The Uses of Ancient Civilizations

There’s one in every world, isn’t there? Somewhere in history, there was a civilization. It was advanced, or at least looked advanced, probably in the areas of magic or technology. At least one society is descended from it, one way or another (or so they claim). And it’s not here now.

Ancient civilizations are ubiquitous because they’re useful; there are a lot of ways that they can be used to flavor a world, motivate characters, or advance a plot. What are they?

  • Establishing wonder and a sense of age in the world. Whether the ancients could do impossible with their buildings or not, a lot of the time they could certainly do spectacular, and even the remnants can be pretty breathtaking. Now imagine being at the foot of one of those near-skyscraper statues, or in the midst of the former city with its mossed-over domes, and realizing that this thing has been gathering moss since long before your own home was even considered (extra credit if the character considering this is from one of those places with A History). Like that.
  • Providing an excuse to have, but not be able to create, technological or magical marvels. More often than not, the lost civilizations had better tech than anyone, and when they were lost, the secrets to this tech—but not necessarily the tech itself—was lost with them. Does occasionally have suspension of disbelief issues (we can’t retroengineer it why, exactly?), but it’s a pretty well-accepted explanation. Which leads us to…
  • Something to dangle in front of the knowledge/crafting buffs. Forgotten secrets? The history of a dead civilization? Pack us a lunch and let’s go!
  • Or just provide a place to explore. Ruins are very, very good for that sort of thing, and the hazards therein (or sometimes even the trip there) will often double as a way to put almost everyone’s skills to good use.
  • A political excuse to set things in motion. The ancients are interesting, and their works often have great material, academic or symbolic value. So of course people fight over possession of them, or try to destroy them to deny someone else that value, or raid them for shinies, or do any of a number of things that could lead to conflict.
  • History, history, history! There’s what the outside people say about the civilization, what whatever records people can find say about the civilization, its impact on the world, the impact of its loss on the world, whatever legends it happens to have left behind, whatever legends people dreamed up about it…. between the history, and the stories, you’ve got a lot of flavor to play with.

So if you’re going to have an ancient civilization, know how to use it!


  1. Morten Greis says:

    The ancient past is an interesting thing. Many D&D modules are littered with ancient ruins of a grander past, and in some cases, such as the Mystara setting, you find quite advanced technology in the past – the presence of spaceships in the ancient past in D&D-scenarios have happened more than once. Especially in the Sword & Sorcery-genre and in Post-Apocalyptic settings ruins are an important element of the setting.

    But at other times the ancient past is swallowed up in myth, and the exact age is impossible the ascertain, time simply glides from the old days to the ancient past. I recently mused a bit upon this for the D&D 4E-setting:

  2. UZ says:

    @morten – it’s an interesting point; D&D entry scenarios often involve child-proofing the local neigbourhood in some way, and there’s a lot of material in Greek myth about heroes dealing directly with monsters.

    One of the bits of Greek myth I always liked was Cyclopean Architecture:

    Whereon Pausanias describes certain structures as having been literally built by Cyclopes, even though we are pretty sure they were built by Greeks. As I understand it, there was a bit of a dark age back then, and when people looked at the walls of Mycenae (built with forgotten pre-dark-age engineering) they figured they’d been built by giants because such a feat would be impossible for normal humans. Hence, sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from… the works of huge one-eyed monsters.

    I once had a setting where I actually had two different empires – a recently-unraveled one and a 10,000-years-gone one, and people ignorantly conflated the two. This made interepretations of “Imperial” artifacts necessarily confusing. But -not to worry – I provided the players with a slowly-growing enyclopedia of the old empire that not only cleared up some of their questions, but also gave them some idea of what kind of miserable hellhole they were living in, and how it was going to get much worse. (I supplied them with encyclopedia pages from time to time, printed in a natty font and three-hole-punched to fit in a binder. Those were the good old days.)

    But then, the explanation for the problem ultimately turned out to be that their planet – a living thing – had died around the end of the previous age, and that now – lucky them – had come back to unlife as a zombie planet. It worked out pretty well actually.

  3. UZ says:

    (Aside – 160K.)

  4. Shinobicow says:

    I really like this post. It is so true. I also like your line there UZ about your campaign and the Zombie planet. That is a really compelling storyline. What game system was that in?

  5. Morten Greis says:

    @UZ: I find it very interesting, that you’re using Cycloppean Architecture. It reminds me of Adrienne Mayors work on fossils discovered by the ancient Greeks:

    BTW I really like your idea with the two empires and the Zombie-world. How did you handle the Encyclopedia-pages? Did you write them yourself or copy them from somewhere?

  6. UZ says:

    @Shinobicow: Thank you! That was AD&D2E, a pretty old system now, but the concept could really be applied anywhere. The focus of the campaign was kind of a forensic one, since the players were kind of sifting through the wreckage of the two empires to try to find out what was going wrong.

    @Morten Greis: Thank you as well! I wrote the encyclopedia pages myself – they were meant to be in a somewhat ironic style and addressed some really outre topics, like conflicting theories of metaphysics and the leftover artifacts of the previous (alive) world. Also, the encyclopedia was the first thing that gave any indication that the Holy Empire and the Starlight Empire were not, in fact, the same things. The pages were actual found items in the game, an alternate form of treasure.

Leave a Reply