Castles Don’t Make Sense In High Fantasy (a lot of the time)

Why castles don't make sense in fantasy,

When I started creating my high fantasy world, I stumbled onto a serious issue very early. I went into things with the intention of creating a classic medieval world (spoiler: it didn’t happen). But I’d created a magic system that rendered the classic staples of a medieval world defunct. Plate armor, knights on horseback, stone castles – all the things that scream “medieval” – were totally useless with magic.

The reality is castles don’t always make sense in a lot of high fantasy.

Castles can be torn down by magic

In a classic medieval world, you imagine castles. But just as cannons made castles obsolete, magic does something similar. Fireballs, earthbending, teleportation and many other forms of magic can easily destroy or circumvent a castle.

The point of a castle is to sustain a long, protracted siege – in essence, to make it too expensive to conquer a place unless you really want it. Fantasy movies often show grand, action packed assaults on castles, but besieging was often a much slower, sometimes months long process in the real world.

While magic could offer some benefits to the defenders of a castle (magic could perhaps pureify putrid water, heal wounds and provide heat when fuel runs low), it also gives the attackers numerous advantages.

In the real world, one of the methods used to assault a castle was to undermine the walls. If your world had an earth mage who can bend stone, this weeks long process could be achieved in a day. Another method was to make the defenders too weak to hold the walls, whether from starvation, poisoning their water or throwing dead animals over the walls to spread disease. If we look at a magic system like D&D, there are numerous spells that could poison or disease a static defending force, unless they had their own equally powerful mages.

Finally, you have the most obvious method – assaulting the walls with projectiles. In the real world, this was achieved with expensive, slow moving and vulnerable catapults and trebuchets. But fireballs, a staple of many magic systems, only require feeding a single mage instead of a team of siege engineers, can move a whole lot faster, and don’t need to be reloaded with large boulders. Their effect on siege warfare could perhaps look similar to cannons.

One alternative is earthen Star Forts. This style of fortification came into use when cannons began to be mass produced. A Star Fort consists of multiple, overlapping angled earthen walls, with the keep and other important buildings at the center. The whole compound may also be surrounded by a moat.

A map of Coevorden Star Fort in the Netherlands. Star Forts are alternatives to castles.
Coevorden Star Fort

Against mages, a similar structure could provide cushioning from magical barrage from fireballs. The earthen walls take the hit, instead of the stonework. It would also allow your mages to cover all approaches to the compound and fire back. Star forts have less blind spots than traditional castles. However, they’re not an answer to all castle’s woes in fantasy.

Dragons can fly over castle walls

Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) addresses this problem as one of its central conflicts. Dragons can simply fly over a castle wall, and star forts might be even more vulnerable – there would be no heavy stone walls to hide behind when a dragon lands in the middle of your castle. Game of Throne’s response to this question is that dragons are so rare (and by the time of the books and show, nearly extinct) that even though they provide a massive destabilizing influence and can easily defeat castles, they haven’t completely made castles obsolete because of their small numbers.

Hiding in your castle would also be difficult if Dwarves could use their subterranean engineering to tunnel under a castle walls. Other species may bring their own unique problem to fortifying strongholds. For example, giants could tear down fortifications by hand or simply step over the walls of a star fort.

Plate armor might be a hindrance

Expensive plate armor in the real world is meant to stop swords and arrows. Yet in fantasy, it faces new challenges. This type of armour is hard to produce at the best of times, and the protection it offers against arrows and swords might be less important than what it can do against magic.

Elemental manipulation is a common ability in fantasy, and if it exists, a mage could heat up your armor and cook you inside, possess your armor and crush you with it, or wish it out of existence.

An alternative exists however. The ancient Greeks used the Linothorax, and it honestly has some benefits in an ancient world magic-setting. In a medieval setting, the gambeson is similarly useful.

The linothorax is made of linen, which is an astoundingly resilient material. It is lighter than bronze or iron armor, and has less tendency to overheat the wearer marching in the sun. It also is less prone to boiling you if a mage decides to heat up all the nearby metal. It provides possibly superior protection from arrows, and potentially could be better against fireballs and other projectile spells.

In addition, linen is a lot cheaper than bronze or iron. Killing a soldier wearing linen armour with magic would still be possible but the added protection of metal might be limited and it simply costs more.

Think about what mages can do

When considering how your soldiers would arm themselves, think about what your mage can do. If your magic is about throwing fireballs, large shields with fire retardant coverings might be a good option. But if your magic involves elemental sorcery (geomancy, pyromancy etc), such as in Avatar the Last Airbender, then you may have to avoid the materials that your enemy’s mages can manipulate.

If special materials can block magic, then these would make perfect armor. Or your magic system might allow for protective warding on armor.

Magical shields and force-fields

If your magic system allows for force-fields and shields, fortifications are probably more magical than they are physical. With the right mages, you could defend anything – an unfortified city could be covered by a shield to repel attackers.

But this doesn’t mean fortifications are totally off the playing field. As in Harry Potter, your shield may be short-term and it may only be the first level of a fortress. A shield could potentially be useful for depleting the enemy mages and forcing the foot soldiers to attack you. Therefore, having good fortifications after the shield goes down is still a life saver.

But if shields are very powerful, you might be better having lots of mages specialising in shield magic than expending them on fireballs and offensive magic.

In conclusion, consider it early

It is critical to think about how your magic works in a martial capacity. It potentially changes the entire setting. Both the social orders and architecture of the medieval period was dictated by the military technology of the time. If your world’s military can harness magic, this changes the face of cities, government and seats of power.

Check out my questionnaire for developing magic for more points to think about when creating magic systems.

5 thoughts on “Castles Don’t Make Sense In High Fantasy (a lot of the time)

  1. Wait… not to poke any plot holes in your work here… but I have some concerns.

    First off, why is plate armour a bad thing as it was one of the key parts in battles of the medieval era, and not to mention arrows and “‘blade'” type weaponry was highly inefficient when trying to take down a knight in full-plate.

    Second, to battle the statement of “mages can heat up and cook you inside”. Yes, that is completely possible, if the highly trained knight was not only a sitting duck within the massive horde of soldiers a medieval army would be filled with, but depending on the metal (steel for instance) has a very, very high heating/melting point. So, with flame-style-magic your skin, clothes, or even a gambeson would easily be melted away with viscous speed as they are incredibly more flammable than metal.

    Third, linen… yes, some state that since it is ‘open’ or ‘free-flowing’ it is easier to enchant with magical qualities to make it resist types of magic… However, linen is still a fabric. It is basically cloth… cloth is flammable… flammable is bad. Meaning armour made from pure linen, or even just mainly linen, it is flammable, and more deadly than normal metal armour.

    Forth, a suite of full-plate armour is only around sixty pounds (give or take), meaning a soldier training his entire life to be able to fight confidently within one, could do so. Also another note on top of that, acrobatics is still viably possible with a suite of knight armour.

    Fifth, before you question about elemental attacks, here are some pluses to full-plate:

    Electricity: metal absorbs electricity, meaning getting struck by a ‘lightning-bolt’ would spread throughout the armour’s connected plates. And with the gambeson you have to wear underneath the metal plates would level out the flow of electrical currents. Although it’d still heat you up from the strike, possibly by a lot, it’d be a hell of a lot better than taking it straight on without protection.

    Frost(ice): an ice spike stuck within that metal chest piece would feel quite a bit better than stuck within yer flesh. Compare it to an arrow; the gambeson underneath the plate armour is to stop arrows from harming the wearer. That is if you can pierce the metal first. Now a constant “beam” of frost is more difficult to combat, but that “hot metal” might keep you warmer than ice directly on the skin.

    Elemental: well, this is hard to give a clean answer because you did not state what kinds of elemental magics it’d be combating. Rock, better to dent metal then brake bones? Water, you might drown anyway? Nature(plant-magic), thorns don’t prick the skin, I guess? Controlling metal, why wouldn’t the mages go after the sword instead? It’d take less magic to disrupt, and you could cause their weapon to kill it’s own user? Blood, yeah… you’re were screwed from the start. Possession? Are you sure that’s elemental or psychic? Cause it sounds a lot like “telekinesis” and the strength it would take to crush your bones would most likely be a hell of a lot easier to do than implode your suite of armour just to kill you.

    Now then, Castles… oh boy… you prove some good points as cannons would “hurt” a castle, but they too had them (meaning the castles had wall mounted cannons). But wouldn’t there be a much higher need for “castles” if a magic system was introduced to the medieval era? Due to the fact that a castle is just a large fortress that defends the lord/king/emperor from the imposing world outside. And depending on how “difficult” (for lack of a better word) your magic system works; the castle would also house the catalyst to the power it would need for it’s mages. Whether it be crystals or angelic beasts (angels/demons) a castle would be a great defense in trying to keep that thing away from the enemy.

    Yes, castles may be able to be torn down, but it would take a large… I mean a very large amount of man-power to tear one down. It’d be a lot easier to take one over than to destroy one. Also, if you wanted to create a “force-field” of sorts, how would it operate? Would mages have to cast the spell? Or is there a catalyst(like a giant crystal) generating it? And wouldn’t you want a large fortress to keep those things safe?

    And if a “magic-proof” shield is it able to cancel out the mages’ abilities completely? And if the enemy has to force their (what I presume magic-less) mundane foot soldiers to invade the kingdom…. then wouldn’t it go back to the standard medieval fighting where the castle’s strength was the key point in if you won a battle or not?

    And the uh… “star-fort” yeah… that’s a castle my friend, depending on where it is placed and how large it is, it’s a castle. Cause castles weren’t always square shaped, many in fact were the shape of the terrain they were built on. There are some weird shapes of castles out there… none are bad though.

    Lastly, another thing to add onto the plate armour, what if they too had some kind of enchantment or was made from a magic resistant material? Then imagine a fully trained, full-plate wearing, knight which could acrobatically take down their enemies and couldn’t be taken down by magic nor arrows and blades. That would basically make them unstoppable… they’d be a monster on the battlefield.

    Anyway, these are just my thoughts on the subject, and if ya made it this far… please take all of this with a grain of salt, I didn’t mean any disrespect whatsoever. Just wanted to add in some constructive criticism. And feel free to argue against any point I have made so far, as I don’t fully understand the magic in which you are operating with. Because magic tends to be a “difficult” subject to argue about as it can differ depending on the angle you look at it.

    A random fella who came across this article on the internet who goes by Scoutmetal15x.

    1. A lot of this really depends on the magic system. They can vary a lot. There are definitely systems where castles and armor would make more sense than others. And you speak some good advice for those systems. If you had enchantments or magically resistant metal, then your problem is solved! This isn’t really the case in most mainstream fantasy.

      One idea that I’ve actually seen is asbestos cloth. That isn’t really practical for my own personal world, and of course you can get lung cancer from it. But it is very fire retardant.

      The biggest issue I have in medieval settings for metal armor is it is very heat conductive. Casting a fire ball on the armor – sure it might not hit the person inside but the heat is going to stick around. Not to mention the possibility of any magic system that has some form of directed heat curse. It isn’t the armor melting that could be an issue so much as the armor acting like a portable oven.

      In fact, I will write a blog on how I envisage warfare working in my own fantasy world. My own world actually has no large standing armies of any sort. They’re just too easy for a powerful mage to destroy. Small, highly trained squads, the elemental of surprise and even pre-battle assassination are much more effective to take down a mage in my mind. If the mage knows you’re coming, they can take a lot more lives, even if you ultimately defeat them.

      In relation to this, the biggest issue with siege magic in my mind is that, rather like the artillery that came into existence in the modern era, it makes fortifications potentially a liability. You have a mobile artillery in the form of a human, that can go anywhere. Now, if your magic system has no siege-destroying level magic, then you are fine. But if they have any spells that can take out a castles walls, you’re in trouble. Or circumvent them via teleportation, for example.

      Regarding star forts: I’ve used the standard terminology here. They are generally not considered castles.

  2. I know this is a very late reply but I found this article very interesting. One thing I would argue is that when you are developing the magic system of your world, it is (in my opinion) highly important to consider the balance of things. For every system in place there will be an opposing, or equalizing system. There should be limitations to magic, there should be counters, anti-magics.

    It could just be a simple warding magic that grounds out, reflects, absorbs, or just flat out destroys magic. Any castle built in a High Fantasy world would implement these. Perhaps there are certain materials that have resistance to magic such as lead in D&D, or running water in many other systems. The more unique these things are, the more unique the “castle” design would become in your world. The same goes for tunneling. There would be some sort of alarm system or enchantment to the ground below that would harden it, or even a combination that would give warning.

    The key thing is that no system should be all powerful. There should be some weakness, flaw, or opposing force to balance it out. Even if it SEEMS insurmountable, the discovery of that equalizing force is what can make a great story!

  3. Found this article through pinterest and found it very interesting too!

    Generally, I feel like you think of magic in a very offensive way and somewhat neglect to consider that *any* kind of magic should also be able to be used for defensive purposes. So for example, if you have an earthbender strong enough to damage castle walls, then that same earthbender should be able to repair them, or hold them together in the face of an opponent´s attack. Similarly, if you have a mage able to manipulate fire, then he should be able to deflect fireballs as much as to throw them.

    As for armor… look. If you´re in plate and get hit by a fireball, yeah. You´ll cook. But if you´re in cloth and get hit by one, you´ll roast. So if you can´t do anything else, I guess going light armor and trying to dodge is the better option. But then you´ll have to worry about the swords and the arrows too, so if you at all can it should be much safer to find a way to enchant that plate… or find *something* that you can wear under plate that will make sure you stay okay even if it does get hot.

  4. Love all the wonderful points everyone has added
    now for my thought, like I read balance is a big part of any story. if a mage is casting a fireball at one or more people in full plate armor one is fireball usually explodes and that is the main damage just like when a boom goes off and takes out a tank, the tank might only be slightly damaged and the crew a bit shaken from the blast. now with the fireball the same thing can happen so if the mage shot a group of lets say 5 knight squad and got a hit on the dude in the middle it would likely knock him out and hurt the one on either side but they may not be out of the fight. so if it takes time to cast then he will be rushed by anyone able to fight. also we didn’t say anything about shields if they all had shields the entire squad could be ok and coming to take down the mage.
    note I survived in the US armed forces as a Combat engineer (12B) and have been blown up. so I can say the heat form the blast is only for a moment
    now the castle thing one of the other reasons for a castle is show of power and a place to feel safe. even if monsters can fly there are lots of weapons that can be used to take them down. so even if your not worrying about fighting an army having large walls to keep monsters out and to keep track of who is coming and going is a big deal.
    now some Manga/Anime have given good examples of how to deal with this.(ex:Arifureta Shokugyou De Sekai Saikyou,-Isekai ni Kita Boku wa Kiyoubinbode Subaya-sa Tayorina Tabi o Suru,-Death March Kara Hajimaru Isekai Kyousoukyoku) now these are the only ones I can remember off hand. I know some people are not happy about manga/anime being used as a reference but anything that can help your writing is good. so read all you can and keep an open mind is the best way to make all your hard work pay off.
    DwarfyDM out

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