Friday, August 24, 2007


I've been doing some extra reading on historical castles lately. I've hit on a wonderful architectural book: "Castles: Their Construction and History" by Sidney Toy. It's got almost 200 detailed maps and floor plans, so it's about the best resource for nearly game-ready historical maps that I can think of. Here's a few random thoughts:

Porting a small amount of magic into a historical milieu wouldn't change things a whole lot. Within a few pages of medieval siege chronicles, there's several references to what could be considered the belief in magic in the first place:
- "Among the engines of the crusaders there was one which threw enormous stones with unusual force. It did great execution among those on the battlements and the enemy's attacks on it had no effect. The Turks then brought up two witches and set them on the wall in order that they might curse it; but a missile from the engine struck and killed both the witches as well as three other women who were with them." (Siege of Jerusalem, 1099; p. 146).
- "The fleet, having erected on their galleys a tall siege tower and other engines, all covered with raw hides, made a vigorous attack on the Tower of Flies. Those in the tower, assisted by the citizens who came to their aid, responded with equal energy; they threw Greek fire on the siege tower, and on the other machines of their foes, and by this means destroyed them, and so the attack from this side failed." (Siege of Acre, 1189-1192; p. 147)
- "Greek fire, having the property of spreading in all directions, was thrown from the engines of the Saracens on the Crusaders to their great terror and consternation." (p. 143)

These last two quotes force me to think of replacing historical Greek fire (poorly understood by the Crusaders, and something of a mystery even to this day) with one or two wizards casting fireballs, and having much the same effect.

The other thing that occurs to me, is that even if some amount of flying magic or creatures are a concern in the setting, the likely technological response would be to simply halt castle evolution at the stage of strong square and round keeps, as seen in the 10th and 11th centuries. (That is, the evolution of large curtain walls and bailey complexes in the 12th and 13th and later centuries might be arrested.) In other words, the presence of some amount of magic and fantastic creatures might itself serve to retard certain technological progress beyond a low-middle-ages level.


  1. Of course, depending on the nature of the flyers, it could merely push that evolution in a different direction. If it's something living that uses wings to fly, then unless they're also fixed up with protective magics they'd be prime targets for archers, since weight requirements would probably make them lightly armored. Winged mounts would make great shock troops, but their victories would probably be pretty costly. Baily complexes would proably still develop if a protracted siege was primarily ground troops. If it was some kind of levitation magic that didn't put a limit on weight, you'd probably have a whole new class of siege engines floating over the battlements. You'd probably see an evolution of "anti-aircraft" weapons, but taking out a flying fortress would probably cause havoc from falling debris to the defenders below. Interesting stuff.

  2. Sorry for answering only now, but I accidentally hit your nice blog just few minutes ago and while randomly lurking here and there I ended up on this post.
    I've spent some time trying to understand better the game machanicals relative to castles, considering a fantasy setting. I'm to romantic to simply dismiss them 'cause some overzelous fireball throwers. I've read many fantasy setted books and very ofetn there where legendary castles in. I was worried by one problem especially:
    what's the point of investing lots of time and money for building something that can't be properly defended, thus failing its prime role?
    There were some Dungeon Magazine articles about this matter, like "The enemy at the gate" in #160 or "Twenty tricks for castle defense" in issue #185. They had some nice hints. Coupling these with TSR 2114 - The castle guide and the rules in TSR 2149 - Combat & Tactics I've tried to lay down the drawings for an effective castle able to hold on even against the main spells, not to mention siege engines.
    I am still to finish it but what is coming out is something hardly historical. The wall thickness and foundation dept is something that even with today means of buildng would be a hard work. Beside this, considering possible airborne attacks I had to forsee sturdy coverage for the men on the walls and on the top of the towers. I also ad to calculate the appropriate distance between the external wall and the main building in the middle of the court in order to discourage dive assault or easy landing (according the the physics of C&T at least).
    The thing that bother me a little is that they consider the normal wall thickness something between 30 and 45 feet, which is hardly normal. This is important becouse if you want saving throws bonus against reduction you have to add at least some 50% extra thickness and you badly want it unless you wanna be chancy about losing 1/3 of your wall.
    There are many other details but the main point I understood, or at least that the rules seems to lead to, is that you have to build a really huge and havily manned castle in order to hold well against spells and airborne attackers. I still have to finish it but I can already tell that it will cost some millions of gp.
    On the other hand the only reason I can think for building something less then this, that is prone to be overcome by spells and/or airborne attackers is that they hold nothing valuable enough that deserve to be attacked with spells and airborne, that are uncommon in my campaign. In an heavy magic campaign they will be completly non-sense and this is a pity.

    1. I agree, in a high-magic setting it's a real conundrum. I don't know if you've read Gygax's novel "Artifact of Evil", but it opens with a high-fantasy castle siege, and so may be instructive on his ideas for them game. Basically the castle stays the same but for all the wizards in the attacking army, the defenders have an equal number of wizards disrupting and dispelling their magic. This is problematic in at least three ways: (1) core D&D dispelling isn't that plentiful, (2) tactically attackers always have an advantage (timing, focus of resources, surprise), and (3) the defenders needing equal wizards ruins the whole point of a castle enabling a very small number of defenders to hold off a much larger number of attackers.

    2. I've thought some tricks to keep the wizards at bay, not surprisingly the ideas that worked against early bombards and cannons also works against many spells, for example:
      - shaping the ground around the castle so that the opponent do not have a direct line of fire to the wall
      - a wide ditch full of water. This won't stop a determinate wizard but still will slow him down
      - having walls facing the opponent not perpendicularly but in an angled way, in order to have more "apparent" thickness, having a shape like the typical star-fort

      See, I have no problem with one o two wizard infiltrating the castle using a bunch of high level spells. Sooner or later they will be bogged down by guards and everything is fine to me, don't find this unbalancing. It is some kind of commando action an the players may enjoy it. But they are no going to take the castle (a part from very particular circumstances). What bother me is that a bunch of wizard, let say 10 ÷ 15, could do the job of a whole sieging army. This render the castle totally not cost-effective.

      Beside this I don't even like the idea of having wizard/priests casting tons of protective spell on a castle to let him endure some fantasy stuff.

      What I'd like to is guys owning a castle sleep reasonably quiet trusting their walls just relaying on its rock, not on the wizard they may host.

      ps: sorry for my English, not native speaker. :)

      pps: I'm gonna look for the "Artifact of evil"! Thanks for the hint!

    3. Possibly another perspective (as I mentioned in the main blog post) is that maybe it's the enclosed Keep that is the primary defense against exotic magic & monsters. The curtain walls and various outbuildings protect the peasants, pack animals, etc. against normal men & common bandits; but when a real world-beater threat comes around, they all lock themselves in the enclosed keep and shoot out of arrow-slits, etc. The king, family, main wizard, and all important treasures are in that Keep by default for peace of mind.

    4. Sure, the keep would keep the enemy at bay but the castle owner would be "trapped" inside with very limited options, even from a tactical point of view.

      The siege, from a strategic point of view is pretty fair for both the side. The attacker mus bring an army and its logistic in an hostile land, while the sieged see it freedom of movment reduced but at the beginning suffer less the attrition.
      From a tactical point of view the sieged is in a better situation, since he can pu heaby casulaties on the opponent due to the intrinsec nature of the castle itself, most of this advantage would be lost going in to the keep. I should make some research about, but at the moment I can't remember many sieges where the walls were lost and the keep occupant came out victorious. I consider this just a delay, not a solution. The battle must be won on and outside the walls. The spells possibly prevent this from happen, unless they are rare, I fear.