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I'm in the fairly early stages of writing a story. My world is a low-magic (or even no magic- I haven't fully decided yet) fantasy setting, and I'll be adhering pretty hard to the medieval stasis trope (Warning: TvTropes link), so major technological advances like gunpowder are out of scope for this question.

For a thousand years, the Obsidian Dominion has been a scourge on the continent. Their leaders, part of a fanatical cult, seek to rule the continent and subjugate its peoples. The varied Free Nations, while generally distrusting of one another, have always been united in their opposition of the Dominion, and at several points in history have formed joint armies to oppose their spread. This back and forth has resulted in the Dominion's territory expanding and contracting numerous times throughout history.

The idea of not just driving back, but completely eradicating the Dominion has been proposed numerous times throughout the ages. The problem? Their home territory is along a long stretch of coast, with an arc of nearly impassable mountains surrounding it on all sides by land. There's only one known major pass through the mountains, guarded by a colossal fortress that has stood nearly as long as the Dominion itself. A number of arrogant Free generals have attempted to take the fortress before, but all have been thrown back, and it has long since been branded as practically unconquerable.

I like this as a base idea, but I'm now looking to flesh out this fortress a little more. What features could it have that make it so difficult to conquer for so long? The natural geography is a huge aid here, but what other design elements could add to its formidability? What other tactics might have been tried unsuccessfully in the past?

Any ideas people have would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

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  • $\begingroup$ Hello! This seems like an interesting question but we’re only allowed to ask 1 question per post. I think asking the first one you mentioned is best for this post, so if you edit the post to just have the first one then you’ll get good answers. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ ??? Voting to close as there is a not only well-known but positively famous real historical example. Isn't Constantinople a gigantic walled city which had been unconquerable for more than a thousand years until it was finally conquered by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453? And not for lack of trying; it had been besieged by the Goths in 378 CE, by the Avars and Persians in 626, by the Arabs in 654, 669, 674, and 717 (the Arabs were slow learners), by the Bulgar(ian)s in 813, 913, and 921, by the Kievan Russians in 907 and 941, and finally by the Ottomans themselves in 1391, 1411, and 1422... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 12 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Just because there is a historical example (I doubt it is actually that well known) does not invalidate the question. Even if you're big enough of a history nerd to know about Constantinople, that does not mean that you can understand why it withstood so many attacks or if those reasons will work for his setting from a simple Google search. So still a valid question. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 12 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ If you overlook an error by a tiny percentage you have a real world answer from the past: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walls_of_Constantinople $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Apr 13 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I can only be deeply confused by statements such as: "Even if you're big enough of a history nerd to know about Constantinople..." and "I doubt it is actually that well known". $\endgroup$
    – user110256
    Apr 13 at 14:06

4 Answers 4

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Your Fortress Blocks the Path to the Dominion's Crops & Reinforcements

You are underestimating just how strong of a factor this geography is for your setting. The impassable mountain range means that the fortress can not be surrounded and cut off from supplies and reinforcements. Many historical castles were too hard to take by force; so, the de facto method of beating a castle that can't be stormed is to cut off its supplies, and wait for the garrison to get sick, hungry, and demoralized.

But, if the back side of the castle is always open to the Dominion's homeland, then they can keep the garrison feed indefinitely. They can reinforce the garrison without having to push through the siege itself and they can replace sick or run down troops with fresh recruits to keep the garrison at full strength at all times.

In contrast, the invading army has to cross a vast wasteland to even get to the castle. Normally an invasion force that has to operate far from home would rely on pillaging the enemy's farmlands, but the Dominion's farms are all blocked off. So their army needs to commit tons of their own food and manpower just running supply wagons to and from the front line. This means that no sizable invasion force has the liberty of standing around at the gates for months on end building complex siege works, and the path up to the castle is too rough to bring any sizable, pre-built siege engines.

This means the only way to attack the castle is to go straight to storming it... which history tells us is suicide even against a modest castle. It was not uncommon for a force of less than 100 healthy guards to be able to protect a castle against an army of over 1000; so, if this stronghold were just a standard medieval castle, but big enough for a few thousand guards, such a place could have been exceedingly hard to take because it solves the logistics issues normally associated with castles.

Laying out the Castle itself

Now to make it even more badass than a normal castle. One of the hard things about defending a traditional castle is that you have a limited size garrison that has to protect itself from attacks on all sides, but in this case, all the enemies have to come from the same side; so, instead of being surrounded, you can design your outer wall like a horseshoe so that as the enemy exit's the narrow pass, it is them who are surrounded, not you.

The next most important thing is a moat. A moat means that the attackers can't just run up with ladders and start climbing. They have to find a way to bridge it before they can even start to storm the walls... bridging a moat is really hard when you are facing archers from 1 side, and you have the advantage of logistics so that you can spend the weeks or months it takes to ford it. But here, you don't have time, and you have archers on 3 sides of you. This alone makes attacking the castle at all a non-starter for all but the most determined of invaders. It also guarantees that even if you launch a surprise attack, that the defenders will have plenty of time to call in reinforcements before the actually fighting starts.

Next is the walls themselves. Taking an outer wall is the "easiest" part of a siege because once you take it, you are then up and close to the inner wall which has more defenders shooting down at you from close range as you have to try to figure out how to get your siege equipment from the outside wall to the inside wall, which in most cases will have to be another set of siege ladders. Lastly, there is nothing that says you only get two walls. You could build these walls 3, 4, or even 5 rings deep, and if the castle is build on a natural slope, then there is no real limit to how high you can make your walls because they could all be the same actual height, just starting at different elevations.

Now for the last part that really makes it all suck to invade. The final wall could just be a terrace leading out to a wide open field at a higher elevation. This means that even if the castle itself has a limited garrison size, the Dominion could send their whole army to camp out on the back side of the castle; so, even when you do finally fight your way up past all the walls, your tired, scattered, and exhausted men would still have a large army at the top just waiting to close in on them.

Such a castle could easily hold off the largest of medieval armies as long as the dominion always maintains a half decent homeland army to support it.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Small thing. You misspelled moat. grammar.com/…. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moat $\endgroup$
    – Martamo
    Apr 12 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Martamo lol, spell check only works when you don't accidently spell another word. Thanks for the catch. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 12 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ ...though technically I spelled it right if this were 14th century France... but I can pretend I'm not a 700 year old eldritch being for sake of the modern reader. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 12 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ Now make it a giant stone marble coaster and allow to occasionally reroute a river upstream to sweep away the remains $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Apr 13 at 6:27
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you so much for the response- this is fantastic :D I'll plan to use large portions of this in my final story $\endgroup$
    – Belgabad
    Apr 15 at 16:45
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This sounds a bit like how Napoleon started his career with the Siege of Toulon under the Revolutionary Government (1793). He was dealing with a disorganised military, and disaffected locals, trying to win back a fortified port from the British, and the French Royalists, and a whole bunch of others.

He did not have any particular strategic secret. But he did organise, and put a lot of effort into requisitioning troops, cannons, and equipment, and other details, as well as rooting out the less able officers. I don't think there is any particular detail of the siege of Toulon that would be appropriate for attacking a mountain stronghold, but you could use his struggle to make a coherent fighting machine out of a lot of demoralised and disaffected parts. Maybe that is all your side lacks.

Part 2, as the question has changed a bit...

Medieval Sieges often had a lot of brinkmanship as harvest approached. The besieging forces probably had many farm labourers who wanted to get their crops in. The people in the castle would want to get into their countryside and re-stock. The cost of hiring mercenaries would go up at harvest time.

Suppose your general organised things Napoleon-style. Instead of requisitioning huge amounts from the neighbouring countryside, they bought crops and supplies locally and kept the locals sweet. He could have trenches dug so the people in the castle could not try a sortie. He could stand down part of the army to go home and get the harvest in, while keeping enough troops on hand to keep the fortress besieged. A lot of planning ahead and organising but nothing miraculous.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the response! I'll absolutely keep this in mind, and will look to weave this as a theme throughout my story. That said, I received some feedback that this question needed to be reduced in scope a bit, so I edited it down to just asking about features of the fortress itself. I'll plan to make a part 2 of this in a day or so, and I think this answer will be applicable there $\endgroup$
    – Belgabad
    Apr 12 at 17:19
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The fortress was built at a time when the Obsidian Dominion was much larger and had much greater resources to build a fortress. Fake weak points that are really traps. Hero think they are the smart one. Here is the way in and here comes the boiling oil pouring down on them. Whole area around fortress covered with traps. Take any part of the castle and its built to make it easy to kill you from the next part of the castle. Many tunnels that make it so those from the fortress can appear behind your lines. Fortress can have its own deep well and food stores to last decades. Fast moving river surrounding fortress. Well designed, approaching any part of the fortress leaves you the target from many angles. Castle wall extends deep underground and the area to try and dig under the castle wall has been predug up and modified so any attempt to dig through hits all sorts of dangers. Fortress has very large well built catapults with lots of variety of ammunition. Plenty of food and wells around the castle. All not meant for local people to use. For invaders to steal and find out its poisoned. They have large barrels of flammable liquids they can open up to cause river of fire. Very well trained precise crossbowman. Spread false information about the fortress. The secrets of the fortress architect parchment great hero had to spend years searching for is really a set up. Just something to get people who try and take the fortress killed. Can have great leader laughing, "Worked two dozen times in the last thousand years and there is always another gullible fool that fall for it". Not counting the many that die just getting through the traps to get rewarded with the fraud secrets of the fortress architect. Infiltrate the armies of the invaders. Assassinate any one that might just realize its a trap. Make it hard for invading armies to have any survivors so few real details about fortress. Could have a piece of land where only bridge in and bridge out and they rig both bridges to be easy to destroy. Only for when the invaders leave. Idea being they starve to death. Could even have the invading army wonder why so many skeletons here when they are marching through there victorious. Then when they are marching back after invasion didn't work out, as the bridge in front of them falls and so does the one behind them, "Ahh it makes sense now".

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I'm going to take a variant on Nosajimiki's answer:

You don't really need much of a fort to do this. The mountains are impassable, that means the location of the "fort" is most likely going to be something only a little less than impassable. They have built a fortification across the pass but the real defense is that the defenders are on the walls of the pass behind arrow slits. They can be higher than any castle wall.

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