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

aco175

Legend
The Maginot Line that France built to keep Germany out for WW2 is kind of a modern-day wall. It failed for several reasons, but mostly for failing to understand the technology of the day and the speed of movement that Germany had. In D&D terms, most invasions would be the same or modified a bit. If the biggest threat is giants, then the walls are taller and wider than a wall to protect from another human(oid) kingdom. The neighboring kingdom may have something else that needs to be accounted for. The Icewall in GOThrones was doing fine until the terms changed with the dragon showing up.

The Phandalin in my games is currently building a wall around it. The problem is money and labor with the town being more a frontier town and people showing up to get rich and not to settle down. The wall is being built be mostly day-labor and broke miners. There is a few people knowing what to do and some increase in security around the town, but the wall is slow compared to other problems. Like a small town meeting and the debate over new roads or a new policeman, fireman, teacher, etc.. The roads tend to be put off for another year.
 

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Oofta

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.

We were just talking about this the other day. Why would a dragon risk itself against dozens of archers? If there were dragons, why would castle not have ballista on gimbals, perhaps ones that fires a weighted net?

Defenses against dragons didn't exist historically because they weren't needed. Once aircraft became a thing people developed anti-aircraft cannon. 🤷‍♂️
 

HammerMan

Legend
We were just talking about this the other day. Why would a dragon risk itself against dozens of archers? If there were dragons, why would castle not have ballista on gimbals, perhaps ones that fires a weighted net?

Defenses against dragons didn't exist historically because they weren't needed. Once aircraft became a thing people developed anti-aircraft cannon. 🤷‍♂️
I agree, and not every country has effective antiaircraft in modern day, and not every castle will in your world (most likely).

When the PCs find a place well defended/armed it si a great place to relax and let them handle it... and when they find one that doesn't... well that is when they get there dragon slaying on...
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
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.
I think that the area has guards and whatnot on / near the roads and towns. Candlekeep does. Several others are noted as having that in the video games.

On the topic of walls, I agree with those that point out that walls are there for many reasons, and that security measures are dials, not switches. You put up the defenses you can put up. You do what you can to impede the enemy's progress. There was at least one long Dragon Magazine article about walls and castles in a fantasy world, and the magic you can add to make them more useful therein. I'll find it.....
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
The Maginot Line that France built to keep Germany out for WW2 is kind of a modern-day wall. It failed for several reasons, but mostly for failing to understand the technology of the day and the speed of movement that Germany had. In D&D terms, most invasions would be the same or modified a bit. If the biggest threat is giants, then the walls are taller and wider than a wall to protect from another human(oid) kingdom. The neighboring kingdom may have something else that needs to be accounted for. The Icewall in GOThrones was doing fine until the terms changed with the dragon showing up.

The Phandalin in my games is currently building a wall around it. The problem is money and labor with the town being more a frontier town and people showing up to get rich and not to settle down. The wall is being built be mostly day-labor and broke miners. There is a few people knowing what to do and some increase in security around the town, but the wall is slow compared to other problems. Like a small town meeting and the debate over new roads or a new policeman, fireman, teacher, etc.. The roads tend to be put off for another year.
That would have been my plan, also, had my players not decided to go out exploring the world instead of staying in Phandalin.
 

AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
If dragons think like PCs in the situation, they’d fly above ballista range and drop large boulders on the occupants and structures. Maybe even lots of boxes with explosive glyph of warding.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
"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.
Yes, you are probably correct, though I read that they also chided their children with it at bedtime "Hannibal ad portas" because of Tanit, the Carthaginian Goddess had children sacrificed to her. Sort of saying be quiet, or still before sleep.
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
If dragons think like PCs in the situation, they’d fly above ballista range and drop large boulders on the occupants and structures. Maybe even lots of boxes with explosive glyph of warding.
to what end? Why bother going after a well defended castle or city? There might be magic there.

The greatest deterrence to intelligent monsters is the unknown of magic. What defenses does a large / well-funded town/city/castle have?
 

Oofta

Legend
to what end? Why bother going after a well defended castle or city? There might be magic there.

The greatest deterrence to intelligent monsters is the unknown of magic. What defenses does a large / well-funded town/city/castle have?
I had a campaign once where the enemy was flying on dragons. The PCs put up a wall of force directly in the path of the dragons. I ruled that not only did the dragons take damage, their speed was instantly dropped to 0 so they started falling. They came up with several other spells that were effective as well.

Darned players and their good ideas! :mad:

Point is that there are bold dragons, there are old dragons, but no old bold dragons.
 




Hussar

Legend
As far as building walls, something to not forget that in 5e D&D, a 10th (?) level cleric can summon an avatar of a god about once every ten days (well, I suppose, technically it's once every 8-27 days - call it twice a month). That's a lot of building power. I could totally see different faiths having ritualistic acts to build massive walls to keep stuff out or in.
 

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