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?