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Worlds of Design: Putting Up Walls

While the typical monumental defensive wall is much less impressive than the Great Wall we see in photographs, they did serve a purpose, and many were built. How might they fit into a fantasy world?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

“There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China. Solitarily, with the indifference of nature herself, it crept up the mountain side and slipped down to the depth of the valley.” W. Somerset Maugham

The Great Wall​

You may have seen the movie “Great Wall” (Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal). It’s a monster movie, practically, much of it taking place at a fantasized version of the Great Wall, much more impressive than the historical wall ever was. Very long defensive walls out in the middle of nowhere were rarely as impressive, but they were effective, and for most of history they were not built of stone.

The world has a long history of monumental defensive earthworks. These defensive walls were erected against invaders, usually “barbarians.” They were much too long to be manned all along their length (Hadrian’s Wall is 73 miles; the Great Wall is thousands of miles). The wall’s main effect was to keep out four-footed creatures (horses), and to keep in livestock that raiders wanted to take back to their homeland. Such animals could only go through at the gates of the widely separated forts, which were manned. Men on foot could easily climb the walls, or use a ladder, as most walls weren’t tall nor did they have unclimbable faces (think how the Wildings climbed the magically stupendous Ice Wall in “Game of Thrones”).

That’s because the Great Wall and other monumental defensive walls were made of rammed earth or sod, or occasionally timber and earth, often accompanied by deep trenches. The roughest terrain of the line might have no wall at all. Ca. 1450 CE the Ming started building the more impressive stone Great Wall that we see in photos.

Wall to Wall​

The Great Wall is the largest and most well-known of these works. Other well-known ones include Hadrian’s (and the Antonine) wall between England and Scotland, the Danewerke between Denmark and Germany, Offa’s Dike between Wales and England, the Wall of Alexander, and a wall built between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to stop infiltration by nomads some 3,500 years ago. Most of the older walls, such as the earlier versions of the Great Wall, have eroded away.

Occasionally in an historical atlas you can find a map showing where monumental defensive works have been built. They are scattered all over the place; even the Chinese Great Wall was fragmented until much of it was joined together by the first emperor of the Qin, preceding the Han empire (ca. 210 BCE)

Why Build a Wall at All?​

Monumental walls weren’t built against sea raiders; the Roman “Saxon Shore’” if it existed at all, was a series of forts, not a continuous wall.

There are practical considerations in non-mechanized times. Hadrian’s Wall is well south of the Antonine Wall, and the latter is much shorter. But the Romans pulled back to Hadrian’s because of supply limitations. Given the ferocious seas in the area, and the high cost of land transportation even with Roman roads, the soldiers manning the wall had to be fed from the surrounding area. The lands around the Antonine wall (both sides) were insufficient support.

Monumental walls always involve the question, do you spend your money on fortifications, or on mobile troops/units? Even earthen versions of long walls are expensive to construct and to man. Offa’s Dyke is a cut-price version, just a pile of dirt (up to 8 feet high) and trenches with no gates and no one manning it. But that’s all that eighth century Mercia (or earlier Romans) could afford.

Great Walls in Your Campaign​

When considering massive defensive structures like walls to your campaign, it’s worth asking a few questions:
  • Does it make sense to have a wall? Thinking of the fundamental purpose of monumental walls—restricting four-footed traffic—we can ask whether they will even slow down most monsters. So many monsters are fast and agile, easily climbing walls. But the walls still prevent raiders from rustling livestock . . .
  • Who has the wealth and organization to build these walls? In a more “advanced” world (say, like the Renaissance?) the walls might be so substantial that they could be seen as “dungeons”, at least at the gate forts. Or if you have a world that has diminished from its peak, a ruined massive wall might be an even better candidate for “dungeon” exploration.
  • Why did the walls fall into ruin? Ruined walls in themselves can be quite atmospheric in the story of the campaign. Who built this, and why?
Your Turn: How often has a monumental wall played a part in a campaign you’ve played?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

andrewlichey

Villager
The other advantage of a border wall is that it allowed a pursing force to run down raiders who are looking to escape with plunder. Throughout history, success in raiding has been dependent on not getting bogged down at any point, allowing the usually more numerous defenders to converge on (and destroy) you. It's all about speed, getting in an out before an effective response can be made. A border wall is an impediment.
 

HammerMan

Legend
Walls are great against orcs, and other monsters that don't fly.

Walls suck against spell casters and flying creatures like dragons.

I see no reason why you would not have you screen door locked just because you don't have a full door. I can't imagine why you would not lock your full door just because you dodn't have a heavy security door. I can't imagine why you wouldn't lock a reg door or security door just becuse you don't have an alarm... I can't imagine you wouldn't shut and lock your window even though they can be broken.

You take the level of security you can get.

So yeah, build walls. If you can enchant them with magic, do that. If you can make a magic force dome, do that...but if you can't build the wall.
 


GuyBoy

Adventurer
Broadening this a little, the 1066 period raises some interesting points here.

The Anglo-Saxon approach to walls had moved on from Offa’s Dyke to the mobile Shield Wall, created of warriors, flexible and effective. Godwinson was able to “move” his shield wall up to Stamford Bridge, near York, and use it effectively to defeat Hardrada. He was then able to move it remarkably quickly to the south coast; although he lost at Hastings, it was remarkably close, and, but for a few factors, could easily have gone differently.
Had the “weaker section” of the wall ( the inexperienced fyrd) not fallen for the feigned retreat. Had Harold listened to the advice of his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, to delay in order to strengthen. The Shield Wall could easily have won the day.
The Saxon battle-cry at Hastings, “Ut, Ut, Ut!” More or less translates as “Keep Out”, and reflects the purpose of walls through the ages.

The Normans circled their walls into castles, and these had a manifold purpose. To exercise control of a hostile population of 3+ million with maybe 10k Normans, needed to ensure they could be both protected and spread out. A task that only castles could accomplish, initially built of wood for speed, then replaced by stone.
They had a further symbolic purpose of psychological suppression as “power writ in stone.” This showed the cowed populace just who the masters were, particularly when juxtaposed with Norman church building. “ We control you in this life and the next”
Rochester is arguably one of the best examples of this:
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(It always intrigued me as to whether the builder of both edifices, Bishop Gundulph, inspired a certain writer in his name choices......)
We can also see this psychological power-statement impact in the French word “ donjon” for keep, being anglicised as dungeon, due to perceived power purposes. Keeps & Dragons doesn’t ring the same!

So walls of China, shield walls, castles and, delving further, the “wall” of the Misty Mountains or the “wall” of green at the entrance to Fangorn: all great for fantasy design.

Thanks for the article, Lew. Thought-provoking as ever.
 


In one of the first Dresden Files books, Dresden mentions the reason for walls around cemeteries. They were not to keep people out, but to keep things INSIDE the graveyard. Things like ghosts or zombies, as the wall served as metaphysical barrier.
Iron has long been reputed in folklore to ward ghosts, as well as witches and fairies. One reason for iron fences around graveyards and cemeteries.

The other advantage of a border wall is that it allowed a pursing force to run down raiders who are looking to escape with plunder. Throughout history, success in raiding has been dependent on not getting bogged down at any point, allowing the usually more numerous defenders to converge on (and destroy) you. It's all about speed, getting in an out before an effective response can be made. A border wall is an impediment.
Well, that's basically what he's talking about re: four footed crossers. Horses, cattle and other livestock.

On a scale of hours (local soldiers or militia responding from a nearby village or keep) in pursuit, the time taken for a raiding party to hurdle the wall on their way home is pretty trivial. But if they can't bring their horses on the raid, and can't bring valuable livestock back across it (or only very slowly, ie: hauling sheep over it one at a time)....
 
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Jimmy Dick

Adventurer
The history of mankind is one of migration of peoples. Some of the earliest walls were about protecting settled peoples against nomads. The important thing to understand about walls is they cannot do much on their own. It takes humans to man them in order to make them effective. Also, keep in mind that in the medieval era, walls were usually not breached through military action, but instead by treachery or negotiations. The walls of the past also had limitations in how far they extended. An enemy that wanted to go beyond the barrier could do so if they were willing to go past the end of the barrier and thus, around it.

As we see with modern walls, they are often nothing more than a speed bump most of the time.
 

AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
I probably need to flesh out where some monumental walls are located, I never did put where some might be though I can imagine where some ancient monumental walls from the lost ancient empire are left in near ruins. Instead I did spend time placing monumental canals, epic in volume and scale.

Monumental canals, like those once imagined networked across Mars, fascinate me in a fantasy where epic magic could have easily been mastered to engineer such functional infrastructure. And the canals would remains in use long after such an empire built them. Make them big enough deep enough and those canals work out as a monumental moat!
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
The “walls” of the Roman “Saxon Shore” forts continued to operate in different form for centuries afterwards.
William the Conqueror landed deliberately at the old Roman fort of Anderida (Pevensey) as a safe place to consolidate his disparate ships and rest for the first night in England after a long sea voyage, within the protection of pre-existing walls.
Fast forward to 1940 and Pevensey was fitted with concrete machine gun emplacements against a putative Nazi invasion.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
 

Hussar

Legend
Happened to see this one on a show the other day - the Walls of Benin in Nigeria - 10000 miles long, built sometime around 1100 CE. Give or take a while, it's somewhat up for debate. It's the largest pre-mechanical structure ever made.

It's kinda funny. We've been talking about walls around settlements in the Wheat thread and I've been mentioning things like hill forts and whatnot as probably the more likely structure you'd find for settlements in a D&D world.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
Happened to see this one on a show the other day - the Walls of Benin in Nigeria - 10000 miles long, built sometime around 1100 CE. Give or take a while, it's somewhat up for debate. It's the largest pre-mechanical structure ever made.

It's kinda funny. We've been talking about walls around settlements in the Wheat thread and I've been mentioning things like hill forts and whatnot as probably the more likely structure you'd find for settlements in a D&D world.
I live pretty close to the Iron Age Hill fort at Oldbury Hill near Sevenoaks. It’s an amazing place; the earthworks are still there and they are huge. The Hill is steep and now tree-covered, though it wouldn’t have been when the Romans took it.
It’s a beautiful place to walk and especially haunting after dark.

One day, I intend to run and adventure in Neasc, in the SotSA setting being developed by @Steampunkette and will base it around a fantasy version of Oldbury.
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Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
So... Walls are important, but Earthworks are -way- better in a fantasy setting. But also -so much worse-. Lemme 'splain!

So when you've got a wall you have a defensible position that takes enemy resources to overcome. Generally this comes in the form of human lives sacrificed trying to take the wall or destroy it. A variety of siege engines have been developed to tear down walls as efficiently as possible. Whether that means breaking open doors in the wall to push through or hurl boulders from massive distances to break it, or even explosives you put against the wall and then run away. With fantasy characters, you also get to throw Fireballs at the wall, or it's occupants.

But a massive artificial hillside? You can't really -do- much to that except climb it. And based on how steep it is, and overgrown, a hill can make cavalry useless, siege engines impossible to move, and on rainy days (Or with the diversion of some agricultural water) that hillside becomes a treacherous slippery mess to try and even struggle up.

There are no efficient ways to break the hillside, either. Because it's dirt and stone and clay, rather than brick and mortar, it shifting a little bit doesn't really hurt much of anything. Explosives might break out a place to duck for cover while trying to get up the thing, but won't do much more than that.

Throw up some low fortifications at the top of the hill, you don't really need big walls, and you get just as defensible a position as a wall with way less ability to disrupt it. Still have to worry about Fireballs, though.

The laughably bad part of Earthworks in fantasy, though... Is that tunneling is just -super- easy. Sappers can get up under the minor fortifications up top with a little time and drop the entire thing into a sudden trench. ESPECIALLY when you have things like Tamed Tunneling Monsters. Or a Spellcaster with Move Earth or something similar.

In a fantasy warfare scenario, Walls and Fortifications will only ever be as effective as the story needs them to be. In a "Real" Fantasy scenario, they're nothing more than Security Theatre. Something that makes you -feel- safe but doesn't actually do -anything- to keep you safe. One disintegrate spell and there's a 10ft cube hole in your fortifications and soldiers rushing through it.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
In a fantasy warfare scenario, Walls and Fortifications will only ever be as effective as the story needs them to be. In a "Real" Fantasy scenario, they're nothing more than Security Theatre. Something that makes you -feel- safe but doesn't actually do -anything- to keep you safe. One disintegrate spell and there's a 10ft cube hole in your fortifications and soldiers rushing through it.

Not to mention flying creatures, passwall spells, burrowing creatures, etc.

After that, the fantasy scenario also makes it much easier to construct, move earth, wall of stone, etc. and to plug in holes in the walls.
 

I have not meaningfully used walls (though I believe most cities that have appeared in my game have a city wall). This is a land of relatively high magic, where the rich can afford flying carpets and rings of flight if they wish. Walls as defensive fortifications aren't very useful when magic artillery is a real concern--so they tend to be more walls and wards, if they exist at all.

In-setting, the Waziri Mage order is the independent collegiate "brotherhood" ("union" sounds to sterile, but it's open to all genders, so...) that prides itself on generally remaining independent of politics. There are, however, wizards who specialize in combat-appropriate spells, and I've no doubt many of them have made good coin through mercenary work, including sometimes working for a particular city-state. The Sultana of Al-Rakkah does not maintain a standing army of spellcasters, instead relying on the aid of the Safiqi Priesthood's Temple Knights and the individual initiative from Waziri mages who would want to defend their homes from attack. (Waziri-trained mages are expensive, and those that don't have the formal training...tend to explode themselves or, more often, others...and you definitely don't want a mage that's somehow been cast out of the order. Think of it like lawyers and physicians; there may be some soldiers who have Waziri training, but the really good battle-mages are gonna be the ones who study it hardest, and that's a difficult thing to do on rank-and-file soldier pay.)

Jinnistani nobles often do not maintain city walls. They are their city's defenses, and taking an enemy out without playing the Great Game is...not done. They are huge sticklers for following social protocol and cleaning up your own messes; they will absolutely band together to destroy someone who fails to uphold those invisible rules that bind their society together, lest it devolve into powerful immortals constantly at one another's throats.
 



Yora

Legend
The other advantage of a border wall is that it allowed a pursing force to run down raiders who are looking to escape with plunder. Throughout history, success in raiding has been dependent on not getting bogged down at any point, allowing the usually more numerous defenders to converge on (and destroy) you. It's all about speed, getting in an out before an effective response can be made. A border wall is an impediment.
The purpose of Hadrian's Wall was to prevent people from avoid the customs checkpoints. It's not a wall meant to stop invading soldiers from the North, but a wall to stop carts and wagons bringing goods into the Roman Empire.
 

Hussar

Legend
I've often wondered if the existence of flying monsters, spells and the like would result in citadel style fortifications where you dig down, rather than build up.

OTOH, it very much depends on how common some things are.
 

AtomicPope

Adventurer
Walls are still useful in Fantasy, since most things don't fly.

Interestingly enough, I work in groceries and we have a big problem with "flyers". Pigeons and crows like to get into the warehouse and get at our dry goods. Crows in particular know a bag of chips when they see it and go straight for the Doritos. They actually prefer Doritos over other chips. (I'm sure there's a commercial in there somewhere. )The company set up nets and spikes to stop both movement and rest. When they have no where safe to land up high they just leave the area entirely. A few years ago there were literally hundreds of pigeons in the yard, except when an owl was present. Now there's maybe a handful.

How often has a monumental wall played a part in a campaign you’ve played?

Many, many times. I've run The Return to the Keep on the Borderlands probably a dozen times, and for every edition of D&D except BECMI, and on a few occasions I had the PCs fight off a siege against the Keep. The PCs would defend the walls against Hobgoblin led hordes. The finale hinges on defeating the Orge battering rams before the doors come down. Way back in AD&D a friend ran an all knights campaign using Cavaliers from UA and we partook in several sieges and defended against them. It was a lot of fun. In a 3e Greyhawk Wars campaign we had a defense of the Shield Lands and our keep was overrun by Orcs and fiends. Only the Quasits were flying so it was more of a nuisance than anything. There were far more interesting scenes like Barlgura scaling the walls while invisible and sabotaging the keep from the inside.

In 5e we had a few campaigns where walls were used. There's a scene in Horde of the Dragon Queen that has the PCs defend against a Blue Dragon from the walls. It's a ham-fisted execution of a plot hook.

A homebrew 5e campaign was apocalyptic, where Devils overran and enslaved the world. It had lots of sieges. Part of the themes in the campaign were how Devils exploited the weaknesses in everyone's defenses. The DM showcased several different lands with different architecture. Courts were infiltrated with shapeshifting and subverted with charms. Beguiled by Devils they'd simply lower the drawbridge and let the armies in. Walls posed little threat to the flying Devils. I came up with the plan to use nets and spike the roofs to limit their movement. Nets were particularly effective in the Tabaxi Kingdom where they had tree houses. It was a well run campaign that lasted deep into 20th level.

The best part was how certain places, like a stronghold of Paladins, were basically impervious to the Devils. The Devils tested their defenses and when it proved difficult they moved on, trapping them in their stronghold. That was a good takeaway from the campaign. Not all defenses are useful against all adversaries. Hallowed ground is a great defense against immortal foes like celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead, and can even be used to ward of Goblins and Orcs. Walls won't stop an army of ghosts but they're powerless on Hallowed ground. They can't frighten or possess anyone. Since we're talking about obscenely powerful monsters then we should consider these types of defenses. After all, that's why kingdoms need to be saved by adventurers.
 
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