My lifelong love affair with castles started when I was about 11 years old. On a family trip, I visited the Kyburg castle in Switzerland. It’s an old, small castle (built around 1020 AD or so), with a long history of violence and changing hands from one family to another. Importantly, I seem to remember it had an actual dungeon with a faked-up iron maiden in it. Not a big dungeon, really, more of a cellar, but I was impressed. Scarier than your average Midwestern basement!
Actually, that contrast with home was a big part of the appeal. As an American kid who lived near Chicago, the place breathed history. If those stones could speak! I wanted to see it back when!
To this day, the Kyburg still has its old towers standing, a portcullis gate, a narrow zwinger (defensive kill zone), and carved stones coats of arms. I was smitten by architecture I’d only read about before. My parents bought me a postcard and a paper model of the castle in the gift shop. I still have them. (Even the little paper fountain for the courtyard.)
Ever since, I’ve thought that while dungeons are cool for creepy stuff, castles are just as cool, and more practical for high adventure in fantasy gaming. Let’s look at why.
Seats of Power & Tolls
Obviously, castles are difficult to build and require a garrison to be useful. Knights, barons, counts, and kings all used them as seats of authority, combining the functions of a family residence, barracks, courthouse, and treasury. So long as the castle stood, their power over the land remained, and it was obvious to anyone looking up the hill. As physical symbols of rulership, they’re hard to beat.
And of course, castles are great places to store things safely: family members, rebellious barons, religious relics—whatever you need to keep safe can fit safely behind the moat or the high stone walls. In gaming, I’ve often made it a point to fit something or someone valuable in every castle.
Beyond that, they are useful for toll collecting. The bishops who owned Schloss Neuhaus along the Danube, for instance, didn’t just use it for falconry and hunting parties. They also built a Kettenturm (“chain tower”) to seal the river with an iron chain. Why? To collect tolls from anyone sailing up or down the river, of course. Castles are a great way to control and levy tolls on any travelers or merchants; you could say they are the foundation for the robber baron business model.
And of course, castles are a great way to inject stories, plots, and adventure into a fantasy tabletop game.
PC Challenges: Story Hubs & Quest Giving
While castles can be part of sieges, I think they are more fun as safe territory where a ruler, courtier, royal wizard, or counsellor of the kingdom can pass along information and quests to player characters, and where intrigues flourish because all-out combat in a castle’s courtyard or great hall is likely to be met with the full weight of noble displeasure: call out the knights, battle mages, and archers.
This means that PCs can meet rivals and villains here and have conversations without immediately rolling initiative or pulling out wands and blades. Like other areas of neutral ground, they let a Game Master trot out cool NPCs without the fear they’ll be slaughtered before any story elements come into play.
Likewise, castles are great for stealth adventures. Sneaking into a crypt, library, or treasury, carrying love letters or coded instructions to a spy, there’s a dozen ways to make a castle infiltration part of a roguish or stealth-heavy game. Every time I visit one, I’m drawn to the iron-bound doors and the narrow arrow slits, and I wonder just how hard it is to get up a flight of spiral stairs in armor.
The two elements are connected. Because castles are seats of power, they are more of a safe zone for NPCs and can encourage tabletop gameplay based around stealth, deception, or intrigue.
Recent Castles & Crowns
I haven’t had an opportunity to see a European castle in many years, but recently that changed. I visited Burg Kreuzenstein outside Vienna and also the royal castle of Esztergom in Hungary. Both are rich in history and sparked my joy in castles again. The royal crown of Hungary is on display at Esztergom, visited by a very small trickle of tourists (Hungary’s monarchy was dissolved in 1918).
All the charm and majesty of the hilltop fortification dates back to Roman times, and got me excited about the new Kobold Press project, Campaign Builder: Castles & Crowns, which is all about providing tools for GMs of 5th Edition D&D or Tales of the Valiant RPG to make their own castles stand out.
Join us as we explore castles and noble rulers in the Campaign Builder: Castles & Crowns Kickstarter!