Saturday, September 7, 2019

Lost Civilizations

In a fantasy setting, lost civilizations can represent or encompass so many possibilities beyond some exotic and empty ruins in the wilderness. Simply deciding how the civilization vanished opens possibilities and adds new dimensions. This essay explores some of those possibilities.

Curse: A great and terrible malediction was pronounced upon the entire region or population. Possibly from a deity or high priest. Could have originated with an artifact or relic. Maybe just a powerful spell. Because of this curse, the entire region is under a pall of misfortune that only an equally powerful source of benediction can lift. Those who enter or explore the region risk suffering the curse themselves. The specifics of such a curse are nearly limitless, and can be used to explain some bizarre trait or resident of the region. Is there a perpetual shroud of darkness over the area? Did the curse transform everyone into some kind of monster that now infests the site? What happens when/if the curse is lifted? Is the civilization restored? Would this be a good thing? Would the deity or object that bestowed the curse return with renewed wrath?

Disease: A terrible plague wiped out most, or all, of the populace. Such an end would probably leave the structure of the civilization wonderfully intact – at the loss of all living creatures. While the dead would litter the streets, those streets would be otherwise undisturbed. A paradise for archaeologists and looters brave enough to risk the disease. But, such a disease is unlikely to linger for hundreds or thousands of years. But, what if it has? What if the pathogen lurks within one or more dead bodies? Or, the water of a well or cistern? Or, the remains of a sacrificial animal/victim that offended the gods – leading us back to the Curse option? Perhaps the disease has evolved or mutated over time – even becoming sentient. This sentient disease could be looking for new hosts to take it out into the world.

Earthquake: Natural disaster is a classic reason for the decline or loss of a civilization. In the case of an earthquake, there won’t be much left intact. Ruins will be broken and tumbled. Much of what would be considered valuable is likely buried and crushed. Exploration might require the use of excavation tools and many strong backs. It might even be more difficult to find the ruins in the first place as they could be at least partially buried by the surrounding terrain. If the region is particularly unstable, others might have decided to avoid it altogether. 

Famine: A bad drought or blight could have brought one civilization down, but another could also have come along since – and been wiped out in the interim. Or, the newer civilization could be in decline. Perhaps the land can only sustain so many consumers. Perhaps the fertility of the region is cyclical. Dependent upon seasonal floods or infrequent storms. One civilization might be built atop the ruins of another. Or, yet another civilization on top of those.  

Fire: A conflagration massive enough to wipe out an entire city would certainly destroy many potential treasures or records. Still, structures of stone could remain standing – at least in part. Also, those who managed to flee the disaster could have settled nearby, or been assimilated into other civilizations. Their blood may be mingled with current natives of the region. Traces of the destroyed civilization may still exist – even as only oral records or salvaged artifacts (the non-magical kind). Deciding whether or not the original fire was magical would also identify the type and extent of damage to the city itself.

Flood: Possibly the most fun with a flooded ruin is deciding whether or not the site is currently underwater, whether in whole or in part. Even more interesting could be a formerly drowned civilization that has just recently resurfaced. Brand new ruins that no surface dweller has seen or set foot in for generations. Also, with a flooded ruin, you can give the players a limited number of choices for exploration without the stigma of railroading. Just leave the areas worth exploring above the waterline. Putting ruins underwater also makes it harder for the players to survey the field in advance. If the ruin is above water now, is it likely to flood again? While the PCs are exploring? Will there be any warning? Is there a time limit for safe exploration? Will there be slowly-rising flood waters adding even more drama to the adventure?

Invasion: This civilization fell to a conquering force. Possibly a force that chose not to occupy their conquest – for one reason or another. Outer walls and fortifications might have been destroyed, while dwellings and other buildings were left mostly intact. This ruin could be within the borders of the conquering nation – but left to crumble quietly into history. Any survivors could have been integrated into the conquering nation as slaves or citizens. Traces of that heritage could survive to this day. Perhaps even someone of a noble or mythic bloodline that is prophesied to return the fallen civilization to its former glory.

Meteorite: Depending on how close to the impact zone this civilization happened to be at the time, there might not be much left at all. Maybe another civilization was built around the impact point. Is the “falling star” still there? Does it have unusual properties? Has it somehow enhanced or altered the civilization? Or, is there nothing more than a crater? Or, a crater with a meteorite at the center? Or a crater lake filled with water, with a submerged meteorite at the center?

Planar Portal: So many possibilities with this one. From which side was the portal opened? Did someone from the lost civilization create or discover it? Was it opened for exploration? Was it opened to bring something through? Was it intentional? Is the portal still there? Is it still open? Did the portal open from the other side as a means for extraplanar invasion? Was it torn open in some kind of disaster/accident? Is it a threat to the surrounding landscape? Where did the people go? Did they go through the portal? Did they flee the region? Is the ruin being slowly consumed by the portal? Does the portal distort reality in proximity? Does it alter the flow of time? Is the environment beyond the portal seeping into this world to change the very form of nature? Can the portal be closed?

Tsunami: Kind of like a flood, but far more destructive. A disaster of this magnitude could easily destroy more than one coastal city. Remains of such a civilization could be found miles inland, hurled there by the force of the raging waters. Again, it is entirely possible that newer civilizations could have been built upon such a site. Also, was the tidal wave a natural phenomenon? Was it caused by the action of a titanic sea creature? Divine wrath? Would those who knew of the godly extermination risk building upon the same ground – or even nearby?

Volcano: The ruins of Pompeii really capture the imagination. Could this ruin be equally well-preserved? Or, did a deluge of molten lava wipe most everything from the map? Is the volcano still active? Would anyone dare rebuild? Is there need for a presence to keep the volcano mollified, lest it erupt again? In my own setting, I have a ruined city inhabited by golem-like “ashen undead” that haunt the site. These creatures are animate humanoid remains covered in layers of ash and stone. They seem to be intent upon rebuilding the city.

Just by considering how a civilization or habitation was lost or destroyed, many questions just seem to answer themselves. Opportunities arise. Obstacles form. Danger lurks. Adventure looms. And, for me, that’s really the point. I enjoy running scenarios in a setting that sometimes completes itself in unexpected ways. Where nothing is ever truly lost.

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