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I've done a little research but all I could find at first glance were pre-release theoretical posts.

So do your settlements actually get attacked eventually, or is the Defence indicator only used to increase happiness? I would position my defences in very different manners if they're going to serve in actual combat!

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Yes - I've had multiple instances where my turrets have opened fire on Deathclaws and other wasteland wildlife, the moment one of your defences start attacking (whether that be a settler shooting something or a turret opening fire). The attacks will kill settlers and destroy (reduce durability to zero) defensive structures and crops. You'll get the opportunity to fix any damaged structures or crops but if settlers die, that's final.

This means you'll want to ensure the approaches your settlements are well guarded and that you should position your defences for optimal coverage. However, I have noticed that in some instances when you don't turn up to a help a settlement that is under attack an unexplainable amount of damage will occur to your defences anyway... they do seem to help anyway and it might just be a coverage thing, and they're certainly helpful if you do respond to the settlement's call for help.

One of the earlier tooltips in the game indicate that your chance to get attacked is based on a your resource generation in comparison to your defence rating, and that you should keep your defence rating equal or better than your combined resource generation.

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    does this mean is worthwhile to equip settlers with better gear/armor? Weapons is no problem but getting ammo for them might be a pita.... – l I Nov 11 '15 at 13:54
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    I think it would be wise to file this as a separate question if you're seeking an answer as it's not directly related to the question at hand. – Chase Nov 11 '15 at 14:30
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    I've had my turrets open fire on apparently random wildlife that happened to wander near the settlement. I'm not sure that's an attack. Have you ever had anything happen that you could confidently characterize as an attack on the settlement due to the presence of resources? – DCShannon Nov 13 '15 at 3:51
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    I'm not sure if you'd call a group of mutants or raiders turning up and destroying your turrets/generators/crops along with killing half of your settlement "random wildlife" – kalina Nov 13 '15 at 4:08
  • @kalina I have now had that happen, and am considering entering another answer. Or do you want to add raiders and mutants destroying crops to your answer? – DCShannon Nov 14 '15 at 3:05
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I was wondering this, as I've gone for the build fort knox method. Placed defense posts around and turrets and spot lights and sirens etc. First time after 4 days of playing I'm breaking down components and the siren went off. Had about 15 ghouls trying to attack one side of the settlement. Luckily I had 9 ppl plus me and the turrets. It didn't take long to deal with, but yes it does happen

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I can add only information I collected from other sources:

  • low defences + lot of food increase chances of attacking
  • If you have settlements you are not caring (for example you made the quest, have got access to workshop but didn't deal with it and specially defences) finally it will be attacked
  • With DLC Automatron you can meet a lot of times hordes of robots near the settlements you can deal with. For example for location of Starlight Drive In they are nearly every second travel there. But they are not attacking the settlement so I'm initiating the battle first
  • Some fans have the detailed theory of synth settlers and presence of synths is the reason to be this settlement attacked after. And the reason to detect synth is only one - kill everybody, to find synth component and to reload the previous game to mark the synth. Too cheating for me so I do not care.
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