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?