As the final riddle that Gollum gives Bilbo implies, time devours all things. Between natural disasters and war, cities and villages find their untimely demise. These dead places are the envy of archaeologists and scholars. If Indiana Jones taught us anything about archaeology, it is that it’s full of adventure.
The long-dead remains of cities and villages are filled with creatures and what is left of the former inhabitants. Exactly what you will encounter should be given some careful consideration to bring out the mood and mystery.
A Once Thriving Home
Before a city can become a ruin, it has to be a city. It is important to remember who used to live in the city in order to flush out more details described later. It is also good to think about the size of the city, as larger cities tend to be more multicultural. These cultures – either one or several – will shape location, architecture, and treasures that your players will find.
Location, Location, Location
The location of your city is integral to its purpose. If the city is in the woods, perhaps it is a lumber city. A coastal city might have been a trade port, or a fishing village. These will help determine various buildings and artifacts that will be found. From a fishing village you can expect to find fishing gear and boats.
The location will help in defining the destruction of your city as well. If a city is located at the base of a volcano, then one potential reason is that the volcano erupted and covered the town. Your city can even change locations as a result of the disaster, like a magic storm sending the city into the Feywild.
Some great seeds of adventures come from the things that are hidden within the city. Some cities have gone to great lengths to protect and/or hide potentially hazardous secrets. Perhaps they sealed a powerful demon underneath the city or were the secret vanguards to a powerful sentient artifact.
The destruction and/or abandonment of a city is the most important step in the creation of a ruin. With the location and the people you can choose a disaster that works for this unique city. The disaster can be as drastic as a volcano erupting to as simplistic as abandonment. These are not limited to natural disasters – war and magic are great examples of non-natural disasters that cause destruction.
Each of the various disasters will leave behind a different set of evidence. While a volcano and a fire both have the charring of wood and stone, a volcano will leave behind solidified magma. This evidence will tell the story of what happened to the city without lengthy exposition.
If you want a potential adventure hook, take a disaster and put it in a location that does not make sense to the surrounding area. A town covered in magma in the middle of the desert may seem out of place and could lead to something bigger going on in your world.
When people flee from a city they take things with them. If the disaster is sudden people will be able to take less, more time to react and they may take more. Sometimes no time is given and people do not escape. Knowing this will help you answer: what did the people fleeing leave behind?
That which is left behind either turns to dust or treasure. And treasure can lure all sort of dangerous things like dragons and adventurers. It is possible that an artifact left behind was the reason for its destruction. Stories – even false stories – of these great treasures can become legends that drive adventurers to them.
After the city has been abandoned/destroyed something else will inevitably move in to claim the once live city as their own. Even if the conditions are extremely bad I like to remember:
“Life finds a way.” – Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park
Part of deciding what now inhabits the city depends on the surrounding region, the previous inhabitants, and the disaster. Here are some examples:
Cults – They have decided that this ruined city is great as their home base. After all, who is going to wander into some creepy ruins?
Plants – The magical energy that destroyed the town has brought new life to the plants. Some have become carnivorous and hostile.
Another City – Why does the city have to stop? Why build the foundation to a city when one already exists?
Necromancer/Lich – There were plenty of bodies left over after the war destroyed this once beautiful city, enough to build an army.
Tribe – A tribe of nomads or goblins have made this their home, making raids on nearby towns.
Dragon – A great place for a dragon to settle down to create fear in the nearby area. Who wants to go near the ruins with a dragon living inside?
Druids – The land has been reclaimed by nature or is recovering from the disaster, a druid may take refuge to aid in healing the land.
Researchers – Other researchers could have made it before you, or even employed you after an accident occurred.
You can create some cool dungeons surrounding or within certain details that you incorporated into your ruined city. For example you could take an ancient building – like a temple – and create an elaborate dungeon where a holy relic was last known to be, or a library of a long lost civilization. The ruins itself may be the dungeon if your party has received a quest to wipe out a group of cultists or to drive off a dragon.
Ruins are a fantastic way to give age and history to your world and its cultures. Entire myths and legends can crop up around them and make way for memorable adventures. Giving precise details about them give the hints for players to pick up on the history without having to give lengthy monologues. Hopefully this helps in bringing your ruins to life. Please let me know how you have used ruins in your games and what you think I missed.