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I want to create a scenario where highly technological aliens invade a medieval earth, the kind with magic and dragons and such. But I don't want the aliens to be completely overpowered. I want them to be scary and come out of nowhere but give the humans a chance to win the war. I think the best way to do this is not giving the aliens guns, or explosives, or plasma weapons. These aliens need to have only melee weapons. the aliens would still have far better means of transportation, communication, and armor, but the humans have magic and dragons to counter this. It's a perfectly balanced war.

I just need to know if and why such an advanced race would have such primal weapons...

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Rekesoft, Mołot, Hoyle's ghost, Ender Look, Frostfyre Mar 1 at 13:56

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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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm, that's a tricky one. How could a clearly superior race capable of interstellar travel possibly leave their defenses down and attack a strange world unarmed? Maybe they were not planning on attacking earth? Maybe they were only on an exploratory mission and believed earth was uninhabited? They did not send Neil Armstrong to the moon with guns, did they? (Or, did they?!!) But anyhow, since you mentioned words like 'invade' and 'slaughter', I don't think this would answer your question. $\endgroup$ – Lord of the Larks Mar 1 at 5:13
  • $\begingroup$ @LordoftheLarks well by invade i mean attempt to invade, and slaughter is just referring to the initial landing. this is food for thought though, I was taking into account the first answer received which stated the idea of limited numbers and this would explain that well. it might have simply been an exploration party caught by surprise almost as much as the earthlings. $\endgroup$ – Elias Rowan Albatross Mar 1 at 5:31
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe the reason is sportsmanship? The aliens are invading for fun and games. and shooting fish in a barrel is not very entertaining, so they go for melee weapons and a more challenging experience. $\endgroup$ – Burki Mar 1 at 7:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki this is a very interesting idea indeed, thank you. $\endgroup$ – Elias Rowan Albatross Mar 1 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ remember the Kzinti lesson. $\endgroup$ – ths Mar 1 at 10:54

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What if they did bring bucket loads of weapons to try to invade us, but the environment on earth rendered them incapable of working effectively?. Maybe the high amount of nitrogen in our atmosphere or even moisture (water vapor).

This would be possible if your alien race was a hot headed bunch who did not do their homework first before invading :P. They then have to resort to primitive weaponry like swords and clubs just to defend themselves.

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    $\begingroup$ There's an excellent short story by Stanislaw Lem "Invasion from Aldebaran". Unfortunately I can't find it online in English (even though I'm sure I've found it once in the past). Don't expect google translate to provide anything close to decent translation... Anyway if you manage to find this story about PWGDRK and NGTRX landing on Earth and having their first encounter with human race you might get the idea. $\endgroup$ – Ister Mar 1 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Ister I would love to read that! I’ll see if I could go find it. $\endgroup$ – Lord of the Larks Mar 1 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ In this scenario, how would you explain the aliens going straight to primitive tech levels instead of somewhere inbetween, e.g. projectile weapons or dropping rocks from orbit or just running people over with their vehicles? $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Mar 1 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ @RutherRendommeleigh Hmm good question. I would say that the same factors that affect their weapons have a negative effect on their vehicles and spaceships as well. But that would raise another problem - their spaceship would crash land the minute it enters our atmosphere...mmm their spaceship having effective resistant features that minimize damage would even it out?(thick stable walls or force fields that automatically activate in case of a crash landing) $\endgroup$ – Lord of the Larks Mar 1 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Curses! Our infra-red death-rays are thwarted by the natives' melanin content! Then unleash the chemical weapons! What do you mean "they already use capsaicin as seasoning for their food"? Blast, foiled again!" $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Mar 1 at 13:46
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It's a game.

Welcome to most glorious event of the year! As you all know, each year we pick a planet and select an area of specimen to defeat. This year we've chosen a fun classic planet near Sol, which they've named 'Earth'.
These creatures are about our height and have a weird pale uniform color. They fight using physical energy. They have long metal sticks called swords. Your challenge this year is to defeat them at their own game!

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    $\begingroup$ The predator comes to mind. In a more sportsy fashion. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Mar 1 at 12:08
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What you seem to be describing is some form of 'gap' in their technology tree, assuming the same development path as we have taken.

For us, we consider electro-magnetic technology to be almost child's play so as to be so simple, and a massive amount of our modern technology is actually based on this. But, the only reason that we think that is because of the Maxwell equations of 1861-1862. Prior to that, if someone like Queen Victoria had said 'you engineers, build me a box I can speak into that makes my voice come out in front of all my subjects', it simply couldn't be done because we didn't have the scientific theories available to design a practical application like radio.

We've already made some scientific progress integrating weak nuclear forces with electromagnetism, and we expect the next one will be strong nuclear, then gravity. Once we reach that point, we have a grand unified theory that could give us incredible control over the universe and our place in it. But, that's assuming there even is a GUT to be discovered.

The answer to your question however seems to be in the power sources for your alien ships. If your aliens have mastered theories around Strong Nuclear forces, then they may well be able to initiate fusion reactions, giving them vast amounts of power for spaceships, but not have even basic radio. Also, based on what we know, it's possible that fusion doesn't scale down or miniaturise well, meaning that it's possible (especially if their planet doesn't have the ingredients for gunpowder readily available near the surface) that your aliens could have fast ships, but only basic weapons.

Ultimately, what we think of as the 'obvious' technology tree is really a function of what we've discovered through our own scientific endeavours. But, it's entirely possible that other beings, having discovered other principles of the universe first, could get here and then go 'damn! How come they have such powerful weapons and haven't even mastered the basics of space flight?'

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  • $\begingroup$ The question states the aliens have better armour. Obviously this is earth biased, but armour is developed in response / as a counter to the weapons being used. If they have better armour they must have better weapons? $\endgroup$ – Markyyys Mar 1 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ Ehm, no. This is entirely unbelievable. For laymen, the speed of light thing is rather obviously tied to light, which is electromagnetism. Fusion requires electromagnetic confinement. These are all unavoidable - the Strong Nuclear Force is an extremely short-distance force. You can't master it without a longer-distance force. Gravity won't work for that (attraction only), leaving just electromagnetism. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Mar 1 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ As for chemistry - so what if they don't have gunpowder? What we call "gunpowder" is just easy to make explosive. It's not actually what we use for guns anymore, as we have better explosives now. Aliens may have chosen another explosive early on, but the discovery of explosives is pretty unavoidable (they're just unstable chemicals). $\endgroup$ – MSalters Mar 1 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters based on our technology and our understanding of the universe, yes. I agree that this is speculation, but the reality is that we think of electromagnetic containment for fusion because that's our tech tree. As for explosives, perhaps. But, the question is referring to an absence of weapons that start with explosives, so it seems evident that the unstable chemicals didn't lead to weapons manufacture. That's from the OP, not my answer. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Mar 1 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ Speed of light (as in FTL) is not tied to light. It is just the "relativistic limit speed", the characteristic speed of spacetime. And photons just happen to be massless, so they travel at this speed too. But otherwise I agree with MSalters: There is a natural order of discovering fundamental forces, based on the energy one needs to tinker with them. $\endgroup$ – b.Lorenz Mar 1 at 12:49
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The aliens came here for a peaceful reason. But they had very bad discipline, and some of them decided to invade earth using whatever they had. Swords are too weak for them to be considered a weapon that requires any regulations.

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    $\begingroup$ This could involve a mutiny on a first-contact mission by the aliens, during the mutiny, when it became apparent the mutineers would succeed, the command crew detonated the ship's armory and destroyed most of the systems useful as weaponry. The armor could just be the alien's normal ship-suits, and independently destroying equipment not tied into the ship's systems (vehicles in the hangar) implausible. $\endgroup$ – Giu Piete Mar 1 at 11:04
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    $\begingroup$ @GiuPiete Alternatively, the aliens may not even care about the earth. They can't bring stronger weapons as they are dangerous to other aliens, and unnecessary for the mission. But after conquering the earth, they only face minimal consequences such as their employer firing all of them, demanding returning the ship and paying for the fuel. $\endgroup$ – user23013 Mar 1 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ heh, makes a certain kind of 'revelations cycle' sense, but I'd imagine if that's a concern they'd not have the resources to actually hold onto a conquered earth from other parties. (book 2 I guess) $\endgroup$ – Giu Piete Mar 1 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ @GiuPiete Just like you go to the south pole before anyone had environmental concerns, and suddenly had the idea: with so advanced technology, why not start a colony there and slaughter some penguins for meal? Others consider this unimportant, and they did this when it is completely legal, other than breaking some contract. The decision could even be made by their boss and they are not breaking any contracts. The original purpose is only there to make it profitable even if they didn't feel it probable to win. So they didn't consider improving the probability before arriving. $\endgroup$ – user23013 Mar 1 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ sure, i get it, probably work easiest in a 'world' without ftl comms. $\endgroup$ – Giu Piete Mar 1 at 16:44
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They have better equipment, but not with them.

A spaceship is not a place to bring high-powered weaponry. A stray shot can easily damage critical components or puncture the hull. Replacement parts may be months or years away.

Consequently, the doctrine is to favour melee weaponry when operating near spacecraft.

Your aliens might be able to manufacture some low-grade ranged weaponry given time but there's only so much the Machine-Shop on their ship can actually produce outside of small tools and replacement parts for the ship.

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    $\begingroup$ Besides, if they traveled for long enough (not FTL), Earth wouldn't even had cities. Primitive Homo Sapiens wouldn't have justified bringing any weapons, ranged or otherwise. Pepperspray would have been sufficient. The need for actual weapons would have been noticed only when they arrive. And at that point, indeed you have to make do with your Machine Shop on board. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Mar 1 at 11:28
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters Oh I dunno, If I was on an expedition to prehistoric earth I'd 100% bring some form of weapon. Homo-Sapiens has always been a dangerous and unpredictable beast :P $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Mar 4 at 9:06
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Magic

If your humans have access to magic, perhaps that could be the answer? The aliens attack a city or village and it is a slaughter as they use guns, bombs, and plasma weapons. Then, at the last moment the towns Elders, a group of wizards or sorcerers, create a powerful spell to deactivate the weapons that have slaughtered them. Perhaps they could place a curse on them so that any one who uses those weapons is killed, forcing the aliens to use swords and other lesser weapons.
With the weapons deactivated, the attacking aliens are furious but can do nothing as they do not understand the magic and have no control over it. The spell is limited as the wizards were rushed so only affects the weapons, not the transports or ships.
It also strongly signifies that although humanity is weaker, they can still win the war.
This could also affect the plot and story in interesting ways. If the Elders are dead, there is no one left to turn to about using advanced large scale magic (like the curse), increasing the stakes for our heroes.
A potential sub-plot could be the last Elder survived and when they are killed, the curse dies with them. The aliens are now frantically hunting them down to lift the spell/curse.

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  • $\begingroup$ When reading this answer, another recent question from worldbuilding came to my mind. They asked about effective usage of magic against todays technology. Additional to the great ideas in this answer, one might find some inspiration in the answers there. $\endgroup$ – Starguin Mar 1 at 11:29
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You mention dragons and magic, so we're talking about a fantasy scenario.

Have your aliens initially invade with their standard plasma/laser/whatever guns blasting people to ashes. Then the humans figure out that the lowest-level, easiest defense magic completely blocks that type of weapon. Maybe aliens use lasers and the first level "minor darkness" spell that every wizard learns in the first semester in magic school and that everyone thinks is mostly useful for playing pranks completely eliminates those weapons. Or the $10 protection rings you can buy on every street corner that are so weak that people use them mostly for not hurting themselves so much when they bump into furniture completely blocks plasma. You get the idea.

Instead of taking the weapon away from the aliens, make it useless. The aliens suffer some pretty horrific losses before they get the idea that if high-tech doesn't work, then low-tech it is, and go and use human melee weapons.

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  • $\begingroup$ In this scenario, how would you explain the aliens going straight to primitive tech levels instead of somewhere inbetween, e.g. projectile weapons or dropping rocks from orbit? $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Mar 1 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ For the same reason that a modern army running out of weapons wouldn't suddenly start shooting with muskets - they simply don't have them. Sure they have history books with descriptions and maybe even instructions how to build them, but neither the molds nor the production lines nor raw materials to suddenly start mass-producing them. Dropping rocks from orbit is not exactly a precision attack and will punch a large hole into something, but medieval warfare wouldn't care much for that. You can't hit moving targets, so breaking walls is the only useful case. $\endgroup$ – Tom Mar 1 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ A modern army wouldn't need weapons to defeat a primitive foe. Guns or no guns, what's a mob with pointy sticks gonna do against a tank? With someone capable of interstellar travel, the difference is orders of magnitude worse. Also, a medieval army cares very much about e.g. a stable food supply, so nuking all their fields and population centers is going to hurt. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Mar 1 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ The modern army equivalent of what I propose is magic that stops explosives from working, including internal combustion engines (which is nothing but controlled gasoline explosions). What, exactly, is your tank going to do with a dead engine? Even your nuke requires a conventional explosion to compress the fission material above critical mass. $\endgroup$ – Tom Mar 1 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ Granted, if you disable all of their tech, they can't do much, but the question asks for them to retain their transportation and communication abilities. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Mar 1 at 13:24
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There is the trope that magical energies cause advanced technology to malfunction. In many universes that combine magic and technology (such as the Dresden Files or the old CRPG Arcanum, and to a lesser extent in Shadowrun), magic and technology do not mesh with each other.

In the Dresden Files and Arcanum, simply having a magic user be present near a piece of tech is sufficient for it to start behaving erratically and even break down.

Maybe in your world, even the presence of magic on the planet is enough to cause high tech small arms and ground vehicles to malfunction? The spaceships might work because they have heavy metal shielding to protect from interstellar radiation, but as soon as you try to fire your blaster outside the ship, it blows up in your face.

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It's a sport

This alien species is very advanced. As a sport or entertaining activity, they invent a new fashion of hunting, similar to the saga of Predator movies.

The major difference with the Predator movies is that instead of using all their technology to track down and hunt warriors they make something more exciting: fights at equal levels.

A spaceship is sent to the planet, scan down the entire surface and look for an intelligent race. Then, investigate their culture and technological warfare: weapons. After doing that the sport-aliens or hunters are sent to the surface using the same weapons as the intelligent species of the planet use, in our case swords.

The challenger or objective of the activity is to kill the major amount of individuals in the minor amount of time without dying nor using more advanced technology. The alien who kills the most amount of humans is rewarded with honor/trophies/status/money/etc.

It's just a game. Even more, it could be televised in real time!

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  • $\begingroup$ what happens if the game goes horribly wrong and the aliens start getting annihilated? $\endgroup$ – Elias Rowan Albatross Mar 1 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @EliasRowanAlbatross it's part of the sport, sometimes it goes fine, sometimes it goes wrong. Shame upon the participants. Alternatively, the sponsor of the sports/government could send another ship to punish/obliterate the humans, or heal the wounded "player" and arm them with ultimate technology. O maybe, the planet is shown worth of living, and as a sign of victory for it inhabitants they never visit it again, or they give them a reward. $\endgroup$ – Ender Look Mar 1 at 16:18
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Can't numbers be a balancing factor? Let's say the spaceship holds a couple thousand fighters, and there are at least millions of humans. That could work well even without magic and dragons. The humans have bows and crossbows, siege weapons (even the romans had catapults and ballistas), so it would be weird if the aliens didn't have any of those (or couldn't copy any of those in a day).

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A fairly simple one but it could just be a matter of culture for the aliens. As a highly honour based society they wouldn't dream of anything less than taking their enemies on in personal combat, seeing ranged weaponry as weak of character and cowardly.

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They came "to serve man".
Part of the ethos of getting meat for the dish is that certain weapons must be used.

Bloodsport / Rite of passage / Initiation / ... .

Various similar - ie the means of hunting the game is part of the thrill of the chase.
cf not shooting a sitting duck.

Similar is done in a Larry Niven story where large super intelligent (vaguely) dinosaur like creatures live in a high pressure environment. Hunters come to hunt them with well defined allowable weapons. The creatures are bored out of their minds by their environment and welcome their side of the 'hunt to the death' situation.

Searches .... Bandersnatchi on Jinx

  • Jinx, orbiting Sirius A, is a massive moon of a gas giant (simply called Primary), stretched by tidal forces into an egg shape, with surface gravity at the habitable areas near the limits of human extended tolerance. The poles lie in vacuum, the equatorial regions are Venus-like (and inhabited only by the Bandersnatchi); the zones between have atmosphere breathable by humans. Jinx's poles become a major in vacuo manufacturing area. Jinxian humans are short and squat, the strongest bipeds in Known Space. But they tend to die early, from heart and circulatory problems. There is a tourist industry which provides substantial useful interplanetary trade credits for the Bandersnatchi, who allow themselves to be hunted by humans under strict protocols.

Bandersnatchi

https://larryniven.fandom.com/wiki/Bandersnatch

https://wiki2.org/en/Bandersnatch_(Known_Space) <- good

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The aliens are not willing invaders. They are invading, of course, but only because they have no other choice.

They might be the last remnants of their race, with almost all their knowledge, technologies and resources lost, forgotten or spent, and their invasion attempt is their last resort try at survival. Or at least their best bet to secure a few more days, years or centuries until the inevitable demise of their species.

Or they might be criminals who were condemned to exile to a hostile planet as a form of punishment or exotic execution. The ship has brought them against their will and without any weapons to defend themselves or tools to return home. All the while the law-abiding aliens back at home sit on their couches and watch that fancy new reality show about a rag-tagged band of shipwrecked guys fighting with improvised weapons against a strange bipedal humanoid race - in glorious 3D transmitted by hovering micro-drones.

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My initial thought was simply that the ships were not actually theirs (either stolen or borrowed), such that the actual technological level of the invaders was such that swords were the best they had. However you describe them as highly technological so that's out the window. In its place

They aren't engineers, they're technicians

What I mean by this is that whilst someone on their homeworld created their technology, the ones on the ship only know it well enough to maintain and repair. If it was to far damaged from earlier events, or simply didn't function in the environment, they may not be able to work out what was wrong. Imagine an IT support person trying to tank.

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Get rid of their spaceships

The only way, other than the aliens choosing to have an even fight, to make this even remotely plausible would be to have them lose most of their tech - at the very least all use of their spaceships - around the time of their landing on earth.

Any spaceship capable of interstellar travel, no matter how limited, is a far more potent weapon than anything a medieval society has access to. If they can get, say, ten people to orbit, they can probably just as easily drop a half-ton rock on your capital. Or crush your armies by firing their trusters once or twice. Or do whatever else they like because swords and arrows aren't much of a threat compared to colliding with space rocks at relativistic velocities.

Even if you ignore a spaceship's offensive uses, the humans would need pretty much unlimited teleportation magic (which is also a weapon potent enough to render swords etc. meaningless), otherwise the aliens' logistical and strategic advantage will make them unbeatable. You can't catch them, you can't siege them, you can't defend your crops, livestock or food stores, or infrastructure.

However, take that away from them and the tides might turn:

They probably (used to) rely on their spaceships for almost everything

Let's be real, a foot soldier, even with the fanciest of guns, is not going to be much use in a space battle. Why would the aliens waste valuable cargo space on infantry weapons when they have a gigawatt laser turret on their vessel? Why lug around explosives when you can level a city by pointing your thrusters at them? Better pack more fuel or better food or that redundant life support system they recommend for long voyages.

The only way you would be worse off is if you ran out of fuel, or broke something critical during the landing, or the engine had some weird interaction with the local atmosphere. But that's never gonna happen, right? Right?

Okay, crap, uhm, let's just fire up the fabricator on emergency power to make ourselves some pointy sticks, yes? And pray that the skiff still works, we're gonna need it.

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