A Little Bit More About Strongholds – Part I

A lot has been written about domain play in Dungeons & Dragons supplements. It was a distinct and critically important goal for characters dating back to what we now call OD&D, when Gary and Dave built the world’s first codified role-playing game out of the frameworks of Chainmail and the Blackmoor game. The game was more than just veterancy rules for a soldier or unit in a wargame; intrinsic to D&D from its earliest stages as a complete entity were long-term trajectories for characters to become more than cutpurses, mercenaries, and simple petty magicians. Name-level play was envisioned as bringing with it the attention of much more extensive threats and responsibilities from early on in the development of our favorite game. The earliest players of D&D wanted to transition from adventuring yeoman to landed knight with titles and forces to command. As time went on and new editions surfaced, it was no surprise to see explicit systems and supplements written towards this element of the game, even if comparatively few players had characters survive long enough to reach the lofty heights of the ruling throne.

As I mentioned in my review of MCDM’s Strongholds and Followers, I spent a considerable part of my youth very interested in all kinds of history and especially the history of warfare, warriors, and fortifications. The DK Eyewitness books fascinated me at a young age; Nintendo game manuals excited my imagination. I loved inventories and tables of order and equipment and forts, as well as the idea of self-contained mobile forts like aircraft carriers, the NCC-1701 Enterprise, and pirate ships. As I grew up and graduated to bigger and better non-fiction, my interest in the subject only grew. I was also lucky enough to grow up into a collection of D&D hand-me-downs including various elements of the game; besides the Moldvay Basic set and most of the Mentzer box sets, some AD&D 1E hardcovers, and the AD&D2E PHB and DMG, I was also given a big stack of the 2E splatbooks – including the Castles Guide. Though I’ve since lost all of that, I’ve also since managed to rebuild much of the collection, and the Castles Guide is one I am happy to say I’ve recovered.

In comparing Matt Colville’s book to my own expectations and my own preferences, I came to think it might be interesting to have a bit of a look at some other bits of stronghold creation from the past of D&D, and cobble together some of the peaks and valleys of D&D domain-level play. I figured a good way to do that was to try to build a simple castle using each edition’s rules; with that in mind, I present to you…

This will be our test structure: a simple stone castle with a small manor inside and a gatehouse with a drawbridge. As there is some variance between versions, we’re going to need to be a little flexible here and there, but we’ll try to stay true to this plan.

So let’s dig in!

1. OD&D

I’d be remiss not to start here, since this is what put us all on the path of D&D obsession to begin with. On the 20th page of OD&D’s book of Underworld and Wilderness adventures (the third booklet of the original box set), Mr. Gygax writes (paraphrased) that any character may, at any time, select a plot of land upon which to construct a stronghold. In this edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the rules do not bar low level characters from constructing a base explicitly, but they implicitly prevent it by virtue of the cost: castles are thousands upon thousands of gold. With a single page of scratchy pen and ink drawings, the original OD&D box set provided somewhat granular prices and structure options and indeed set the tone for costs of things not specifically listed. Subsequent pages discuss followers of various specialties and how to entice them to join your stronghold’s complement, but spoiler alert: that’s the subject of a future article, so we’ll skip those for now. In all, OD&D’s look at construction is extremely incomplete and leans heavily, like all things OD&D, on providing the framework for the DM to do the rest of the actual thinking.
NOTEWORTHY BITS: The origin of domain play rules; granular construction costs.
FORT POSSUM: OD&D serves as the basis for Fort Possum so we can more easily see how time changed the systems of castle construction. In OD&D, we must hire an Engineer for “750/month” (we must presume gold, I suppose) and it will cost a total of 40,500gp in materials to build the castle. The book does not specify the cost of labor or the time involved with constructing such a structure, leaving these things up to the DM to determine. Of note is that a fighter would be at least level six by the time he could afford the materials and Engineer alone, assuming he or she were to fund the project all at once and spend none of his or her treasure on anything else.
MY TAKE: A mess, and yet still more useful than B/X domain rules. I didn’t get to read OD&D until a few years ago, so this had no impact on me as a youth, but it’s clear to see the lineage of the original game’s line of thought re: domain play carried on in later versions.

2. AD&D 1st Edition (Dungeon Master’s Guide)

Beginning on page 106 of the AD&D 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide, we have an entire segment on the time, cost, and difficulties of construction and mining. This includes a race-by-race breakdown of the mining speed of various playable races and monstrous creatures; an extensive list of castle components and their costs, definitions, and schedules; and a counterpoint section on the definitions and costs of the siege engines needed to attempt a hostile takeover of such a structure. Thereafter is a short section with combat rules for attacking and defending structures, as well as individual Defensive Point Values for structural elements and siege engines alike, providing the mechanical means through which these two forces might engage in contest. With these rules comes no specifics about who may undertake to use them; Gygax merely says that at higher levels, players will desire the opportunity to build strongholds and dungeons of their own beneath them. Again, it is presumed the cost of the undertaking will prove prohibitive to early levels, and since we level by acquiring treasure, the act of collecting gold to build a stronghold will inherently level our characters to higher degrees of power.
NOTEWORTHY BITS: Extensive combat rules to govern the attack and defense of strongholds appear for, I believe(?) the first time here, since I don’t think Holmes Basic incorporates any?
FORT POSSUM: The rules say there is a base cost here of 11,900gp for Fort Possum. The rules state stone construction is done at a base rate of 10 cubic feet per week, though it doesn’t seem to state how many laborers that would take. At this rate of construction, our keep would take almost 40 years to complete! If we add 50% value, we can double our speed; this would push us to 17,500gp to get our keep done in nearly 20 years of constant labor. If we increase the base cost by 250%, though, we could triple our speed: 29,750gp to be done in a mere decade. Gygax then drops the news on us that it can be abstracted to 1 year + 2-8 months for a moat house, small castle or shell keep; 2 years + 1-6 months for a small castle with outer and inner walls or a medium castle; 3 years + 2-8 months for a medium castle with outer and inner walls or a large castle; or 5 years + 1-12 months for a large concentric castle or to wall an average town in completely. It also tells us we can do the above maths once again to reduce this abstracted time by the same amounts. It does state an architect is required, and later in the book it tells us that an engineer-architect is 100gp per month. A mason is listed at 3gp per month but again no labor requirements are listed that I can find. We’re left assuming we can pay a 17,500gp to see our small castle with some walls done in between 8 and 16 months, plus between 800 and 1600gp for our engineer at that rate.
MY TAKE: This is the first thing I read after the B/X books back in the day (because it tells you to) and it really launched the whole domain interest in me. I recognize it now as extremely Gygaxian, without necessarily so much emphasis on the rules being complete so much as the ruling guidelines and concepts being present. The construction times are nonsense and his lack of clarity on workers is a detriment to this system.

3. B/X (Cook Expert Rules)

Some of the slimmer rules to come out of a version, the stronghold section in B/X is located on page X52 of the Expert book by Cook. It takes up about three-quarters of a page and is very abridged; it tells us some basic rules of thumb for taxation and patrolling the landscape to ward off monsters, and then some brief rules for drawing castle floorplans, followed by the costs for basic elements of a castle (towers, walls, moats, etc). Likely due to space concerns and the necessity of brevity, it does not define these, leaving it up to the player to seek a dictionary’s aid on their own. It has extremely brief rules on time to construct a building, but they are sufficient. There are no rules whatsoever on the assault or defense of strongholds.
NOTEWORTHY BITS: Disappointingly brief due to the truncated format, but possibly more useful than AD&D’s nonetheless.
FORT POSSUM: Our trusty castle design here will total out to a base cost of 97,500 – a high water mark thus far. Construction will take one day per 500gp spent, meaning 195 days (or about 6.5 months) to construct our stronghold. Laborers are not mentioned at all, except for the engineer; every 100,000gp of construction costs requires one engineer to be hired. It does not specifically state we need one for construction of less than 100,000gp. We therefore escape just below this threshold. This was much, much quicker to deal with than the AD&D system thanks to its simplicity, but it was not very subjectively satisfying for me as it lacks details.
MY TAKE: I am glad I got other D&D stuff when I got B/X (which was the edition I gravitated towards actually playing) because otherwise domain play might never have been a very inspiring thing to me.

This is a big project! As I wrote this article I realized it would be about four miles long and was getting out of hand, so I split it into multiple parts. Don’t worry. You won’t have to wait too long for the rest of the story; I’ll publish this series sequentially. In the meantime, give me a shout here or on Twitter @dungeonspossums if you’re enjoying it so far, have any memories of building your own strongholds, or you just know where the laborer requirements are in AD&D. Keep an eye out for Part II tomorrow!

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One comment on “A Little Bit More About Strongholds – Part I

  1. Follow Me And Die

    Good article!

    FYI – Holmes is a starter set, and while it has higher level monsters, it tops out at level 3 for PCs. So no mention of strongholds.

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