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And the faith that moveth mountains didn't seem to help my labours
As I faced the sheer main-ranges, whipping up and leading down.

March by march I puzzled through 'em, turning flanks and dodging shoulders,
Hurried on in hope of water, headed back for lack of grass;
Till I camped above the tree-line - drifted snow and naked boulders -
Felt free air astir to windward - knew I'd stumbled on the Pass.

'Thought to name it for the finder: but that night the Norther found me -
Froze and killed the plains-bred ponies; so I called the camp Despair
(It's the Railway Gap to-day, though). Then my Whisper waked to hound me:
"Something lost behind the Ranges. Over yonder! Go you there!"

(from) The Explorer Rudyard Kipling

Basic Information

A pass is a (relatively) low point in a range of mountains at which it is (relatively) easy to cross from one side (or at least one valley) to another. Until the invention of large scale tunnelling a pass is likely to be the only way to get significant numbers of people or quantities of livestock and goods from one side to the other.

Depending on the volume of traffic across it a pass may be a barren wilderness or the site of a significant inn or settlement. Since mountain ranges are often national boundaries as well, the top of a pass may also host a border post - or even a fortress - to control the border. Even when they are not on a border, passes tend to be extremely significant in commercial and strategic terms and no sensible government will neglect them.

Finding new passes is a major part of exploration and expansion in the pre-modern era.

In some circumstances, a pass may be improvised by the construction of cliff-side roads, viaducts and even walkways (such as The Great Walkway of China), which are generally a lot more tenuous than a naturally occurring pass, but, in the absence of one, far easier to create than a tunnel.

Speaking of which it is possible - although not historical - for a system of caves and/or tunnels to serve as a pass. In settings where large scale tunnelling is more of a thing, this becomes more likely.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Given their significance passes are often key sites for adventure - places to meet, or to race to ahead of the opposition, to clear of enemies or even simply to be located.
  • Technically, the narrows at Thermopylae would probably count as a pass as well - although that is between "the mountains" and "the sea" (as Byron would have it) rather than through a mountain range.
  • Tolkien fans will remember that Moria was made to serve as a pass … but only after the Fellowship had failed to force their way through the more normal surface pass. The Gap of Rohan, the Gap of Minas Tirith, Shelob's path and the Black Gate are further examples of significant passes in Tolkien.
  • Marginal passes - those bound by winter, those that are barely passable even in summer and those consisting of awkward mixes of walkway and tunnel are likely to be even more fun.
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