I'm writing a heist/caper type story in a fantasy world with a technology level that is pre-industrial (also, no guns yet). I'd say the world overall is closer to 1450-1500 in terms of technology, but I'd say 1700 is the limit.

My story involves the robbery of a casino/gambling house. However, I'm running into trouble figuring out what sort of security they would have in place. How would security be provided with low technology? Guards presumably, but what sort of physical set ups might be put in place?

While the world does have magic and I am including that to a degree, I don't want the security system to be some vague "protective spell." Thus, I'd like answers to be science or history based.

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    $\begingroup$ I tagged this with "crime" as it seemed related. I can remove that tag if it's not appropriate. $\endgroup$
    – CoolCurry
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ The tag seems to work fine. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 0:50
  • $\begingroup$ I have a vague security-addition running in my head, but it depends on one thing: What exactly are they trying to steal? Just the money the Casino has, or something special that happens to be within the Casino? $\endgroup$
    – Layna
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 10:18

9 Answers 9


First of all, your best bet for security in any age is a bunch of locked doors. These offer the narrative possibilities of finding the key, or picking a lock as a guard walks around the corner.

I assume you want some more, though, and since you've got a casino I get the feeling you want modern-feeling security measures. For that, the first thing that comes to mind is a tripwire attached to a bell. It wouldn't be too hard to implement, and in a world before electricity there are a lot of dark places to trip up a burgular. There could be many wires and many bells, all in some centralized location, so only one guard could 'patrol' a large portion of a building.

If this is a building built for the purposes of security, you could have the corridors specially constructed to carry sound. Perhaps there are special holes in the ceiling, and no carpets/tapestries to muffle the sounds of thieving footfalls. Maybe there's also a series of mirrors, allowing a guard to see around corners or even to the other side of the building. And don't forget communication, in a big enough space your guards are going to need a horn or something with which they can signal for backup. All of these methods could also be used by a smart thief to trick the guards and send them the wrong way, but they also present a serious threat to the unprepared.

There are a lot of more dangerous security measures (see pretty much any fantasy video game), but these options make it pretty easy for the owners of the casino to get around without worrying about their safety.


There are likely to be a few mundane security measures in place:

  • safes date back to Pompeii, so having a safe or other strongbox would be entirely reasonable
  • jails (with their metal bars) are very nearly as good as keeping people out as they are at keeping them in
  • security guards (well, those that hold that title, anyway) are likely to be in evidence (whether they're trustworthy, however, is another question entirely)
  • any number of traps might be available (Pathfinder has a fairly long list of traps; anything with a CR of 5 or lower is likely to be plausible); note that, depending on the local constabulary, traps that have a high likelihood of killing the person that sets it off may be frowned upon
  • surreptitious surveillance slots seem certain

With the addition of even "simple" magic, you could emulate a lot of very high-tech security systems:

  • magical doors may be impossible to open (short of knocking down their wall) without a specific token (key-card reader)
  • magical detectors could alert security when people enter certain places (laser grids, IR motion detectors)
  • scrying devices could allow a few guards to remotely view large areas of the casino (security cameras)
  • that Pathfinder trap list page has some suggestions for what kinds of triggers various magical traps might use

Since you're writing a heist story, the magics could well have external pieces which would allow the robbers to affect them (eg., enchanted tracery which, if damaged, will allow the thieves to bypass the detectors), or may be able to be fooled with sufficient preparation.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for Pathfinders link and simple magic solutions. Would suggest replacing the words "magical detectors" with "scrying devices" in the security camera solution. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 3:01
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor: good idea; done. $\endgroup$
    – minnmass
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ Good ideas minnmass. I hope you don't mind that I added IR motion detectors as a modern-day example for your "magical detectors" point. (If you do, feel free to roll back!) $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ Not at all, @MichaelKjörling. $\endgroup$
    – minnmass
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 16:20

Casinos look a little more secure then they actually are. The big hole in security now, and as well as in the age you are looking at is that they need large amounts of cash at hand. That's cash that is at the cashier and at the table games they might play. There is cash that is coming in constantly from the players, and cash to pay players off that simply needs to be easily accessible.

One can go in a modern casino today, and at the main cashier there are millions in funds, that sit in a drawer unlocked if the cashier is standing there. There is no particular security that will stop a determined thief. There are no armed guards, the clerk is going to hand over the money rather then risk their safety.

Back in the era concerning your question, the setup would not be much different. There would be a safe, but it would be in a back room. The clerks station, called a cage today would still be rather exposed and set up to move money with very little if any security that would stop a determined thief. The cage would be far away from an entrance as possible. This is true now and would be true then.

There would not be anything to fancy in the way of security except bars on the cashiers window and ugly tough looking security guards. The main bit of security is that then and in the not to distant past, gambling houses were always owned and operated by people that were tough, mean, ruthless and had ways to get to anybody that robbed them, that conventional law enforcement did not have. In other words they were gangster types no matter what era they were in. They were well connected in the under world of things. It is quite likely that anyone robbing a casino was making a bad bet with their life, and this was the strongest deterrent to crime against a casino.

For your story perhaps the actual robbery is not to complicated, getting away with the heist and staying alive long enough to enjoy the money is the main problem for the thieves.

Some after thoughts:

In the time frame your considering, in the western world at least, Casinos did not look like anything that one might imagine as a casino or gambling house. Table games like black jack, roulette and other games where one makes wagers against the house, and a employee is used to run the game, did not start developing until one or two hundred years after the tech time frame you are considering. The games before that would of been a poker type card game, were they are betting on some card game between the players, in the back room of the tavern. It might be behind a closed door. Your bandits will essentially be robbing the players and not the casino. The players would be playing with coin of the realm or gold rather then some type of casino chips, so most of the money to be had would be at the game and on the table.

The games going where more of a private affair. One could not just walk in and sit down as you can do at a poker table or twenty one game today. The villains in your plot would need to connect to some degree with local gamblers to find out about the game, when it was played and about how much was being played for.

Most gambling, especially at higher stakes was done in very private spaces, and the type of gambling in more public places like a bar that might offer some gaming was of a lower limit more sleazy type of character. The rich games were parlor games in the dukes castle or a rich business mans mansion.

  • $\begingroup$ Especially in a medieval setting where almost everyone knew everyone else inside their social class and it was very hard to integrate into a new community if you choose a new home town, the criminal class would pretty quickly figure out if you got suddenly very rich. You just couldn't electronically transfer your funds to a swiss bank account and emigrate to a tropical island. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 7:16

A casino is different from a redoubt. A redoubt is designed to withstand a siege. Casinos are expected to deal with less than that, but they have to be subtle. Visibly paranoid security discourages the clientele.

Assuming they have enough cash to protect, there will be guards at all times. However, we know most of the cash is in the vault. The more accessible the vault is, the less cash has to be available at the cash-out stations. The harder it is to access, the more cash you have to have at the cash-out stations. They will balance this, so the vault isn't inaccessible.

Because we are not worried about a glorious siege, the real goal is not to stop an attacker, but to force them to reveal their attack. A military fortress may need multiple layers of thick steel, but a casino would rather have a single thin layer which is only accessible from a very visible place. Assuming the casino is legal, any attack which has to be visible for several minutes will fail when the casino notifies the local authorities.

I would expect security measures such as locks, as well as attention-drawing features like nightingale floors. While security cannot be visible on the floor, once you enter the underbelly of the casino, I would expect several independent security stations which can cross-check each other.

As a fancy option, consider making a vault door that is slow to open. There are several mechanical contraptions which can function as time locks. If these time locks ring a bell in several monitored locations, it would be remarkably difficult to enter the vault unannounced.

As an even fancier option, for Casinos that handle ridiculous amounts of cash, you could have a really interesting puzzler for your thieves. Its utterly overkill, but it's what I'd do if I got really paranoid and had lots of money. My vault would be split in half. The outer half would never contain more than a few hours cash, and a time delay of maybe 30 seconds to open the door. Between the outer vault and the inner vault would be an observed hallway with two distinct observation rooms, with several layers of glass and metal between them. The door to the inner vault is on a much longer time delay (perhaps 5-10 minutes). The doors between the outer vault and the hallway, and the door between the hallway and the inner vault are both rigged to never be open at the same time, and can be locked down by either observation booth. It should be possible to transfer cash from inner vault to outer vault or vice.versa under the watchful eye of both observation rooms. Any thief seeking to waltz in would have to compromise two independent observation booths without alerting the other to what is happening, and would have to maintain that for 5-10 minutes while the timelock does its magic.


There's a number of possibilities and I feel they fall into several categories.

The low-tech:

  • Locked doors

  • Brawn (just positioning guards, possibly using big weapons to look scary)

  • A vault

  • Tripwires

  • Dogs to sniff you out

  • Architectural defenses (make it hard to reach the money or give your guards an advantage in detecting or taking care of thieves)

The second category is where magic meets technology. Basically, this is where you take a current piece of technology and simulate it using magic instead of technology. This could include replacing security cameras with scrying, replacing card readers with magical token scanners and things like that.

The third category is purely magical. Magic does not have to be vague and can in fact be very concrete.

  • A magical alarm that alerts someone as soon as anyone enters a certain area

  • Mind-readers walking through the casino to discover the miscreant before they even break in

  • A vault that requires magic in order to reach it or to survive being in it

  • Magically marked funds (it's sort of like marked money, but much trickier due to the fact that they can use magic to locate the funds rather than having to wait for it to resurface)

  • Magically hidden or locked doors can require you to do any number of things to open them - after finding out what to, that is

Note: I didn't make all of this up myself. I tried to gather, summarize and categorize what others said, and added a bit of my own in the last category.

  • $\begingroup$ Good defense-in-depth strategies. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 20:30

One way is to place everything in plain sight. The cash cage is in the center of the room, visible to everyone, but close bars/mesh prevent access apart from through slots and one locked gate. Try to rob it, you have to get past everyone in the building. Downside in this security is if you breach it, there may be a stampede of patrons to take advantage...

But if you can arrange it so that anyone accessing/raiding the vault would be visible to those in the room, and would have to leave through them, then you've done well.

Security is best when multi-layered. Access corridors should allow viewing of those who approach. There should be dummy vaults and other misdirection, big security for a vault that contains only casino chips. Lots of ways to view people approaching the vault, lots of ways to prevent them arriving, lots of identity checks, lots of ways to prevent magical approaches, magic nullifying fields, etc.

In a world with magic, the actual vault could be an airless vault carved of bedrock 50 ft below the ground, filled with superheated oil, with no tunnel or passage leading to it, and only the money, a number of golems, and small one-way airlocked portals for moving money in or out, only openable briefly, at specified pseudorandom times, by a trusted mage, when a golem briefly disables a specific ward that would otherwise prevent teleporting, and the money capsules only be safely openable after cooling, etc etc. End of each night, the profits go in. End of each month, wages are drawn out.

Each coin of the money itself could be cursed to cry out when taken until returned to the oil. Or to silently report its location to the mages. Or the conveniently carriable bags that it's in could do this, thus using fewer spells.

Wards (and backup "tripwires connected to bells") could detect digging, and other voids could be filled with acid to discourage random digging.


Architectural Defenses : moving out from the most secure, inner chambers...

The secure portion of the building should lack windows and should circulate air using funneling wind catchers with openings too small for even a trained monkey to fit through.

This secure potion should be accessible only via a single entrance involving a long narrow corridor with murder holes and ankle breakers. The corridor should be so narrow that only unarmored men can traverse it and even then they must go single file. No light should be provided, requiring that visitors occupy at least one of their weapon hands with a torch.

As BowlTurner suggested, a maze would also provide effective low tech defense, so the single corridor should be surrounded by a maze of branching corridors with lots of complicated loops and a few dead ends. The security guards who actively guard the more secure portions of the building should get their daily exercise by roaming the maze, skuffing their shoes so that all the paths (including the one that leads inward) all are equally worn. The maze is not full of traps. It doesn't have to be. It's job is to delay and divide any group of attackers.

Outside of the maze there should be a wide open corridor which serves no other purpose than to divide the secure portion of the building from the general access areas. A line should define the midpoint of this corridor, with elaborate warning messages and threats. Anyone crossing this line without authorization should be considered a thief and terminated without delay.

Thoughtful building design can go a long way to securing an inner chamber without requiring any modern technologies or intensive magics.


For security pre-industrial world with bit of magic, get inspired by Night Watch from Terry Pratchett Discworld series.

Plain old foot guard with halberds, spiffed up by werewolves if some sniffing is involved, a troll with catapult for firepower, and gnome flying on bird for mobile communication and air view.

Especially werewolves (in their wolf form) would be effective for your door security.

  • $\begingroup$ No need really for werewolves (unless you happen to have them in your world anyway, and want to put them to use here). Just human guards with one or more large dogs, perhaps specifically bred for guarding, should be intimidating enough for most wrongdoers. Consider a mixture of traits from breeds used for livestock guarding purposes and police or military work. Visitors who don't arouse the guards' suspicions should have little to nothing to worry about because it'd be the human guards calling the shots, and the two together could easily make someone's day very bad. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ In areas where visitors shouldn't be, you could even have free-roaming such dogs and prominent warnings not to enter. I'm fairly sure the Germans did something not entirely unlike all this at the Berlin wall: human and dog guards working together. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ werevolves have two advantages: (1) can tell you exactly what they seen or sniff (2) can turn to human to perform task dogs are not capable of doing. But of course you don't "need" them. I just thought it was interesting to have them. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 13:03

The vault could be at the center of a maze, the secrets only known by a few. The majority of the house take would be hiding there, so running capital would be in a less well protected area, with a substantially smaller payday should it be robbed. You could even have 'safe deposit boxes' differing distances into the maze, that those with money could pay for to keep their valuables safe, the farther in the higher the cost.

The maze could have many mundane traps and dangers, as well as differing levels of magic.


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