Idle Musings: Fantasy Engineers Could Mix It Up

I’ve realized that I talk about fighting a lot on this blog, which may give some of you the wrong impression. You may think that I like warfare in writing, and you’re sadly mistaken. I fucking love it. As opposed to in reality, where war is a god-awful barbaric mess that’s occasionally necessary but never a good time for any(sane)body involved. And I’m perfectly sane, and there’s nothing else to discuss on that count no matter what that talking beer coaster says, so anyway I’m now going to talk about fantasy architecture.

That intro was supposed to bring up the idea that I’m talking about something less explicitly related to war and bloodshed even though this talk will involve castles, but then I got hung up on my secret madness. There, now I’ve hamhandedly stated my intent for you. I feel there’s a missed opportunity in many fantasy worlds to play around with architecture. Not so much in terms of castles, castles are the one area I’d say gets too much consideration. Few fantasy worlds have anything architecturally equivalent to the Pyramids of Giza or the Colossus of Rhodes, but castles? You can hardly walk ten paces without narrowly avoiding an arrow as the local lord trains his young son in archery. His young son will inevitably be bad at archery, because if he cared to be good at it he wouldn’t be firing arrows off the castle wall towards nothing in particular. Why is that? Why are there no structures of note outside the castle?

Again, we’re talking Fantasy here. This is a made-up world in which all sorts of rules can be different. Why are fortresses the only distinct brick gestalts around? Most Fantasy doesn’t even have cathedrals, and everyone loves a good cathedral! Except the poor saps who have to tile it, anyway. In worlds with established, stable histories that stretch back tens of thousands of years in some cases (remember, pretty much everything impressive on this planet was built within the last five thousand or so), the only big, elaborate buildings are military.

Yes, I understand that buildings aren’t all that fascinating in their own right, but that’s part of being an author. You have to make the boring stuff interesting, or at least try to. So, where do I suggest we start? First off, let’s pick a purpose for our building. You can write multipurpose block-conglomerates all you like, but to start with let’s just have the one role in mind. I’m going to say it’s a vault for various arcane treasures. Someone has to store the damn things so The Cursed Cuirass of the Grim Matron isn’t left in the street where children might find it when Heroine McTravelsocks discards it in favor of Lady Helga’s Elaborate Torsal Bulwark.

This vault should consist of at least three sections: a reception area where wannabe adventurers can buy or beg for artifacts from the vault, a central storage area for the majority of the artifacts, and a high-security section for the really nasty stuff. The Apocalypse Lance of Archlich Fucit probably shouldn’t be on offer where every mischievous rogue with a heart of gold can try and steal it to raise money for orphans, mostly because the Lance will possess the thief and make her eat the orphans. Dark artifacts do that sort of thing, which is why the high-security section is a mile beneath the rest of the complex, reached only by an arcane lift that can be sealed with lava drawn from a nearby magma chamber if the seals are broken.

In fact, any given area of the vault only has one entrance. Its doorways are narrow and its doors squat and thick far beyond anything in a castle. It’s a building made to keep things in and people out. Its reception area has a sort of stone bulkhead halfway to the counter, with needlessly fat pillars every few feet. Except above the counter, the ceiling in the reception area is as low as anywhere else in the building. An average person has only an inch of space above their head on the way in. Only the staff have freedom of movement; if someone wants to stage a robbery, they won’t have any room to move until they take it from the guards.

The outside of the vault should be nothing inspiring to look at, just blank, angled walls of dark rock. Anyone worth their time already knows where the place is, and they need their money to acquire more shiny relics. As to a name, let’s call it The Burrow. After all, it’s basically a big hole in the ground. Besides, they don’t want to spare cash for marketing either. Obviously The Burrow rests in its resident city’s trade quarter. Where else would it be? Trade quarters, by the way, are where you’ve got the most freedom aside from residential districts. Merchants will spend their building bucks on whatever they feel like, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be functional at all. Over here, a plaza divided in a hundred places by foot-deep canals, inlaid with quartz and feeding pools of iridescent squid. Look thataway and you’ll see the Airy Bazaar, built on a platform held aloft by magic alone and reached by silver staircases shrouded in conjured fog.

Gaze on Torit’s folly, where a wealthy man driven mad by grief had a thousand different statues of his dead son etched from obsidian and granite. As per his dying wish, it’s the only place in the city where street buskers may play without censure or oversight from guilds. Linger to twilight and the strange shadow of the Cloven Shrine falls over the trade quarter from its place in the center of the city. Legend has it that the War-God smote the original temple where it stood when its high priest dared slight him, cleaving the marble and the hill beneath it. Now both are connected by iron cables and bridges over the hill’s separate halves. Between the two rests the new sacrificial altar, to which the high priest carries offerings along a causeway with room for just one foot at a time. If he falls, he plummets half a mile into the street below.

You can do this for pretty much anything once you get in the habit of it. Why just have a smithy when you can have a foundry carved into slopes of an old volcano whose lingering fires stoke the forges? Don’t just put a bridge over that river, put a town on that bridge! Or at least the equivalent of a village. Remember, this is a Fantasy world, people are allowed to have different ideas as to where they should build things. Just make sure that if, as I do, you still prefer to have a solid reason for something being as it is, you account for that in the process. A village built in the middle of a river is a pretty solid choice for a group of fishermen who rely on salmonesque fish-stampedes for their livelihood. Likewise, if that volcano is known for producing rich iron deposits it’s a pretty solid spot for a smithy, doubly so if the fertile soil downhill from the forge produces lots of hardwood trees that make great scabbard and grip material.

I’m not going to cover castles for you in any depth, at least not this time. For now, just remember that non-soldierly types live in the damn things and there should be something homey to them. I’d argue that’s the biggest distinction between a castle and a fort, in fact.

Other than the fact that I’ve only sketched a couple of forts versus roughly infinite castles. I was a very bored child, you see.

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