I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on historical castles, and it’s changed how I think about castles in an RPG setting.
Debate rages, naturally, so take all this with a grain of salt, but:
Castles were not just fortifications. Indeed, fortification was a relatively minor element of their function. Castles were homes and symbols of power. Many of them were indefensible but looked imposing.
Castles became symbols of power and stability. Not only did they say, “This noble is wealthy,” they said, “This noble can protect his peasants.”
Statistically, most castles were earth-and-timber affairs. Stone was just too expensive for most lords. In later centuries, many earth-and-timber castles were slowly converted section by section to stone. That conversion was, of course, messy and slow. So one might enter a “castle” that consisted of an earthen wall surrounding a stone keep.
Speaking of keeps: an important aspect of every castle was its relation to the noble who owned it. Each gate and wall added another layer between you and the noble, so the deeper you were allowed inside a castle, the more important you were. The inner keep was a special political place, because of what it said about anyone allowed to get inside it.
As the Middle Ages wore on, sieges grew increasingly popular, and two practices wore down the utility of castles: slash-and-burn tactics and cannons. As important as cannons were for wearing down a castle’s defenses, destroying all the surrounding property was arguably the larger problem. It does little good to lock oneself in a castle only to watch the destruction of your long-term food supply.
Implications for role-playing games:
- If running a castle siege story line, why aren’t the besiegers destroying the surrounding countryside? What do the besiegers want out of that countryside?
- How much food is in the castle’s stores? Many castles would keep months’ worth of food, but many had only a few weeks’ worth. What happens when the besieged run out of food?
- What if the castle is in the middle of conversion to stone, or partly built? How easy is it to defend? Might the castle need human or monstrous protectors for its weak spots?