Conwy Castle in northern Wales

Let's start with a pic of a castle, shall we? Cause you just can't go wrong with castles.

This is a first in a series of articles in which I’m gonna talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. In fact, that picture above was taken in Wales, and to say it was England would really (and justifiably) piss off a lot of Welsh. Confused? See yesterday’s post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. And I’m going to skip over a lot of the most common tourist destinations in Britain. If I don’t cover your favorite spot, it’s not because it isn’t absolutely wonderful—I’m sure it is!—but because it’s not chock-a-block stuffed with relevancy to the gamer. Or, more likely, it’s slightly less chock-a-block relevant than the places I did choose to cover. Cause that’s the point of this series: Almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: Castles

I picked castles for this one because, as the caption above says, you just can’t go wrong. Every gamer who’s picked up a funny-shaped die has spent time in an imaginary castle. So what’s the real thing like?

What is it?

We all know what a castle is. But to get more specific, my poster child for this excursion is Conwy castle in northern Wales—but the competition was stiff. Caernarfon? Beaumaris? Caerphilly? Dover? Bodiam? Chepstow? Warwick? You can hardly swing a cat in the UK without hitting a castle (that’s rough on British cats)—and a lot of them are Really Cool. (You might think any castle would be Really Cool, and you’d be right. But there are sooo many in the UK that you eventually become discriminatory.) By the way, if you’ve ever read David Macaulay’s excellent book Castle (and any world-building GM should have it on his or her shelf), the fictitious castle in question is closely based on Conwy—though the floorplan isn’t the same, all other aspects look more like Conwy than any of the other castles in the region.

See where that guy's standing? That's the front door. Have fun stormin' the castle!

What’s Cool About It?

Edward I built Conwy in the 1280s as part of a program of building that has made northern Wales the world’s undisputed mecca for castle visiting. He and his predecessors had been struggling with the Welsh princes for, well, ever, and Edward eventually decided that building a bunch of the world’s toughest and most outlandishly expensive castles—in hostile territory—would be cheaper and easier than the wars he’d waged so far in the effort. This is significant to the gamer for two reasons:

  • First, this was at the absolute peak of the castle’s technology, and most of these castles were built from the ground up instead of modified from older castles. These are the platonic ideal of the castle, built by people starting from scratch and using every trick in the book. Beaumaris, in particular, looks more like the castle a modern GM would create than anything on earth. You can practically see the graph paper grid on the ground.
  • Second, Edward was, for all intents and purposes, the evil overlord in this scenario. And that’s why I picked Conwy: It’s the most imposing and overlordish of the lot.

When I call northern Wales a mecca, I ain’t joking. The castles were built densely enough so that they could reinforce each other—within a day’s travel, or about 20 miles. In many cases, you can stand on a tower in one of them and see one or more of the others. Edward’s building program was so successful that two of the castles—Caernarfon and Beaumaris—were never completely finished. They were awesome enough to cow the rather fierce Welsh even in an incomplete state.

And that was no accident: These castles were built to impress as much as defend. Caernarfon’s angled (not round) towers and striped stonework was deliberately chosen to resemble the walls of Constantinople—because Constantinople those days was associated with the Romans, the only group who had previously subjugated the Welsh. (This fact implies that your 13th-Century Brit on the street had some idea of what Constantinople’s walls looked like, which in itself is an interesting factoid.)

Modeled specifically after Constantinople. Do you know what Constantinople looks like? Apparently the Welsh did.

In Conwy’s case, check these out:


Are those stone spiky bits sticking up there?

Why, yes. Yes, they are.

Conwy isn’t just huge and tall and dark and imposing. Although they’re now weathered down to near-invisibility, when it was built every single crenellation was topped with vicious-looking stone spikes. That’s right: Edward put spikes all over this castle just to make it look extra mean. You see that sort of thing in fantasy all the time, but it’s pretty darn rare in the real world. Most castles are like battleships: Imposing, but utilitarian. See what I mean about the evil overlord thing?

Whew! This has been a long post, and I’m barely getting started. I think I’m going to break it here, and come back with the rest tomorrow!

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