And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve…
-Shakespeare, The Tempest
I’ve been playing Guild Wars 2 lately. This game’s art direction tends towards big architecture: tall towers and titanic moss-covered walls. It made me think about the number of ruins that would collect on a D&D landscape.
As has been noted before, D&D, and sword&sorcery in general, is post-apocalyptic: people live amongst the detritus of who knows how many forgotten empires. There’s a whole class of people, adventurers, who make money by plundering ancient dungeons.
Given all those dungeons, it’s strange to say that my D&D campaign needs more ruins. I guess what I mean is that I should describe nearly every setting – not just adventure destinations – as littered with monuments of fallen empires.
How many ruins are there? It depends on where your campaign falls on the age-of-the-world continuum: is it closer to R. E. Howard’s Kull of Atlantis or Jack Vance’s Dying Earth?
Let’s say that the typical D&D world is much older than real Earth (which only has a few thousand years of monument-building empires). It’s quite possible that nearly every five-mile hex will contain some abandoned, possibly monolithic structure – maybe not a full dungeon, but maybe a collapsed bridge or aqueduct or something. Encounters will be more common in ruins, because most provide some sort of shelter or lair. Maybe a lot more random wilderness encounters should take place among the wreck of ancient splendor.
For a dying-earth hex crawl, here are some charts to roll on every time you have a wilderness encounter. (For a less gonzo, more typical D&D setting, you could roll once per five-mile hex instead of once per encounter.)
MY ENCOUNTER TAKES PLACE NEAR THE RUINS OF A (roll 1d20)
1 cloud-capped tower
2 gorgeous palace
3 solemn temple
4 monumental aqueduct or dam
5 great wall
6 mighty citadel
7 borderlands keep
8 gilded city
9 Ozymandian statue
10 ruler-straight highway, broken bridge, or mountain-spanning stair, depending on terrain
11 cursed tomb (or barrow, pyramid, ziggurat, or graveyard)
12 forgotten dungeon
13-18 No ruins. This is an unspoiled nature setting.
19-20 Roll d12 on this chart and SUPER SIZE IT!
To further characterize your ruin, I’d populate a second table with 6 or 8 ancient empires with distinct architectural styles. Here are some from my fairly generic D&D setting:
MY RUINS WERE BUILT BY (roll 1d8)
1 the empire of giants (everything is 5x size, including doors and stairs)
2 the empire of high magic (floating buildings, immortal servants and walls of golden light)
3 the recent empire obsessed with lions (pretty standard medieval ruins with lion statues everywhere)
4 the empire of the gods (unblemished white walls, lingering curses on those who disturb it)
5 the empire of the demons (runes crawling over disturbing jagged architecture; also this random encounter is going to be really bad)
6 the elven empire (couldn’t build a frigging toolshed without incorporating at least one flower motif)
7 the empire of madmen (roads zigzag in non-Euclidean directions and all buildings are designed using the Random Dungeon Generator)
8 some one-off empire forgotten by history: structures are made of lava or skulls or bird bones or or bee honeycomb or something