Thoughts on ancient structures in fantasy RPG’s and Shadow World.

We dropped anchor in the deep bay west of the Sullen Mountains. A solitary volcanic cone, trickling a faint plume of smoke from its summit loomed above us. The swells chopped but the water was relatively calm compared to the weather we had faced the past few weeks. To the north we beheld the Sunken City, the natives call it the City of Giants, but a cursory inspection of nearby structures indicated the occupants were most certainly mortal in size. The tops of huge blocks, broken towers and chipped obelisks worn down by the millennia spread as far as the eye could see. There must have been leagues of crumbling ruins above the water, but I could only imagine what secrets lay beneath the dark waves.

Travel Journals of Malco Teves, Merchant Captain of the Storm Sea Free Traders

Ancient castles, dark crypts, lost cities. Exploring ruins and structures is a key component in fantasy roleplaying, and if your games are similar most of these “ancient structures” are in fact really not that “ruined”.  I recently visited the Yucatan Peninsula and 4 different Mayan sites: Chitzen Itza, Coba, Tulum and a small complex on Cozumel. In some ways, Coba was the most interesting as much of the huge site (home to 55,000 people) is still buried under the jungle.  As I walked through the jungles, I definitely had my GM hat on, and thought about the experience through a roleplaying session. Peering into the jungle you can see numerous, huge, mounds covered in scattered stones, undergrowth and trees.  These are all buildings that not only haven’t been excavated, they are probably just piles of rubble. Most of the iconic buildings we see at these sites or in pictures are the result of complete rebuilding–often times done multiple times to either repair shoddy work or to correct architectural mistakes as archaeologists gather new information.

In other words, many untouched ancient ruins in real life wouldn’t make good adventure settings! Over time ancient structures degrade: they are buried under strata, collapsed in cataclysms or earthquakes, looted, stripped of cut stone for new buildings or leveled by conquering forces. In jungles, foliage quickly cover buildings and root systems crush and grind the buildings to dust. This reality is in sharp contract to our expectations as adventurers. Rarely do parties have to dig for days or weeks to uncover a tomb entrance or hire a work force to lift and move thousands of cut stones of a collapsed building. Many structures might not even resemble buildings as much as mounds of rubble or small hills which doesn’t work well for a cinematic approach to your game. I think we all tend towards “ruins lite” in our games: basically recognizable and functional structures with some crumbling around the edges.

But what if the buildings are much, much older than Earth comparables?  Right now the oldest constructions on Earth are 10,000 to 12,000 years old (Gobleki Tepi and Jericho) and GT was purposefully buried in 8000 BC to protect it! The 3 Eras in Shadow World span more than 100,000 years with many distinct high tech cultures and of course immortal Elves. These cultures left behind remnants of their civilizations across the planet.

Priest King of Shade (the opening vignette was taken from that) includes the ruins of a 1st Era Althan city. Over 100,000 years old, partially submerged and continuously explored and looted by subsequent cultures I had to think about how it would have survived or what it’s present state should be. Since we don’t have anything to compare to here and it was a city of advanced tech I had to guess at it. And what about other ancient lost ruins that may not date to the 1st Era but are still TENS of thousands of years old. Should we expect them to be intact, structurally sound and playable? Maybe hand wave their condition away due to “magic”?

I’m curious if anyone else has thought about this, introduced standard archaeology or excavation in any of their adventures or have thoughts on this topic?

9 Replies to “Thoughts on ancient structures in fantasy RPG’s and Shadow World.”

  1. Some of the solution can come down to the nature of the high tech elements. One of my few encounters with high tech in play playing in shadow world involved us trying to work an elevator. To me it seemed slightly ludicrous as we went from running battle outside, into the villains hide out, eventually find this lift and then on with the battle afterwards. I just could not get the image of the characters stood in the lift making small talk, like film extras after the director has called ‘Cut’ discussing their weekend and waiting for the next shout of ‘Action!’

    So do Shadow World’s ancient site have lots of materials that are largely impervious to change and degradation like plastics and very non-reactive metals like titanium alloys? If it does then these could be holding structures together in a way that our own world cannot match.

  2. In Emer III it’s stated that the Jinteni ruins are infused with Essænce which has helped preserve them, and that they are slightly out of phase with normal time. I imagine that the Lords of Essænce were even better at such matters, and also had even more advanced technology.

    1. That sounds better than non-biodegradable plastics and characters wading through 100,000 years of discarded carrier bags.

  3. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve actually been to the Coba ruins (though we never were able to get to nearby Tulum seeing as we were getting married that week), and had very similar thoughts to you Brian! Funny how that goes.

    As an historian, I’ve always thought the Shadow World timeline was a bit too long. Human society seems to have progressed relatively quickly over time compared to it. Technologies have been lost in particular areas during particular Dark Ages, but rarely do they disappear entirely (unless replaced by superior ones). in 2000 years we’ve come from horses to rockets and satellites… yet some of these fantasy worlds seem to be stuck for tens of thousands of years between horses and gunpowder, and I don’t find that particularly realistic.

    So I think you do need to at least invoke ‘magic’ or some other explanation for that. Magic can inhibit innovation, and preserve ancient sites long after they would have been otherwise destroyed. I generally tend to like the low magic settings, but paradoxically the realist in me tends to invoke it to explain things that otherwise would be hard to explain.

    1. One thing that I think I suggested in the forums is that magic may well attract the sort of people who would otherwise be inventing stuff. So inventions lack the talent pool needed to advance technology. Admittedly, I can’t really see it slowing things down for thousands and thousands of years.

        1. I tend to rate plausibility above realism in science fiction and fantasy (after all – magic!). I like there to be a plausible explanation, even if it’s an unlikely one to be realistic.

  4. Lots of great topic threads here in the comments. A few additional thoughts:

    1. I’m ok with the timeline of SW–the idea of an ancient modern civilization that is supplanted by magic after a cataclysm is pretty common in literature: Shannara, The Broken Empire etc. The issue is just how long even modern structures can last. The show “After Humans” made a compelling case that modern structures don’t last (in fact degrade incredibly fast), but ancient stone structures survive. Of course much of this depends on environmental conditions. ‘Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids’

    2. Materials. The Loremaster series and later, SW, Terry introduced magical materials like Laen that are basically impervious to degradation. OTOH, most Lords of Essence Complexes also use marble and other high end, natural materials. A few basic surviving structures does make sense, especially from a Tech Lvl 11+ society with a zero point or fusion power system that can keep habitation systems operational. We’ve updated the Master Atlas with Althan materials like ceram-steel, titanium-glass and duracrete that represent Althan (not Ka’ta’viir) tech.

    3. There are three major high tech cultures that occurred in the interregnum: Worim, Jinteni and Taranian. The Worim and Jinteni used a tech/Essaence fusion while the Taranians were just high tech. Whether they use “magic” or not, these cultures manifested 30k-80k years ago.

    I like the idea of these ancient structures surviving, and the lack of realism is lost in the game to the players. In general though, aren’t the most intact structures the likeliest to be looted? Thinking of D&D, just how many tombs and dungeons can remain unspoiled? Is it more likely that the most destroyed complexes are the hardest to explore and loot? Is there a better mechanism to keep structures intact and unspoiled? How about magical wards, runes and symbols?

    I’m working on written magic for BASiL and putting the effects of time aside, the most obvious mechanism for unlooted tombs and dungeons is not just “magic” but protective, inscribed magic. Rune, symbols, wards and glyphs. Perhaps the structures aren’t quite as old, but their perseverance is dependent on potent protective magic.

    1. There are also the Eyes. They didn’t exist when Althan civilisation arose; they could be having weird effects on technology, combined with the existing effects of Essænce.

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