When people think of fantasy, they tend to think of wizards and dragons and other mystical things. These are what make it fantasy, the things that separate it from reality. But at the same time, people also think of castles and knights on horseback, things that actually exist (or have existed) in the real world. For fantasy to work well, it requires something people can relate to. If everything is unreal, it becomes harder to suspend disbelief, an important requirement of any fiction, but even more so with fantasy. As such, the trappings of mediaeval Europe—the castles, knights, kings, and queens—take the role of the familiar and the normal, allowing the fantastic to achieve its potential.
Funnily enough, castles don’t actually make much sense in most fantasy worlds. Castles were developed as a means of defence—against forces that didn’t have the capability of flight. But in a world with flying creatures and wizards casting spells, invaders can easily bypass castles’ walls, and once that’s done, most of the castles’ defences are for naught. Yet this is something we, as an audience of fantasy, conveniently overlook. We either don’t notice it at all, or we shrug our shoulders and decide we don’t care. Castles provide a specific feel. They’re a link to the real world. It doesn’t matter whether they’re truly realistic or not.
In fantasy roleplaying, castles are just as iconic. A castle can be a base of operations for the player characters or a site where they adventure and explore. Villains might lair in a great fortress, or a castle might be the home of the benevolent rulers of the land. Castles certainly abound in various places across the Pathfinder campaign world of Golarion. Castles of the Inner Sea takes a look at six specific castles from across the continent of Avistan, complete with maps, overviews of each castle’s history and denizens, and a specific adventuring location within each castle.
Perhaps the best thing about Castles of the Inner Sea is the variety. These are six very different castles, providing opportunities for different kinds of characters at different levels. This means that, while it’s unlikely that any individual campaign would use all six castles, it’s easy to slot at least one of them into just about any campaign. Castle Everstand works well as a base of operations for low-level characters crusading for good, while Highhelm is practically a campaign setting all its own. Icerift Castle, Skyborne Keep, and Castle Kronquist make suitable adventuring locations for high level characters, and could even be the culminating goal of an entire campaign. Citadel Vraid, on the other hand, could be either the fortress of a major enemy organization or even a base of operations for PCs who belong to that organization.
Every castle in the book has ten pages of description, maps, and artwork devoted to it. The format is the same for each castle: a brief introduction, followed by the castle’s history, its layout, its significant denizens, threats (significant dangers about the castle), and an adventure location within the castle. There are also generally sidebars with adventure hooks or suggested encounters. Considering that some of the castles, such as Skyborne Keep, are adventuring locations in and of themselves, it seems a bit odd at first that there are further adventuring locations inside them. However, in these cases the adventuring location is more a close-up look at a specific part of the castle, since most of the castles are much too large to provide detailed stats and encounters for their entirety.
Castle Everstand is the first castle in the book, and I have to say, my favourite of the bunch. This is because it makes an ideal starting location for new 1st-level characters. Situated along the border between Lastwall and Belkzen, it provides both a home base for the characters plus a location rife with adventuring opportunities—both inside and outside the castle. Outside, there are the orcish hordes, while inside, there’s the politics of Lastwall, particularly the rivalry between the followers of Iomedae and the followers of Gorum. The sample adventuring location, the crypts beneath the castle, are actually the least interesting part of Everstand—just a basic dungeon crawl with a few low-powered undead. The real potential of Castle Everstand comes from its rich cast of NPCs and its wilderness location. Everstand also has a fascinating history. The original keep that the castle has expanded from originally came into being due to a lucky draw from a deck of many things.
Another castle that works well as a base of operations for PCs is Highhelm. Strictly speaking, Highhelm is less a castle than it is a fortress-city built in a mountain. Located in the Five Kings Mountains, Highhelm is one of the fabled dwarven Sky Citadels and still controlled by dwarves. With a population of over 40,000, it is practically a campaign setting all its own. It would be easy for GMs to run games that rarely, if ever, leave Highhelm or the “Depths”, the caverns below the fortress. Of course, given its size, Highhelm is the least detailed of all the castles in Castles of the Inner Sea, and GMs will need to do a little more work to run games here than in other castles from the book. That said, it’s important to note that even the smallest castle in the book is still a big place, and ten pages is not enough to detail everything, so GMs should be prepared to do a little bit of work regardless of which castles they’re using.
Three of the castles in the book are clear adventuring locations. That said, all three are still quite different. Castle Kronquist is the abode of Malyas, a vampire who once fought for the Whispering Tyrant. Malyas has lain dormant for millennia, waiting for the Whispering Tyrant to call him back into action. Castle Kronquist is a bastion of powerful undead, and clearing the castle would work well as a major goal for campaigns set in Ustalav or involving the Whispering Tyrant in some way. Conversely, Icerift Castle is located in northern Mendev, but despite its location, has little to do with the Mendevian Crusade or the demons of the Worldwound. The castle was long ago taken over by a wendigo and is now occupied by the creature’s wikkiwak (a variant bugbear introduced in Classic Monsters Revisited) servants. Skyborne Keep is different still. It has no fixed location because the castle itself flies. An evil storm giant and her cloud giant followers run Skyborne Keep and use it to raid lands along the western coast of Avistan. The only real downside to these three castles is that they are all for quite high-level characters. It would have been nice to see an adversarial castle that works best with low or mid-level characters. Admittedly, Citadel Vraid could fill that role, but that castle is less clearly a castle of villains.
Citadel Vraid is perhaps the most unique of the castles in Castles of the Inner Sea. It is the headquarters of the Hellknight Order of the Nail and is made up of three separate but linked castles. Although Hellknights are often seen as villains, they aren’t necessarily villains. They are arbiters of law first and foremost; they just happen to lean more to the lawful evil side than to the lawful good side. This allows GMs to use Vraid in multiple different ways. Hellknight PCs might be stationed at the citadel, which is believed to be haunted, giving them adventuring opportunities both inside and outside of the castle. For campaigns where the Hellknights are antagonists, PCs may be trying to infiltrate or even conquer the castle. However, perhaps the option with the most potential is in campaigns where the Hellknights are antagonistic but not truly the villains. PCs could come to Citadel Vraid on a diplomatic mission to court the Hellknights as allies. This would be a rich opportunity for political roleplaying.
All things considered, there is a great deal of adventuring opportunity within the covers of Castles of the Inner Sea. Each castle provides a starting place for GMs to plan adventures and even whole campaigns centring around that castle. Although there are only six castles total, there is enough variance between them that GMs should be able to find ones that fit their needs. I already have ideas for campaigns set around Everstand and Highhelm. Now, if only I had more time...