Deception in Siegecraft


Throughout A Dance with Dragons, we see a sort of rudimentary arithmetic at play: the idea that a military’s ‘effectiveness’ could be roughly estimated as a function of his size.

In this brief essay I am going to establish the basic principles of this calculus, and how it affects the northern campaign. In particular:

A rough estimate of military ‘might’ can be inferred from army size.

Numerous factors can affect this ‘might’, experience, training, favorable conditions.

While this model has many flaws, it has applicability in some situations.

The single largest applicability appears to be in castle sieges.

To better execute this strategy, Stannis purposefully exaggerates and obfuscates the size of his forces. He specifically allows—indeed he hopes—for this information to reach Roose Bolton.

Thus, it is the nature of this arithmetic—particularly the ‘siege factor’— coupled with careful misrepresentation that drove the first phase of Stannis’s campaign, coaxing Roose Bolton to Winterfell.


  1. Flawed Arithmetic. A basic model for comparing different armies.
  2. Manpower in Winterfell. Calculating the strength of an army in Winterfell. Looking at the different scenarios between Roose Bolton and Stannis.
  3. Illusionary Forces. The deception Stannis most likely used to force Bolton’s hand.
  4. Conclusion.

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painted-table-concept-artTo begin, I’d like to introduce a piece of abstract terminology, the idea of manpower as a discrete form of measurement. In this essay, manpower has the following definition:

Manpower: the effective “fighting capacity” of an army, after adjusting for various factors.

The overall measure of an army’s manpower can be roughly estimated by beginning with its numerical size—the number of men—and moving this number up or down to account for different beneficial and detrimental conditions.

NOTE: This is admittedly an extremely basic and seemingly flawed model. Please bear me out, as it will evolve into something useful.

Abstract Factors

Examples include:

  • Skilled generalship, battlefield command.
  • Veterans, battle experience.
  • Well-trained, discipline.
  • Favorable conditions.
  • Surprise

There is no mathematical proposal in the text for how each of these affects an army’s capacity to win battles, but we do know these factors are important. In fact, all four of these examples play crucial roles in the Night Lamp strategy that forms the basis of the Mannifesto.

Examples of these factors:

They had numbers, but the Night’s Watch had discipline, and in battle discipline beats numbers nine times of every ten, his father had once told him.

Shouts and screams rang through the cold autumn air. Ser Rodrik seemed to have the numbers, but the Dreadfort men were better led, and had taken the others unawares.

“Stone walls cannot be fired. How are we to take them? We do not have the numbers to storm even a small castle.”

“The Lannisters will come again. Lord Tywin has twice my brother’s numbers.”

“He could have ten times and it would not matter,” Ser Desmond said. “The west bank of the Red Fork is higher than the east, my lady, and well wooded. Our bowmen have good cover, and a clear field for their shafts . . . and should any breach occur, Edmure will have his best knights in reserve, ready to ride wherever they are most sorely needed. The river will hold them.”

The object lesson here is this:

There are many factors that influence manpower.

However, the relationship between most factors and manpower are extremely difficult to quantify.

Sure, all of these factors are important and worth pursuing. However, they don’t lend the same sort of confidence as factors which can be modeled—even if only in the roughest sense.

*   *   *

A Flawed Model?

The idea of manpower is incredibly reductive. It discounts so much of military action that defies mathematical modeling:

  • How would you reflect knights, heavy horse or light horse? Each of these force types can dramatically change the execution of a battle, often neutralizing entire components of an enemy army’s manpower. The Field of Fire is perhaps the best example of this, the Targaryen dragons all but annihilating enemy armies.
  • What if you happen to be the unlucky example? As you can see from Jon’s quote above, nine out of ten is still not a sure thing.

Clearly, we see that there are at least two major caveats regarding the manpower model:

  • Asymmetric forces. Whenever one force in a battle has solitary access to special units, such as knights; it dramatically distorts the manpower calculation, perhaps to the point of irrelevance. The best way to counter such asymmetry is to either acquire similar forces or implement some other tactic that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of the special units.
  • Uncertainty. Most of these abstract factors don’t guarantee success, and if they fail the resulting manpower is that much diminished—hence it is always a gamble.This certainly seems to suggest that a skilled general must not overly rely on a single factor in battle, and that their base manpower—army size—must be marginally competitive. Additionally, there is sufficient incentive for a general to look for factors that provide a much more ‘guaranteed’ benefit.

The point here?

The ‘manpower’ model falls flat (or is insufficient) in a variety of situations.

However, it does justify some general observations about the risks and discrepancies between armies.

It especially suggests that a general should favor factors that eliminate the strengths of the opponent, and those that provide the most dramatic, reliable improvements in ‘manpower’.

There is one well-documented factor that performs both functions admirably: castles.

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madnessmarch - CopyEarly in A Dance with Dragons, we are told of the numerical benefit to the occupants of a castle when defending against a siege:

“Fifty men inside a castle are worth five hundred outside.”

We see a ten-fold increase in effective manpower simply by virtue of being in a castle. This multiplicative improvement is reiterated elsewhere in the book:

Strickland studied the faded tapestries on the walls, the arched windows with their myriad diamond-shaped panes of red and white glass, the racks of spears and swords and warhammers. “Let them come. This place can stand against twenty times our number, so long as we are well provisioned. And you say there is a way in and out by sea?”

Ten or twenty, we see a clear and huge benefit to the occupants of a castle. Albeit this is an extension of that same flawed model from above, it generally works in this case:

  • Asymmetry is neutralized, because horse and other forces are generally irrelevant.
  • Castles provide a guaranteed improvement to defensibility.

In essence, until siege engines can be produced, the mathematical advantage of the defender will remain intact.

*   *   *

The Importance

Why does this matter?

The reason occupying a castle matters from a mathematical perspective is that it can render an army effectively invincible.

Let’s look at two examples, both assuming a simple ten-fold increase in manpower for the castle occupant:

Example One: Stannis attacks a weakly held Dreadfort

  • Stannis has 2,200 men = 2,200 manpower. Factors: experienced, disciplined, led by brilliant general.
  • Dreadfort garrison has 50 men = 500 manpower because of castle. Other factors: old or young, half of which are servants. Too weak to be a part of the normal garrison.

Result: The result is clearly favorable for the attacker; despite the benefit of the castle walls, the disparity in numbers is so huge that the defender would almost certainly lose.

This is what Stannis originally envisioned when he plotted to attack the Dreadfort. It would have been a clear victory even if he had numerous other problems. This explains why there was such a huge backlash when Jon said it was a bad idea.

Example Two: Roose and Ramsay surprise Stannis and trap him at the Dreadfort

  • Roose has 7,000 men = 7,000 manpower. Factors: experienced, disciplined, led by calculating general.
  • Stannis has 2,200 men = 2,200 manpower. Factors: experienced, disciplined, led by brilliant general. Unaware of a 400 man group of traitors in his midst. Poor terrain, trapped against a castle wall.

Result: This is what Jon warned would happen in reality had Stannis moved on the Dreadfort. You can see it is a huge win for Roose Bolton, based on the numbers alone. While Stannis has a lot of abstract factors in his favor, Roose’s army has most of those same factors, thus arguably neutralizing the advantage.

What would have put the nail in the coffin had this happened is the massive betrayal from the Karstarks.

Example Three: Stannis beats Roose Bolton to Winterfell

  • Stannis has 5,000 men = 50,000 manpower because of Winterfell. Factors: experienced, disciplined, led by brilliant general.
  • Roose has 7,000 men = 7,000 manpower. Factors: experienced, disciplined, led by calculating general.

Result: What is quite obvious here is that if Stannis has 5,000 men at Winterfell he is all-but-literally indestructable. Bolton would have no way to defeat Stannis, no way to remove the occupant of the most powerful—strategically and symbolically—castle in the north.

Example Four: Roose Bolton beats Stannis to Winterfell.

  • Stannis has 5,000 men = 5,000 manpower. Factors: experienced, disciplined, led by brilliant general.
  • Roose has 7,000 men = 70,000 manpower because of Winterfell. Factors: experienced, disciplined, led by calculating general.

Result: This is entirely the opposite of the previous example: now Roose Bolton is impervious to defeat.

However, this scenario is less damaging to Stannis since he is already the interloper, doesn’t stand to “lose” Winterfell the way the Boltons do.

It is these last two examples that have the most profound impact on the execution of Stannis’s grand strategy.

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stannis_baratheon_by_erenarik-d63tleuAs I put forth in A Page from History, Stannis wants to coax Roose Bolton to Winterfell, particularly with all of Bolton’s might. Sure, we know from REEK III – ADWD that Bolton wanted to reach Winterfell as a way to force Stannis’s hand, but Stannis most likely had his own designs.

How does Stannis help ensure that Bolton concentrates his forces at Winterfell?

There are two principal reasons:

  • The Math. As I showed you in examples three and four above, whoever holds Winterfell controls the battle. Per Roose’s own words, he would be foolish to engage Stannis in the field, he prefers to maximize his position by taking the castle and the inherent benefits it provides.
  • A Calculated Lie. In order to maximize the likelihood that Roose would concentrate all of his might at Winterfell, Stannis allowed for a calculated lie/exaggeration. Specifically, Stannis lies about how many men he really has. Thus this distorts the math in the first point, especially from the perspective of anyone who believes the lie.

I’ve already covered the first point in the prior sections of this essay. The second point is what merits more attention.

*   *   *

A Lie in Conquest of Dorne

I’ve already well-established the significance of Conquest of Dorne to Stannis’s campaign. However, I have yet to disclose a specific element of the book that poses a very specific benefit.

Observe Doran Martell’s commentary about the book:

“If? The word is when. Dorne is the least populous of the Seven Kingdoms. It pleased the Young Dragon to make all our armies larger when he wrote that book of his, so as to make his conquest that much more glorious, and it has pleased us to water the seed he planted and let our foes think us more powerful than we are, but a princess ought to know the truth. Valor is a poor substitute for numbers. Dorne cannot hope to win a war against the Iron Throne, not alone. And yet that may well be what you have given us. Are you proud?” The prince did not allow her time to answer. “What am I to do with you, Arianne?”

Clearly, Daeron Targaryen misrepresented the number of forces involved in the battles. The big mystery is why. Why did Daeron feel the need to exaggerate the size of the armies?

  • Now its entirely possible that Daeron lied merely to make his tale more fanciful. It’s a bit tenuous though because nothing in The World of Ice and Fire suggests that Daeron was arrogant or boastful. Indeed, Stannis seems to be unique in his disregard for the Young Dragon’s feats.
  • An alternative hypothesis is that Daeron purposefully distorted the manpower in the passes as a means to focus the battle there, thus enabling Oakenfist’s successful campaign up the Greenblood.

What’s important to realize is the fact that Stannis is well aware of these lies:

It was said that Stannis knew the strength of every house in the Seven Kingdoms.

Taking a step back, perhaps its not that important to know the true motive for Daeron’s lies, only that Stannis is aware of them and how they could have affected enemy strategies.

Is it possible that Stannis used this as inspiration for the idea of distorting his troop numbers?

This is decidedly consistent with the comparisons I draw between Stannis and Napoleon Bonaparte in the essay Little King Syndrome (forthcoming). Napoleon was known for distorting his man power as a deceptive tactic, making frequent use of it throughout the French Revolutionary Wars.

*   *   *

Evidence of False Men

Even if Stannis wanted to deceive the Boltons regarding the number of men in his army, there is a problem:

How could Stannis actually ensure that this ‘disinformation’ reaches Roose Bolton?

If the theory in this essay is true, there is really only one viable method:

Stannis provided exaggerated troop numbers to Arnolf Karstark, who in turn provided them to Roose Bolton.

Recall that I’ve already declared that Stannis became aware of the planned Karstark betrayal. I also argued that Stannis allowed it to continue because it was an avenue by which he could ‘poison the well’ and sabotage Bolton’s intelligence gathering efforts.

With that in mind, look at the letter Stannis sent to Jon from Deepwood Motte:

Fisherfolk, freeriders, hillmen, crofters from the deep of the wolfswood and villagers who fled their homes along the stony shore to escape the ironmen, survivors from the battle outside the gates of Winterfell, men once sworn to the Hornwoods, the Cerwyns, and the Tallharts. We are five thousand strong as I write, our numbers swelling every day.

Let me just point a few things out:

Considering the risky nature of sending messages concerning troop size and movement, isn’t it a careless oversight to disclose these facts to Jon Snow?

Furthermore, isn’t it completely irrelevant to Jon? Why would he need to know Stannis’s the numerical strength of Stannis’s forces? Remember that this is a man famous for keeping secrets.

If Stannis has Hornwoods, Cerwyns and Tallharts, why do we never see them in A Dance with Dragons? More specifically, why then do we never see any non-clansmen northerners in Stannis’s army?

What I’m getting at is this:

Stannis’s letter is deceptive propaganda.

Arnolf Karstark most likely received a similar letter, whose contents he passed on to Bolton.

We see evidence of this when Roose tells Ramsay about Stannis:

“After the scratch the Young Wolf gave Lord Rickard, that may be somewhat less true than formerly. Be that as it may. Lord Stannis has taken Deepwood Motte from the ironmen and restored it to House Glover. Worse, the mountain clans have joined him, Wull and Norrey and Liddle and the rest. His strength is growing.”

Notice the striking similarity to Jon’s initial statements about Stannis’s letter:

Stannis had taken Deepwood Motte, and the mountain clans had joined him. Flint, Norrey, Wull, Liddle, all.

As well as a portion of that previous excerpt from Jon where the letter discusses the ongoing growth of Stannis’s army:

We are five thousand strong as I write, our numbers swelling every day.

These similarities are compelling. Thus I strongly believe that Arnolf received a letter much like the one Jon did, and therefore forwarded the relevant details to Roose Bolton.

Now keep in mind that by the time Stannis sends Jon the letter from Deepwood, he obviously knows that Bolton has moved to Winterfell. Here’s the rub:

Roose only decided to move to Winterfell after hearing about Stannis at Deepwood.

Roose learned of this information from Arnolf.

But Jon’s letter already says Stannis is marching to meet Roose!

Thus Arnolf’s letter must have been sent much earlier than Jon’s.

This leads to a tremendous insight!

Stannis first told Arnolf Karstark, then he waited until he found out what Roose was doing before making his plans and writing Jon.

If that’s not damning evidence that Stannis knew about the Karstark betrayal, then I don’t know what is!!

Think about it, had Karstark not told Bolton, the wedding would have happened in Barrowton. Indeed, Stannis already knew that the wedding was going to take place in Barrowton (Sybelle Glover and her maester both knew this from letter Ramsay sent).

Had Stannis truly intended to race for the Boltons and prevent them from “restoring Winterfell to its former strength”, he could have moved much earlier. Stannis would have likely marched for Winterfell to seize it first. We already know that the math would thereafter immensely favor Stannis, particularly if Mance’s rescue went well.

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*   *   *


Thus I believe that Stannis engaged in the following subterfuge:

Stannis purposefully distorted his numbers and troop composition, and first reported this to Arnolf.

Stannis knew that Arnolf would in turn tell Bolton.

Bolton, concerned from the ‘ever-growing’ strength of the Stannis army, elects to relocate to Winterfell.

Stannis waits to hear this news (perhaps from Karstark, perhaps from elsewhere). Upon learning of Bolton’s march, he only then sends the letter to Jon and begins his march.

So… why wait to tell Jon? Why tell Jon at all?

I strongly believe that Stannis is sending secretive messages to Melisandre. In fact, I believe that several messages we see in A Dance with Dragons are laced with steganographic messages. I discuss this several times in the Mannifesto, most notably in Volume II when revealing Mance’s secret mission, as well as the Pink Letter.

With that in mind, I believe the letter Stannis sent to Jon from Deepwood actually contained secret content intended for Melisandre.

What content?

I have yet to fully develop a trustworthy body of evidence to support an answer to that question, but as I noted elsewhere, Mance and Melisandre were both certainly interested in details concerning the wedding invitation and the Pink Letter, so it remains a valid, appealing area of further inquiry.

*   *   *

Moving away from Stannis in particular there is a notable revelation in the ideas presented in this essay: that Stannis may have been playing a numbers game, a subtle numbers game that was also evident in Daeron’s book – for those with the eyes to see it. Furthermore, it makes Daeron come off less as an ambitious boaster and perhaps much more clever.

<table of contents>

<the mannifesto>

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One thought on “Deception in Siegecraft

  1. Gretchen

    My only quibble is that Doran Martell’s statement is ambiguous: “It pleased the Young Dragon to make all our armies larger when he wrote that book of his”

    When I first read it, I assumed “all our armies” referred to all of the Dornish forces. However, I can see that it could refer to both the Dornish and Westerosi forces, but what is the point of exaggerating both armies numbers? I would expect that if he were doing what you say, he would have only exaggerated the numbers of his own forces, not the numbers of both his forces and his enemies.

    Otherwise, I love this. I’ve really enjoyed reading the Mannifesto and I think you make some very compelling arguments for Stannis’ strategies. I’ve never really liked him as a character either, but after this, I can super respect him as a strategist and tactician. He may even make a better ruler than Dany or Jon (or the Lannisters) because of his dispassion and flexible morality.


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