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Author Topic: Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?  (Read 7996 times)

HappyDaze

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Over the years I've noticed that many fantasy games show small towns (often of <500 inhabitants) existing in areas several days travel from other friendly towns that are sitting in areas teeming with monsters and even hostile bands of humanoids. These towns generally have no fortifications (e.g., walls, towers, etc.) and are not even built in a manner where the structures themselves can be fortified (often the structures are rather spread out... which might be a benefit when the orcs start torching them). To top it off, they often have very few defenders (which might be OK if they had some fortifications) to drive off attackers--except for the conveniently present PCs. Does this strain anyone else's suspension of disbelief?

S'mon

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #1 on: November 04, 2019, 08:41:53 AM »
Even when I started gming at 11 my villages always had stockades. I often have to draw them around published villages. Definitely bugs me.
« Last Edit: November 04, 2019, 12:20:26 PM by S'mon »
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Melan

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #2 on: November 04, 2019, 08:59:09 AM »
Suburb in, suburb out.
Now with a Zine!
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HappyDaze

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #3 on: November 04, 2019, 09:34:52 AM »
http://qualityminiatures.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/DSCN0748wr.jpg
Even a cluster of fortified homes like the picture above would be a huge improvement over the open farms and structures we usually see in D&D (and similar) art.

Stephen Tannhauser

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #4 on: November 04, 2019, 10:04:27 AM »
Quote from: HappyDaze;1112923
Does this strain anyone else's suspension of disbelief?

It depends on the context. Frontiers can move in two directions; maybe when the town was first built the territory wasn't frontier-land -- the encroaching orcs may be responding to the withdrawal of the local lord's knights as civil war is brewing in the distant capital, and thanks to decades of farming the timber needed to build a palisade is no longer readily available, or is in a forest already controlled by the orcs.  Or perhaps the lord who gave the settlers permission had an attack of paranoia and granted them the land solely on condition they build no fortifications of their own; it wouldn't be the first time a distant government shafted the locals.  Or the settlers themselves (or their controlling leadership, at least) are radical pacifists and believe that living life as if you were under siege is no life at all.

That said, if I can think of these reasons with a few minutes' thought, it is a strike against setting designers if they don't bother to do so.

As for the origin of this trope I actually suspect it has more to do with the Western, or with stories based on The Seven Samurai, than unconscious emulation of suburbia -- if the local innocents were already well-defended against the encroaching threat, there wouldn't be much for the PCs to do.
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estar

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #5 on: November 04, 2019, 10:17:19 AM »
One thread of D&D's DNA run through the popular image of the American Old West. In the late 60's and early 70s if you said frontier that likely the image that pop into one's head.

As for real world inspiration I would look at medieval Russia as an example of what people do where settlements are isolated amid a vast frontier with a implacable enemy (Mongols) not far away.

Medieval Russian Village

Village Structures
« Last Edit: November 04, 2019, 10:23:26 AM by estar »

tenbones

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #6 on: November 04, 2019, 10:21:24 AM »
Quote from: estar;1112940
One thread of D&D's DNA run through the popular image of the American Old West. In the late 60's and early 70s if you said frontier that likely the image that pop into one's head.

As for real world inspiration I would look at medieval Russia as an example of what people do where settlements are isolated amid a vast frontier with a implacable enemy (Mongols) not far away.

Medieval Russian Village

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Steven Mitchell

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #7 on: November 04, 2019, 10:55:28 AM »
I think the issue is just an artifact of "small starter town in reasonable proximity to dungeon that is now a threat" thing, which gets lifted as the default village pattern everywhere.  When the creatures are in the dungeon but not raiding, and that is the threat, then maybe the village/town hasn't adapted to the threat yet.  

It becomes much more obvious in a sandbox, when you have multiple possible threats, many of them nomadic, and some of them capable of doing serious damage to the civilized area.  Anyone doing that from scratch and employing any thought at all will make the village more defensible.  

Of course, this is also one of the limitations of the frequent advice to a new GM to "start small"--that's a home base and a dungeon.  If it turns out you wanted some moving, wilderness threats nearby too, then you really needed to think about that when you started.

Haffrung

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #8 on: November 04, 2019, 03:46:53 PM »
The issue of distance has always bugged me. I just can't get my head around a village of 500 or so people with rich residents, shops, etc. that's 50 miles, or a three-day walk, from the next nearest settlement. D&D-ish fantasy worlds are almost always ridiculously low-density. I suppose there are practical reasons (it would get onerous to depict a dozen or so villages in a 30 mile hex). And as others have suggested, D&D has more than a few American frontier tropes baked into its DNA.

As for why no fortifications, it may be something as simple as the first popular D&D settlement - Hommlet - was regarded as the template for everything that came after.
 

ffilz

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #9 on: November 04, 2019, 04:01:03 PM »
I'd say the no walls or other defenses is as much to do with looking into historical medieval town maps that show lots of undefended villages. Of course those don't tell you what villages would be like on the frontier with monsters ravaging the region.

It's definitely a good point that such frontier settlements should be at least defensible against small raids.

For the West Marches inspired campaign I'm working on, I'm planning on having the town (safe) located in a defensible location and it will certainly have walls and other defenses. The idea of a West Marches wilderness itself might not be very realistic, but that part is certainly set up for a certain play experience and I can accept a certain lack of realism for the sake of game play, but there's nothing wrong with setting up the town to be defensible.

EOTB

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #10 on: November 04, 2019, 04:07:48 PM »
Keep in mind, maps won't show most settlements.  Anything on a map should have a network of satellites.  My rule of thumb is any entry on the Greyhawk town chart also has several of the smaller rungs clustered around it, with the periphery of one map-point's cluster not too far away from the periphery of another map-point's cluster.  So you have a town, with a few villages who themselves are surrounded by hamlets and thorps.  Going from the farthest thorp in a different direction will encounter other thorps that increase to hamlets and villages, etc., until the next cluster-center is reached, which might be another town but could also just be a village, etc.

Any cluster center should be defensible, because that's where the outlying smaller settlements will flee to.  If a settlement isn't protected then it's probably just a minor satellite with a defense plan of "flee".
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Omega

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #11 on: November 04, 2019, 04:12:56 PM »
Keep on the boarderlands is a fortified frontier town. Pretty much every single settlement in Chult is walled. It really depends on the module. Some are not set near hotspots. Others may have been settled in areas no one was aware was a hotspot or about to become one.

Other times the writer or designer just did not think of it. It is an easy thing to overlook. But using the wild west and Africa as two hostile frontiers. People did indeed build farms and towns undefended. From what I've been told by friends in Africa. Some of that was because when the places were set up the locals were friendly. Or the settlers really had no idea of how hostile the land itself can be.

And this is true even to modern times.

he other factor is... logistics. There may not be enough manpower or materials to erect a viable fortification. Or people with the tools, knowhow and especially time to work on it. Remember that farming and other subsistience lifestyles take up alot of time and energy. But places that could often did try to erect some sort of defense.

Also not every culture builds walled in settlements even when living in hostile environs. Why? I have no clue.

Maybee the home itself becomes the 'fort' as it were? Or the basement. Considering how stocked and defended some were. Why did my great grandparents place out in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee have a reinforced crossbar on the inside of the basement outer access door? (and I think the kitchen access hatch had one on the inside too?) What was out there that they believed that this sort of fortification was needed?

Shasarak

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #12 on: November 04, 2019, 04:34:57 PM »
Fantasy frontier towns are tactically indefensible because they only ever get attacked if the DM wants them too.
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HappyDaze

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #13 on: November 04, 2019, 04:40:15 PM »
Quote from: Shasarak;1112977
Fantasy frontier towns are tactically indefensible because they only ever get attacked if the DM wants them too.

Thus straining my suspension of disbelief.

Dimitrios

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Why are so many fantasy 'frontier towns' tactically indefensible?
« Reply #14 on: November 04, 2019, 04:42:40 PM »
Quote from: Haffrung;1112970
The issue of distance has always bugged me. I just can't get my head around a village of 500 or so people with rich residents, shops, etc. that's 50 miles, or a three-day walk, from the next nearest settlement. D&D-ish fantasy worlds are almost always ridiculously low-density. I suppose there are practical reasons (it would get onerous to depict a dozen or so villages in a 30 mile hex). And as others have suggested, D&D has more than a few American frontier tropes baked into its DNA.

As for why no fortifications, it may be something as simple as the first popular D&D settlement - Hommlet - was regarded as the template for everything that came after.


I think part of the "low density" trend can be attributed to the influence of Tolkien and LotR on D&D (I know that Gygax wasn't a huge Tolkien fan, I'm talking about everyone else). Especially in the early days of gaming, most people's main example and go-to reference for fantasy world building was Middle Earth. And Middle Earth during the late 3rd Age period of the LotR trilogy is portrayed as a howling wilderness.