Breaking Out in Wretched Hives

Somewhere in this place, anything can be bought. There are dark corners with darker figures lurking in them, there are scents that have never reached the noses of the truly innocent, and the law isn’t nearly as important as the Rules. The people here are either comfortably untouchable as they take advantage of everyone else or desperate untouchables scrounging to get by. Haven’t we been here before?

The slummy part of town/the world/what have you is a cliché because it’s true; in most of the places you go, look hard enough and you’ll see somewhere similar. The problem with it is that after a while, they all start looking alike, and the audience’s eyes glaze over even before they read/hear the bit about lingering traces of opium smoke in the air. What can we do to make ours just a little bit different?

One big thing to take into account is the question of why the slum is what it is, and what the reason for the reason is. If the problem is that the law just can’t reach there, is it because it’s too far out to be worth it, because there are too many places to police and this was the lowest priority, because there’s somebody there who actually keeps the law out? If it’s a financial issue, why isn’t there money to be had here—or if there is but it just can’t stay in people’s hands, where’s it going? If the undesirables are being shoved in and left to manage for themselves, who’s on the outside?

How is it still functioning? Most slum-places, whatever it might seem, haven’t quite descended into complete anarchy; typically there’s some semblance of some sorts of rules, even if they aren’t quite the ones one would consider to be the law. Often, one or more entities (individuals, organizations, what have you) have some semblance of control—and most places tend in some way to mirror the organizations controlling them, adding you to allow characterization of the locale beyond “scum, villainy, oh and did I mention your purse wandered off five minutes ago?” They also need people to stay slums rather than just ghost towns/alleys/whatever—what is it that keeps people there? Is it too expensive to be somewhere else, are people actually prevented from leaving by natural or political forces… what?

Speaking of which, what are the Rules, the precepts people generally follow in order to survive? Are there actions that are unacceptable even here? People it’s just too dangerous to mess with? Places which are don’t-go-there even by the slum’s standards? Divisions by family, profession, affiliation or something else that are ignored at one’s own peril?

Consider also the look and composition of the place. Some slums are built more along the ghetto mold, composed of one, maybe two groups with a few exceptions. On the other extreme, you get places that are heterogeneous mixtures of just about everyone, with the one rule being that they’re all the dregs of society (more common in science fiction where they can be biologically diverse as well; see also the Mos Eisley Cantina). Some (generally in fantasy settings) are brown and gray and overall dirty, others are flat surfaces and neon lights, but what’s to say those are the only way to go?

They won’t guarantee something different, but they’ll at least make it clear that this place is what it is for a reason and not because that’s what all fictional slums look like.

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