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In my fictional world, there is a pre-industrial civilization that has advanced to a level of technology similar to that of the 15th-century Earth. This civilization is under constant threat from aerial attacks by large, fire-breathing creatures that are both intelligent and highly resistant to conventional weapons. Magic does not exist in this world, so the civilization must rely solely on their technology and ingenuity to defend themselves.

The creatures, let's call them Drakons, are roughly the size of a small airplane with a wingspan of around 30 meters. They are highly maneuverable in the air and are capable of breathing fire that can incinerate entire villages in minutes. The Drakons are not invulnerable, but their scales are strong enough to deflect most projectiles, such as arrows and early gunpowder weapons. The Drakons are also intelligent, capable of learning from past encounters and adapting their tactics accordingly. They are not mindless beasts but rather a cunning adversary that poses a significant threat to the civilization.

The civilization has been trying various defenses against these Drakon attacks, such as building fortified structures, utilizing early gunpowder-based weapons, and employing large ballistae. However, these methods have had limited success as the Drakons have adapted and become more strategic in their attacks. The citizens of this civilization live in constant fear, and their society has been heavily affected by the need to defend against these aerial threats. The leaders of this civilization are desperate for a more effective solution to protect their people and ensure their survival.

Given these constraints and the context provided, how can this pre-industrial civilization effectively defend against aerial attacks from the Drakons without the use of magic? Additionally, what technological advancements or tactics might they develop to counter the intelligence and adaptability of these creatures, and how could these solutions be implemented in a way that fits within the established technological level of the society?

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    $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 15, 2023 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ See: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/48432/… Also note that your dragon is about the size of a Boeing 367-80... It'll need over 17,000 horsepower to get off the ground, and require over 250 cows per ten hours of flight for calories. Humans might be too small for it to bother with. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    May 24, 2023 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sorry Dreamforge; Apparently, the current rule is to close as story-based when you ask "what can a character or group or characters do to reach a specific goal" (refs : 1, 2). So I will follow the rule even if I strongly disagree with it. I hope you have what you wanted because this might lead to an actual closure :/. If you actually don't, notify me (@) in comments and I'll try to help you in a dedicated chatroom. $\endgroup$ Dec 25, 2023 at 19:44

14 Answers 14

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A normal human society would not try to defend itself against non-magical large, flying, fire breathing creatures. A normal human society would hunt them and kill them dead. Humans are very good at hunting and extirpating megafauna, especially large dangerous megafauna.

  • Steal their eggs and make omelet. They are delicious.

  • Capture them in nets and kill them.

  • Baited hooks work wonders. Large hooks.

  • Stalk them and kill them with appropriate ranged weapons. If bows are too weak, use crossbows. If crossbows are too weak, use scorpions.

The thing is, large predators have very low population densities, because they need a lot of prey. What do those large, flying, fire-breating predators eat? Whatever they ate before humans came, its gone: the humans have converted the fields to agriculture, they have killed off all large prey. And humans have pointed sticks, and humans attack in large well-coordinated packs.

Humans have very much larger population densities than any kind of large predator. By the 15th century, the large, flying, fire-breathing predators are a half-remembered legend; maybe they survive in remote and exotic locations, but definitely not in densely populated places.

For example, in the Stone Age there were lions in Europe. Step by step they were extirpated, with the last European lions being killed in the 4th century CE. Or, have you heard about the Nile crocodiles? There are no more crocodiles in the Nile north of Aswan...

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    $\begingroup$ The flip side of this is that if the dragons are intelligent enough to work around all these problems then there won't be a question of "how do humans defend themselves", because the humans will have gone the way of various other tasty megafauna, probably long before they developed sophisticated technology, and will only be remembered by draconic archaeologists. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2023 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime: Good observation. Anyway, there is no way that a Renaissance era human civilization would have a problem with dracons; either the dracons are a critically endangered species, or else there are no humans around. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 14, 2023 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ You could improve this by biomass measurements. Humans have converted the mammal biomass of the planet almost entirely into Cows,Humans, Pigs, Buffalo, Sheep and Goats. The remaining 8% is split half and half between wild mammals and other domestic animals (horses, camels, asses). We did this by agriculture - converting vast parts of the planet into feed supplies for humans and livestock. Biomass is a function of how much solar energy you can convert into copies of the critter. Predators are really bad at converting solar energy into more predators. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    May 15, 2023 at 1:42
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    $\begingroup$ The dragons might be a persistent non-solved problem if they live on islands or distant shores, and mostly eat food that humans don't have access to (like deep sea fish or whales), but occasionally like to snack on people. Basically dragons occupy the threat matrix slot occupied by African pirates in the Mediterranean through most of European history, or Vikings while they were a thing. $\endgroup$
    – g s
    May 15, 2023 at 5:14
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    $\begingroup$ +1 to "follow it back to its house and kill it there while it's sleeping". That's how humans deal with predators. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    May 16, 2023 at 23:03
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15th Century?

Cannons and seige Ballistas.

Both of these would have both the power and the Terminal ballistics to be either a 1-hit kill or at the very least make Humans a very unappealing target.

Most likely there would be other advancements such as a greater use of Chainshot and use of ballista fired nets, potentially some usage of grapeshot or scaled up grapeshot (think a cannon/dragon equivalent of double-ought buckshot)

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe something like this laced with poison/fire would be an interesting idea. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2023 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Yartholomev - probably not TBH - Poison on a Ballista bolt could work, but the big problem in combat is Poison is slow acting and you generally need the threat removed now. Same issue with Fire. For a Cannon, unless you are having explosive shells or incendiary ammunition (not a thing in the 15th century) - you'd be giving up the weight of shot (and therefore terminal lethality) for some form of Damage over time - not a good trade IMO. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2023 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with your analysis on poison. Though I do think some kind of paralysis agent could be useful, even if it takes a short while to kick in. This assumes, of course, that the enemy fights over a long course of time. If the attacks are short and sporadic, poison/long term attacks are totally useless. I don’t know whether they had identified paralysis agents in the 15th century. If they did, I wonder how. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2023 at 1:27
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    $\begingroup$ Poison's still potentially good strategically even if it doesn't achieve a tactical victory. If the drakons reproduce slowly, then even if they kill 20 people, if one dies due to poison, humanity will win the war. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 16, 2023 at 5:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Yartholomev The effect of poison would be to make sure that any hurt dragon doesn't survive the encounter to fight another day - this would be very valuable, since we can assume that such large creatures breed slowly and have low population numbers. $\endgroup$
    – fgysin
    May 25, 2023 at 8:09
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How did people manage to defend themselves against wild beasts in the old times?

They tamed some of these wild beasts and had them do the work. Why fight alone against wolves if you can turn a wolf into a dog and get its help?

Your people can do the same. Domesticate or tame some of the Drakons (there is an advantage in being fed and cared of, so they won't necessarily oppose it) and have them help in patrolling the sky.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 15, 2023 at 18:50
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Surrender to their new Drakon overlords.

Simply put, it sounds like these Drakons are strong enough to destroy anything they want, and tough enough to withstand any attack. In short, they're unable to be defeated.

So, the only real viable option is for the humans to send forth emissaries to the Drakons to negotiate their surrender, paying whatever tribute the Drakons desire to turn aside their wrath.

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  • $\begingroup$ Heh. But also booo~ hiiisssss~. This answer needs less defeatest snark and more notes about the cunning plan once the drakons are lured into complacency. $\endgroup$
    – lly
    May 16, 2023 at 14:47
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You don't. Intelligence + air superiority + ranged, area of effect weapons + immunity to your projectile weapons? You might as well ask how a pre-industrial civilization defends itself against airstrikes and helicopter raids from a modern military base. You're going to need to resolve this with words and understanding.

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    $\begingroup$ They could easily stop those helicopter attacks though: mass rush the military base and / or hunger it out. The base has limited ammo and fuel, so enough people and determination could easily permanently stop the attacks. Same with drakes: hit them where they live, they can't fly forever $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    May 15, 2023 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ Mass rushes against rapid-fire weapons don't tend to work very well (see WW1) and tend to demoralise the next group of "volunteers". Also sitting around outside like ...er... ducks tends to go badly $\endgroup$ May 16, 2023 at 10:38
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Of the answers already posted I think that the two more realistic options are those of DKNguyen (i.e. humans are toast) and nick012000 (surrender).

I'll add a further possibility.

You can't fight them directly since they are so powerful, therefore the only thing you can do (beyond going extinct or trying to negotiate) is to exterminate them all.

How? Weapons of mass destruction. In the 15th century? Maybe...

In the 15th century humans had a rudimentary knowledge of medicine and of how diseases spread. There are records of rudimentary bacteriological warfare where assailants launched infected carcasses of humans and animals over the walls of castles under siege, in the hope a disease like the plague or cholera affected the defenders.

So the only hope is to observe the Drakons and see if they suffer from some disease. Collect the body of some infected Drakon and then try to spread that disease, in the hope it will play a "War of the Worlds" trick on them.

I will add that this kind of scientific approach to bacteriological warfare is not particularly surprising. Leonardo da Vinci, who was also a war machines engineer and an anatomist was born in the 15th century, and Galileo Galilei, the father of modern scientific method, was born just a century later. So the kind of "scientific approach and thinking" to this mankind-threatening menace would have been "in the air".


BTW, you insist that magic doesn't exist in your world, but this is IMO inconsistent with your description of the Drakons, unless your world is another universe with different physical laws.

There is no way a being big as an airplane can fly and be maneuverable as you imagine (big flying "dinosaurs" were not maneuverable at all).

How would they lift-off? Flapping their 30m wings wouldn't work physically (modern airplanes that big need a lot of lift and a long runaway to take off).

Moreover how would they produce fire? They would need some kind of fuel to ignite and spit. And they would need a big reserve of that, otherwise their attack wouldn't be as dangerous as you say. This would make them heavy, which is a big no-no with bird-like creatures.

In addition, you say they are impervious to weapons, so they are armored, and this would increase their weight still more. And we haven't considered the fact that to ignite the fuel they would need to be somewhat fireproof, which adds to the weight.

All in all I think that you might want to hint at the existence of some form of magic (maybe the humans don't know magic really exists yet) if you don't want to stretch too much the suspension of disbelief of your audience.

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  • $\begingroup$ that is the idea - the concept of magic, how to take advantage of it, how it works, etc. is well outside the field of understanding of the people present in this world $\endgroup$
    – dreamforge
    May 14, 2023 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ @dreamforge And yet they've reached 15th century technology, a point in history where engineers could build cathedrals, or build and navigate ocean-going ships. And they've got an existential threat in the form of dragons. How could they possibly not try to figure out what makes up a dragon? $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    May 15, 2023 at 7:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham If the OP actually admits magic do exist in this world, I can however imagine a scenario where mankind has not yet figured it out. For example the first manifestation was with the Drakons, who may have met humans for the first time since just few decades (they were hibernating? They have crossed an ocean from a far away continent still unknown to mankind?). However now the cat is out of the bag, and 15th humans will try to understand how that menace "work". ... $\endgroup$ May 15, 2023 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham It could take a century or two though, because you know religion and stuff: Galileo was forced by the Church to abjure his theories. OTOH mankind wasn't faced with extermination then, so maybe in the OP's situation the Church could be convinced that a scientific approach could win the day (maybe after all their exorcists have been burned to ashes trying to dispel the Drakons *grin*). $\endgroup$ May 15, 2023 at 14:45
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Most of the answers are about weapons for defence.

Instead - defend by using the enemy's advantages against them. Any opponent with a 30 metre wing span will have difficulty fitting through a half-metre wide doorway, which is still ample space for a grown human to pass at a run.

Look at the design of castles and how they force the attacker into an unfavourable position.

Your Drakons can fly? Make them walk by moving anything valuable under ground. Force them to attack through the one larger entrance through which they can initially fit, but once inside it gets harder to turn around until you can attack vulnerable parts with less risk.

Drakons breathe fire ? Stop building with flammable materials - make a solid stone keep with zero flammables as the community center where everyone shelters. It would be mostly buried with a series of surface defences in layers so the defenders can pull back slowly and lure the attacker into bad positions.

If their skin is fire resistant, drop sticky warmed tar on to upset their flight characteristics and make them not-flying creatures for a while.

All of this is to primarily to protect your assets and weakening the attackers is a secondary.


Remember also that the best defence is a good offense So while the Drakon are attacking you, send your stealthiest fighters to attack their homes/nests. Steal the (thing-they-need) or the only viable royal egg of their deceased leader and use it as a bargaining point.


Find something the Drakon want but can't do for themselves. Perhaps they get a drug-like high from smoking sea urchins or sponges, but can't dive underwater like a human can.

Once your humans know what they want, bargain for peace.

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Caves, dug dwellings, and stone houses with sealed stone doors

Nocturnal If drakons sleep at night, humans can be outside and active then with torches. This presupposes drakons don't punitively destroy fields without visible active humans. If humans can't practice agriculture, then it quickly becomes "Humans are now primitive trappers and night gatherers." If torches are no good, then this idea is out.

Camouflage

Migration to areas the dragons are not interested in Deep forest, sea, desert, box canyons with narrow tops

Gunpowder traps This one is difficult. You need nitrebeds, made with human or animal excrement, and it takes time and stinks to high heaven. If you can make significant amounts of black powder, then all you need is to draw in a drakon into an enclosed space and cause multiple explosions around it. Tear the wings, rush with pikemen.

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But why are Drakons so aggressive against human civilisation? Let's find out what ticks them off so much and stop doing these things.

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    $\begingroup$ Stopping to exist is likely not really an option. I'm going off @AlexP's answer here and propose that human civilization as we know it is an existential threat to any large predator. So humans have to pretty much stop any large settlements, population density above a couple hundred per thousand square km and the likes. Or they kill the drakes $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    May 15, 2023 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok, thank you. Mind you, this is still the human perspective. Are drakons actually recognising that they are locked in an existential struggle against humans specifically? If not, then this is not what makes them so aggressive. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    May 15, 2023 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ true, I did not account for too-alien-to-understand pattern of though, but given that not following this specific route of thought would lead to extinction I assume it to evolve in any sentient species, reardless of how alien $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    May 16, 2023 at 7:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok, thank you. Not necessarily; other predators, such as for example wolves, have instead evolved to avoid people. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    May 16, 2023 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ true, but that didn't turn out so well for them, has it? wolves are only still a thing in Europe because of conscious preservation efforts. And they just conformed to evolutionary pressures, there was/is no thought behind it, which is the difference between them and our drakes here $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    May 22, 2023 at 16:11
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Hill fortresses or towers

The fire weapon range of these things is limited, right?

If so, put cannons or massive scorpions at the top of highly fortified towers or inside dug out hills.

For the drakons to do much damage, they will have to drop to roughly the level of the town. At that point, the cannons or ballistae have gravity on their side.

Cannons were already reaching huge sizes in the 15th century; if they can breach the walls of Constantinople, they can kill a drakon.

As large, meat-eating (?) creatures, they can't be around in huge numbers. As long as a few are killed during each raid, it should be enough.

Poison

Poisons are decent by the 15th century. Poison their food. Poison their water. Poison more.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you might be underestimating how difficult it is to hit a flying target with a cannons or ballistas. It's difficult enough with machine guns on motorized mounts, let alone single shot cannons on non-motorized mounts. Sure the dragons fly a lot lower than aircraft, but your weapons are more hamstrung compared to modern weapons than the dragons are to aircraft.. You would need flak at minimum but how do you set the altitude or time with medieval muzzle loading tech? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 14, 2023 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen It's that or a frame challenge/"not possible". And it's not a very detailed question, is it? 'Build a fortress with the correct geometry' was a pretty normal response to a new weapon or tactic in the Middle Ages, and it's pretty hard to think of anything better that hasn't been done. And it does allow much bigger weapons to be used. FWIW, I agree hitting a plane with a cannon sounds hard. But maybe they stop to eat or something. And it's not like 'words and understanding of angry predatory lizards' is watertight either,is it? $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 14, 2023 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ I mean, what you describe is probably what they would attempt to do, but I'm assuming OP wants a solution works well enough to justify why the world exists in the described state. The real problem is that even if you could hit them, I don't think medieval production can field enough cannons or have enough mobility to guard all the fields. There are too few cannons which are too ineffective and the slow. And the thing about fire is that the dragons don't need to stick around. Measures against brush fires would only help somewhat with an intelligent fast arsonist running around. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 14, 2023 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Do feel free to explain how 'words and understanding' is a drawback free solution, or cease litigating an answer which is an attempt at 'best of some bad options'. Small cannons were getting much cheaper by 1500, btw, and the numbers of drakons and humans are unspecified. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 14, 2023 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ "'Build a fortress with the correct geometry' was a pretty normal response to a new weapon or tactic in the Middle Ages," the problem with this approach is that it failed utterly in the real world when aviation was developed. After airplanes became a staple of modern warfare in the 20th century people realized that "building a better fortress" was no longer an effective defensive tactic. $\endgroup$ May 16, 2023 at 16:07
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A lot of good answers about offense, defense and other strategies here, but I would like to go a slightly different route:

Negotiation

Obviously depending on the reasoning behind the drakon attacks, you should be able to determine why they are attacking and what you can do to come to an agreement or otherwise appease the drakons.

Considering they haven't just completely wiped out humans, it's not that they seem as a threat encroaching on their territory or similarly endangering the drakons. So it seems likely that they are attacking just for food. Humans have spread far and wide and thus there is less food for drakons to eat, so they resort to eating humans.

With this reasoning (though there may be other reasons), the humans can simply raise extra food; cows or sheep or whatever, and periodically can bring them to the lair of the drakon as a gift, or they could leave them on a nearby, easily visible hill so that when the drakon comes, it sees the 'tribute' and simply takes the cows instead, thus leaving the humans alone.

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  1. Exhaust the Drakon. Let's assume the fire is not magic so that there are some cards to play. The Drakon must have some bladder of combustible material. Once that runs out, the creature can no longer expel fire.

  2. Build defensively. Use mud, bricks stone, etc for above ground buildings. Build underground or in caves. Build where water is readily available

  3. Learn biochemistry, specifically the chemistry of the Drakons fire capabilities. If you can poison it's ability to make fire, no more fire-breathing Drakons. This may also help in a longterm plan to domesticate them.

  4. Are the Drakons just misunderstood and telling the people they should not be where they are? If they really are highly intelligent, what's the Drakon's motivation for burning down entire villages?

  5. I'm assuming the Drakons and people co-evolved in this world. What has changed to make them a threat?

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Frame Challenge

I'm pretty sure a renaissance level civilization and being regularly hunted down by near-invincible and intelligent giant lizards is not compatible. Renaissance level civilization is a complex thing, you need many things for it to be possible, trade, large-scale agriculture, large cities. I would say any level of civilization requires humans to be the top of the food chain which is not the case in your scenario. If creatures like your dragons existed in large numbers, humans would be living in caves and would maybe eventually evolve to be nocturnal. They would never develop to anywhere near 15th century technology level.

The only way your scenario would be possible is if the number of dragons was very small and their attacks were a very rare thing. Then a city under such an attack would treat it as something like a plague outbreak or an invasion. The people would try to hide as best they can, afterwards they would rebuild any destroyed buildings while the priests would declare that the attack was a punishment from God for the sinful lives of the city's citizens. This cannot happen more often than every several years or the city (and eventually the rest of civilization) will not be able to function.

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Most of the answers here are focused on OFFENSIVE means of dealing with the Drakon threat. However, very few of the answers here include DEFENSIVE ways a civilization could deal with a ranged, areal, intelligent threat. Therefore, I believe that I can further contribute to this question by including purely defensive measures.

Possible Defenses Against Drakon Attacks

Terrian Defenses

One of the simplest ways that the pre-industrial civilization could deal with the Drakon menace is to simply build their cities in places that would downplay the Drakons' advantages while maximizing their own strength. Perhaps the two largest advantages that the Drakon have is the ability to fly and their ability to produce fire. To minimize these advantages, there are a few places that a city could be built:

  • Caves/Underground

Unless the dragons can somehow destroy mountains or the entire surface of the earth, building a city underground would force the Drakons to attack the city on foot, thus minimizing its ability to fly.

  • On/Near Water

Not only would building a city far out to sea make it near impossible for the dragon to perform a sneak attack, but it would also help minimize their other advantage of fire. Building a city on/near water also gives the city the advantage of having the tools to stop most of the dragon's fires.

  • Flat Terrain.

If all else fails, building a city on flat terrain at the very least makes it harder for the dragons to perform sneak attacks. Depending on how flat the terrain is, skilled peasants could see an attack coming from as far as 24 km away, giving the city at least some time to prepare.

Smoke and/or Fireworks

Another way that the city could defend against dragons would be to minimize the advantage that the dragons have while airborne. One way to do this is to limit its visibility while airborne. Fireworks and smoke would both severally limit a dragon's ability to attack targets from above.

According to this source, Europeans had access to primitive rocket/firework technology by the 15th century. Therefore, it is probable that your 15th-century civilization could have access to the same technology.

Fireworks give an extra bonus because, if the dragon is not careful, it could severally itself if it were caught in the blast.

Another cheaper way to limit visibility is the use of a smoke screen. I assume that a dragon would be far more adapted to seeing through smoke than a human would, but it is still possible that a smoke screen would make it harder to focus on a city from very high up.

Advance Fire Fighting

A culture that had to deal with constant fires could develop very efficient fire-fighting methods. Perhaps it is required by law for citizens to have a few dozen gallons of water stored in their homes at all times to help stop fires, or maybe it's Emperor Frank the XVI's decree that all homes are built out of fireproof material. Whatever it is, having advanced firefighting would severally limit the damage that a single dragon could do using its flames alone.

Air Raid Shelters

Another way that the civilization could stop attacks would be to make simple air raid shelters. Even if cheaply built, having two different locations would double the amount of destruction that a dragon would have to do in order to kill the same amount of peasants.

Scheduled Blackouts

If a city had the policy of no natural light at night, a dragon would have a much harder time trying to discern one target from another. Plus it would also make it more obvious where/when dragon fire is causing havoc.

Diplomacy

If all else fails, maybe your civilization could defend against the dragons by taking advantage of their intelligence. I doubt that the dragons are an untied front. Perhaps your civilization could declare "loyalty" to one group of dragons to defend against other attacks. Or, even better, perhaps they could strategically tern different groups of dragons against each other.

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