoenixes only to fly where they would fall down into friendly, easily defendable terrain with your troops already present. The enemy would not only have to be lucky to kill the bird, they would also have to knowingly march into a death trap to really kill it - allowing you to kill them more easily and erode their morale, as each "kill" means only a loss of energy on the enemies side and no lose on your side. In fact the soldiers defending the resurrecting phoenix would probably feel honored to help their holy symbol, which raises the troops morale again.

Lower the enemies morale

You know what awaits prisoners of war on your side? The grill.

Publicly execute enemies with your holy phoenixes.

This might not be the moral thing to do, but it will certainly help morale. The enemy won't like this, but a public offering to the gods on your side will probably be well-received.

Conclusion

Apart from sneakily destroying the supply lines and raining down a constant stream of fire if the targets are easy targets, psychology is your best friend - and it is a massive friend with a creature like this.

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    $\begingroup$ The last one may very well backfire: if the other side knows that surrendering or being captured means being burned alive, they will literally fight to the death. Also, they may do the same thing to your troops afterwards, which may be even worse for your morale, if your troops know that they only started it because you did it first. $\endgroup$ – Eth Apr 10 '18 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, the last one may work better if you only did it selectively, such as decimation. Hold regular rituals where a few individuals get 'sacrificed', but don't sacrifice enough to where surrender is off the table. $\endgroup$ – Thebluefish Apr 10 '18 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Eth That's true, but only applies in situations where they can't retreat. Given the options of surrendering and facing Grill or fighting to the death, their choice is easy. Fight. Given the option of retreating however, all those blows to their moral count for quite a bit. $\endgroup$ – Lord Drake Apr 10 '18 at 20:09
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You've got the right of your phoenixes off the battlefield - they're strategically quite powerful, able to torch supply lines, spy from the air, and more.

On the battlefield, though, they get to fill a role that's historically very glamorous.

Specifically, they make truly superb heavy cavalry. Or, thanks to their size, a whole brigade of knights.

Like heavy cavalry, they can completely devastate a unit of soldiers. They'd swoop instead of charge, of course, but they could boil an entire unit alive in their armour. However, like heavy cavalry they're also vulnerable to prepared infantry- a thicket of pikes will sting for sure.

Unlike heavy cavalry, they're very manoeuvrable (since they can of course fly). They never have to engage if they don't want to. They may or may not be more vulnerable to archers - they obviously can't wear armour and the heat will only do so much to burn away arrows. They're also not themselves vulnerable to heavy cavalry- indeed, a brigade of knights caught in the open is easy prey for even a single phoenix.

A phoenix can also influence a battle more indirectly with fire - lighting fires upwind of the enemy will limit their options drastically in the right conditions.

This then gives us their glamorous battlefield role (when present). When on the field, a phoenix can:

  • Spot the enemy formation from above
  • Force enemy knights to hide behind archer cover, freeing your own knights to flank with impunity
  • Outflank pikemen, forcing them to move to defend against the phoenix or become disastrously vulnerable
  • Light fires on the fly to curtail the ability of the enemy to manoeuvre and force them from defensive positions
  • When the opportunity arises, swoop in and incinerate vast swathes of the enemy (which is to say what happens if the enemy fails to respect its presence)

With these advantages, even a single phoenix is an extremely powerful force multiplier - and mostly without committing to a fight itself, since most of the time the threat of leaving an army exposed to it is enough to gain the upper hand. Two is a massive advantage able to push the enemy around easily (checking their cavalry basically pins them right down). More is completely unfair.

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Night time diversion

They could use phoenixes as diversion to raid the enemy camp during night time.

Night fall coming, phoenixes will leave your camp and get around the enemy camp at a very long range. In the same time your whole army would have to break camp and hide nearby...

Then, around 3 am, Phoenixes slowly come back to the enemy camp in straight lines from the opposite direction your army is actually hidden (let’s say North if your army is South). Glowing in the night, at least one of the enemy sentinel will see them from far away and will assumes that the whole army is coming for them from the North in a surprise attack. Scouts will be sent to the camp and will find it empty, confirming this theory...

While every man is now facing your phoenixes approaching North, all your soldiers can now sneak into the enemy camp from the South and savagely take them in the back, killing officers and every thinking head of the enemy army that stayed rear lines... A true slaughter recipe!

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I think the answer of Secespitus captures a lot of the potential uses for the phoenixes.

One rather specific thing I would like to add is that the phoenixes might serve as a counter against archery:

You can try to shoot arrows at a phoenix but it doesn't actually do anything, since in close range the phoenix fire is so hot it just completely burns the arrows and the arrow tip alone doesn't do enough (or, you know, just melts). Using this feature offensively with most/all of your phoenixes at once means that your army is suddenly almost immune to large scale attacks from archers. You can charge an enemy frontline (or even fortress) without having to deal with arrows fired at you. At the same time, once you dig in the enemy has no choice but to charge at you, since they can barely harm you from a distance.

This way they should easily qualify as a game-breaker in the war, especially when this tactic of using them wasn't known before.

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  • $\begingroup$ Additionally, your archers can rain arrows on the opposition with impunity; while the enemy archers are distracted trying to shoot the phoenixes (ineffectively) you can rain arrows down on them. Who cares if a couple of strays inadvertently hit your own phoenixes? They burn up just like the enemy's arrows. The only concern here might be if the enemy discovered some arrowhead material that could survive the phoenix's fire; even if the flame torched the shaft and tail of the arrow, the head might be traveling with enough momentum to still do damage. $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Apr 10 '18 at 19:13
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You could consider using the phoenixes as mobile strategists and section commanders.

These birds basically can't die and are revered by an entire nation right?

That presumably means that they each have several dozen lifetimes of memories and are presumably extremely competent in multiple skills and domains. That sounds like the definition of an officer to me.

Medieval battles aren't won by the side that kills most enemies in fair fighting, they're won by the side that doesn't run away first. Most deaths are in the part of the battle where one side breaks and the other side cuts them down whilst they're running.

Your phoenixes could easily hover around your side of the battlefield looking for places where discipline is breaking, and turn up there being all holy and glowing. If they're smart enough, there's no reason why they couldn't take local command of that part of the battlefield.

I think they could very easily turn the tide of battle if they fly from weak point to weak point and just sort of hang around being holy and on fire behind troops that are losing heart.

Having the enemy general personally turn up in front of you is pretty scary. Now what about if the enemy general is also on fire?

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    $\begingroup$ I think most people would appreciate if the enemy general was on fire :D Nice aspect on the ability to show up everywhere. "Recruit, if you ever think about running away, remember: there is a giant, immortal, fire-breathing bird of prey right behind you that is often said to be the eyes of your god. So better think again." $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Apr 9 '18 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ "mobile strategists and section commanders." assumes that they can speak human language... $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 10 '18 at 2:00
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn The question already suggests "reporting back reconnaissance" as an option, which I assumed meant that that they can speak. $\endgroup$ – Racheet Apr 10 '18 at 9:58
  • $\begingroup$ And I think it's an invalid assumption that they can speak human languages. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 10 '18 at 12:08
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If you want the two sides to be of equal strength, you only use the phoenixes as a last resort. If they are holy, your people would frown on weaponizing them anyhow.

I mean you could use them as weapons, but that's not very interesting, is it? However, they can win you the war from a logistics point of view. For example during protracted warfare, sudden hard winters are known to happen. Your side can use them as space heaters while the enemy soldiers freeze to death in their camps.

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I can't find a good way to use phoenixes in battle that wouldn't have a major loophole, but you can

Use the phoenixes for superior communication and attack coordination.

Relevant phoenix abilities

The phoenixes can:

  • observe enemy from above,
  • carry messages quickly,
  • deliver cheap fuel for fire signalization,
  • immediately start big fires in remote places (like mountain tops, or just tree tops).

Obviously, the fire communication works best in the night-time. It's generally good idea to use phoenixes as a cheap source of light and heat, allowing more night activities.

Basic use

If you manage to lure your enemy into a hard, hilly terrain (or maybe the whole area around can be like this), these abilities will give you immense advantage. You will be able to:

  • ambush any smaller party diverted from the main forces, as well as
  • prepare and coordinate flanking attacks making full use of the terrain.

Additional use for night ambushes: use phoenixes to lit extra fires in or next to the enemy camp to lit the scene for the attackers. Be careful to avoid arrows. They will try hard to shoot the phoenixes the next time if they see the chance.

Further exploitation

If you make fire signal a distinctive feature off all your ambush attacks, you can later use it for:

  • evoking panic in the enemy soldiers (by firing a phoenix randomly here and there; compare to the sniper fire),
  • making some attacks even more unexpected and sneaky by not firing anything.

Extensions

To get more epicness, prepare a better fire show for the final battle, like lighting all mountain tops around.

To add more possibilities, make some phoenixes have a differently colored fire and use that for signalling.

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  • $\begingroup$ How is a phoenix going to carry a message? It is on fire. $\endgroup$ – Tyler S. Loeper Apr 10 '18 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ Then let them carry clay tablets, they are fireproof :) The question says at some point "Anything the phoenixes can see from the air, they can report back", so I assume they have some means to communicate with people, at least some people. So they can be just told the message and then repeat it, no need for writing the message down. $\endgroup$ – Frax Apr 10 '18 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ clay tablets is a good solutions for the messenger phoenix. $\endgroup$ – Tyler S. Loeper Apr 10 '18 at 17:43
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Hammer

These phoenix are to be the turning point of the battle, then there's nothing more glorious then the last minute charge.

Set the scene with the army working as the anvil, an impenetrable wall of man and steel that will hold the enemies in place as the blazing birds comes charging from the sides of behind.

Now, the trick is to make all this look really epic.

You have said there's magic to fireproof a house, what about fireproofing a ship?

Settle the battle on the beach, let the enemy have their backs to the ocean, they will think themselves safe and focus on the army in front of them.

Have the small fleet of fireproofed ships approach, the enemy will probably move their own boats to incertcept an then with the sun going down and the enemy army confident on their victory the phoenix erupts from the ships and charges.

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It depends on their intelligence levels.

If they have animal levels, their use is minimal but if they are intelligent, their use is immense because they can fly.

An intelligent flyer is a scout, messenger, spy, saboteur or just a bomber.

Animal levels you don't get much beyond a mascot or messenger pigeon.

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    $\begingroup$ This answers points out a large omission in the question. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Apr 10 '18 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ Even if they are intelligent, if there is no way for them to communicate with humans then they can't scout/spy because they can't share what they see with anyone. Also they are on fire so no message carrying or bomb runs. Even the contents of a lead box will catch on fire if they are supposedly very hot. $\endgroup$ – Tyler S. Loeper Apr 10 '18 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ Can't communicate? Dogs can't recite Shakespeare but can still communicate with people in a limited fashion. $\endgroup$ – Thorne Apr 11 '18 at 1:09
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How much weight can they carry? Have them grab a magical explosive in their talons (or even one in each foot), and you've just invented a magical bombing run.

If your Phoenixes are the sort who can teleport in a blaze of fire (or, alternatively, shift to an fire/energy form for high speed movement without any of that pesky mass holding them back) then you potentially have the ability to deliver precision strikes behind enemy lines - flare directly into/on top of the enemy's command tent, drop a bomb, flare out again. Game Over.

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    $\begingroup$ They can carry quite a bit, but how do you prevent an explosive from burning/exploding as soon as they pick it up? $\endgroup$ – Galastel Apr 10 '18 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ Impact explosive? Or a 2-stage bimetallic fuse - when the phoenix picks it up, the heat primes the explosive. When it then cools down again, it goes off. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Apr 10 '18 at 12:55
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@Secespitus listed most of what I was thinking. There are a options that I thought of.

First, using what Secespitus said, having phoenixes on your side makes everything the enemy does more expensive. Any using without a pike or archer defense is dead. The command staff in the back? Without a bunch of their soldiers providing cover: dead. Reserves that aren't constantly on guard against air attack: dead. Supplies that arn't guarded by pikes or archers: incinerated. Supply train: heavily guarded or dead. Everything needs to be guarded.

Second, scouting in force. If they see an enemy unit that is not on guard, kill it. They still need to report back on troop movements but the reports will be shorter. Anything that they didn't kill is likely moving slowly due to being on guard.

These two things make the morale of attackers much lower. They are never safe.

Third, feint with the phoenixes. If the enemy is defending against the phoenixes then, unless they vastly outnumber you, they leave themselves open to your troops (and vice versa).

Forth, carry bags of rocks to rain down on any troops that are otherwise defended against the phoenixes. This can soften them up for either your own troops or create an opening for the phoenixes to attack. The "bag" for the rocks would have to survive the fire but that's just an engineering problem.

Fifth, softening up enemies. Burn their crops. Burn their towns. Make them spend troops guarding their infrastructure. Most medieval kingdoms did not have standing armies because they are expensive. They are either paying mercenaries or they are pulling people from the farms. They can only do that for a short period. You can ruin an enemy over time this way.

Sixth, (this depends on if the phoenixes come back from the dead, per legend) terrorist "suicide" bombers. Go to the enemy capital, find high value targets and blow themselves up. If this is the first response to troops crossing your border, other rulers will be less likely to begin a war.

The fifth and sixth uses will make other rulers less willing to begin a conflict with you.

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I know you said that a phoenix dying would be politically unfeasible, but phoenixs could be an amazing suicide weapon. Have them start a fire that burns an enemy village to the ground, and even if they die, they will be reborn.

This all depends on the details of your scenario of course.

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The phoenixes aren't used as weapons, that would be sacrilege. Instead, they allow a wing of their own army to weather the treacherous, barren, and cold mountains they have to pass to sneak behind and surround the enemy's main forces. Without the phoenixes, this route would impossible to pass with an army; it would freeze or starve or get lost.

The phoenixes provide warmth at night to stop the army from freezing without the need for sparse wood. During they day, they hunt for food among the ragged terrain to sustain the army. While they hunt, they also spot the occasional enemy guard posts that dot the pass, so the army can easily avoid them.

After surviving the pass, the phoenix wing arrives at the main battle to surround the enemy forces. The enemy had assumed their rear was safe, and left it unguarded. After all, no state had successfully passed and army through the mountains until now. The victory is decisive as the army tears through their enemy from both sides.

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You haven't stated what you think a phoenix can do

You haven't specified at all what a Phoenix is capable off. Are they super hot, like as hot as a live volcano? If so just having them standing around will causes people within 200 feet to just boil and burn to death. Do they have firebreath? You have mentioned very explicitly some qualities of your Phoenixes like that they can somehow burn down a house, but you haven't mentioned anything else. Since you are making things up for your flavor, make up other qualities and see what you have?

Basically ask yourself: How hot are they? Can they project this heat in anyway? Can they talk or communicate? How tough are they? How strong are they? How fast are they? Etc. After this brainstorm you should have all your answers.

Because otherwise I am going to assume that they are just a big walking bonfire. If they are just a bonfire then they will do nothing in a battle. Their only usefulness would be... nothing? Even in reconnaissance, if they cant talk then what use is them flying around very obviously and brightly? If your phoenix cant even communicate what it sees then no scouting, and no transporting anything without burning it to ash either. It's is basically just pretty.

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