Cities in Fantasy: Decay and Ruin

A ruined Toronto...

An example of a modern city, decayed…

I just finished watching the final episode of True Detective (season 1, I hope they make more). I enjoyed it immensely, and felt it was a worthy end to a good series. I might write a review of it, but only after I have had some time to mull it over.

One of the artistic flourishes that I really enjoyed in True Detective were the amazing shots of decaying urban areas. This dovetails nicely with what I wanted to write about tonight, the use of decaying and ruined city-scapes in Fantasy.

As Fantasy broadens, branching out into regions far removed from its pastoral, feudalistic roots it is inevitable that it will cover urban themes. Some of the best writing in Fantasy these days including such diversity in tone as Jim Butcher, China Mieville, and Neil Gaiman.

I like the idea of using cities in Fantasy, and this includes ruined and decaying cities — cities that have been abandoned, are falling apart, that are trying to reclaim lost glory, or are slowly being overcome by nature themselves.

This is a separate idea from corrupt cities, a more common trope in pastoral Fantasy, where  all urban areas are seen as havens for moral corruption and generally a blight upon the world. If the first thing that pops into your mind when you think fantasy city, is thieves, then you are familiar with this 😉

When I think of decaying cities, I think of urban areas where the sense of community has been fractured. Places where the will to keep the complex systems required to advance and grow a great urban area has been lost or subverted. This is something that we are certainly familiar with in western culture, where many of our cities have started to show infrastructure decay. Decaying cities make for a great atmosphere in a Fantasy novel — that tension of a civilization that is between renewal and ruin and the dynamics of the people who live with it.

Here are a couple of  examples of the use of decaying cities in Fantasy

  • Grundoone, the city under siege: This one was from a Fantachronica campaign. Grundoone was an old city, once the capital of a prosperous land. However, a great rent appeared in the earth, and all manner of foul creatures spilled forth. They ruined the land and attacked the city. Grundoone survived, partly because the citizens of the cities made a bargain with a cadre of Vampires to pay a blood tax in return for their assistance in beating back the war. The city, however, in constantly under siege, and over the years almost everything has been sacrificed in the name of creating a more defensible environment. Great villas have been replaced by narrow, orderly houses protected by immense walls and impressive watchtowers. Once welcoming gates are now defensive mazes, while farmers markets and bazaars have long since become armories and drill yards. Of course, the city survives partly because of the influx of crusading knights and partly because some people would much rather pay a tax in blood than in money (you know who you are!).
  • Urumquatal, the jungle-eaten city: Urumquatal is an ancient city that was once the heart of a great empire. History rolled on and Urumquatal lost its preeminence. It did not fall into ruin, however, and continues to survive to present day. The city is populous and bustling, but the outer wards are starting to give way to nature as the aggressive growths of the jungle encroach, eating old stone and overturning less popular statues, and the cobbles of roads that are rarely used these days. Rats and worse thrive in these places, giving the city a worse reputation than it deserves, something the current residents feel touchy about. They do their best to stave off the jungle, but Urumquatal is not quite important enough to regain its former splendor.

Ruined urban areas are also interesting settings. Pastoral Fantasy often has ancient ruins showcased as part of the idea that the past was somehow purer and more glorious than modern day, but urban fantasy can go far beyond that tired old trope. Ruined cities can act as a warning, a preview of the consequences of failure. Ruins can also acts as a place of gestation where the death of one civilization gives rise to another.

Here are a couple of examples of the use of ruined cities in Fantasy

  • Bogrut’s Nest, formerly Daigara: Bogrut led the sack of Daigara twenty years ago. As he was taking the city the great ogre chieftain noted the magnificence of the place and ordered that any human who could show their worth should be spared. This diminished the bloodbath somewhat, and provided the Ogres with a swath of highly skilled ‘helpers’. Daigara has truly been destroyed, looted, and despoiled. The great temple dome has been toppled so that Bogrut’s son could build himself a throne. The statues of the founders have been melted down to provide metals to equip the ogres with new armour and weapons. House and buildings have been demolished and rebuilt for new occupants, who have learned much from the dead city and are ready to show the world…
  • Glimmerlight: Hundreds of years ago Glimmerlight was once a massive city, powerful and populous. All of that changed in a single day — the eruption of a massive volcano buried the city in ash and mud. Few of the residents escaped. Glimmerlight now attracts monsters, who lair in the ruins, and adventurers who seek the treasures that still lie somewhere in its depths.  Gold, gems, trades goods, and many other objects wait for those who can find their way in through old sewers and tunnels built by previous expeditions. More importantly, the wise know that deep within Glimmerlight lies an important and well protected library containing magical lore that has long since been lost to the outside world….

2 comments on “Cities in Fantasy: Decay and Ruin

  1. Patrick says:

    Just to let you know, the picture you have at the beginning of this entry is not Toronto. It’s Seattle. Thanks.

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