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Basic Information

A castle is a fortified building that also serves as a place of residence. If it serves solely as a military base it is more properly termed a fortress (or fort if smaller) - or (occasionally, and usually if attached to an urban area) a citadel - but all of these terms tend to be used quite promiscuously. They are normally a feature of feudal or semi-feudal states - less advanced forms of government can rarely afford them and better organized states tend not to enjoy leaving fortified locations in private hands.

Besides acting as a residence, a castle normally controls something - it may only secure an area of valuable farmland, but it will quite frequently be places close to a pass, a bridge (or other river crossing), a harbour or even a strategic crossroads.

Early castles tended to be built more for defence than comfort but some later examples are fortified in name only and are mainly stately homes rather than defensive works.

Other language terms are schloss (German) and chateau (French).

The population of a castle will normally consist of the Lord and his family (or a castellan who controls the place in his absence), a garrison and their support staff - there will not normally be a large number of civilians present who aren't directly related to the business of the place, but a castle near a frontier might also operate an inn or trading post.

Due to it being the residence of a feudal noble (and, usually, the largest building for miles) the castle would often end up being a local seat of government as well.

Note, however, that most jurisdictions limited the building of castles as far as they were able - typically a would be castle builder required the permission of at least his feudal overlord and often that of the king before he started work. Unauthorised or adulterine castles incurred heavy penalties and/or seizure by the crown. Naturally permission to build tended to require either visible loyalty to the current regime or significant bribes … or both.

Common locations inside a castle will include:

Fortifications - pre-gunpowder

  • Bailey (or ward) - an area of land enclosed within the walls.
  • Barbican - an additional defensive structure built on the outside of a gatehouse for added security.
  • Battlements - such as arrowslits, crenellations, hoardings, loopholes, or machicolations
  • Curtain walls - defensive walls which are not part of a specific building. Usually reinforced with towers at appropriate intervals.
  • Drawbridge
  • Gatehouse - a defensive structure build around the gate, which can be quite large and heavily populated. In real life, the usual location of the prison cells.
  • Keep (or donjon) - the central strongpoint and final redoubt of the castle.
  • Moat - a wet or dry ditch outside a wall as an extra obstacle.
  • Motte - an artificial hill built as part of the defences. Usually to put the keep on.
  • Portcullis - a heavy Gate which opens vertically so it is difficult to force open.
  • Postern or Sally Port - a small gate or exit that allows defenders to slip out to muster outside the castle, but is hidden or otherwise inconvenient for invaders
  • Zwinger - a narrow strip of open land between 2 curtain walls where invaders who have made it past the first line of defense can be pelted from above on all sides

Fortifications - post-gunpowder

  • Cavalier - a raised artillery platform placed to fire over the walls from one of the baileys.
  • Glacis - an earth ramp, protecting the walls from direct fire.
  • Ravelin - an outwork of the main defences, usually open to fire from the castle itself to make it hard to hold if captured.

Service areas

See List of Medieval European Professions for lists of servants and staff that might be found in these places:

Miscellaneous Rooms


Game and Story Use

  • These are pretty much part of the furniture for a medieval/fantasy campaign: if the PCs aren't based out of one, they probably work for someone who is.
  • In a post-medieval campaign, they are better used for anachronistic colour.
  • Naturally the level of "planning control" on castles will effect the feel of a setting - a place in which any Tom, Dick or Harry can knock one up will be very different to one in which practically all castles are royal ones.
  • Note the location thing - historically, castles were expensive and didn't get built willy-nilly - if a noble just wanted somewhere to live, they built a manor house which was cheaper and generally more comfortable to live in. A castle was always built to control something (except, as noted above, once they had ceased to be defensive structures in any practical sense).
  • All this means scheming for control of castles was a big thing in the medieval period - tenancy of a castle, or a licence to build one, was not granted lightly.
  • Distribution of castles is also significant - where there are many, that area has probably been fought over - or at least disputed - a lot. Especially where there are lots of small castles. Large, widely distributed castles would tend to imply strong government confident in its ability to respond to any threat to its power - compare the Anglo-Scottish border or Welsh Marches, where there are a (relatively) large number of small castles, to the South of England, where the fortifications are generally limited to a few major ports and were either demolished or upgraded into the gunpowder era.
    • Many ruined castles - as found in generic fantasy settings - imply an area which has been radically de-populated. At one stage there must have been enough people in the area to support those castles, but now they are just home to monsters (traditionally late development PCs get to re-occupy and fix such places and then try to entice settlers to return to the neighbourhood).
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