In my setting, the entire known world is clinging to the side of a humongous nearly vertical cliff. Living space is a kind of commodity since there aren't many cliff benches large enough to build a city upon, which wouldn't be suited better for growing crops instead. So most cities are limited in growth and width, mostly extending by carving galleries in the surrounding cliffs once all available horizontal space has been filled.

To add to that, prior to the invention of airships (current technology level is ~1850s-1900s with few bits of technobabble allowing for steampunk-y details, but nothing ridiculous like steam-powered robots) the only possible mode of travel was by either using discovered passages and caves which rarely were wider than several meters, or by constructed road-bridges. I'm currently on the fence about should I include or omit rideable flying creatures, but it's unlikely they will be a thing, for now.

There is a species of sapient flying creatures though, on roughly the same level of technological development as humans, but they are less numerous, and both civilizations are trying to not infringe on each other's territory, and "birds" rarely have any significant population in the cities of humans (Humans just can't live in the "bird" cities at all, since they weren't built with flightless inhabitants in mind).

Magic sort of exists in this setting (it's complicated), but it isn't common or reliable enough (You, basically, don't have any way to replicate its effects or teach others how to perform it, nor is there any "genes that make you able to do magic" so there are no wizards or witches in a conventional fantasy sense) to become a mundane part of the society.

I guess all of this severely limits the size of the army one can reasonably wield or employ to attack others. No fields where one can do epic infantry battles of our middle ages, and almost every passage is a handy impassable defensive position and a chokepoint simultaneously. How would that affect the warfare in such a world, before airships showed up on stage and changed all the rules?

  • $\begingroup$ No fields? How do they get food? Only the sea? $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Apr 17, 2021 at 4:52

2 Answers 2


Very hand-to-hand, very tower defence. Larger explosives (presumably from alchemy) would be a bit risky, but they would open the space up a bit and let the light in.

Flying creatures should be able to take off and land OK, but anything steamy might have trouble. Your alternate runway is likely to be (much) lower down.

Gravity is obviously your friend here, so dropping boulders is an option, or landing on folk or pouring boiling oil on them, although you do wonder where they are getting the oil. Geologically, wells inside cliffs lack hydrostatic pressure due to seepage lower down. An assumption here is that the enemy is stupid, and attacks up a vertical cliff face, but it does happen (to wit, The Guns of Navarone).

Water, on the other hand, comes from seepage from above, and could be harnessed and directed as required. Hit them with a fire hose etc. But folk above could presumably divert the water supply and starve you out for political concessions or make you die of thirst. Also presents its own risk (think Thai football teams in caves). You'd want to put a few defences higher up to prevent sneakiness, and the odd bypass to prevent the populace from drowning in the wet season.

Waterfalls could be a great feature, curtains disguising whole settlements, etc. Hanging gardens with poisonous plants come to mind. And food, obviously.

Weapons of the era are probably divided into ballistic, explosive/alchemical, focused light (you'd get the morning or afternoon Sun, presumably), poisons, which might disperse or backfire, and so on. Sound, too (see below).

I see a whole bureaucratic level devoted to approving the use of various technologies due to the precarious nature of cliffside living and the risks inherent in deployment. Some of the dimmer folk who naturally gravitate towards government (the ones that didn't do too well at math and physics) would gather around tables in dim caves with filled goblets arguing the relative merits of arrows with/without stone tips, and ultimately achieving very little beyond preservation of the status quo.

Spears and arrows (and maybe catapults or more practically just boulder ramps) could really get some momentum going, possibly to supersonic speeds given enough altitude). They could use the backfill from excavation of car parks, etc., to keep it green.

And let's not neglect the arts. Music, particularly bad music, could be deployed as an offensive weapon in passageways by resonance. Tricky, though. Walls of Jericho, etc.

Come to think of it, how do you amass your troops if they can't hear you through stone walls? You'd need tubes. Lots of tubes. And advanced drilling technology. Volcanic areas have lava tubes, which helps, but you're probbaly looking at mesa-like environments anyway. Softer media like this aid drilling, but are poor defensively, offering little resistance to trebuchets, Greek fire and the like. Sounding a huge alarm through tubes could also lead to Jericho-like situations.

Sounds like a fun project.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent, welcome to worldbuilding. We invite you to take our wonderful tour and refer to the help center for guidance as to our ways, enjoy your new home-from-home here. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2021 at 3:56

trench warfare but vertical

I am ruling out magic and fly creatures for human to human conflict due to magic not being reliable enough to use in combat or deploy in large scale. the 1850s to 1900s was during the civil war and while we may think of it as to lines of armies walking toward each other the real fighting was in trench sieges. considering the fighting will be happening in cramped spaces causing a high concentration of troops the conditions are ripe for trench warfare.


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