Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Discreet Charm of City Ruins

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...


  1. Sounds glorious! And also usable in a post-apoc setting, of course.

  2. The 2E Jakandor setting did exactly this. You had a culture of magic-fearing animist barbarians versus an ancient culture devoted to gradually exploring and salvaging the (infested and haunted) ruins of their own lost greatness.

    It was good, evocative stuff rather remeniscent of Tekumel, but was unfortunately let down by mediocre cartography and an unnecessarily rigid adherence to the RAW 2E D&D system.

    I really should blog it...

  3. @Jeff: Definitely usable in the aftermath, but I was thinking that this city would be more like "on the brink of said apoc". Things have been deteoriating in a long, slow process over the centuries and now the shit is coming to a head.

    @Chris: One thing I love about kicking things back to the brain trust out there is finding out there is really nothing new under this (dying?) sun. Seriously you should blog about this, never heard of it. Give us neophytes all the skinny.

  4. Thanks for the post. Huge fan of Byzantine history and born/raised in Detroit (we went into "the city" less than a dozen times in my 18 years there). You've given me something new to do when I head back there to visit my kin. Or, maybe I could just introduce the C&C version of Motown in my current campaign. Hmmmm...

  5. The dark ages-ish homebrew setting that I dream of running would feature London after the Romans have left. It might have even been abandoned by the Britons in the face of the Saxon invasion.

    Plague is another way to depopulate a city. Half of Paris died during the Black Death. There's a spooky setting to adventure in.

  6. @Rusty: De nada, always good to hear from someone who will hold their hand up and point to a spot to tell you where they are from. The sad news is that the Michigan Central station is now scheduled for demo. I would say hurry to tour it next time you are up, but they have the place surrounded in razor wire now. Not to mention the Morlock hordes hanging out in the tunnel beneath the tracks...

    @Red: You know my love for Bernard Cornwell's Winter King series runs deep so a "hell yeah" on getting that setting out there. Cornwell does a decent job of describing a half-ruined glory in the first or second book. Are you planning fantasy substitutes for the Saxons or playing it straight?

  7. Dude, that is awesome. Interestingly, I am also a journalist and have written several articles about Detroit. One of them gave me an opportunity to tour the old Book-Cadillac hotel back when it was a gutted hulk, just prior to a multi-million-dollar renovation project. I fell in love with Detroit's crumbling beauty, and agree with you that such a setup would make for a thoroughly engrossing fantasy game. Rock on!

  8. Thank you for quoting that passage and building on it. That's pure inspiration!

    I was recently pondering unearthing my old Forgotten Realms Myth Drannor boxed set and running it as an open-air megadungeon with a non-D&D system. I've always struggled to picture such a glorious and vast ruin, but this has given me some great imagery to work with!