Battle Tactics: Lay of the Land — How Wondrous Geography could change warfare in Fantasy fiction

“Ground which can be abandoned but is hard to re-occupy is called entangling. From a position of this sort, if the enemy is unprepared, you may sally forth and defeat him. But if the enemy is prepared for your coming, and you fail to defeat him, then, return being impossible, disaster will ensue.” Sun Tzu, The Art of war

Memorable locations are a staple of Fantasy fiction. Describing the geography of the impossible is one of the noblest uses of prose in our little corner of literature. However these awesome mindscapes often fall flat when the writer gets to the action and fails to consider how this fantastic and unusual terrain might change the battle.

In an attempt to keep it short, I’m going to take five fairly common Fantastic landscapes and note how they would hinder and change typical battle tactics.

The Elven Treehouse City: Huge platforms built or grown high in the trees of an ancient forest or jungle. Some versions of Lothlorien have this, but the most familiar incarnation would be the Ewok City from Return of the Jedi. The Treehouse city provided basic shelter from ground attack simply because of its height and easily controlled access points.


  • Think of the Treehouse City as a castle of sorts. The Trees serve the same function as a wall in many ways. The height keeps ground attackers out and provides an excellent vantage for firing down on attackers.
  • Chopping down the trees would be effective, but would by slow and expose any attacker to missile fire or dropped objects. Some trees in fantasy environments might be tougher than stone or have other defences.
  • Fire is a good bet. Most cities have water sources however and would already have a fire plan of some sort. It is a good opening gambit though. Even if lighting the trees on fire is impossible building fire underneath the Treehouse City will force the defenders to inhale copious amounts of smoke.
  • You don’t always have to attack from the ground. A smart foe might raise their own platforms and build over towards the city, or even attack from the canopy.
  • Fighting in a Treehouse City that gets invaded is likely to be a chaotic affair. It would be hard for most enemies to maintain formation on bridges, winding stairs, platforms, and elevators. Defenders would likely have drilled to fight in their home territory and would make excellent use of the terrain.
  • Falling is always a danger.
  • Giant Spiders and other quick-climbing creatures could really be the bane of this type of defence since they might have easier access to the city than those who live there.

Sky Islands: Sky Islands are a favorite of mine. They are generally depicted as floating chunks of rock that either drift on the winds or hover in place.

How would these guys go to war?

  • Most Fantasy novels tend to have people building on the Sky Island, but if the whole thing is made out of rock you could also carve structures into it.
  • A Sky Island is ridiculously defensible, but likely too small to have much food. Investing to starve the inhabitants out would be a good option if it stays in one place.
  • Assaulting a Sky Island requires flight. I suspect that most defences built on such a place would center around repelling attacks from the sky. A castle on a sky island would look cool, but huge, thick walls would serve little purpose unless someone can get a siege weapon up there.
  • I like the idea of little kingdoms on drifting sky islands that engage in warfare as their isles drift close. It would likely be an affair similar to a boarding action between two ships.
  • A Sky Island that drifts at the owner’s will would be an ideal siege platform in a Fantasy world. Hovering over an enemy city and dumping your refuse and rubble on them would be very effective. Cities in such a world would adopt strong aerial defences such a reinforced roofs and air defence platforms.
  • Dragons and other flying creatures would be ideal combatants for this terrain. A whole aristocracy of sky-riders could be the result.

Lava Flow Wasteland: Before modern Fantasy, evil Overlords lairing in inhospitable places like a volcanic wasteland was all the rage. Laying siege or fighting a battle in such an area would be interesting.

  • Lava flows are much more dangerous than most enemy combatants, and soldiers would be very wary of these if forces to fighting in such conditions.
  • Poisonous fumes are a concern.
  • Directing lava flow becomes a tactic for whoever holds the high ground.
  • Fighting on rock and obsidean is also unforgiving.
  • Causing an eruption might be a viable attacker’s tactic, but surrounding the place and starving the enemy out looks like a better option than fighting in most cases.
  • A powerful elementalist might be able to wield the terrain itself as a weapon in these areas, or settle it long enough to stage an assault.

Dungeons/Dwarf Holds: Underground cities are fairly common in Fantasy Fiction. Waging a battle in these could be very interesting.

  • As written in Lord of the Rings a small party can hold off a much bigger group of enemies using choke points like tunnels.
  • Light becomes a major issue for invaders, unless they can see in the dark.
  • Enemies from below invade by tunneling into your home territory, the patrols of the defenders would be alert for signs of mining.
  • Water flows downhill. Diverting a river into the dungeon is a great way to clean it out, at least partially.
  • There are all kinds of unique hazards underground. Pockets of Gas, unstable caves, and hidden drops just to name a few. In a fantasy world dangerous creatures would abound.
  • Formation fighting could be very effective in tunnels. I always picture Dwarves with reach weapons, braced against invaders in a phalanx.
  • Traps and collapsible architecture  make for interesting possibilities for the defender, but also the the attacker.
  • Sealing off air-holes could be an excellent method of besieging such a place.

The Mega-Structure: Imagine a structure large enough to be  a city unto itself, or even house more than one town or tribe. A huge tower or a massive Gothic castle like Gormenghast qualify as a mega-structure.

  • Rooms could become battlefields if they are large enough. The terrain of the battle would therefore depend on what the room was mean to be used for. Imagine a pitched battle in a colossal library or a massive kitchen.
  • External walls are less important against internal threats, controlling key passages would be key from the start.
  • The battlefield is functionally three dimensional, even for the landbound. Enterprising enemies would be able to attack from above or below.
  • Logistics in such a place would be bizarre, ranging towards storage areas and home territories.
  • Scouting and signaling become difficult.
  • Modern city fighting techniques might apply here, busting through weaker walls/roofs/floors
  • Damaging the structure you live in is less desirable. Less use of fire and scorched earth tactics.
  • Formations would be based on corridors and covering side passages.

These are just a few, very simple examples of how unusual terrain can change warfare. The best way to approach how these or any terrain elements might change a battle is to sit down and think about it, preferably with a few imaginative friends and some tasty beverages. Cheers!


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