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Walls And Fantasy Armies

Having been thinking on one of my past fantasy worlds, in which there are armies that can scale walls with calvary units. True, the world itself has mounted defenses as it is, usually by growing thorny vines along the walls. With thorns about five inches long at that, along with spiked defenses along the wall. But it is a thought that has also came up from time to time.

If your army has flights of dragons that can just go over walls, basically having an air force and likely some form of modern combined arms tactics in some way. Even if people may not recognize it as such. From magic being used as siege machines and actual ones that can be used in high magic settings. So how is it you deal with these sort of things? And perhaps discuss the usefulness of walls in fantasy settings for fortresses in fantasy settings with such things. And the tactics perhaps in dealing with those.
 

pmmg

Vala
I think if you are being attacked by flying creatures, you are going to need your own dragons to fight them.

I can think of things they might do, like release balloons that explode or something, but really, if getting attacked by armies using dragons is common, defenses might look very different all around. Why spend money making walls if they have no effect on dragon armies. Maybe better to build lots of scattered towers, and decoys to waste their efforts on.

I suppose if I knew a bit about the other army, and there was a way to get at, change the behavior of, or frighten off their mounts (dragons included), I would attempt that.

Otherwise, fight fire with fire, or probably lose.
 

Gurkhal

Auror
I think that it all depends on the numbers and powers of dragons.

If you've got a huge supply of dragons and they are very powerful then walls may not be worth the investment. But if the dragons are not so strong that non-magic missile weapons can still bring them down or they are very few, then walls to hold off the mooks can work wonders. Even if you're screwed with walls if a dragon shows up, but there are few dragons, then walls can easily act as speed bumps. Thus force dragons to either keep with the land-bound forces or these having to carry out mundane sieges when they come up against a wall.

That way either sieges will not go very fast or the freedom on how to deploy the dragons can be a bit more restricted. Or so I think.

I would suggest giving Warhammer: Total War as that's a, in my opinion, a solid way to test how armies may fight with access to magic, monsters and so on.
 

Queshire

Auror
Magic! =D

Villages and farming fields have rune carved warding posts placed around them to keep out wandering monsters. Cities can afford the resource investment for stronger wards. An invading dragon rider might find going over the walls just as difficult as trying to go through them, but that's still relatively basic.

Trying to capture a well estanlished sect, the seat of an ancient clan or an imperial palace means pitting yourself up against magical defenses built up over generations, the local spirits likely fighting against the invaders and plenty of nasty tricks. Generally a siege isn't designed to capture such a stronghold but to keep them contained while your other forces go around raiding all their juicy, juicy magical resources.
 
I suppose I used the main thing of dragons as a main example. As they show up the most. It is not just them though. Also have given Total War: Warhammer a try, as per most such games, I absolutely suck at it.

I guess I was kind of going for how useful walls actually are. Especially in high magic settings where you end up with more modern style things pushing through, even if people don't often take the magic to the limit in the settings. Use giant worms to tunnel under (taking undermining to a limit that) or just being able to portal in. And magic at it's most potent, basically acting as nukes in of itself. The tendency to portray such battlefields as a WW1 comes to mind, as they can pull out the artillery that can make waste of even walls long seeped in magic. Kind of the escalation of warfare to the point where walls are actually not that useful in combat. Like how they didn't do much to prevent kaiju in Pacific Rim. Possibly giving this more thought than needed.

Then I do have settings where setting a kaiju on a walled city is nothing out of the ordinary.
 
Fortifications will almost always have some kind of value. Even in WW2 different troops built bunkers to defend themselves. There is just a lot of value in being able to attack someone while they can't hit you back. They're great force multipliers.

What you do see change is how the fortifications look. The advent of gunpowder demanded thicker walls for instance. This, combined with larger cities meant that it wasn't economical to build city walls. But there were still forts being built. Just look at the star forts built all over europe between something like 1400 - 1800. In WW1 you see a combination of bunkers and trenches which act as fortifications, since they proved to be the most succesful for the technology of the time.

With magic and dragons, it will not be any different. People will still build fortifications, because if your mage can hide behind a wall while flinging a fireball at the enemy mage then he'll win. Even more so because not the whole army will consist of mages and dragons (most likely at least). And walls will still be useful against regular soldiers. Neither will having cavalry that can scale walls make a difference. Ladders existed throughout the ages. That didn't stop anyone from building walls. Someone scaling a wall (wether on a ladder or on horseback) will still be vulnerable from stuff thrown or shot at them.

As a side note, I would think that putting spikes on your wall doesn't actually achieve much, other than make it easy to climb them. They would only be useful to stop someone from slamming into the wall (like an elephant). But unless they're so sharp on the sides that you can't hold them with a gloved hand, or they're so dense that you basically have a wall of spikes instead of spikes in a wall, someone will simply make their way around them.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I haven't put any of this directly into a story yet, so it must be regarded as provisional. I've come to realize that fantasy ideas are akin to battle plans--the one rarely survives contact with the enemy while the other rarely survives contact with the page.

Anyway.

Normal walls are vulnerable to sappers. This is not an unsophisticated operation which is why it took a long time to develop the technique, and it remained highly dangerous. The magical extension there goes on both sides: magical reinforcement of the walls (including the foundations) and magical attacks on same. For the purpose, I posit two specialists, collectively known as tunnelers. Ogres provide the muscle needed--along with engineering know-how--while sprites attack the magical aspects. I haven't worked out the defense side in detail yet, but there would surely be counter-mining experts. These would very likely be attached to the city or castle, as local knowledge would be vital.

As for air attacks, I dodge somewhat regarding dragons, as in Altearth these are wild beasts and a danger to all. While they can certainly damage a city, they in no sense attack cities. In response, builders everywhere (for stone) have learned to construct pinnacles, making it difficult to impossible for a dragon to land. A dragon from high up does less damage, as they cannot unleash half-mile fire bombs or the like. As for the rest, you just accept the damage. Also, the great dragon age was before most of the cities developed much, so most of the damage was in rural areas or the occasional stronghold. The real danger from dragons was that if they were populous in a region, it was a risky place for colonization.

But there are other magical creatures that fly, and I've not taken them into account yet. I don't think I'll have any that are intelligent, so no flying armies, not even as mounts. But again, that's all ... er ... up in the air, until I actually have a story that uses some aspect of this.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
So, the hard part is that each piece of fantasy you add is going to change the battlefield a lot. Looking at dragons, the obvious (non-fantasy) countermeasure is to have ballistas scattered deep within your own lines to shoot them down. You're also going to want to keep your combat units smaller and spread out so that one dragon strike destroys less. The first is expensive, and the second has a sizable military tradeoff if your opponent is also fielding a regular army.

So if you have a dragon and are fighting these defenses, your top priorities are forcing their army into a huddle while taking out their ballista. Maybe a trebuchet gets the ballista while army formations do the huddling. In the meantime you hold the dragon in reserve and wait for an opening, maybe pick at supply lines and stragglers.

All of this holds even if both sides have dragons. Whichever side loses their dragon defenses first, loses.

Now, you add what? Wizards? How many of them are there? What's their range? What spells do they have? Can they be hidden in the army or do they immediately stand out even if they aren't casting?

There's too many variables to keep going. But remember, the army is already scattered into smaller units because of the dragons. Now you give some of those units a wizard - or whatever magical hero you like - and put them on offense. Use those units to break enemy lines and make headway, the magical heroes and their redshirt back-watchers.
 

pmmg

Vala
I had a similar thought about dragons, supposing they must come low to attack with fire, they should become more vulnerable. Up in the air, I may not be able to hit them but they cannot hit me (course, ppl riding on them could drop stuff). So really, I need stuff that makes it hard for them to swoop low, or hits em hard if they do. Lots of towers with spiky things, or net like constructions that can be raised. As skip said, lots of pointy things on the ground to keep them from landing (and maybe they get tired from the exertion of flying too). But to really get them, you need your own dragons. It not all that different from planes and bombers and what modern countries do. Build underground if you really want to keep it safe. Mutually assured destruction probably works best with neighbors that have dragons.

But then, of course, once such defenses are know, the attacker will try to adjust, and defenses may become useless again. What can you do? Conquer them first may be a better plan.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
OK, writing this as a (retired) officer. Fortifications do not make a place invulnerable. The purpose of fortifications is to slow the attackers down, to give the defenders time to counter the attack in some way. Done properly, fortifications can be so complex and so strong that you force the attackers to change their tactics. An example of this would be WW1, where the development of trench lines and small fortified positions like pillboxes forced the development of what we now call tanks and manoeuvre wafare where the aim is to avoid fixed defensive positions and instead concentrate your forces at points where you can achieve a breakthrough quickly and so outflank the enemy.

The presence of dragons doesn't change this much. Yes, you could use dragons against a walled city, but stone walls don't burn and well built stone houses are also very hard to set alight from outside. If the defenders combine good stone walls and stone buildings with weapons like trebuchets, ballistae and arbuchets they can make an attack with dragons very risky indeed.

Yes, you could mine the walls with some magic worm, but that assumes the city isn't built on rock. Mages maybe? Well, that depends on how powerful they are. Fireballs don't have much effect on stone, so you'd want a blasting spell. And, unless you as the mage can project your power from some distance away you will be vulnerable to a well-aimed arrow or crossbow bolt - or even an assassin, sneaked into your camp.

At that point, the attackers need to start thinking in terms of strategy rather than tactics. What is the aim of the war (and hence the attack), and does achieving that aim require that they attack fortified positions? When questions like that start being asked the fortifications have achieved some of their purpose, but they still have a purpose left - and that is to provide a secure base of operations. As an attacker you can't leave a manned fortified enemy position behind you when you advance, because that leaves you open to an attack from behind. So you have to invest the position (lay siege to it) in order to isolate it and that in turn binds some of the your forces. You can still outflank the enemy while you invest those positions, but you need more resources and you may not have the manpower available for that. Which brings you back to the question of what you were trying to achieve.

In short, simply by existing the fortified positions force the attacker to either spend time and effort taking the position or make the attacker divide their forces in order to prevent a breakout and the following counter-attack from behind. That's true even today with modern weapon systems.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I'm happy to be corrected here, but I think stone does have a couple of heat-related vulnerabilities. One is that stone will split when super-heated. This would be more critical on load-bearing walls, I think.

The other factor is still more relevant: wood was used in construction. It was used for support beams, for reinforcement, doors, any number of elements, including things like postern gates in walls. Stone construction beats the heck out of wood! But stone construction didn't usually mean *all* stone.

And one postscript to the swede's point: fortifications were to hold back the enemy until you could respond, but also it was to hold them back until a relief army could arrive. Recalling that made me think that if a dragon assault didn't overwhelm the target within a short period of time, the dragons would tire. That means they had to land. Which means they would be both on the ground and tired, and therefore vulnerable to that relief army. Plausibly, at least.

All the good comments on this thread really do point out how there's real opportunity for fantasy narratives to explore how battles might work, rather than just rolling out the pryotechnics and waving hands like mad. Because down in those details like many a chance for story.
 

Miles Lacey

Maester
The Maori pā was designed to resist attacks by warriors equipped with melee weapons but they proved to be surprisingly effective when attacked with soldiers equipped with firearms and cannons during the New Zealand Wars of the 19th Century. This was often because they utilised trenches and were usually built on hills or in areas where the enemy could not outflank it but had to take the pā in order to go anywhere.

The pā proved to be a very effective way to slow down the advance of soldiers (who both outnumbered and outgunned the Maori) to a crawl. What ultimately ended the Wars was the fact the soldiers were full time professionals who could fight a prolonged conflict. The Maori warriors were not. The warriors were needed to plant crops and harvest them. Thus, it was starvation and disease, not decisive battles, that effectively ended the Wars.

I don't know if the claims are true but it is widely believed here in New Zealand that the Britisb trench fortifications of the First World War were inspired by the Maori pā.

Thus, I would argue that fortifications would be designed to counter whatever weapons and tactics are available in that world. Thus, I would assume that if dragons and mages using combat spells are used in combat that fortifications would consist of concrete or stone underground bunkers and pillboxes rather than castles or similar above ground fortifications.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
The Maori pā was designed to resist attacks by warriors equipped with melee weapons but they proved to be surprisingly effective when attacked with soldiers equipped with firearms and cannons during the New Zealand Wars of the 19th Century. This was often because they utilised trenches and were usually built on hills or in areas where the enemy could not outflank it but had to take the pā in order to go anywhere.

The pā proved to be a very effective way to slow down the advance of soldiers (who both outnumbered and outgunned the Maori) to a crawl. What ultimately ended the Wars was the fact the soldiers were full time professionals who could fight a prolonged conflict. The Maori warriors were not. The warriors were needed to plant crops and harvest them. Thus, it was starvation and disease, not decisive battles, that effectively ended the Wars.

I don't know if the claims are true but it is widely believed here in New Zealand that the Britisb trench fortifications of the First World War were inspired by the Maori pā.

Thus, I would argue that fortifications would be designed to counter whatever weapons and tactics are available in that world. Thus, I would assume that if dragons and mages using combat spells are used in combat that fortifications would consist of concrete or stone underground bunkers and pillboxes rather than castles or similar above ground fortifications.
As I understand a pā it is, at least in it's original form, similar to a European hill fort in terms of it's layout and construction. That's no real surprise, similar solutions to similar problems will arise independently of one another in different places. Some of the later pā seemed to have been designed with defence against cannons and rifles in mind and as such are similar in construction and (in some respects) layout to slightly earlier European forts. As to whether these pā inspired trench defences, that seems unlikely. The French first used defensive trenches on a large scale in the late 1700s, often in conjunction with fortified positions, and the techniques were further developed during the US Civil War.

But I agree with you when it comes to defences against dragons and mages, they would be more effective if they were partly underground. Interestingly, there's quite a few hints of that in Tolkien's books. No surprise really, he was a WW1 veteran.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
I'm happy to be corrected here, but I think stone does have a couple of heat-related vulnerabilities. One is that stone will split when super-heated. This would be more critical on load-bearing walls, I think.

Which brings up an interesting fantasy biology question. How does your dragon generate a super-heated flame without frying it's own insides? Slightly more realistically, what sort of range will that super-heated flame have? The heat will disperse fairly fast as a result of atmospheric physics, so the dragon might have to be fairly close to be able to split stone with it's flame- and that makes the dragon vulnerable.

The other factor is still more relevant: wood was used in construction. It was used for support beams, for reinforcement, doors, any number of elements, including things like postern gates in walls. Stone construction beats the heck out of wood! But stone construction didn't usually mean *all* stone.

There's no particular reason for using wood in an external gate. You could for example use slate, or a fairly thin granite slab. Yes, you'd need to drill holes in the stone, but this can be done (slowly). Yes, mounting a gate like that is difficult, but again it can be done with the same sort of technology you use to lift stone for your castle wall. It just takes a bit of planning.

And one postscript to the swede's point: fortifications were to hold back the enemy until you could respond, but also it was to hold them back until a relief army could arrive. Recalling that made me think that if a dragon assault didn't overwhelm the target within a short period of time, the dragons would tire. That means they had to land. Which means they would be both on the ground and tired, and therefore vulnerable to that relief army. Plausibly, at least.
A relief army is a response to an attack or a siege ;)
 

Aldarion

Inkling
Which brings up an interesting fantasy biology question. How does your dragon generate a super-heated flame without frying it's own insides? Slightly more realistically, what sort of range will that super-heated flame have? The heat will disperse fairly fast as a result of atmospheric physics, so the dragon might have to be fairly close to be able to split stone with it's flame- and that makes the dragon vulnerable.
Actually, there is a very simple solution: flame is not actually flame, but rather a flammable liquid that gets ignited once outside. It might get ignited in contact with air, or else (and I actually prefer this solution) you have two glands with a focal point somewhere ahead of dragon's head, and each produces a different liquid, which ignite when in contact with each other.

As for range, military flamethrowers had range between 40 and 90 meters. So for a dragon, maybe 25 to 50 meters?
There's no particular reason for using wood in an external gate. You could for example use slate, or a fairly thin granite slab. Yes, you'd need to drill holes in the stone, but this can be done (slowly). Yes, mounting a gate like that is difficult, but again it can be done with the same sort of technology you use to lift stone for your castle wall. It just takes a bit of planning.
Yes, there is. Wood is cheap, easy to work, and relatively light. That is a massive factor when you are talking about things that move, especially ones that move under human power.

"Fairly thin granite slab" would also be rather prone to being damaged or even broken by very action of opening the gate.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Actually, there is a very simple solution: flame is not actually flame, but rather a flammable liquid that gets ignited once outside. It might get ignited in contact with air, or else (and I actually prefer this solution) you have two glands with a focal point somewhere ahead of dragon's head, and each produces a different liquid, which ignite when in contact with each other.

This is turning into a fascinating discussion which you could classifiy as "hard" fantasy in that we're discussing how something might work as opposed to just assuming that it does.

A flammable liquid. Well, maybe. But how stable is that flammable liquid? In real life, the so-called Greek Fire was unstable and needed handling with some care. It was the instability which made it an effective weapon, but it was still very dangerous for those using it. Even flamethrowers are dangerous to use. So how does our dragon produce this flame without risk to itself? And, coupled to that, what does our dragon need to eat (and how often) to produce the flammable liquid?

As for range, military flamethrowers had range between 40 and 90 meters. So for a dragon, maybe 25 to 50 meters?

So well within range of an arbuchet, the biggest of which have a range approaching 700 meters. Even "ordinary" crossbows have a range of 200 meters, so our dragon is very vulnerable.

Yes, there is. Wood is cheap, easy to work, and relatively light. That is a massive factor when you are talking about things that move, especially ones that move under human power.

"Fairly thin granite slab" would also be rather prone to being damaged or even broken by very action of opening the gate.

The depends how you mount the gate. And a strong wooden gate, able to withstand a ram for a while, is also very heavy. Wood like oak is very dense, and it weighs quite a lot. Add some iron reinforcing and you're talking a very heavy gate indeed.
 

Aldarion

Inkling
This is turning into a fascinating discussion which you could classifiy as "hard" fantasy in that we're discussing how something might work as opposed to just assuming that it does.

A flammable liquid. Well, maybe. But how stable is that flammable liquid? In real life, the so-called Greek Fire was unstable and needed handling with some care. It was the instability which made it an effective weapon, but it was still very dangerous for those using it. Even flamethrowers are dangerous to use. So how does our dragon produce this flame without risk to itself? And, coupled to that, what does our dragon need to eat (and how often) to produce the flammable liquid?
Eh, Greek Fire was not that unstable? You just couldn't have it near the open flame, but then you needed open flame to, well, produce fire part of Greek Fire. It is essentially a primitive flamethrower, after all.

And unless you assume outright magic, anything that would produce fire would be very dangerous and carry a level of risk to the creature breathing flame. Which I assume may be part of a reason why we don't actually have fire-breathing creatures IRL. Closest is the bombardier beetle, but it uses hot acid, not flame.

So yes, if you want to have fire-breathing dragons, and you want to avoid them being "just magic, don't think", they will be flying bombs.
So well within range of an arbuchet, the biggest of which have a range approaching 700 meters. Even "ordinary" crossbows have a range of 200 meters, so our dragon is very vulnerable.
Yeah.
The depends how you mount the gate. And a strong wooden gate, able to withstand a ram for a while, is also very heavy. Wood like oak is very dense, and it weighs quite a lot. Add some iron reinforcing and you're talking a very heavy gate indeed.
True. But weight is major part of a reason why wood was used for e.g. roofs and such. For gates, you are correct, but then we get to other two aspects (price and practicality).
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Eh, Greek Fire was not that unstable? You just couldn't have it near the open flame, but then you needed open flame to, well, produce fire part of Greek Fire. It is essentially a primitive flamethrower, after all.
No, it wasn't very stable.

Greek fire seems to have been used in both siphons (a sort of flamethrower) and in barrels thrown from catapults. Contemporary accounts suggest that the mixture was heated in a sealed air-tight tank before being pumped out of the nozzle of the siphon, and that the barrels were wrapped in a burning cloth before being thrown. It's thought (but not proven) that the heat was needed to mix the ingredients properly. The warmed mixture is described as igniting as soon as it came into contact with the air or with something flammable.

Descriptions of it's manufacture state clearly that great care had to be taken to avoid accidental ignition. One of the main ingredients is said to have been what the Greeks and Romans called naphta (which is not what we now refer to as naphta), which Roman accounts describe as an extremely volatile, highly flammable, strong-smelling, gaseous liquid. The evidence suggests that resins were added to the naphta, both to thicken the mixture and to give the fire more intensity and heat. This would explain why you needed heat to mix it all before use - things like pine resins aren't that liquid at normal temperatures.
 
There's three directions I think for dragon fire.

Firstly, the most easy is "because dragons!" Basically, it's magic, and they just breath fire because that's what dragons do.

For the other two the main distinction is, is whatever the dragon breathes self-combusting or does it need to be ignited in some way?

If the first, then some kind of pyrophoric substance is needed, that is, something which spontaneously combusts when it comes into contact with air. Fine metal powders do this, as does fine uranium dust for instance. But there's plenty more. These kinds of dragons would be flying bombs. They would keep whatever pyrophoric substance they use in a gland somewhere. And once they die, and oxygen gets into that gland they'd likely explode.

If the second, then you're looking at something like rocket fuel, which can be either liquid or solid + a spark. The easiest spark is to have the dragon generate some kind of electricity in its jaw, similar to an electric eel. There are plenty of substances which are fairly stable until you ignite them with a spark. These dragons would be safer to kill, since you would need a spark to ignite the flameable substance.

Once you have this figured out, the next thing to decide is how the dragon generates the flamable substance. Either it's internal, and they just create the flameable stuff, or they chew up rocks or metal or whatever and store that somewhere in their body. Or a combination of both of course.

Of course, there's also a difference between what's really going on and what people in your world believe is going on. If dragons are fairly rare and they tend to explode once they die, then it's very likely people have no idea how they breath fire, and they will believe the reason is "because dragons!" even if it's something completely different. Also, if your world has a lot of magic, people will probably simply accept "because magic" as an answer even if there's a different explanation.
 
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