In my last post – the dancing elephants definition, I mentioned about how medieval European military architecture is unsuitable for use against war elephants and how its verbatim use in fantasy settings opens the door to breaking immersion. The conclusion that a reader might draw from it is that if immersion is a high priority, then I would claim that there should be no castles, or no elephants (or fantastic beasts, magic. etc). That is certainly an option and if a designer is working on a sci-fi, modern, etc. setting, then such reworking of the lore to fit gameplay is easily done. If you are creating an edgy and “different” world, then your task is easier.
But what about fantasy? The dirty little secret of fantasy setting for virtual worlds is that they are perennially the most popular, for reasons that are endlessly debated. What is undeniable is that the tropes are popular. Two of those tropes are castles and large, fantastic beasts. Is it possible to elephant proof a castle – much less dragon proof it; without ruining the feel and turning it into something that players won’t accept?
There is a country where castle builders did have experience dealing with war elephants. This country is India. In the centuries of warfare between the Hindu Rajput kings and the invading Muslim Mughuls, elephants were regularly used as war machines in India. Castles built on the northern part of the subcontinent had to accommodate the use of pachyderms by attacking forces. They did this with a few neat tricks that can be seen by visitors to places such as Jaiselmer Fort and the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur; which is pictured in the header picture of this blog. Both may be slightly different from European castles, but are unmistakably castles in their feel.
The first trick was to have a series of gates and a mazelike entrance to the castle. Each gate came after a 90° (or greater) turn. This prevented any charging elephants from picking up speed – so no charging attacks for them. You can see in the picture below – taken from inside one of the gates at Jaiselmer Fort, looking outward – that there is indeed a 90 degree right turn just in front of the gate. There is a hairpin turn at the next gate, just behind the camera.
You’ll also notice that there is no row of murder holes just behind the door. Instead, there is a raised platform that can accommodate a phalanx of defenders on either side. This forces the breaching elephant to run a gauntlet of spears. If the elephant can be killed in the doorway, it effectively re-seals the passage that was just breached. Murder holes would limit the number of spears that could be brought to bear.
Lastly, circumstantial evidence suggests that elephants don’t much enjoy ramming their heads into spikes. This array of spikes at elephant head level is on one of the gates at Mehrangarh.
Sometimes, keeping your elephants from dancing just takes a hairpin turn and a few spikes.