Joe Cigar

Joe Cigar

Monday, December 30, 2013

Armor Basics

So. Armor. Because if I get asked "What kind of armor would my character wear?" one more time I'm going to beat my brains in on my laptop keyboard.



 "Most fantasy armor falls between these two extremes. Does that help?"


I'm going to talk about medieval European armor. Mostly. All this tech that we're about to discuss can be transposed across pretty much any fantasy society. We're going to talk about what armor is, what it isn't, and why it is the way it is. Take the fundamentals from this and go nuts. Let me know what you come up with.

A good friend of mine once told me: armor is not a thing; it is a process. Warriors wore as much as they could afford, or as much as they thought they needed. Which was usually as much as they could afford, and sometimes more. They were always working on their armor, tweaking it, adding to it, and attempting to improve it.

Fantasy writing is research. There are entire books written on armor. There's also a ton of information on the Internet but if you get your information from LARP or RPG enthusiasts, you're going to be wrong. A lot. So let's take a few minutes and set some things straight.

I have a Master Class on armor from back in April. This is going to be more basic.

So, basics.

Most importantly, armor was composed of several layers.

The first layer, and the most basic armor, is/was the linen jack.

Drafty, but effective from the knees up.

The linen jack wasn't bad armor. The layers of linen would stop some slashing weapons. If it was padded or quilted, it would protect against some of the incidental damage that wears you down in a fight: the bumps and bruises and little pain-in-the-ass nicks that stack up quickly and throw you off your game. It was also, more or less, the underlayment for other types of armor.

Later, the linen jack became a gambeson:


Over the jack went a tabard of leather, or sometimes felted wool. Some guys stopped here.

Indeed, some should go no further.

You can get creative with this. On movie sets, stunt players who have to really take a beating in medieval armor will use professional bull-riding vests as a base layer. Padded motocross jackets also work very well. It's all the same principle.

Over the tabard you'd throw a shirt of mail, if you had one.

And assuming you hadn't eaten it for breakfast. 
The key, though, was having the tabard and the jack under the mail. Again: layers. You will read -- and probably have already read -- that mail doesn't disperse force from blunt trauma. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mail actually is designed to disperse force from blunt trauma.

When you drive a blow into a shirt of mail, the mail ripples outward, like a stone thrown into a pond. As the ripples get larger, progressively more force is needed to lift each expanding circle of rings. It dissipates the blow very well. The SCA wouldn't allow it if it didn't provide some degree of impact protection. They fight with wooden weapons at full-speed. It's nothing but blunt trauma.

Mail, over a stiff leather tabard, over padding, is pretty good armor. A shirt of interlocking metal rings over some kind of padding was the primary method of saving your ass in a war for about two thousand years, maybe longer, worldwide. The earliest mail we've found so far dates back to 300 B.C. It's possible that bronze and even copper mail was used long before that. Don't tell me it didn't work. If it didn't work, we'd have used something else all that time.

Mail also provided excellent protection against thrusting weapons, functioning much the same way as ceramic plates in modern body armor. The tip of the weapon would have to break several interlocked rings, which robbed the thrust of a great deal of force. It wasn't until the widespread adoption of weapons specifically designed to defeat mail -- heavy swords like the gran espee de guerre, specialized axes and hammers, and anything resembling a pickaxe, among other nasty things -- that mail really needed to be augmented.

A shirt of iron mail (yes, iron; stick with me) weighed 20-30 lbs. Until the 1300's, most knights and professional soldiers -- according to the historical record -- wore layers of mail. A mail shirt, mail leggings, a mail gorget and mantle, and a mail hood under their helmet. Mail was that good. Mail was awesome.

Mail was riveted. Unless you were insane. This is why it was made of iron. The rings were punched from a sheet of metal, and it is REALLY hard to punch steel rings. It is way harder to make steel wire than iron wire with medieval technology. It is harder, still, to nip, flatten, drill, and pin steel wire and rings with medieval technology. Iron is malleable and ductile. Steel is not. 

Riveted mail looks like this:

Alternating punched (flat, sheet metal) and riveted (round, wire) rings.

Punched riveted mail. Alternating riveted and whole rings.

If you don't rivet mail -- if you simply butt ends of wire together the way LARP'ers and SCA jocks do -- this happens when you hit it with something heavy and/or sharp:

Wearing butted chainmail into combat would just have been an elaborate form of suicide.

All fun and games until somebody loses a face.


If mail wasn't enough, the next thing to come along, early Dark Ages -- maybe even Vendel or Migration Age, and possibly much earlier -- was the coat of plates. I personally believe that we developed these a lot earlier than we give anyone credit for. The tech wasn't that complex and it makes sense; you're already layering by the time you have mail. Why not add another layer? Make a big jacket and put some more armor in it. It was a major leap in functionality and it used existing technology. Somebody would have thought to do this, and someone else would have seen it and thought, "Damn. That's a good idea. I need one of those."

Early coats of plates would have looked something like this:


These plates are made of high-impact plastic. 
Early coats of plates would use plates of thick leather, and later, cuir bouilli.


This is a really nice one made of saddle leather:


This is what many - particularly those who expound upon all things historical-combat-related though they only know gaming combat systems -- erroneously call "studded leather armor." The "studs" are the rivets holding plates in place. Adding decorative studs to leather armor doesn't really do much.

To be fair, some could use all the help they can get.
The plates in a coat of plates could have been iron, cuir bouilli, or even bone.

Cuir bouilli -- boiled leather -- was interesting stuff. It was medieval plastic. When vegetable-tanned leather is submerged in boiling water, the fixed tannin aggregates in the leather begin to melt. Leave it in hot water long enough, and the tannin aggregates create a resin that redistributes itself throughout the fibers of the leather. Upon cooling, the resin-soaked fibers become, for all intents and purposes, a polymer: malleable when warm, and cooling to a hardness that rivals high-impact plastics today. A curved surface of polymerized leather will turn a blade.

You can do some really cool stuff with cuir bouilli. It wasn't expensive, it was easy to work with, and it was really damned effective. I like to think that it was used a lot more than we realize, because it would rot away over the centuries so now there's nothing left.

This is "elf" LARP armor but it's fairly easily done. This was technologically possible during the Migration Era, and even further back. You need a tanned hide, and boiling water. If you had a carved wooden mannequin, you could mass-produce these. Put them over mail, and you're rockin' some serious protection.





A cuir bouilli coat of plates:




This brings us to lamellar: cuir bouilli punched and sewn into a vest, worn over mail. Lamellar could also be made of metal, bone, shell, stones, dragon's teeth, whatever. Low-tech and super effective.

Except that he built this lamellar backwards and upside down.
An overhand blow from a right-handed person will only intersect
one thickness of plates.  Live and learn. Or, not so much, really.

In Dragon's Trail, the southern nation of Gavria is iron-rich. They can make a lot of steel and really good, slag-free iron relatively cheaply. They don't have the tech to produce sheets of homogenous steel, but they can knock out a lot of small pieces of good iron, so their soldiers wear iron lamellar, looking pretty much like this:

It weighs half a ton but you could drop a
piano on this guy and he'd walk away.


Back to cuir bouilli. Here's an articulated cuir bouilli harness; again, throw a full suit of this over mail and you could kick some serious ass. It's basically plate armor.




This is a mail hauberk and hooded mail mantle, with spaulders, a lamellar jacket, and bracers all made from cuir bouilli. It would make sense to me that armor like this existed, primarily because it's functional, tough, modular, fairly low-tech, and it looks awesome.

Looking awesome was important.
This has not changed throughout the history of warfare.
A padded jack, over mail, which is worn over a padded jack. Sensing a theme, yet?


This next picture is a coat of plates over mail. This armor predates his sword by about 200 years but hey, Hollywood.




Coats of plates became brigandine in the late 1300's. Again, small pieces of good iron, or even steel if you were really a baller.

Actual Italian brigandine, 14th-Century. This is the inside.

I wouldn't wear anything made of velvet to any event as blood-splattery 
as a medieval battle. I wouldn't even eat spaghetti in this. Just sayin'.

And so on. 

Every soldier would put together what he could afford, depending on personal taste, the next mission, and the local technology. Again: armor was not a thing. It was a process. 

That brings us to odds and ends.

First off, shoulderpieces. Pauldrons and spaulders. These were important, because your shoulders get hit a lot. This brought about a new era in armor concepts, as the purpose of pauldrons, cops, and helmets wasn't to stop a weapon but to redirect it by glancing it off a hard, curved surface. 

As Europe learned mathematics and then applied it (which is physics, and applied physics is engineering), armor was built with compound curves.

The third image returned by Google for "compound curves."
If I hadn't put it here, you'd have seen it anyway.

A compound curve is two or more circular arcs of differing radii, joined tangentially without reversal of curvature. What does this mean? It means that if you drive an edge into a compound curve, you have no Goddamned idea what direction it will go. Your sword or axe will skip off like a SuperBall. There's also a good chance that, if you drive a sword into a compound curve, the force of the blow will be returned to the weapon and it will either sting your hand, or the blade will snap.

Pictured: Science.

The reason that real armor doesn't have spikes, but fantasy armor does, is that a spike will redirect a weapon's effort into the armor, bisecting the angle between the spike and the plate and cutting into the armor.

Nice spikes, numbnuts. You wanna just give up now?


So let's start with the basics. Again. 

I'm still fuzzy on the whole "spaulders" vs. "pauldrons" thing, but the way I understand it, "spaulders" were stand-alone shoulderpieces, whereas "pauldrons" were integrated with other pieces of armor. "Grand pauldrons" were larger, covering the entire shoulder. Scales or plates that covered the upper arm, attached to the shoulderpiece, were called lames.

Simple cuir bouilli spaulders with lames.

Grand pauldrons. The shoulder flare may or may not be authentic.
I say yes, because it looks badass. It may serve the same function as a spike, however, completely undoing the benefits of the compound curves.

Lamellar pauldrons. See? It all comes together.

A pauldron with compound curves and lames. Note the rawhide lacing.
The rawhide lace might either be part of the arming jacket, used to keep the pauldron in place,
 or it functions to attach the pauldron to a gorget.

Grand pauldrons attached to a gorget / mantle, over a breastplate.

You could put a chest / shoulder rig over mail and call it good. It would be better over lamellar or a coat of plates.  My main character wears a mantle and grand pauldrons, over a coat of plates, over mail. Because he might need to survive an axe fight.

For the lower arms, you'd want an elbow piece of some type, and something for the forearm. For the elbow, you would use a cop:


Which could be tied into a vambrace of some type:




And this is realy cool -- bazubands, a Persian solution to the whole problem. Combination elbow and forearm protection.
My main character also wears these. Because awesome.


Somebody sooner or later decided to attach the elbow to a rerebrace (bicep/tricep piece) and vambrace (forearm guard):

And he probably got mad babes.
"Diggin' your compound curves, milady." 

And eventually somebody got the idea to just articulate the whole thing out of metal:



And did the same for the legs:



Resulting in this:


This, you'll notice, is one step away from the full man-at-arms harness that we're all familiar with from museums, the Tower of London, Stately Wayne Manor, and your mother-in-law's house. Really he's just missing a breastplate. This is what AD&D calls "plate mail," which many historians claim didn't exist as an actual thing, only it actually kinda really did and was probably very common. There's just no name for it.

It wouldn't be unusual throughout the Dark and Middle Ages -- and you'll see this throughout Dragon's Trail -- to see a soldier in a shirt of mail with a haphazard shoulder and chest harness of iron and cuir bouilli, with, say, metal splinted greaves and leather Persian-style bazubands, and an antique helmet that had been handed down through his family for two hundred years. Parts of his armor would be shiny and new and reflect the local artisans; parts would be relics carried home from wars long-won or long-lost.

The kind of armor that we see most commonly in fantasy --

There will be a quiz.
 -- didn't exist for most of the Middle Ages, though most fantasy heroes seem to have this stuff lying around somewhere (or worse, they go to Armorer's Alley in the local town and buy it). This is a man-at-arms harness, what people call "full plate" armor. It was extremely expensive, took years to build, and was the mark of exceptional wealth, on par with having a private jet today. 

Pictured: Pimpin'.

But look at it: it's basically all the parts we've listed above, connected, and worn over mail, over a tabard, over a padded linen jack. We are standing on the shoulders of giants.

This suit, above, is from the late 1400's, about as elaborate as it gets. This armor didn't exist for very long, because after a couple hundred years of this bullshit, generals threw up their hands and started handing out guns. 

Most metal armor was iron. The technology did not exist to produce large sheets of homogenous steel -- steel is iron mixed with carbon -- until the invention of the blast furnace, which helped kick off the Industrial Revolution well after all this had already happened.

Steel is a Goldilocks zone of carbonization in iron. When you add carbon to iron, it alters the properties of iron. If you add too much carbon, you get cast-iron, which is brittle; too little, and you have wrought-iron, which is bendy. Steel is the sweet spot between bendy and brittle. Steel is hard, and yet forgiving. And really, really tough to get exactly right in a pre-industrial environment.

Most pre-industrial steel was shear steel, which is iron bars baked in charcoal and then heated up and folded with a hammer (forge-welded) to basically stir the charcoal (carbon) into the iron. It is painstaking, and it would have been staggeringly expensive (money was labor back then) to make shear steel in pieces big enough and consistent enough to use for, say, grand pauldrons, great helmets, and breastplates.

I know that every hero in every book and every fairy tale has steel armor. I know. Do me a favor, though: watch how much work goes into forging enough steel to make one small sword or tool.


How steel was made. Seriously.

And this is using a modern furnace. Now imagine the amount of work involved in making a steel man-at-arms harness.

It was done, don't get me wrong. But the suits of full harness that survive today include some suits of steel armor because they belonged to people who, at the time, were comparatively richer than most people who have ever lived. Those suits have survived because they were carefully oiled and dusted for hundreds of years. They were priceless. Imagine a Gulfstream G650 plated in solid gold. That's a steel harness.

Weapons were made from steel because armor was made from iron. We'll cover that in detail in another post.

Nowadays we take steel for granted. I was recently reading something on Goodreads (you know who you are, and I hope you're reading this) where the author thought that steel was an ore, that it came out of the ground ready to be heated and formed. Maybe in some worlds this happens, but I'd hate to see what kind of weapons they would come up with.

Each full harness was custom-made and would only fit one person. It weighed anywhere from 40 to 60 lbs, including the mail that went under it. That weight was very well distributed. There's a misconception that armor left a man as helpless as Ralphie's little brother in his snowsuit from A Christmas Story.





Reproduction of an early man-at-arms harness, circa 1350 AD.

A quick aside: the suit of armor in the video above coexisted in the same time and the same areas with brigandine. Why? Because brigandine was a hell of a lot cheaper, and much easier to fix, and protected almost as well.

Also, on the subject of maneuverability, this:

Tell me again how armor was so cumbersome that you couldn't fight in it. I wasn't listening.
Whether your armor is a full harness or an amalgamation of pieces, it's heavy as hell. But that doesn't matter, because weight is not a concern. You can fight in it, and it keeps you alive. Those are the two factors that determine whether or not armor is "good."

Armor is heavy. It sucks. But it works. That's why soldiers wear it, even today. I've said this before: if I knew my armor wouldn't work, I'd go back to central issue and turn it in. Because fuck armor. Seriously. This, I believe, has not changed over the millennia. I believe with all my heart that burly Vendel-age warriors shucked off their mail with a groan at the end of the day and wanted to hurl it across the room with a snarl the same way that we want to throw and kick our IOTV's today.

But anybody who fights for a living -- and this includes your fictional hero -- will want as much protection as he can get; whatever he can afford and whatever he can transport to the battle site, whether he wears it, packs it on a second horse, or has a wizard teleport it to the mouth of the dragon's lair along with a team of valets who will work on him like a pit crew once he gets there. He will want it as light and comfortable as possible and he won't wear any more than he thinks he has to, but he will wear as much as he possibly can get away with. He might -- might -- forgo a degree of protection for convenience, but speaking as a professional soldier, myself, I don't know anyone who would do this if he knew that enemy contact was certain or even likely. Sure as hell not if he's going off to fight The Big Boss, which it seems is the crux of every high fantasy novel.

My first thought, if I receive a mission with expected enemy contact, isn't "Boy, my armor's really gonna slow me down." My first thought is "Now, where did I put all those extra pieces of body armor?" Followed by  "I hope I'm on the 240 Bravo," and "I wonder how many grenades I can fit in this pouch." 

I don't care if it adds another 30 or even 40 lbs. to my load-out. If there are going to be badguys trying to put holes in me, I want every pound of armor that I can scrape together, plus whatever weaponry comes closest to being "excessively injurious or having indiscriminate effects" according to the laws of war without technically going over the line. I'd carry a minigun if I could just get my minions to schlep the electrics and ammo around behind me. I'm convinced that this mindset has been pretty much consistent throughout the history of human warfare.

Even if the armor is heavy, even if it's ugly, even if it's hot and sweaty and it causes blisters and ringworm and it smells like an Uruk-Hai's thong, your hero will use as much of it as he can, along with a great big honker of a shield and a massive helmet and the biggest weapons that he can wield effectively, if he has any instinct for self-preservation.

To recap:

NO.


YES.


YES, BUT NO.


YES.

Warriors use armor because it works. Make sure your hero's does.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Master Class: Desert Warfare

A writer buddy of mine asked for some advice on desert warfare.

Namely, "How could a newly united horde of camel-herders from the desert pose a threat to four empires?"

Wait, wait, I know this one.

This is a long one, so go get some coffee.

To whip four entire empires, they'd need help from a god. A big, preferably nasty one.

There is a reason that desert dwellers have never, in history, conquered much outside of their own deserts.

Primarily, the kind of warfare that the desert environment forces you into is idiosyncratic; the tactics that support a desert campaign don't work very well once you get to an environment that's not trying to actively kill you.

Desert warfare is a matter of resource conservation. First and foremost. A human being only has so much energy he can expend under brutal sunshine.

If you're wondering how I know this, I volunteered for the French Foreign Legion Desert Commando Qualification Course in Africa a few years ago.

"Je suis un idiot."
This has granted me a uniquely honed perspective on what you can and can't accomplish under tactical conditions in the desert.

I can't give you the exact numbers because they're classified but let's just generalize and say that half an hour of hand-to-hand combat in a heat index >150 degree Fahrenheit environment will kill a man who is on par physically with any professional athlete in the world, a man who is also wearing space-age heat management clothing and sipping from a Camelbak full of cold water and pharmaceutical-grade electrolytes. Kill him dead. (Ultramarathoners who cross the desert typically do so at about 3 miles per hour. They are not running; they're speed-walking. When I talk hand-to-hand combat, I'm talking about exertion on par with running back to back six-minute miles for half an hour, or doing The Insanity Workout with no breaks.) Now imagine an underfed guy with a bota bag full of hot water in chainmail and quilting under the same circumstances. He won't last fifteen minutes in a fight. He just won't.

You can't field a small army in the desert. You need a big one. But then, the logistics of keeping that many men alive in an area that's trying to kill you 24/7 are mind-rattling. We can barely do it, today.

Hit and run attacks, enormous supply lines, guerrilla raids in the dark, and careful management and security of water and food stores are keys to desert warfare. Hollywood (and fantasy) lies; nobody can fight in the desert for long, sure as hell not in armor and not hand to hand. Engagements are quick and decisive. Desert warfare is about attrition; the desert destroys equipment, kills animals, and makes men insane. Usually, the winner in desert warfare is the side who makes the least amount of mistakes, and whose supplies hold out the longest. Luck is a huge factor.

Now, the good part about that is that if your desert people have a god who's feeling frisky, he can make a lot of things go wrong on the side that he doesn't particularly like. Your Chosen Ones' enemies could run into a string of horrible luck and this could become the norm for anyone opposing them. This would make people not want to fight them at all. But when they get to a non-desert environment, nothing -- nothing -- that they did in the desert would work, militarily. They'd have to retrain, rearm, and face a brutal learning curve.

My writer friend mentioned the Mongols, but he needs to remember that the Mongols weren't from the desert. They were from a high grassland. They were able to cross deserts, but if you look at the hard desert and uninhabitable areas that they crossed -- thinking here of Afghanistan -- they never really conquered it; they just made friends where they could and passed through as fast as possible, and started whooping butts again once they got to areas that would support them tactically.

Now, there are plenty of things you could do to make this work,  as a writer, if you're married to it. First off, you're a fantasy writer, so you have magic. That helps.

Secondly, you can give your Chosen Ones a god who likes them. That never hurts, either.

Give your leader a staff that doubles as a divining rod that always points to water.

Someone could have a map with a series of oases that no one else knows about -- this would be worth more than gold.

Their god might give them knowledge of high-desert areas or "safe zones" that are cooler (and possibly with arable soil to some degree) where a large army can lay up and organize. Because this is how it was done.

The pics that follow show the northern area of Ethiopia, the Ghoubbet Fault, and Gran Barra Desert in Djibouti, three areas that butt right up against each other. This is how the Aksumites and Abyssinians managed to pull off ruling this area for centuries; invaders had to cross the desert to get to the good stuff, and for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, no one in the "civilized" world knew that the lush green mountains of northern Ethiopia even existed. They were kept secret, and by the time you got an army across the desert they were too thrashed to climb the dry side of the mountains. More often than not, an invading army saw the mountains, said "Yeah, screw that," and went home to report that there was nothing in Ethiopia worth stealing.

The area I'm talking about, the birthplace of the Great Rift Valley, is an oozing, salt-encrusted sore; a place so violently and unbearably awful it makes Mordor look like Glacier National Park. The French Foreign Legion, who have been fighting in this area for 150 years, call the Ghoubbet Fault "The Devil's Asshole."



You'd come off your ships and then cross about 50 solid miles of this. It's 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and north of 70% humidity because it's below sea level and right next to the ocean. The water you see in the top left is a salt lake that is so alkaline it will kill you if you drink it. The humidity is what gets you; the humidity makes it feel like over 200 degrees during the day. This is known as a "heat index," and it affects not only the way you feel but how your body behaves. Just walking briskly in a heat index of 200 F will knock you out as quickly and surely as doing planks with your head in an oven.

This is the hottest inhabited place on Earth, and I use the word "inhabited" lightly. There are about as many people living there as you see in this picture. You can maybe move a mile an hour through this kind of terrain during the day; three miles an hour at night but your animals can't move over this at night -- forget war engines altogether -- and a good chunk of your troops will be combat-ineffective due to injuries from falling on the sharp rocks if you try it.

Ask me how I know.

Go on. Ask.
Once you're through this, you'd get to a hundred miles of the Gran Barra Desert. You cross about fifty miles of this bullshit:

Sensing a theme, yet?


Until you get go the lush and thriving part, seen below, which ends at the Semien Mountains, which are still 50 miles away but you can't tell that from here. They look much closer because of the moisture in the air, the heat, and the fact that they're twice as high as the Rockies (like the Rockies, these are 12-14,000 footers, but these start at sea level whereas the Rockies start at 6,000 feet). So you've got some walking to do, still. Keep in mind, it's not getting any cooler. You're making 2 miles an hour. Maybe 20 miles per day. So, two or three more days to cross this.



The trick now is to get up those mountains with whatever part of your invading force that you haven't marched to death by this point. You've now been out here for a week, by the way, and you each only have whatever water you can carry, because you're sure as hell not rolling wagons or moving pack animals across this terrain. So if you're smart you'll have brought several hundred or thousand expendable slaves or mooks who can schlep water back and forth until they pitch over and die.

If you wanted to stop an invading army at this point, you'd simply attack their mooks. Break the supply chain, and the invaders are done. You know this, so you have a shitload of soldiers guarding your mooks. But then you need more mooks to bring them water to keep them combat-effective, and so on.

You cross a desert with an army. A big army. And you expect to lose a lot of them. This is not something you undertake casually.

Those clouds on the horizon look promising, but this side of the mountains is bone-dry so getting up there is going to require even more mooks. And it isn't cooling off.

If you can pull this off, somehow, and claw your way over ten thousand feet of elevation without water, you'll be standing on the jewel of the Abyssinian Empire, "The Roof of Africa." Forget Sally Struthers and Live Aid and everything you think you know about Ethiopia; Ethiopia has the largest non-oil-based economy in Africa and the second-largest population. This, this right here, is why. Three-quarters of Ethiopia looks like this. You just can't see it from the ocean.

Same mountains. Other side. No, really.
And once you step into this cool green paradise, your head dizzy with altitude sickness, a little short of breath -- you're well over a mile above the desert, after all -- you feel the calming breezes on your cheeks, and hear the birds singing, and see the clear water burbling through the valleys, and you wonder why you've never heard of this place.

And right about then, the Abyssinian army comes screaming in from all sides. They are well-rested, well-fed, armed to the teeth, and fully acclimated to the altitude. And they completely and remorselessly whomp the living shit out of the haggard remains of your army and murder you to the last man. Because they sure as hell don't want word getting out that this place exists.

That's how you fight in the desert.

So if you're not trying to actively defeat four empires, but just want to beat the crap out of them when they come knocking, this is how you do it. The desert becomes your weapon. No divine intervention needed. Not that it wouldn't help.

Alternately, you could tweak something in the physical makeup of the desert dwellers themselves that allows them to operate unfettered in the environment, and treat the desert like a regular battlespace.

But where's the fun in that?