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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

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The great wall of China was a protected highway for the silk road, it paid for itself in profits, until the mongols cut the route farther west, then it collapsed. Hadrian's wall, is very ingenious, it was built and manned by the very people it was meant to keep out. Thus keeping the southern areas undisturbed, as the northern people were occupied doing something else.
 

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MarkB

Legend
Then there are walls like the Wall in Neil Gaiman's Stardust that separated the human world from the magical world on the other side. How does it work? Who cares?
Who cares? The ones trying to circumvent it, or to prevent its circumvention. At some point, that may well be the PCs.
 



MarkB

Legend
Then please join dragoner's letter-writing campaign against Neil Gaiman's Stardust.
Nothing against his writing - "who cares?" works fine in a novel. But if you're adapting it to an RPG scenario, at some point you may find yourself having to provide a different answer.
 


Hussar

Legend
So... Walls are important, but Earthworks are -way- better in a fantasy setting. But also -so much worse-. Lemme 'splain!
/snip of some really excellent points.

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.
But, I think the point you make here doesn't quite cover the issue. Walls aren't really about warfare scenarios - at least not all the time. Yes, sure, massive castles and whatnot. But, by and large, walls aren't so much about stopping invading armies.

It's much more about stopping those few dozen raiders who are out to pillage. It's about stopping that ogre or troll from wandering in and eating the children. Sure, you can get through walls - of course you can. But, if you're to the point where the enemy has a 9th level wizard dropping disintegrate spells, we're talking a much more serious invading force than the norm.

Diggers, for example. Well, that's what moats are for. Sure, you can dig, but, suddenly, your tunnel fills with water from the moat and all your diggers die. And, again, most walls aren't there for stopping large armies of orcs and their tame bullettes. It's far more about stopping much smaller forces.

And that's never minding keeping out the straight up beasties sort of things - wolves and giant lizards and that sort of thing. This isn't a bad way to keep people safe, most of the time:

sBl5N5bCqd6n72D2n7amaDP6gu-yGjwiEG0kQvxLGoxvK1BnL1KO6PPt7R9CnXBKGUjgGKEHzDXiIfyQvZtisRp_0vnyRCwP_l4KClqMin85
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
But, I think the point you make here doesn't quite cover the issue. Walls aren't really about warfare scenarios - at least not all the time. Yes, sure, massive castles and whatnot. But, by and large, walls aren't so much about stopping invading armies.

It's much more about stopping those few dozen raiders who are out to pillage. It's about stopping that ogre or troll from wandering in and eating the children. Sure, you can get through walls - of course you can. But, if you're to the point where the enemy has a 9th level wizard dropping disintegrate spells, we're talking a much more serious invading force than the norm.

Diggers, for example. Well, that's what moats are for. Sure, you can dig, but, suddenly, your tunnel fills with water from the moat and all your diggers die. And, again, most walls aren't there for stopping large armies of orcs and their tame bullettes. It's far more about stopping much smaller forces.

And that's never minding keeping out the straight up beasties sort of things - wolves and giant lizards and that sort of thing. This isn't a bad way to keep people safe, most of the time:

sBl5N5bCqd6n72D2n7amaDP6gu-yGjwiEG0kQvxLGoxvK1BnL1KO6PPt7R9CnXBKGUjgGKEHzDXiIfyQvZtisRp_0vnyRCwP_l4KClqMin85
Sure... but.

Wolves and giant lizards aren't intelligent. Even the most ignorant of trolls can figure out to climb a wall or swim a moat (Though it's fairly solid vampire protection, depending on world-lore!).

Animals can't really deal with walls. But motivated player characters or NPCs who are needed for a story inside the city?

Walls might as well not exist.

But it should also be noted: A tall -fence- will stop most animals, and any raider who plans to take bulky stuff they've got to heave over the high fence.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Great defensive structures are more interesting to me as ruins. It tells the players that something dangerous lay beyond, so dangerous that not even this monumental structure could stop it.
there is a bit of a logic error here. The wall clearly stopped the dangerous something. Otherwise, the heroes would already know about this very dangerous something.

the wall is only meaningful if "the danger" is on the other side.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
The closest thing to a "wall impacting a campaign" I've had is a "line" of magical wards, that kept the Krakens from attacking the Yellow City in Yoon-Suin. The party's warlock was fooled/coersed by his patron into breaking one of the wards, allowing the Krakens to besiege the city.
 

Hussar

Legend
Sure... but.

Wolves and giant lizards aren't intelligent. Even the most ignorant of trolls can figure out to climb a wall or swim a moat (Though it's fairly solid vampire protection, depending on world-lore!).

Fair enough. But, again, a wall isn't there to stop stuff entirely. That's impossible. The wall is there to slow stuff down and make it really easy to kill while climbing it. It's pretty hard for that charging troll to clear those three moats, climb the wall, climb down the wall, and then get into the town without anyone noticing and raising an alarm. Even harder to grab something and get out.

Walls are a deterrent, not a 100% effective solution. You need more than just a wall. Heck, even the Great Wall has fortresses within line of sight to each other all along its length, manned (once upon a time) by garrisons. It's not like they expected the Great Wall by itself to keep everyone out.

Animals can't really deal with walls. But motivated player characters or NPCs who are needed for a story inside the city?

Walls might as well not exist.

But it should also be noted: A tall -fence- will stop most animals, and any raider who plans to take bulky stuff they've got to heave over the high fence.
Again, I think you are taking a too black and white view here. SOmething does not have to be 100% effective in all cases in order to be useful. Walls are tools for defense, just like any other.

Or, put it another way, which town is that troll going to attack, the one on a cleared hill, surrounded by three moats and a fifteen foot palisade, or the open town with no walls and forest right up to its edge, the way Phandallin is drawn in the modules?
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
Fair enough. But, again, a wall isn't there to stop stuff entirely. That's impossible. The wall is there to slow stuff down and make it really easy to kill while climbing it. It's pretty hard for that charging troll to clear those three moats, climb the wall, climb down the wall, and then get into the town without anyone noticing and raising an alarm. Even harder to grab something and get out.

Walls are a deterrent, not a 100% effective solution. You need more than just a wall. Heck, even the Great Wall has fortresses within line of sight to each other all along its length, manned (once upon a time) by garrisons. It's not like they expected the Great Wall by itself to keep everyone out.


Again, I think you are taking a too black and white view here. SOmething does not have to be 100% effective in all cases in order to be useful. Walls are tools for defense, just like any other.

Or, put it another way, which town is that troll going to attack, the one on a cleared hill, surrounded by three moats and a fifteen foot palisade, or the open town with no walls and forest right up to its edge, the way Phandallin is drawn in the modules?
The... one... the DM wants it to? >.>
 


Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
Ha ha.

Ok, which one would be more plausible to be attacked? Sure, if we're just going down the narrativium route, then walls are 100% effective all the time. Why? 'cos I say so.

Tends to make a pretty short conversation.
Yeah, in the real world the unguarded town would probably be more likely to be raided, so long it was in a place with raiders and such, like villages in the Marches of a nation-state.

Because that's another thing to consider: How close the village is to actual threats.

"Hannibal at the Gates" became a Roman Catchphrase for imminent danger because they thought Rome, so far from the Empire's outer edges, was utterly safe. Untouchable by the hordes of enemies it had made if only by distance. Lots of small towns and villages of the Roman Empire didn't really -bother- with walls or standing military so long as they were deep enough into Imperial Territory that attack was practically impossible.

That said, Phandalin is a northern Sword Coast community that is -absolutely- on the Marches of everything. That's why it got sacked in 951 by Orcs and abandoned for hundreds of years.

Phandalin, honestly, either:
1) Shouldn't be standing.
2) Should have a wall.
3) Should be under the "Protection" of a roving band of Orcs who stop by once a month to strip the community of supplies as if they had raided it but without the bloodhsed.

One of the three.
 

Hussar

Legend
Totally agree there. It's one thing that has stood out in the Candlekeep adventures I've been doing. These towns all up and down the Sword Coast are very, very much not interested in anything approaching security. Either the Sword Coast is a LOT more peaceful than I think it is, or the writers just do not give the slightest rat's petoot about plausibility.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
Totally agree there. It's one thing that has stood out in the Candlekeep adventures I've been doing. These towns all up and down the Sword Coast are very, very much not interested in anything approaching security. Either the Sword Coast is a LOT more peaceful than I think it is, or the writers just do not give the slightest rat's petoot about plausibility.
There is also option 3...

They just didn't think about it or weren't given all the variables.

We're a pack of nerds tearing up something we love -years- after it was written. Of course we're gonna be way more insightful into what was written more than half a decade ago than the writers and artist who were putting it together with deadlines and various editorial reviews and such.
 

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