From Swinburne’s “Prelude” to Songs Before Sunrise, his book of poems on the revolution in Italy:

By rose-hung river and light-foot rill
There are who rest not; who think long
Till they discern as from a hill
At the sun’s hour of morning song,
Known of souls only, and those souls free,
The sacred spaces of the sea.

The climactic battle of a fantasy novel (if it must be a battle; I don’t see why, but more on that in a while) is probably the most important one in a story, one the author spends a lot of time on. Unfortunately, that seems to mean less attention goes into skirmishes, sneak attacks, guerrilla warfare, and so on than should.

1) Do not make your sentries mindless.

Most fantasy sentries, seemingly, would not see anyone marching past them banging pots and drums and setting off a strand of firecrackers, at least not as long as they work for the evil side. Surely someone would notice after the first sneak attack that these sentries were worthless, and start using other protection.

Sentry patterns should be used because they’re effective. Sentries who pace the same rounds every single time, and allow the heroes to easily time them and slip past, are not effective. Nor are sentries who fall asleep on watch, or just accept food and drink that could be drugged or poisoned from anyone who comes along, or sentries who don’t get worried and assume the best when a fellow watcher fails to answer their call. And yet, most of these are common in fantasy. Stretching a wall of swiss cheese around the camps would catch more heroes.

Take some more thought for this. If the army isn’t marching, there’s no reason that the sentries assigned to night duty wouldn’t sleep during the day and then take up their watch refreshed and relaxed. Even if it is moving, the sentries could sleep in the carts, or might have been trained to sleep in the saddle. And surely part of the basic instructions on the first day would be “Don’t accept any ale from the winsomely smiling woman who comes up to you from the front.” Even better would be staggered sentries, silent sentries to accompany the ones who shouted and made themselves visible, and magical wards- which only the good guys seem to know how to use- that can’t be tricked by heroes who’ve figured out the call-response pattern. Only very skilled spies and scouts should be able to slip inside an enemy’s lines.

2) Guerrilla warfare doesn’t work in all kinds of terrain.

Really. It doesn’t. Try doing it among pasturelands without high grass to hide you. Especially if the heroes are on foot and don’t have the cooperation of the people in the country around them, they’re not going to be any match for enemy soldiers riding along on horses and able to see a greater distance. Guerrilla resistance in farmlands or light forest borders on the ridiculous.

Some territories that will work:

  • thick jungle or forest, as long as the heroes know their way through and don’t try to ride horses along paths that aren’t clear.
  • plains of high grass. Difficult to see at a distance, even on horseback, easy to get lost in, easy to shelter in from enemies flying above.
  • deserts, as long as they’re the dune kind and the heroes have camels or some other way of moving fleetly. These present a lot of the same advantages as plains, with the possible loss of escape from enemies flying above, and the possibly greater advantage of being able to seemingly drop into the ground and vanish.
  • mountains, as long as they know the paths and passes and attack mostly in narrow areas where their enemies can’t maneuver.

Guerrillas need territory they know well, a means of concealing hideouts that isn’t easy to penetrate, a way of moving fast, high loyalty to one another and their cause, and, in most cases, the cooperation of the people around them. Only fantasy villains as stupid as most authors portray them wouldn’t be able to catch geurilla warriors who were slow, left obvious trails, and were vulnerable to betrayal from villagers in the area.

3) Sneak attacks should have a purpose.

This may seem really obvious, but like a lot of things that seem really obvious, they often escape the attention of the amateur fantasy author (and some published professionals). The heroes charge in, hit at the enemy, and get the hell out. I don’t see how setting a few tents afire and killing a few enemy soldiers really affects an army that has thousands of soldiers on the move, and thousands of camps; it’s like a gadfly stinging a rhino. But perhaps it helps the heroes’ sense of justice.

The more sneak attacks the heroes make, the more vulnerable they are to getting caught- by the sheer power of chance, by a smart enemy figuring out the pattern, by a camp receiving reinforcements during the attack or being more ready for them than they thought. They should only risk such a dangerous tactic when the prize is great enough to outweigh the risk. For example, if the villain leaves his unstoppable superweapon in one camp, and the heroes learn of it, a sneak attack to try and capture it is not unreasonable. Nor is a sneak attack to free prisoners the enemy is trying to use as hostages, or to stop an execution, or to try and learn of the enemy’s plans, if there’s a good chance of that. Going in just to look good and to reveal yourself is stupid and deserves to be punished. Why in the world would the heroes sacrifice the advantage of surprise just to spit in the enemy’s face? Remember that Aragorn didn’t walk around in LOTR waving his sword and proclaiming, “Here I am, Sauron! The Heir of Isildur!” He waited and revealed his identity in the palantír when it would do some good- that is, panicking Sauron and making him attack Minas Tirith before he had gathered his full strength.

Heroes who reveal their presence too soon for the sake of seeing an enemy’s face are suicidal, and should get the death they seem to want so badly.

4) On occasion, have enemy traps succeed.

The heroes who do go charging into an ambush, or into a situation where the villain intends to kill them, always seem to realize just in time that “It’s a trap!” What about them not realizing it in time? They shouldn’t always be able to add up the clues that quickly. If they were really that smart, they probably wouldn’t have walked into the trap in the first place. If they were blinded by emotion or notions of foolish honor, then why do those always give way just in time for the dramatic declaration?

Villains deserve to be clever, and deserve to succeed, far more often than they do. (Yes, I am always going to be on about that). Those who don’t will sooner or later come to seem like cardboard characters. The same thing applies to villains who seem to threaten the heroes but never finish their dastardly deeds. Say the Dark Lord captures the hero’s sister and plots to kill her, but the hero gets her back before that can happen, even before a lesser consequence can happen (like maiming or rape). How threatening is that? Not very.

If the heroes are clever enough to pull off ambushes and sneak attacks and the like, the villains should be, too. And, really, since they’re the ones who usually get assigned as sniveling cowards, you’d think they would be better at ambushes and sneak attacks than the heroes. Isn’t it cowards who want to attack from the back, and heroes who want to attack from the front?

5) Keep in mind what kinds of weapons and training the heroes have access to.

“Border skirmishes” often seem to happen in places where only peasants live, making me wonder who’s really fighting. Are the peasants chasing each other around with pitchforks and hoes?

If you have a typical medieval fantasy world, then peasants are not going to have weapons or training in them, with the possible exception of longbows and slingshots. A peasant trying to stab a knight with a pitchfork won’t get very far. It might even be illegal for anyone below a certain class to own a sword, as was the case in several medieval societies. Therefore, peasant heroes will need training before they can fight, as well peasant armies. Where are they going to get it?

If you want border skirmishes but don’t want to move the peasants out, then have the border lords using private armies, their guards, or mercenaries. The hero doesn’t absolutely have to be a peasant living in the middle of it. Guy Gavriel Kay has an excellent situation in A Song For Arbonne where two noblemen hate each other and keep hiring mercenaries to fight the conflict for them. The main character is a mercenary who stumbles into the feud not knowing the history.

6) Keep a realistic eye on what your heroes and villains, both of them, do to the land in these “little skirmishes.”

It’s not unusual for the description of the final battlefield to be a smoking ruin in fantasy. What’s not noted is the amount of damage that will happen just from an army marching, much less an army that fires villages and practices loot and rape as it goes. The country will be stripped of food in one way or another; it goes down the mouths of soldiers, or the heroes burn it before running away. This last is a common tactic, and maybe a good one- but only if the heroes have another source of food. Too often, where they’re getting their food from while they hide out in the hills and plot their counterattack goes without a mention. How do they have cheese and milk and butter, if they don’t have cattle or goats with them? How do they run, if they’re herding cattle and goats? How can hunting support all of them? How long will berries and wild fruit really sustain several hundred or even several dozen people who need energy to go on fighting? A fantasy kingdom might win a war only to succumb to famine as the winter comes on.

Then, of course, there’s the psychological toll the conquest takes. It ranges from individuals who have suffered rape, the loss of homes and loved ones, and probably all their wealth in the world to whole villages who are displaced and have become inhabitants of refugee camps. A relatively minor war can do all of this, and the enemies, at least, have no reason to make it “nice” for the people they’re conquering. If they intend to rule over the country, then they wouldn’t use such tactics. (However, most of the time a usurping king or someone else with a compelling reason to leave the peasants alive uses these tactics anyway). Don’t forget these consequences. The sense of hope on the eve of many a last fantasy battle leaves me sorely puzzled. Look at what they have to go back to and rebuild, even if they win.

I think it’s actually interesting to read about heroes plotting sneak attacks and ambushes and so on, but only if they’re not going to be so damn stupid about it.