Up until my move back to Texas last summer, I lived and worked in the post-industrial train wreck of a city called Detroit. Early on in my seven-winter tenure there, a colleague at the magazine I worked for gave me some half-baked advice about coping with the Motor City: try a positive re-frame and embrace the city in all its ruined charm.
I never managed to get my head around the human misery factor enough to ever quite make that full embrace, but I did fall in on occasion with a peculiar, brave crowd of urban explorers who have.
The covert tours of magnificent hulking buildings (such as the old main train station downtown pictured here), always managed to evoke inside of me the lost-glory awe of Howard-esque ruined cities. The implied sense of danger that came with trespassing in a rough place added to that dramatic tension in a way exploring old West Texas forts or castle ruins in Europe never managed to do. Calling on those memories at times have helped me draw a mental picture of the forbidden dungeons and sunken cities I populate my campaign world with.
Still I have yet to fully capture the totality of that feeling. My maps and scenery descriptions just have never quite hit the mark. They miss something of the scope, adrenalin edge, and pathos of those walking tours.
Travelling back to Michigan in recent months it hit me what I was missing: I wanted a large, sprawling setting that was not quite a full, monster-inhabited ruin, nor simply a run-down fantasy metropolis.
Pulling back to memories of the works of the great medieval historian, Steven Runciman, I suddenly remembered his sad, yet beautifully eloquent description of Constantinople, before its fall to the Turks in 1453. He wrote of the city, which had shrunk from a population of a million in the 12th century down to about a hundred thousand at the time:
"Of the suburbs along the Thracian shores, once studded with splendid villas and rich monasteries, only a few hamlets were left, clustering around some ancient church. The city itself, within its 14 miles of walls, had even in its greatest days, been full of parks and gardens, dividing the various quarters. But now many quarters had disappeared, and fields and orchards separated those that remained. The traveller Ibn Battuta counted 13 hamlets within its walls...In many districts you would have thought you were in the open countryside, with wild roses blooming in the hedgerows in spring and nightengales singing in the copses."
Re-reading that passage cemented it for me. I wanted a city that had a vestiage of human civilization surrounded by an internal wilderness--a "point of light" in the confine of a large-scale urban setting. Why not a once-great metropolis with a valiant human garrison manning sprawling long sets of triple walls beset both internally and externally? Why not a mega-dungeon of sorts sprawling horizontally above ground and here and there punctuated with hard-pressed human "wards"? And best of all, why not plop this mini-sandbox right down on a time-forgotten border of the Hill Cantons sandbox...