Design Questions for Ruins

Yesterday, I talked about how nifty ruins were as a feature of a setting. But what does it take to make a good ruin? I’ve already talked about building, aging and abandoning cities in general, and these serve as a pretty good stopping off point. On the other hand, it might be that we’re going for one specific building or complex, because of its significance to whatever it was we were doing. So along with things like whose it was, how it aged, and why it was left behind, there are some other questions we’re going to want to answer.

What sort of emotional tone do you want from the place? A more intact ruin is likely to give you more on the awe-and-grandeur scale, while one that’s been worn most of the way away is likelier to inspire pathos, and one that’s sustained deliberate damage might move its visitors more towards anger. You’re going to get different images of the original occupants if it’s got the right-angles-and-light-patterns magitech look than if it’s pictographs or runes and curved lines; a floor composed entirely of precious gems in the shape of rare flowers won’t get you the same impression as glass roses that drain your blood if you slice yourself on a petal. You’ll want to keep this in mind when figuring out how the place has aged, what’s still intact, what’s still salvageable, and what isn’t.

What do you want its visitors to get out of it? I can think of very few times in which somebody’s walked into a fictional ruin and not come out with something. Granted, that something isn’t always physical or tangible: I’ve seen people come out of ruins with necessary pieces of old legends or prophecies, or with some important clue to how their previous occupants lived. It is, however, usually something; they’re not just there to be nifty-cool scenery.

We know the place was important enough to be built to last, but was it also important enough to be given security that would last beyond its abandonment? In abandoned cities, most of the potential threats are a result either of structural instabilities due to decay, or of new occupants—you don’t fill a place that’s meant to be lived in with traps and similar nasties. On the other hand, if a ruin was meant to house something important, it might not be quite so vital for it to house people, or it might be that its original owners knew they were going to have to leave it alone, and as a result? Inanimate (or magically animated) security measures. Or carefully bred resident monsters. Or something.

Last, and most important for GMs, many of these structures were made to be or to house things that no longer work but that might not have analogues in the current culture (particularly if you’ve got one of those Ancient Technology civilizations). Do you want the ruin or its contents to be reparable? If not, you’re going to have to figure out why not; if you do, you’ll want to put some thought towards how they can be repaired or reactivated.

That which is truly awesome requires a little extra effort; ruins are no exception. Have you thought about yours?

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