I’ve been talking lately, about the history of a setting, and how it plays a strong role in how an adventure feels real and stays strongly grounded, allowing the fantastic elements to play a central role. Here, we’ll end our short section on the past with a look at how physical elements play within the setting.
Ruins are an interesting subject because they are often foundation of the current culture, the bones of the former culture and locations of great resources for many others.
Ruins come in many forms, and perform many functions. Lets take a look at what each represents in turn, before moving onto the relic.
The monument is one of the most often used and strongest representatives of the past cultures. They are the grand burial tombs, the statues of generals, the Arches and towers of triumph. Each of these shows the past glories and the magnificence of the world that once was. The Romans looked on in awe at the pyramids and the glories of the Greek world. The Middle ages tread on the great works of the Romans, and we look on the great castles and ruins of the middle ages.
Each of these different monuments serves a purpose for the age past, in addition to looking glorious and impressive to the present. Burial Tombs, most iconicly represented in the Pyramids of Egypt, but also in the Valley of the Kings and the Roman Tombs, are houses for the deceased body, and this often represents an attachment to the other world. The Pharaohs were buried preserved, with their earthly goods and sometimes their servants and family members because it was believed that what you had in your tomb you would take with you to the other side. The Romans constructed elaborate arches that showcased the great achievements of their generals and Caesars. Battle scenes were prominent. Statues were used by the Greeks to showcase the features and the heroicness of their legends and their leaders.
These structures, ceremonies and the actions they took had significant meaning in the cultures that existed. They proved to the world, for all eternity, the greatness of their culture. Each monument is to a singular act or person, highlighting their contributions to the unending and indelible greatness. Now, they have fallen into disrepair as the culture and the people who took care of them have fallen as well. They are the broken and hollow remains of a culture that once thought itself the pinnacle of the world, and then proved it own falsehoods. These monuments are reminders to the world both that greatness can be achieved, and that nothing lasts forever.
These buildings are those ruins that are still in partial or semi-use that are a portion of the current cultures identity. Often, these are buildings that have unique civic or religious significance that have long lost any capacity for repair or restoration. Temples, more likely than not, are apt to become a foundation ruin, as it touches on the largest aspect of any medieval culture – the Church. Sometimes you’ll get a ruin that is also a center of governmental functions, but it is almost always for the reason of showing off the ruin and its past glory, evoking the past age and creating a connection to its power. Additionally, there will be other situations where the ruins are used because they are better built than the surrounding areas. Markets, barracks and other important and safe places can be hidden among the ruins of an old culture.
This is the one that is often the most depressing, and can easily inject a bit of dourness into the world that your in. Many, many ruins are used as resources for the current cultures. It is a sad reality, but it is why there are so few ruins overall. As each culture fails and collapses, as they all will, those immediately following on the heels will often see little or no value in the destroyed, broken, or even simply abandoned edifices from the age of their father or grandfather. Instead, they will strip the ruin down to its barest of parts, leaving little or nothing behind for the ages to follow. Marble will be burnt for the quicklime, used in mortar, lighting, and other projects. Bronze was melted down for weaponry and new statues, limestone and other building blocks were used as foundations for the houses of a new generation of settlers. These various finds, when discovered later, could be seen as blessings of great fortune, granting the discoverer a significant boon to their land, to their house or simply to their wealth.
Finally, we come to the Lair, one of the last uses of a ruin, and one that will often interest us the most. Ruins are often used as lairs, in the real world, for bandits, thieves and highway men, but they have also been known to be a refuge for vagabonds and the downtrodden. In a fantasy world, this makes for a great lair for magical beasts or powerful undead or any number of different types and styles of creatures.
One of the things that makes ruins as a lair so appealing is that they can be anything. Tombs make great lairs for undead, and collapsed castles and the dungeons below make great lairs for local monsters, we all have done some sort of planning around a ruin and a monster. Sometimes, its fun to juxtapose the monsters with the broken and debased ruin they live in, like ankhegs in a temple of an air god, or a Shambling mound living in the remains of a millhouse.
Alongside Ruins, Relics bring in a great amount of flavor and power to a world. While Ruins are often the conspicuous and once opulent reminders of the past, they are often impersonal and out of reach. What relics of a bygone age do is connect the past with the person wielding it directly and eternally. If they find a Sword +3, thats a great weapon, and will likely get used, but if it is attached to a person, one that they have either defeated or is connected to the story somehow, than it can become something much more. The Sword of Killas the Ironblade, the hero of the Ulmath war, is much more interesting to everyone, but only if they know the context of the weapon before finding it. They don’t need to know everything, of course. Killas could be unknown, but the Ulmath war being a known quantity is useful, as would the inverse. Maybe they know the Ulmath war as something that was a great tragedy to their people long ago, and to find a sword of the other side, it would give a completely different feeling to the item.
The most important part of the ruins and relics is that they give a purpose to the civilization that lived prior, or any number of them, without having to simply read off the paper to the players or the audience some important part of information. For instance, If I had a statue of a dwarf and a human, side by side, fighting off a half dozen Goliaths, and an old plaque that could be translated, roughly to “Haqin and Koloezk, at the battle of Kuldusan” you get a swath of information from those short words, and the statue. You then introduce Kuldusan as they travel through it later in the adventure as the ancient name of the town they are staying in one night, Kudsan – or even better, if you introduce Kudsan and they put it together and you’ve got a fairly simple start to a pretty large adventure. Maybe they are asked to get the hammer of a great hero – Haqin, though they may or may not piece it together, to help stop a rampant giant or giants that are running loose in the north. The same tale can be told via simple tasks – they arrive at the town, and the townfolk ask them to deal with the giants bothering them to the north, and they know a place where you could get a giantslaying hammer, but it just flows, and feels, and breathes so much easier with the relic and the ruins placed right.