Friday, March 29, 2013

What's So Damn Hard About Running Ruined Cities?


For the third time in as many years, I deep in insomnia mode last night opened up and reread Robert E. Howard's last-written and perhaps greatest Conan story Red Nails

It's not so much the excess of “raw meat” (that Howard semi-famously admitted in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith about the story) that draws me back each time as much as it is the setting of the story, the massive ceiling-enclosed city-structure of Xuchitol:
“They were not looking into an open street or court as one would have expected. The opened gate, or door, gave directly into a long, broad hall which ran away and away until its vista grew indistinct in the distance. It was of heroic proportions, and the floor of a curious red stone, cut in square tiles, that seemed to smolder as if with the reflection of flames. The walls were of a shiny green material...
The vaulted ceiling was of lapis lazuli, adorned with clusters of great green stones that gleamed with a poisonous radiance...”
Others in old school circles have commented at length about how strong of an influence this particular story had on D&D in its wind-in-its-sails years (the presence of factions, the almost-megadungeoness of the city, the direct inspiration for Moldvay's Lost City module etc.) While I find those things interesting--and often make my hand want to reach for a pad of graph paper--there's something else that draws me back with a stronger compulsion: the sweet melancholy of lost cities.

To be sure it's a theme that gets banged on time and time again in Howard's writings in remarkably similar ways. There's the drug-addled, sinister, slithering menace of the lost desert city of Xuthal; the gleaming ivory dome and sorcerous, sinister menace of Kutchemes; the sinister menace of the dusky iron statues of the island in the Vilayet Sea; the oracular, sinister menace of Alkmeenon —the list of lost cities and creepy menace goes on even, but you get the point.

Though I laugh at it presented in a list like this, it's only half-hearted, I love each of those forgotten cities and never leave reading them without feeling reinspired. It's been a mini-theme here on this blog over the years the love of great heaping ruined piles—something that always maintains my gaming imagination truthfully more than the archetypical megadungeon—but something eludes me in translating that vision into play at the table.

To sure I have dipped my foot into it, the half-ruined metropolis of Kezmarok and its vast undercity have been a central revolving point of the HC campaign for going on nine months now. But the full on running of a vast ruined city as an adventuring locale has eluded me.

And it's potential, unlike the dungeon, seems to have eluded D&D for a good long time, even back in the hoary day. To be sure we had The Lost City (mentioned above), Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and Night's Dark Terror (not surprisingly all on my mighty short list of beloved published adventures). All of them are evocative, dripping with flavor and nicely done encounter areas, but there is a doggedly vague spareness to them, a feeling of a very psychologically little place.

The ruins bug caught back then too. I distinctly remember painstakingly drawing out whole city blocks building by building over many sheets of graph paper for my Gamma World and AD&D campaigns—and panicking each time when the keying came around.

Why is that? Is it the awkwardness of the scale? Or the age-old dilemma of what to do with “empty space”?

Part of the ongoing success of the dungeon, as any GM who has had to run a game for more than a few sessions instantly groks, is the manageability of the micro-environment. On the other end of the scale spectrum (and trickier to pull off in an interesting way) is the hand-waving emptiness of the wilderness where whole miles are nothing more than a few sentences between the punctuation of encounters and zoomable sites.

But the ruined city is sandwiched in there between scalewise, with hundreds if not thousands of potentially exploreable sites spread over a distance smaller than a wilderness hex but many times larger horizontally than even the biggest of dungeons. The confining visibility and limited choices explode exponentially in the open streets.

That Dragon magazine had only a single article, “Ruins: Rotted and Risky but Rewarding” (issue #54) devoted to city ruins as an adventuring site is again telling. There are some clues and fixes there in that single entry (random chart and descriptions of a number of commonly found buildings--that sadly suffer from too many overly-prosaic examples like a paragraph on a bowyer's workshop) and some things that just compound the overwhelming feel of it like advising to map the whole city in a 10-yard scale (just think about that for a second).

The wind-up is overlong here, so I will leave some of the fixes and half-solutions swirling around in my brain for the follow-up (and yes the pointcrawl and Runequest's Big Rubble loom big there).

I turn the floor back to you: have you had successes/difficulties in running this kind of site? What have you learned?

32 comments:

  1. I think inna lot of cases--unless the place has a roof-- it needs to be abstracted--"Are you looking for anything in particular?" you search until (roll roll) you find... and then a choice of 2-3 interesting things, then proceed as dungeon from there.

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  2. I have been doing more mapping of my three mile long cruise-ship megadungeon, which I find is actually closer to a ruined city, beyond certain dungeon like sites. Here's things I've noticed as helpful - overall maps with 1000' sqaures showing general areas - coupled with elevation maps, mid range maps at 100' squares and 10' or 20' square maps for special areas.

    Using a set of "ruin" or "apartment" maps for exploration of certain common locations types based on region. The maps are simple can can be repeated, with alphabetically keyed areas for special things like lairs and treasure. Tables for encounters similar to random encounter tables but with trick, monsters and abandoned treasure for a one roll building stocker.

    Fast means to go from region to region - I'm using rails, but canals or some magic junk would work fine. Of course these are controlled and regulated by factions but they allow fast movement to interesting spots as necessary.

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  3. We share the love of ruined cities and the frustration in never quite getting it right at that scale. My upcoming campaign will revolve ar ound a sort of ruined urban sprawl where ruin, dungeon and settlement get all sort of mashed together. I've had some fits and starts myself.

    So far I've come up with: tables, tables and more tables and have been thinking about taking another look at Vornheim and adapting the city crawl rules to be city ruin crawl rules. Zak, feel free to jump on this for me, if you like. ; )

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  4. I'd run a city ruin with a general layout map, a few keyed sites, a guide to factions and population, and a big table of random finds, obstacles, hazards and one-off denizens.

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  5. Oh yeah, when faced with unmapped areas Zak's Vornheim methods (dice generated pathes etc) are really good for improvisation.

    The trouble I've gotten with that is fitting it all in on a large coherent map (though my game world is rather constrained), and defining faction controlled areas (which is why the huge maps are helpful - Like: random crawl these number shaped gangways and cabins for 500' until there's a ladder up...oh and look you're in the area controlled by haints.

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  6. I don't think gamers are well read enough or artistic enough to design such a ruined city in a way that would distinguish it from a generic repetitive mush of dungeon rooms. just look at how random tables are considered a sine qua non of design for anything larger than a puddle.

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    1. The Mongoose Conan "Ruins of Hyboria" book would be a prime example of that random table mush. Lots of dull, inchoate elements rolled up do not add up to imaging the hell out of something.

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    2. The tables are just a tool, though. It's the content and designed interaction of the table that say how well read or artistic the gamer is.

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    3. I agree with James here. It's how the tables are actually used too, the work done in play and the quality of the split-second decisions.

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    4. No of course and nothing against random tables as such, they can certainly help unlock the logjam at times. But you know garbage in, garbage out.

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    5. Fair enough. But to extend that metaphor, a lot of garbage can be recycled into useful new things.

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  7. I'd take a map of the city as it was when lived in and use that, making up the degree of ruin on a table or on the fly with key points detailed as they are now where necessary. Did this with my home town for an Aftermath game, worked OK, but that was kind of cheating as all the players knew the area well. GMd Big Rubble, but that was more linked dungeons with a very encounter dense wilderness on top. I had a few much reused mini maps of typical ambush sites, inspired by the D1-3 series underworld corridor and minor cavern map sections.

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  8. Interesting and thought-provoking post, as usual. I think I may differ in approach from the standard by treating cityscapes and ruins as wilderness as opposed to dungeons. There is a lot of opportunity for vertical movement in a city with towers and that can be handle by a quick synopsis or even sub-table if you like, either for each specific tower, or for general classes of towers, etc. I also like the not-Geomorphs from the old D1-2 modules; instead of being click-together blocks, they are zoom-in mini-maps that highlight a particular area or special feature. There's a lot that could be done with that sort of thing as I posted about this morning.

    Ruined cities are such a very important part of the literary inspirations behind most of the games. It would be cool to have more tools for handling this sort of thing, so I'm kicking around a few ideas and I bet there are at least a score or more others looking to take their best shot at this aspect of the game right now. With all the resident mad geniuses on-hand, we ought to see some cool stuff soon...

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    1. "There is a lot of opportunity for vertical movement in a city with towers and that can be handle by a quick synopsis or even sub-table if you like, either for each specific tower, or for general classes of towers, etc."

      I have to admit the whole reason this post came into existence is my somewhat vain attempt to map out a Xuchitol clone. Howard describes it as having at least four levels above-ground (and a vast compartmentalized catacomb beneath) and seems to imply a complicated arrangement of side galleries, staircases, choke point doors branching off the gigantic north-south central hallway all at differing vertical levels.
      A conceptual challenge but one I am intrigued at plugging away at.

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    2. That is one of the most iconic of Conan's ruined cities. Red Nails is still one of my favorite stories. Mapping Xuchitol is an interesting challenge. I've experimented with mapping out Xuchitol, but never quite got it to work out in a way I liked, so I put it on the back-burner and went on to other stuff. I'll have see if I can find those old sketches, or hell just do some fresh new ones now that Gus L. has gotten me started on a new hand-drawn mapping kick...

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  9. I think Gus has it right: use a set of "geomorphs" to represent random city locations when you need to "zoom in" on the action (such as a random encounter), plus a few unique keyed locations, and the over-arching map of the city.

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  10. Are you familiar with Beedo's Black City campaign? He has some good ideas on running a ruined city.

    P.S. Are we gonna play in the tabletop campaign anytime soon?

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  11. I have been trying to tackle this notion for several years, and I eventually did it as though I were tackling an ACTUAL city the players were in: a rough map of the urban environment, detailed information about each region, encounter types there, some standard buildings, and then a number of "sites" to visit.

    Essentially, I've been handling them as urban environments that have wandering monster checks. My chief example is the Giant-ruin of Temeros, which I actually wrote a sort of Myth Drannor like guide for to keep myself in the loop. If anyone is interested, I can post what I've done with it...

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    1. I'll work it up in a format fit to post, hope my players never read it, and put it up for Sunday.

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    2. I wound up just putting it together for this morning over here if the notion interests anyone.

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  12. I like the Earthdawn box set for the lost city of Parlainth. It has numerous factions. Several "boss" monsters including a dragon. A town run by former adventurers who were the first guys to explore the place. It had handouts of materials if players did research at the imperial library before they went to the ruined city. Several adventure hooks and ways you can involve the characters in the fighting of the various factions.

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  13. I would handle it the way we handle navigating living cities. City districts. Have a paragraph about each district giving its flavor, in the ruined state. A smithing district might have gutters that sparkle with mineral runoff from the forges, a rich district has bigger, nicer buildings, but perhaps the marble facades have been mostly stripped off. Pick a few big encounter spaces, like an arena or a temple or something. Other notable landmarks include plazas with an interesting structure or statuary.

    That's how I've broken cities and ruins into chunks when I've run games anyway, and it seems to work. As the players navigate the area for a while, they seem to get a sense of the layout in the same way that you do after moving to a city. "The lair of that dragon we defeated? Um, I think it's past the fountain with the two mermen fighting, yeah, by the nasty old slaughterhouses that were full of carrion crawlers."

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  14. Some stuff I wish I had figured out before starting my Vaults game:

    How dangerous is the ruin itself with collapsing buildings and streets caving in to sewers and whatnot?

    Do you want the players to stop and explore every roofed structure?

    Is there a means of fast transportation or do the players have to ruincrawl everywhere, and if it's a crawl how likely are they to get waylaid by wandering monsters and mishaps?

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  15. You might find this post on my blog interesting. I talk about the difficulty of transitioning between scenario structures in a dungeon: I.E., when you have a large, underground complex in which there are isolated pockets of “interest” which are designed to be run as a room-by-room crawl. The "ruined city" poses similar difficulties.

    First, you need to get the scale and nature of the key to match the navigational decisions of the players.

    Start by looking at the density of "interesting stuff" in the ruined city. Does every building have something interesting in it? If not, you shouldn't be keying by building. Does every block have something interesting in it? No? Then keep scaling up.

    (The use of the word "every" here doesn't have to be literal. 80-90% is probably a pretty good threshold, though. On the other extreme, if only 10% or 20% of the entities you're keying contain anything of interest then you're almost certainly keying at the wrong scale.)

    The scale at which you decide to key will also inform the level at which the players should be making navigational decisions. If every building is interesting, then they should be going building by building. If every block is interesting, then they should be going block by block. If you're looking at a larger scale than that, then their decisions become more general.

    I'm going to recommend that the easiest way to handle the exploration of a large ruined city is to simply key it as a hexcrawl. At this scale, their initial navigational choices will generally take the form of statements like "we head north" or "we head roughly towards the center of the ruins".

    The big difference, IME, is that there will be a lot more navigation by landmark compared to a wilderness hexcrawl (because the landmarks are closer together and easier to see simultaneously). Similarly, as a DM, you will be challenged by the fact that PCs should be regularly able to see into near-by hexes. So you'll want to experiment with a keying method which makes it easy for you to know, process, and use the things that the PCs can see at any given moment (and also what can see them).

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  16. Great comments from everyone, but there's an easier way; do what that lazy old Professor did in his games, and simply borrow something. His hair-raising stories about getting hopelessly lost in the old Red Fort in Delhi still give me screaming nightmares.

    The world is full of handy ruined cities, and they are there for you to explore!

    yours, Chirine

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    1. That's a good point. There can't too many gaming problems for which a bit of real-life exploration isn't a help.

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  17. Based on running a ruined city adventure or two in Gamma World, there are a few issues I noticed:

    - it's not a dungeon, it's a wilderness with channeling terrain and lots and lots of easy ambush points. Think jungle not plains.

    - it's tough to give a complete impression of what they can see. Visuals help a lot more than in dungeons.

    - you really need wandering monsters and pre-set encounters in a mix, or there isn't anything to do.

    - you need to have a good plan for dealing with improvisation and searches for unexpected materials or locations.


    Out of all the old modules I own, only Dwellers really fit this approach. Lost City was cool but it's a dungeon with a city drawn onto the area map that you can make up yourself. The Ruins of Pitz Burke in Gamma World was pretty good, though, and we had a lot of fun tramping around there. Even as the GM you felt like, man, anything could be in here.

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    1. One more thing - the thing about a ruined city is, the players will want to be able to go anywhere. If you limit their movement, it's just a dungeon. The charm of a ruined city is partly because it's like being in a real city, but you could go anywhere and touch anything.

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  18. Hmm, I was unimpressed on reading Lesserton & Mor, but this thread makes me wonder what would salvage it.

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  19. Over on my blog forgottenrunes.blogspot.com you'll find the ruined city I used for my second edition campaign "City of the Pyramid". I did not try to draw it house by house block by block, there lies madness. Instead I treated it as a wilderness area with random encounters from the various denizens and sprinkled it liberally with little pocket dungeons that the party would "stumble" across. If you can find a copy of "Myth Drangor" the second edition boxed set it is handled in a similar fashion, although it is a much higher level dungeon than mine.

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