Friday, September 20, 2013

Layers of Places Past: Creating Ruins with Purpose

The BIGGEST Henge in the WORLD!
This is yet another post for CampaignMastery's Location blog carnival! Hope you enjoy!

Today, I am going to elaborate on an excellent suggestion from Realmwright on my previous post. I am going to talk a bit about why ruined locations show up where they do, and how their past might inform their present desolation.

The fantasy genre in general, and fantasy games in particular, spend a lot of time focusing on places from the past. Authors like Tolkien and Terry Brooks build their worlds around elaborate histories of rise and ruin. Characters in videogame and tabletop RPGs spend much of their time poking through lost catacombs and ruined castles. The thing is, all that was old was new at one time, and when it was, these ancient places likely served a purpose.

I have a love-hate relationship with many dungeon maps, especially those which follow an old-school aesthetic. Maps are a lot of fun to look at in general, to imagine what a place or space really looks like based on its top-down representation, and old school dungeon maps have an elegant simplicity about them. The problem is, they often seem to be a tangle of rooms and corridors built for no discernible reason!

Now, where the heck is the bathroom?

Sure, the person who dreamed up the dungeon, always says there's a purpose. The map above is clearly a temple of the ancient Blue Oyster Cult. The architecture of Blue Oys is often characterized by its meandering lines and maddening lack of doors in places where they should exist. Archaeologists believe the structure was designed to amplify the sound of the cowbells used in the cult's mysterious rituals.

Seriously, though, who builds like this!? And "insane wizards" is an answer that you can get away with exactly once in your game! I'm looking at you, Undermountain!

This kind of random dungeon layout, while interesting to look at in a circuit board kind of way, really drives me nuts. If you haven't read it yet, Bartoneus, over at Critical Hits has created one of my absolute favorite blog series, called The Architect DM, which is all about creating fantasy designs with a purpose and is a useful way to counter the random dungeon sprawl. I highly recommend you read it, bookmark it, and reference it often when creating your own locations.

When I approach the design of a ruined structure, I always try to start before it was a ruin. I ask myself the following questions:

Why was it built?

Cathedrals are laid out with Christian symbolism very much in mind.

The answer to this question can provide a lot of insight into how a place is laid out. A structure built for defense, will have thick walls, places to isolate attackers, places for defenders to hold up or counterattack from a position of advantage. Religious places might have religious symbolism built into their design. Catholic cathedrals are laid out in the shape of a cross for a reason! Dwellings will be structured to meet life needs.

In answering this question, you could also apply the exercise from my previous post about picking settlement locations. If the structure was intended to gather and process resources (like a mine) it will need to be near a spot that has, or used to have those resources. A defensive structure will likely take advantage of defensible surroundings, etc.

The trick here is to not let the initial design drive you too crazy. Even a rough layout may suffice. For the elven museum I mapped out last Monday, I started with a basic idea of the various wings. Five rectangles sufficed. One for the main hall with the animals, a wing to the right dedicated to magic, one to the left dedicated to alchemy and preservation, a large gathering and ritual chamber, and an extraplanar library space, where they could store their most valuable items (their books, knowledge and cultural records). I could wait to draw out specific rooms when I was done "ruining" it.

Why is it no longer used that way?

One of the first dungeons I ran my players through was once
a water treatment plant from an ancient, advanced civilization

The next thing to ask is why this particular location no longer serves its original purpose. This can inform your "ruining" in a number of ways. If the location was destroyed suddenly by natural disaster, it will likely have a random pattern of destruction applied to it. If it was attacked by an army, or a dragon, the destruction might be more purposeful (breach the walls to get to the keep!). If it was simply abandoned, to the ravages of time, its ruining might be more subtle, and if it once had working magic or contraptions, some of them might still function. Finally, if it was taken over by new ownership, those owners might have modified it for their own purposes.

The pattern of deterioration can help give purpose to seemingly random passages and dead ends. In my elven museum, I used collapsed hallways to keep the structure simplified and to avoid having to build out every administrative office and storage room. It let me stick to the parts where adventure was to be had.

Adding randomness through layers

Seattle used to have a martini bar built into a converted church.

A history of ownership is another excellent way to add randomness with a purpose. A structure may have started out as a cathedral, only to be converted into a marketplace, before being abandoned when kobolds break into the basement and set up shop. Perhaps these things happened back-to-back-to-back. Perhaps the structure was left abandoned in between. Regardless, each owner would add their own touches to suit their needs. Sticking with our example, perhaps the altar or a stained glass window still remains, supplemented by an entrance cut for moving in temporary market booths, or merchant stalls built along the sides of the nave. When the kobolds showed up, they may have decorated the place with their own graffiti, laid traps in the entryways, and maybe turned a couple of the stalls into garbage dumps. Who knows, maybe a friggin griffon made a nest in the belfry at one point while the place was abandoned. Ownership doesn't necessarily mean intelligent, but it should mean purposeful.

By briefly walking through the layers of ownership while planning out your location, you can better create ruin with a purpose, and provide a richer experience for your players as they explore. Why does this hallway suddenly dead end? The ceiling collapsed, or the thieves guild blocked it off to avoid unwanted intruders from that direction are much more satisfying answers than because its the edge of the graph paper.

Putting it all together

While these questions are important to keep in mind, you probably don't need to draw out every stage in a ruined location's life, unless you a) have plenty of time on your hands, and b) really want to. Just keeping the above considerations in mind as you rough stuff out should be enough to lend purpose to your final map.

Hopefully you found this advice helpful. If you try this out for your own creations, your players or readers might just find themselves asking questions like the following:

Warning, lyrics NSFW


  1. If something LOOKS like a circuit board... why couldn't someone have built it for that very purpose (think something along the order of the Nazca lines, or some of the massively complex crop circles) and everything in the dungeon could be the things that "upkeep it" (i.e. magical monsters) or somehow became broken, lost its purpose, or needed the right people (read the characters) to activate it. I think it would be neat to go through such a place... throughout the entire dungeon fixing things as they went along and at the end they activate it and get whisked off to another world.

    1. That's an awesome idea, and an excellent example of purposeful randomness/complexity! The Nazca lines likely held symbolic significance, and crop circles are made, in part, for artistic reasons, so what might seem random (giant ant outlined in the middle of the desert?) likely has some meaning to it, though that meaning may be lost to time.

      Some folks over on Google+ raised the question about underground builders that use natural caves to avoid having to make large excavations. Laziness/wanting to avoid excavating is also a perfectly usable reason, but is a reason for the design, nonetheless.

    2. In Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper, a group finds an abandoned robotic factory. They turn on the lights, which activates some of the robots, which soon causes problems for the explorers...

  2. Wow! A whole, AWESOME post based on my comment/suggestion. Thanks for the validation!

  3. Hi, Geoff!
    What do you think about Russian translation of this text?


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